Movies and the Mind

A front row ticket to human drama as seen through popular film

James Bond & the Righteous Mind

Why 'good' people like 'bad' movies

The last few weeks have been a busy time for my family and me. The kids are going back to school, my wife (a clinical psychologist) is moving offices, and I have a variety of administrative tasks at my college that need to be done before the Fall semester. As I often do in to these situations, I start having fantasies of leisure time with no responsibilities. Inspired by a recent feature in Entertainment Weekly, one version of that fantasy has me watching a marathon of James Bond DVDs (perhaps all the ones from the '60s with Sean Connery).

Many men are Bond fans, and I know I am not the first to have such an idea. But I still find it slightly embarrassing. As an academic and a psychologist, there are many things about the Bond movies that make me an ambivalent fan. The films prominently feature paranoid politics, sexist attitudes, and the use of violence as the go-to solution for problems. Given my interest in using “movies as equipment for living,” these qualities suggest a dangerous direction.

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The Freudian in me says that some part of me must find these things appealing, and certainly there is some truth to this. Fortunately though, I found an additional answer in Jonathan Haidt’s outstanding new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. The ideas in the book allow me to understand my Bond fascination in a somewhat different light.

I have long observed that whether or not one loves or hates a movies has very little to do with rationale reasons. Most of the time, we watch a movie and our gut tells us what to think about it. Of course film buffs such as myself are capable of providing long-winded reasons for our opinions, and we often believe that the positive qualities we identify in a movie caused us to like it. In reality, it’s probably the other way around—we mysteriously like some movies more than others, and then we come up with reasons to justify our intuitive responses.

In The Righteous Mind, Haidt discusses how this kind of flip-flop is highly characteristic of human judgment in many different situations (his focus is politics), not just our evaluation of movies. Haidt points out that our gut-level mental processes (“intuition”) operate much more quickly than rationality. He argues that this primacy of split second judgments over well-reasoned discourse is a remnant of our evolutionary past. It is easy to imagine many situations in which primitive humans had to react quickly to environmental threats or die. Modern humans are still faced with many situations where we have to make quick decisions about people and situations we need to avoid.

The visceral appeal of a James Bond movie is something that happens well before I have a chance to justify or criticize my reaction. Similarly, there are many other movies that I have an immediate negative reaction to. If pressed on why I dislike a movie, I may very well describe it as sexist or paranoid. Yet Bond’s paranoid sexism doesn’t seem to faze me that much. According to Haidt’s perspective, there must be something else to a Bond movie that is more important in my reaction than my rationale evaluation of whether it is “good” (in the moral sense of the term).

According to Haidt, my rational-level criticisms of Bond movies are rather predictable among liberal-leaning, academic types like myself. Haidt points out that the moral principles that guide such individuals focus primarily on the principles of fairness (i.e, people should treat all people equally) and, especially, care (i.e., people should treat each other compassionately). For the most part, Bond is not a caring man. His capacity for empathy for the aggressive and duplicitous men and women he encounters is, shall we say, limited. There are very few scenes in the Bond canon that feature our hero agonizing over hurting someone’s feelings.

Haidt’s research however emphasizes that there are guiding moral principles other than caring and fairness. These principles—loyalty, authority and sanctity—tend to be prominent among conservatives but not liberals. They are qualities that Bond movies do display prominently.

Bond is extremely loyal to Britain, even when it appears that his countrymen don’t deserve it. While he is definitely his own man, he clearly sees himself in a hierarchal system of authority in which he has a particular role to play. When it comes to sanctity, it may be difficult to imagine Bond kneeling quietly in a church, but his single-minded refusal to be corrupted by temptations has strong overtones of quasi-religious devotion.

Finally, Haidt presents a sixth principle, liberty (i.e., freedom from oppression). This characteristic is emphasized to a certain extent by both liberals and conservatives, and is the defining characteristic of libertarians. Clearly the defense of liberty is central to Bond’s battles with various super-villains who threaten worldwide domination.

So I am choosing to take some comfort in all this. It is not just that Bond movies satisfy base desires (although, let’s face it, they do). It is also that certain films, while they may fail on some moral dimension (e.g., compassion), make up for it on some other dimension, and thereby potentially provide a different kind of equipment for living.

 

(Skip Dine Young's Psychology at the Movies is available at http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ISBN=0470971770)

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Skip Dine Young, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at Hanover College in Indiana and a licensed clinical psychologist.

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