Psychology at the Movies

Psychology at the Movies explores the insights to be gained by applying various psychological lenses to popular films including cinematic depictions of human behavior, the psychology of filmmakers, and the impact of viewing movies.

  • Uses the widest range of psychological approaches to explore movies, the people who make them, and the people who watch them
  • Written in an accessible style with vivid examples from a diverse group of popular films, such as The Silence of the Lambs, The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Taxi Driver, Good Will Hunting, and A Beautiful Mind
  • Brings together psychology, film studies, mass communication, and cultural studies to provide an interdisciplinary perspective
  • Features an extensive bibliography for further exploration of various research fields

This raises fundamental questions about the movies and provides fascinating glimpses into the ways that many psychologists have answered these questions:

What do the behavioral patterns that can be found in many movies say about people and society?
Sometimes the answer is a little unsettling. Systematic content analyses have shown that female characters who engage in sexual behavior are highly unlikely to make it to the end of slasher horror films (a phenomenon that becomes a running joke in the Scream movies).

Do movies really have deeper meanings?
If one is looking for them hard enough, they sure seem to. One analysis argues that Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining achieves it chilling effect on the audience by making use of a host of subtle symbols that tie the evil occurring in the Overlook Hotel with genocidal tendencies in Western masculinity.

Do the movies impact the way that people see mental illness and psychotherapy?
Many people report forming opinions about psychological disorders based on the media. Also, because of the private nature of psychotherapy, movies and television provide representations an activity they have never witnessed in real life.

Do film makers’ creations reflect their real lives?
Probably, but to what extent is a matter of debate. Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives appeared to so closely chronicle the break down of his relationship with Mia Farrow that it made some viewers uncomfortable yet Allen describes the movie as a work of pure fiction.

What makes a film popular?
No one has a perfect answer to this question (or else they would be fantastically wealthy), but Star Wars and The Godfather stand out as films that are treasured by film buffs, the Hollywood establishment, and the mass movie going audience.

How are films constructed so that audiences understand them and respond emotionally?
One experiment from the early history of film demonstrated that people judge an actor’s emotions not just on his expression but on how film editing can manipulate what the actor appears to be looking at.

Do movies make people do things?
This is perhaps the most controversial questions in the social scientific study of media. One of the most famous experiments in psychology, Bandura’s ‘Bobo Doll’ study, demonstrates that children exposed to an aggressive model will indeed behave quite viciously toward a plastic blow up clown.

Do movies serve any potential purposes other than inspiring sex, drugs and violence?
As art forms, movies have a variety of educational (Steel Magnolias for teaching physicians about the impact of terminal illness on a family), therapeutic (Ordinary People for capturing grief and trauma) and personal (To Kill a Mockingbird for providing an idealized vision of parenthood) functions.

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