A Big Year for Psychological Science on the Big Screen

From Oscar nods to the festival circuit, movies featuring psychological science took Hollywood by storm in 2015. At least four APS fellows were inspirations for the big screen this year in three award-winning films that focused on the science — as well as the human stories — behind some of the most influential research of the 20th century.

The animated Pixar film Inside Out was one of the most critically acclaimed films of 2015; it has been nominated for 78 awards, including Oscar nominations for best animated feature film and best original screenplay. The initial idea for the movie came from an unlikely source: A panel at the 2005 APS Annual Convention.

Inside Out’s director, Pete Docter, was panel guest in a roundtable discussion on animation and emotional expressions along with the prominent emotion researchers APS William James Fellow Paul Ekman, University of California, San Francisco, and APS Fellow Dacher Keltner, University of California, Berkeley.

Docter wanted to make a movie about the swirl of emotions within the head of an 11-year-old girl, but he also wanted that movie to be scientifically accurate.

“I really wanted to make sure that the science was as correct as it could be, because you just don’t want to make a film that scientists go to and roll their eyes at,” Docter said in an interview with NPR.

To make sure they had the science right, Docter’s team turned to Ekman and Keltner as consultants for the film. Inside Out’s portrayal of five emotions — Anger, Disgust, Fear, Sadness, and Joy – relies on insights garnered from decades of research on human emotions. For example, studies have shown how emotions — even “negative” ones such as sadness — are essential for effectively navigating social relationships and challenges.

Mary V. Spiers, a clinical neuropsychologist and associate professor in psychology at Drexel University, runs the website NeuroPsyFi, which uses popular movies as a way to educate the public about psychological science.

Spiers praised Inside Out as a useful teaching tool for the classroom: “Inside Out is an engaging story, particularly for middle- and high-school students. It touches on a number of psychological concepts that can be further explored, including emotion, memory, executive functioning, and personality. After seeing this movie, students are curious to find out how the brain really works.”

Two of the most famous experiments in the history of psychological science also were adapted to the big screen this year: the Stanford Prison Experiment and Stanley Milgram’s experiments on obedience.

In 1971, Stanford University psychology professor Philip Zimbardo, an APS Fellow, recruited groups of students to play either prisoners or guards in a simulated prison scenario. Within 6 days, the “guards” began engaging in such severe abusive behavior towards the “prisoners” that the experiment had to be cancelled early.

Zimbardo is played by actor Billy Crudup in a film adaptation of the experiment, taking its title from the name of the study. Directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez, The Stanford Prison Experiment won critical acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival — including the 2015 Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize. This is the first time the prize, which recognizes outstanding feature films focusing on science and technology, has been presented to a film focusing on social science.

The jury of filmmakers and prominent scientists praised The Stanford Prison Experiment for its “unflinching portrayal of an ambitious though flawed social science experiment in the psychology of imprisonment, and for its wrenching depiction of the human capacity for evil.”

APS Fellow Christina Maslach (University of California, Berkeley), who was instrumental in calling off the experiment once it had gone too far, explained that the film was mostly true to actual events — although obviously, many events were left out, and a few things were changed.

“The filmmakers used actual transcripts from the experiment, with some changes of course, but overall they did a pretty good job of capturing what actually happened,” Maslach explained.

Although Stanley Milgram’s experiments on obedience and authority are more than 50 years old, they remain among the most influential experiments of the 20th century. Famously, Milgram’s experiments found that the majority of people willingly followed orders to deliver a series of painful electrical shocks to another person — even to the point of potentially inflicting grave harm.

After reading Milgram’s book, filmmaker Michael Almereyda was struck by how relevant these findings on the dark side of obedience and human nature remain today. The production of Experimenter relied immensely on Milgram’s own films and transcriptions.

“The experiment’s transcripts are quoted at length, and I instantly saw how filmable it was, as well as how intricate, how clever, how deeply researched the experiments were,” Almereyda said in an interview in The Los Angeles Times. “[H]e filmed the actual subjects through a one-way mirror and turned it into an hour-long film called Obedience. That was our Grail. We meticulously copied the set design, the uniforms, everything we could.”

Although psychological science received more attention than usual at the movies in 2015, there are many films out there that depict the science correctly. In fact, Spiers is organizing a mini brain film festival as part of Brain Awareness Week (March 14–20, 2016) which will include further commentary and discussion on brain science in the movies. New reviews and teaching guides covering the science of Inside Out are posted to NeuroPsyFi.

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