Understanding the Cycle of Behavior

Topic Progress:
CompetencyEmpathy / Insight
Skills DevelopedEmotional Mapping / Behavioral Understanding / Motivation
Written ByKeary McCutchen

Acting Principles

  1. Acting is behaving as if the given circumstances of the script are actually happening to you.
  2. Truthful acting is identical to natural reactions in that it is effortless and not something we can control consciously.
  3. All behavior, movement, expression performed by the actor must mimic the cycle of natural behavior in order for it to be effective.
  4. The focus of the actor must be on using imagination and suspension of disbelief to perceive the appropriate stimulus which leads to micro expression and audience empathy. Focusing on the result, emotional expression and physical behavior, leads to indicating and emoting, which does not produce an emotional response in the audience.


The job of the actor is to recreate truthful, authentic, human behavior in an artificial environment. Before we can learn how to manipulate our behavior to create nuanced compelling truthful performances, we must first understand how humans behave in the first place. All behavior is motivated by the subconscious, not the consciousness. You don’t choose to want ice cream, you don’t choose what kind of person you are attracted to, your subconscious tells you to go get that person or go get that thing. The natural state of humans is to do nothing. Our brain’s primary function is to keep us alive and one of the ways it does that is by not wasting calories on thinking and moving unless necessary. The clearest way to understand humans is to study other mammals whose brains function in a similar fashion like a house cat. Notice how house cats will sit motionless, staring at nothing, lounging, until they hear a noise, smell something, or something crosses their line of sight. Perhaps they spot a mouse, so they chase it. Perhaps they spot a dog so their tail bushes up and they hiss, perhaps they see a potential mate and they start calling and rolling around on the ground. Behavior in all mammals follows the same Organismic Cycle.

Organismic is anything related to or belonging to an organism. In other words, we are the organism, the whole, but our brain is made up of multiple organismic sub-systems, each with a singular purpose. One system compels us to reproduce, another compels us to avoid risk, another compels us to eat, go to the bathroom, rest, etc. each of those systems is referred to as organismic and is dormant until triggered by an internal or external stimulus. Our job as actors is not to act horny it is to use imagination and concentration to stimulate our organismic subsystems which then produce a natural truthful response. Acting isn’t acting at all, it’s living truthfully under imaginary circumstances, in other words, we are really mad, angry, aroused just like we would be if what was happening to our character was really happening to us but it isn’t. Actors believe the lie and tell the truth.


When we understand how natural flight works we can create artificial flight. By understanding how we behave naturally we can produce natural behavioral responses under artificial circumstances. When we understand how flight works, we can fly, if we do not understand flight all we can do is pretend we are flying. When we don’t understand behavior we can’t properly recreate it and so we have to pretend like we are behaving, pretend like we are doing, and it looks just as ridiculous as pretending to fly.

Cycle of Behaivor

Organismic SubsystemBehavioral FunctionDescriptionExample
PerceptionTriggerAll behavior is a response to a perceived change. Our 5 senses are constantly taking in thousands of pieces of information, when something unexpected is detected whether good or bad the subconscious triggers surprise, and our senses are tuned towards the stimulus.We hear a noise late at night, we smell fresh baked cookies, our father is standing on the porch with his arms crossed staring at us. We ignore sounds, sights, smells, sounds, and touches that we expect. If we see a disheveled man rummaging through the garbage we pay no attention, if we see a man wearing a tuxedo doing the same we perk up. We walk past thousands of people a day but if we are sexually attracted to one all our attention is focused. We become aware.
Subjective FeelingMonitoringOur subconscious matches the sensory pattern to previous sensory patterns and we experience an initial emotional response according to our experiential biases.We feel fear because the sound pattern matches the sound pattern we observed in movies before someone is harmed. We feel hunger or comfort because we associate the smell of vanilla with grandma’s Christmas cookies. Our consciousness is verifying our subconscious impulse and the result of this phase triggers an emotion: sadness, happiness, gratitude, anger, etc.
DesireMotivationEmotion resulting from the previous step stimulates a desire to act. Some desires to act are beyond our control and our brains act without involving the part of our brain that controls consciousness like pulling your hand away from a hot stove. Other desires engage the consciousness so that it can formulate an action or if there is conflict among multiple subsystems to decide which one to indulge. We can have multiple motivators at any given time for example we might have the desire to run away before we have to give a presentation at work while at the same time having a desire to not upset our boss or to not look foolish in front of our peers.Urge to run out of the house or grab a weapon in response to the sound upstairs. The urge to run into the kitchen to hug your grandmother who is baking that you haven’t seen in years.
AppraiseMeaningBy cognitively analyzing the emotion, the individual determins the cause and evaluates possible courses of action, based on their education and experience to bring about some sort of changeEven though you have the desire to run out of the house, you also remember that you live in a safe neighborhood so the chances that you are in real danger are very slim. Even though you smell the vanilla, you remember that your grandmother lives in the other part of the country, and more than likely it might be your roommate burning a candle. In this phase, you are deciding if you should fight/flight, move towards or away, approach or avoid, pick up or put down, etc.
Motor ActivityAction/ExpressionWe experience microexpressions, vocal shifts, and physical behavior.Crying, running out the door, screaming, slowly walking up the stairs so that we can see any would-be intruder before they see us. Saying hello to verify if it is our roommate or a surprise visit by grandma.
PhysiologicalSupportThis component supports all others. The increased heart rate that is triggered alongside anger or fear is to help the body prepare to fight or to run away. These physiological reactions prepare our body to deal with our circumstances.Changes in heart rate, dilation of blood vessels, pupil dilation. When we observe these physiological changes in others it affects us on a subconscious level. This particular subsystem is why we can’t “act” and we have to learn how to trick our brains into thinking what isn’t real is real.

Identifying Organismic Substems With Repetition

The goal of the repetition exercise is to help us develop an awareness of how we actually behave so that we can understand our character’s behavior and stimulate ourselves appropriately to artificially create it. Our awareness is limited but by understanding the entire cycle, of each emotion we can easily understand what we want, our point of view, and choose a tactic.


Repeated PhraseOrganismic Subsystem
“You’re threatening me.”Perceive
“I’m afraid.”Subjective Feeling
“I want to run away.”Desire
Curling up into the fetal position.Motor Activity
“You want to hurt me.”Appraise
“My heart is racing.”Physiological


Repeated PhraseOrganismic Subsystem
“You don’t respect me.”Perceive
“I’m pissed off.”Subjective Feeling
“I want to punch you in the face.”Desire
Get in their face.Motor Activity
“You are weak.”Appraise
“I’m hot.”Physiological


Repeated PhraseOrganismic Subsystem
“You hurt me.”Perceive
“I am sad.”Subjective Feeling
“I want you to comfort me.”Desire
CriesMotor Activity
“You’re cruel.”Appraise
“I feel cold.”Physiological


Repeated PhraseOrganismic Subsystem
“You excite me.”Perceive
“I am aroused.”Subjective Feeling
“I want you to touch me.”Desire
Kiss them.Motor Activity
“You are beautiful.”Appraise
“I have an erection.”Physiological


Repeated PhraseOrganismic Subsystem
“What is that?”Perceive
“I am curious.”Subjective Feeling
“I want to know.”Desire
Looking around, active listening.Motor Activity
“I’m interested/I’m concerned.”Appraise
“Your pupils are dilated.”Physiological


Repeated PhraseOrganismic Subsystem
“You are strong.”Perceive
“I respect you.”Subjective Feeling
“I want your approval.”Desire
Bow at their feet.Motor Activity
“You are better than me.”Appraise
“I feel warm.”Physiological


Repeated PhraseOrganismic Subsystem
“You are ugly.”Perceive
“I am disgusted.”Subjective Feeling
“I want to get away from you.”Desire
Nausea.Motor Activity
“You’re gross.”Appraise
“My skin is crawling.”Physiological


Repeated PhraseOrganismic Subsystem
“You did something unexpected.”Perceive
“I am shocked.”Subjective Feeling
“You interest me.”Desire
Put all your attention on them.Motor Activity
“I was wrong about you.”Appraise
“I perked up.”Physiological
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