Why acting "out"?
November 8, 2005 9:54 AM   Subscribe

Acting up vs. acting out.

Prompted by this unrelated question, I'm wondering -- why do they say Acting "Out"?

Acting up was how the old ladies teaching my first school characterized my misbehavior. Nowadays, I only hear about acting out (and the preposition grates on my ears, like queued New Yorkers standing "on" line). The brief wiki entry for "acting out" says the expression's related to addiction issues; is any other usage correct?
posted by Rash to Writing & Language (12 answers total)
The two phrases strike me as synonymous, although "acting out" seems to have more of a connotation of bad behavior in front of others with the intent of getting attention. "Acting up," on the other hand, is a more neutral way to describe inappropriate behavior, and can be said of inanimate as well; i.e., "My computer is acting up again."
posted by ludwig_van at 10:04 AM on November 8, 2005

Had a full reply ready to go, but on preview, ludwig_van nailed it first. Said pretty much exactly what I was about to post.
posted by psmealey at 10:05 AM on November 8, 2005

Acting up is rowdy or excited behavior - a phrase commonly used by parents or teachers. Acting out is inappropriate behavior specifically intended to attract attention - a phrase commonly used by child psychologists and social workers.
posted by ewkpates at 10:06 AM on November 8, 2005

Somewhere in my bizarre lexicon I feel the two are different.

Acting up is general misbehavior. Children in school talking and being disruptive, that's "acting up."

Acting out is a manifestation of emotion. One might "act out" their aggressions by committing a violent act or maybe by just "acting up" in class.

Again, this is just me here, no dictionary.
posted by Pollomacho at 10:07 AM on November 8, 2005

I would agree with Pollomacho's distinction -- I always think of "acting out" as a way for emotionally immature or unaware people to express their emotions, even when they don't know that's what they're doing. So a kid whose parents are getting divorced might start misbehaving in various ways because he's frustrated and scared and doesn't know how to express that in "grown-up" ways, but he's likely unaware that the divorce is what's causing the behavior.
posted by occhiblu at 10:24 AM on November 8, 2005

In other words, they're "acting out" their emotions rather than expressing them in words.
posted by occhiblu at 10:24 AM on November 8, 2005

"Acting out" showed up by the early 90s in education. It's a jargon term that came out of behavioral science. It's meant to describe a response to emotions that can't be controlled within (thus the oppositional 'out'). I hated it when I was a teacher and it still grates on me. You hear it often in a therapeutic context ('When Andy doesn't get his meds you'll notice him acting out").
posted by Miko at 1:39 PM on November 8, 2005

Here's a Freudian's point of view on what the term means.
posted by Miko at 2:12 PM on November 8, 2005

Well it's sounding to me like bollocks; judgements of motive on the part of adults who've forgotten what it was like to be a kid. Can't tell you how often, as a child, I got into trouble, with some adult then peering down at me and demanding, "Why? Why did you do this?" My response of "I dunno" infuriated them -- but really, it just happened, I wasn't thinking, just acting -- out? I still don't understand the difference, or see any.
posted by Rash at 2:46 PM on November 8, 2005

I wasn't thinking

And a social scientist would agree; no, you weren't thinking. Not consciously, anyway. A social scientist would understand that you probably didn't know why you were doing what you were doing, but they would suggest that subconsciously, your mind was directing you to display behaviors that were meant to get your needs met at the time. As they say, even negative attention is better than no attention, to a child. If not that, then you were frustrated that you didn't know a way to meet your needs, and the frustration showed itself in inarticulate, angry/annoying child-behavior.
posted by Miko at 3:16 PM on November 8, 2005

I don't agree that it's from behavioral science, at least not in the sense that term is usually used to refer to students of Pavlovian 'behaviorism.' Rather, "acting out" is a term from the psychoanalytic tradition; Vaillant and others were using it as far back as the 1940's to describe a neurotic defense mechanism.

Defense mechanisms are supposed to be a response to intra-psychic conflict; when you have a conflict between your base desires or "id" and your repressive societally condition "superego," and you act out the socially unacceptable fantasies from your id (e.g., by striking someone, or shouting profanity, or behaving antisocially), that is a neurotic way to resolve the conflict. Adults as well as children can act out.

Whether you believe this or not is something else again; my point is just that it's jargon from the psychoanalytic approach to understanding human behavior.
posted by ikkyu2 at 3:18 PM on November 8, 2005

I don't agree that it's from behavioral science

OK. But it's used in the jargon of behavioral science now - at least as it's taught to service providers.
posted by Miko at 8:39 AM on November 9, 2005

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