Thursday, August 4, 2011

Friday Fun: At the Movies (with a Psychologist)

Because Juli's psychology songs post was so much fun, I thought I'd try something new this Friday. In what follows, I will provide a very brief summary of the plot, or a specific scene, from a movie. After this description, I will then discuss a key psychological construct that the movie's theme relates to.

It's a simple game, so let's get started. There are spoilers, so read on with caution.

The movie: Zoolander (2001)

The scene: Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) has fallen from the top of the male modeling industry, replaced by Hansel (Owen Wilson) whose boyish charm and rugged good looks are tops in the industry. To make a comeback, Derek signs on with rogue fashion designer Mugatu (Will Ferrell) who asks Derek to go to an "exclusive day spa" to prepare for his upcoming runway show. Unfortunately, Mugatu's goal is actually  to use Derek to kill the Malaysian prime minister, thus securing cheap labor in Malaysia for the fashion industry. Mugatu lures Derek to the day spa for a week where he is brainwashed into becoming a crazed killer. How is the killer unleashed from Derek? Through an auditory cue within the song "Relax."

The quote: J. P. Prewitt (David Duchovney): "It's not up to you, at the proper moment they'll trigger you-- usually using an auditory or visual Pavlovian response mechanism."
 Derek Zoolander: "Audi-what-eey?"

The psychological construct: Operant conditioning (Skinner, 1953) refers to a behaviorist theory regarding the nature and origins of behavior. In essence, if we want a person to exhibit behavior X, we reinforce that behavior with rewards or punishments. If we want a rat to hide in the corner of his cage when a light flashes, we flash the light and shock the rat until the rat responds accordingly. In Zoolander, Derek is shocked by electricity at the day spa for a week until he associates the song "Relax" with an irresistible urge to kill the Malaysian prime minister.

The movie: Unforgiven (1992)

The scene: In the climactic scene of this 1992 best picture winner, William Munny (Clint Eastwood) returns to the town of Big Whiskey in a drunken and vengeful rage. There, he finds Sheriff Little Bill (Gene Hackman) in an old saloon-- a man who is responsible for killing Ned (Morgan Freeman), Munny's oldest friend. When the dust settles, Munny has killed Little Bill along with 10-12 of his best men. This is hands-down my favorite Clint Eastwood scene. Just before dispatching Little Bill, the following exchange occurs:

The quote: Little Bill: "I don't deserve this... to die like this... I was going to build a house."
William Munny: "Deserve's got nothin' to do with it."

The psychological construct: Belief in a just world (Rubin & Peplau, 1979) is a psychological construct reflecting the sentiment that people get what they deserve and deserve what they get. Basically, because we believe we are good and decent people, we expect that bad or unfortunate things won't happen to us. In addition, if something bad happens to someone else, we take that to mean the person "got what they deserve."

The movie: The Breakfast Club (1985)

The scene: I've only seen parts of this movie, so my wife Christina helped with this one.  Basically, a group of students from a suburban midwestern high school who normally wouldn't hang out together get sent to a number of Saturday school detentions where they must spend time together. Each of the students comes from a different social group on campus (e.g., there is a nerdy guy, and an athlete guy, etc...). In the end, they all begin to forge a common understanding of each other, and even come to enjoy each others' company.

The quote: "You see us as you want to see us-- in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found is that each of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, a princess, and a criminal." --The Breakfast Club

The psychological construct: This movie deals primarily with our conceptions of stereotypes (Devine, 1989), which in general, refer to specific assumptions we have about people's behavior that arise from their membership to a social group. So, I expect an athlete to not be smart and to be physically strong based only on knowing the person is an athlete. In general, I think the point of the Breakfast Club is to suggest that stereotypes can be right and wrong about people. Not a radical idea, but perhaps it was in 1985?

The movie: Gattaca (1997)

The scene: In the opening scene of the movie, we get a look at a future where people can design their children to have specific genetic predispositions. These genetically engineered humans are far superior to "faith births" or those conceived without genetic engineering. That is, until the faith birth Vincent (Ethan Hawke) fakes his identity and lands the most prestigious job of this dystopian future-- a starship pilot.

The quote: "I'll never understand what possessed my mother to put her faith in God's hands, rather than a geneticist's." -- Vincent

The psychological construct: Biological essentialism (Haslam et al., 2000) is the belief that the important parts of a person are biologically determined-- that is, determined solely by their genes, physiological responses, and physical qualities. In psychology research, essentialist beliefs are a primary means for people to justify social inequality in society. In essence, people who are poor have very little economic wealth because of their inherent biological qualities rather than due to the influence of external forces.

The movie: 500 Days of Summer (2009)

The scene: Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a young 20-something looking for love, and in this movie he finds it and loses it all within 500 days. The love interest is named Summer (Zooey Deschanel)-- and the movie takes us through their entire relationship from their first meeting to their final reconciliation. I really enjoyed this movie because it showed more than just the honeymoon period of a romantic relationship. After Summer dumps Tom, Tom is recovering with his sister at soccer practice. While she is trying to help Tom cope with his lost love, his sister offers up a little piece of advice (below):

The quote: "I know you think she was the one, but I don't. Now I think you're just remembering the good stuff. Next time you look back, I really think you should look again." -- Tom's sister

The psychological construct(s): Seeking positive illusions (Murray & Holmes, 1990) in romantic relationships occurs when people try to see the positive qualities of one's romantic partner. Some research suggests that seeing these positive qualities leads to relationship longevity. This is what Tom has done throughout his relationship with Summer. In contrast, Tom's sister is urging him to seek self-verification (Swann, 1990) or the desire to be known and understood by others. Self-verification theory suggests that people have a desire to be seen accurately by others because this enhances one's ability to predict and control what will happen next in one's relationship (In essence, if I expect you to be forgetful sometimes, I won't be shocked and saddened if you forget to pick me up at the bus-stop even though it is raining, and you promised me you would!). Surprisingly, there is also research suggesting that partners who verify each other tend to be closer. In the end, I think research suggests that in some cases it is generally good to be seen positively by your partner, except on certain attributes that are central to who you are (we have discussed self-verification in a previous post).

Have you enjoyed our tour of psychological constructs at the movies? We'd love to hear about how psych-relevant things have shaped your movie-watching experiences in the comments!

Haslam, N., Rothschild, L., & Ernst, D. (2000). Essentialist beliefs about social categories British Journal of Social Psychology, 39 (1), 113-127 DOI: 10.1348/014466600164363

Swann, W., Pelham, B., & Krull, D. (1989). Agreeable fancy or disagreeable truth? Reconciling self-enhancement and self-verification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57 (5), 782-791 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.57.5.782

Furnham, A. (2003). Belief in a just world: research progress over the past decade Personality and Individual Differences, 34 (5), 795-817 DOI: 10.1016/S0191-8869(02)00072-7

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