Menus Subscribe Search



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

Are Great Actors Created in the Womb?

• March 13, 2014 • 4:00 AM

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

New research from Poland finds a connection between acting renown and prenatal exposure to testosterone.

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.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 18 • 4:00 PM

Racial Disparity in Imprisonment Inspires White People to Be Even More Tough on Crime

White Americans are more comfortable with punitive and harsh policing and sentencing when they imagine that the people being policed and put in prison are black.

September 18 • 2:00 PM

The Wages of Millions Are Being Seized to Pay Past Debts

A new study provides the first-ever tally of how many employees lose up to a quarter of their paychecks over debts like unpaid credit card or medical bills and student loans.

September 18 • 12:00 PM

When Counterfeit and Contaminated Drugs Are Deadly

The cost and the crackdown, worldwide.

September 18 • 10:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Molly Crabapple?

Noah Davis talks to Moly Crapabble about Michelangelo, the Medicis, and the tension between making art and making money.

September 18 • 9:00 AM

Um, Why Are These Professors Creeping on My Facebook Page?

The ethics of student-teacher “intimacy”—on campus and on social media.

September 18 • 8:00 AM

Welcome to the Economy Economy

With the recent introduction of Apple Pay, the Silicon Valley giant is promising to remake how we interact with money. Could iCoin be next?

September 18 • 6:09 AM

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

September 18 • 6:00 AM

Homeless on Purpose

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.

September 18 • 4:00 AM

Why Original Artworks Move Us More Than Reproductions

Researchers present evidence that hand-created artworks convey an almost magical sense of the artist’s essence.

September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.

September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.

September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.

September 17 • 10:00 AM

Pulling Punches: Why Sports Leagues Treat Most Offenders With Leniency

There’s a psychological explanation for the weak punishment given to Ray Rice before a video surfaced that made a re-evaluation unavoidable.

September 17 • 9:44 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: Portlandia Is Dying

Build an emerald city. Attract the best and brightest with glorious amenities. They will come and do nothing.

September 17 • 8:00 AM

Why Don’t We Have Pay Toilets in America?

Forty years ago, thanks to an organization founded by four high school friends, human rights beat out the free market—and now we can all pee for free.

September 17 • 6:32 AM

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists’ appetites.

September 17 • 6:00 AM

The Grateful Dig: An Archaeologist Excavates a Tie-Dyed Modern Stereotype

What California’s senior state archaeologist discovered in the ruins of a hippie commune.

September 17 • 4:00 AM

The Strong Symbolic Power of Emptying Pockets

Researchers find the symbolic act of emptying a receptacle can impact our behavior, and not for the better.

September 16 • 4:00 PM

Why Is LiveJournal Helping Russia Block a Prominent Critic of Vladimir Putin?

The U.S. blogging company is showing an error message to users inside Russia who try to read the blog of Alexei Navalny, a prominent politician and critic of the Russian government.

September 16 • 2:00 PM

Man Up, Ladies! … But Not Too Much

Too often, women are asked to display masculine traits in order to be successful in the workplace.

September 16 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Brilliant 12-Year-Old?

Charles Wang is going to rule the world.

Follow us

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn't have any extra emotional impact.

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.

Big Government, Happy Citizens?

You may like to talk about how much happier you'd be if the government didn't interfere with your life, but that's not what the research shows.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.