Are Great Actors Created in the Womb?

New research from Poland finds a connection between acting renown and prenatal exposure to testosterone.
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Joel and Ethan Cohen and Scott Rudin at the 80th annual Academy Awards. (Photo: Featureflash/Shutterstock)

Joel and Ethan Cohen and Scott Rudin at the 80th annual Academy Awards. (Photo: Featureflash/Shutterstock)

What makes a truly great actor? While raw talent and rigorous training are clearly vital, recent research suggests the importance of an even more fundamental factor: The level of testosterone the budding thespian was exposed to in his or her mother’s womb.

Previous research has linked high levels of prenatal testosterone to high intelligence and success in fields ranging from financial training to sumo wrestling. But a newly published study reports wombs with relatively low levels of the hormone produced the most acclaimed actors in at least one nation: Poland.

“It suggests that in the creative domain of acting, higher creative achievement is associated with feminine rather than masculine behavioral style,” write Maciej Karwowski and Izabela Lebuda of the Academy of Special Education in Warsaw. Their study is published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

Conditions in the womb—specifically, a lower level of testosterone—may influence the ultimate quality of an actor’s work.

For their dataset, Karwowski and Lebuda utilized a unique resource: The hand prints of 98 Polish actors born between 1912 and 1978, which are preserved in a hall of fame in the city of Miedzyzdroje. They took high-resolution photos of the prints (formed when the actors placed their hands in concrete) and carefully measured the lengths of the second and fourth digits.

The ratio between the lengths of those two fingers (commonly referred to as 2D:4D) has long been used as an indicator of prenatal exposure to different hormones. “High levels of prenatal testosterone and low levels of prenatal estrogens are associated with a low 2D:4D,” the researchers note.

The researchers measured this ratio for each of the actors, then compared it to their productivity (as measured by the number of films they had acted in), fame (as measured by the length of their entry in a major Polish encyclopedia), and eminence. That last value was judged by a panel of five actors and five psychologists studying creativity.

The results: The researchers found a positive association between digit ratio (indicating lower prenatal testosterone levels) and eminence in both male and female actors. They did not find any link between the ratio and the actors’ productivity or fame, which suggests that the greatest actors are not necessarily the most famous ones, or the ones who work the most consistently.

This finding, which the researchers concede are preliminary and in need of confirmation, suggests that conditions in the womb—specifically, a lower level of testosterone—may influence the ultimate quality of an actor’s work.

“It may be speculated that emotional sensitivity, caused by prenatal exposure to testosterone and associated with the amygdala, is an important contributor to actors’ eminence,” the researchers conclude. They add that this may be particularly true in Poland, since “the dominant model of acting is inspired by the Stanislavski method, which is based on evoking feelings and emotions during a performance.”

American actors, who have a variety of techniques to choose from, may not be impacted quite to this degree. Nevertheless, don’t be surprised if at the next Academy Awards, some winner thanks his director, his agent—and his mother, for bathing him in the right combinations of hormones before he made his first entrance.

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