Performance Awareness: Development Aspects

Adam Blatner

November 2, 2006

See also this link to see a more general discussion of Performance Awareness.

Performance, in my view, is a dimension of social psychology that has to do with people being more or less aware of the way others are evaluating their behavior. It may also include those evaluative others, the audience.

I think performance is one of a number of dimensions of activities in the social field that are deserving of more attention, dimensions such as the nature of interpersonal rapport and reciprocity, status, class, suggestion, contagion of feeling, social intelligence, play, and so forth. There is an increasing amount of research and writing in this field.

There is a relatively new field, “Performance Studies,” an interdisciplinary approach that mixes ideas from postmodernist philosophy, anthropology, theatre arts, social psychology, history, and other arenas. The point I make about performance is that, as a concept, it is potentially quite useful in helping ordinary people to become more aware of ways they can adjust their own behavior and be more effective in life. (I make a similar argument for the value of the use of the term “role” and thinking about how we play our roles in life. Of course, the two ideas are related, as are also other concepts about social psychology, such as preference or what the inventor of sociometry, Dr. J. L. Moreno, called “tele.”)

The Development of Performance Awareness

While some social psychologists use the term descriptively, so that almost all activities may be thought of as performance, I am emphasizing the relative degrees of awareness of performing, having an audience. This awareness emerges along with other social dimensions in infancy, along with the sense of self (Stern, 1985), differences in rapport and interpersonal preference, play, role-taking, autonomy, and so forth, and develops more complexity as the years go on.

There’s a point in infancy where handing a parent a block is largely an exploration of what the child psychologist Jean Piaget called sensori-motor play. The challenge is simply how to hold and manipulate things. There is the added complexity of relationship added: Can I give you this, and can you give it back without my dropping it. That’s a fun challenge, just getting all the senses and muscles to coordinate. This is behavior and relationship but, I think, not yet performance.

I (as the infant) now begin to notice fairly quickly that you (as the parent) respond in different ways. You sometimes get excited and pleased, and at other times, seem uninterested or disappointed. I don’t have words for these reactions, but I sense them, mirror them just a bit, feel them. Just playing give-and-take starts to become very complex at a relatively early age.

The next step is that I begin to learn that the way that I play affects your reactions. If I’m too slow or self-absorbed, you become bored and drift off. If I’m too rough, you say, “ouch,” and pull away. The subtlety and complexity of these interactions are hard to pin down in any strict scientific way, because they involve so many modalities: nonverbal communications of many types–voice tone, facial expression, speed and rhythm, familiarity with other caretakers. (Just having a different way of being bathed by a new nurse or babysitter can be registered by an infant as disturbing.)

To all of this we must add a wide range and mix of temperamental variables, innate sensitivities, preferences, relative abilities and disabilities in many associated ways–facial recognition, pattern recognition, types of intelligence, sensitivity to negativity in the interpersonal field, and so forth. Some kids are naturally more self-conscious and some would be considered “over-sensitive” to frustration, feelings of being rebuffed or neglected, and so forth. Some kids warm up quickly while others take more time. All these affect the way infants play with others, a process that becomes increasingly complex even a few months before the end of the first year of life. Nevertheless, I’m still not ready to call these interactions performance.

Playing for Effect

The next step is a beginning, the first dynamic of performance: An awareness is growing that one can experiment with alternative approaches, a superimposition of a bit of self-consciousness and experimentation. Sometimes I don’t fully deliver the block to you–I offer, then pull away. Aha! A feint! Faked you out! Teased you! You thought something would happen and it didn’t. I find that bit of surprise plus your reaction funny, delightful, and this interaction becomes a bit of a game!

Around this time, I’m also getting into your playing peek-a-boo with me, teasing me just a little bit. I don’t know where.... oh, there you are! Boy, you had me fooled there for a moment! That was kind of fun! So I’m learning to play both roles, teaser and teased, just a little.

Being thrown up in the air and a number of other games are enjoyed at this point, and they also become an occasion for learning about “too much.” Then what’s fun becomes bothersome, frustrating, a sense of betrayal: Hey, I thought you were my friend, but that scared me too much! Laughter turns to tears. Parents and grandparents need to learn to key their play to the child’s temperament and reaction patterns. There’s such a thing as too much teasing, tickling, and continuing at that point edges from play into sadism. Can’t you take a joke? That’s not it, you’re being mean! The foundations for performance begin to emerge in the thicket of possibilities of people playing together.

Further Elaborations of Play

Another dimension of performance is the way kids begin to pick up and mimic parents’ and others’ styles, ways of talking, looks, ways of walking with a swagger or a mince. Some kids are more naturally talented at mimicry than others–there are many dimensions here that have only begun to be addressed in child development studies. There is also the dynamic of identification, feeling a bit like daddy or mommy because one behaves in the same way. Kids begin this at a very early age. They’re not playing at being mommy, they’re just picking up the available styles, just as they pick up the available language and dialect sounds.

Imitation then is mixed with rehearsal, trying out a behavior, developing a bit of mastery, exploring some variations. Rehearsal alone is not performance, because some rehearsal is purely instrumental. Pilot training in a flight simulator is rehearsal. Playing the piano alone is not performance, it’s practice. So it needs to be done with an admixture of the aforementioned elements. To repeat an action, with inner self-observation, with or without an outside observer as director or coach, only hints at performance. If there are interpersonal interactions, making contact with the audience, trying out different faces or walks, and seeing what gets a more preferred response, we’re moving into performance.

Playing With Role Play

Next, the child begins to have a sufficient repertoire that there’s a sense of a possibility of doing things in any one of a variety of possible ways–fast or slow, rough or tender, communicating seriousness or playfulness, more focused on a task or on the others’ reaction and the relationship, and so forth. The child begins to try some of these alternatives, sometimes, as with peek-a-boo, not always when it might be expected. This is the process and dim awareness of experimentation, trying out alternatives.

Saying “No” is also an early performance strategy, as well as being the beginning of autonomy, of “I’m not always what you want.” This is different from simply a cry of frustration and withdrawal, it is more willful, and sensed as that. The possibility of being in a state that is dis-harmonious with a caretaker—and playing that state—to accommodate and be pleasantly rewarded, to rebel, this is an interesting experience, to test limits, and even when punished and reined in, it still becomes an interesting boundary to explore in different ways.

Adding Style

The emergence of performance is a part of the development in these other dimensions of status, states of approval, and feelings of mastery. Performance adds to instrumental forms of play, making it more than simply addressing the challenge of getting the tower of blocks to not tumble, or some other simple how-do-I-do-this task. It begins to include a sense of audience, a “what did you think of that?!” In the interpersonal field, performance is more than the faked- you-out tease, but also partakes of the “Wasn’t that an interesting or amusing or surprising way I did it that time?” Aesthetic elaborations enter, so that actions can be stretched, exaggerated, minimized, and with that, imagination emerges: “What if...?”

Meanwhile the repertoire expands–the many types of nonverbal communications and ways of moving, speaking in a whisper, tip-toe-ing, skipping, jumping hard, and to all this, adding other elements of caricature. Walking like a giant, pretending to be ferocious, or meek. More readily understood performance is emerging by age three, putting on an act, varying it for effect, admiring the acts of siblings. For example, a child may be just getting the knack of how to whisper, and in performance and play, there’s doing it as part of micro-story-telling, and learning the device known as the “stage whisper.”

Adding Story Elements

By age four, the child’s story-telling abilities becomes part of imagination, and this is also an exercise in complexity in language and thought. How else might the plot unfold? Can a new element or new direction be added? Can we extend the play into the realm of the ordinarily impossible, what the inventor of psychodrama, Dr. J. L. Moreno, called “surplus reality”? Can we go back in time, or forward, talk with people who have died or haven’t yet been born, talk with the animals (as did Dr. Doolittle), fly or have superhero powers?

Children who have been played with by parents, talked with in conversation that draws them out, exposed to a sufficient variety of other people–kids and adults alike– all contribute to the development of these skills, which children deprived of conversation and exposed only to the one-way process of television lack such skills. Kids need to have a real adult there whom they can impress with their cleverness and wit, people of importance who will be their (the children’s) audience, as well as models. Performance emerges, then, when play, style, imagination, and audience are integrated along with a sense of a potential or actual audience as witnesses.


Another interesting domain is that of practicing to the point of letting go of conscious will, allowing the “adaptive unconscious” to take over, and warming up to a point of “flow.” There is an interesting mixture of both acting and letting-go, non-acting. This is what was talked about in some books in the 1970s titled The Inner Game of Golf or The Inner Game of Tennis, as derivatives of a book published a decade or two earlier, Zen and the Art of Archery. What was recognized is that in certain tasks, spontaneity adds a level of competence that goes beyond that which can be consciously willed and controlled.

Types of Audience

We should note that there are different types of audience: The most basic type is the “they” who don’t care much what you do as long as you don’t shock or disturb them. Stay within the general social mores and they don’t care where you go on the subway, or what you’re reading. I’m imagining the general mixture of indifference at a Japanese subway station mixed with a certain common understanding of the rules of courtesy. Where can one press one’s body against another, and what should the eyes do in that case. It’s a very rich dance.

Behaving appropriately is, in my mind, still not performance. (Those who say it is would be stretching the term so that, as I mentioned, so much is included that it starts to become diluted and lose its effectiveness.) I’m holding out for a mixture of all of the above factors plus a sense of a heightened type of audience:

First, there’s an intermediate level audience–such as a customer in a store. There’s more interactivity, but unless there’s an excess of rudeness or, in the other direction, an unusual amount of friendliness, the behavior is hardly noticed. The sales clerk, if remarkably skilled and impressive, might be perceived as effective, really good at her job. Generally, though, both parties, clerk and customer, are operating out of learned habits and hardly notice the styles of the interaction–unless, as I say, they exceed the norm in a startling way.

Now we begin to have a category of audience that is assessing style, actively watching for how the person behaves. Interestingly, this may be a matter of the behaving one’s expectations, and the supposed audience is relatively indifferent. I know they’re noticing that I’m not as stylishly dressed as they are. Sometimes that’s true, sometimes it’s not true. Yet mere self-consciousness is hardly performance. To what degree one plays to this imagined or real audience borders on performance, though.

Finally, we have the audience that is there to see one perform! Their function is to be impressed, amused, touched, moved, astonished. They may have paid for this experience, and they expect it. Not to provide it is grounds for disapproval. He’s not that funny. The actors generally know they’re peforming, and attend to refining their act.

There are also both real and imagined audiences, and in the latter case, this can be more or less entertained with explicit awareness. As stated earlier, it’s possible to suppose that most behavior has an unconscious or non-explicitly aware status, playing with an imagined audience / reference group–what in psychoanalysis are called the “internalized objects.” This sensation is relatively acute in some people, the sense that God (or ancestors, or mother, etc.) “sees” all that one does. Everything. Masturbation. Defecation. And judges. Others hardly register such perceptions.

There is a class of semi-performance that might be viewed as the kid playing baseball by himself, but rehearsing the various styles of player behavior, and even imagining himself to be cheered as he swaggers up to the plate.


Further considerations of the nature of performance are addressed in other essays. The point here is that performance has to do with the growing awareness that others are noticing and evaluating the actor’s behavior, and there are a variety of dynamics and role considerations for both actors and audience. This is a work-in-progress, and I would be very receptive to your comments, suggestions for additions or revisions, and so forth. Email me at