Neuronarrative

Musings on the complicated business of thinking

"American Hustle" and the Irresistible Chaos of Desire

Great movies win awards, but more importantly they inform us about ourselves.

Note: a few spoilers ahead. 

“And the award for best dramatization of brain science in a motion picture goes to…”

"American Hustle" is going to win several awards, and if one were given for skillfully illustrating the dynamics that motivate us, director David O. Russell’s clever creation would run away with it as well. The movie is proof that entertainment can still teach profound lessons about the complicated business of thinking, so stealthily that you never see them coming.

The lessons of Russell’s Hustle are about desire, its dual nature and pitfalls – and whether he knew it or not, the lessons evince brain science writ large.

The Science

Nearly every character in "American Hustle" is infected with what’s known in cognitive science as over-motivation. The term is a paradox; we’re inclined to think that motivation has compounding value, and we can only have too little of it to serve our cause, never too much.

But cognitive research tells a different story, as craftily shown in a study called “Choking on the Money”, in which participants were offered cash for doing well on, of all things, a few rounds of Pac Man. Researchers varied the amounts of cash to elicit different levels of motivation among the players, with the hypothesis that the greater the cash reward, the greater the motivation to succeed—and the greater the cost of failure.

While participants played the game, the research team analyzed their brains with an fMRI machine. What they found was that players with the most cash on the line had the highest level of activity in their brains’ reward centers—the network of brain areas associated with pursuit of pleasure and reward.  These same players also made the most mistakes.

As it turns out, the allure of more cash flooded the players’ reward centers with too much dopamine—the reward neurotransmitter—and they lost their cerebral grip.

Dopamine transforms anticipation of a reward into the motivation to go get it. All of us need dopamine to change “want” to “pursuit” to achieve anything, but our brains’ reward centers can be overwhelmed with “want,” triggering a deluge of dopamine that handicaps our ability to consciously evaluate and control the pursuit.

What this study tells us is that conscious reason is dismantled when uncontrolled desire takes over, when we’re caught in the neurochemical tornado of over-motivation.

The Story

"American Hustle" tells the story of characters drunk on desire, losing their grip on the controls and skidding towards disaster.

The setting for their unraveling is a fictionalized version of the 1978 FBI sting known as Abscam (short for "Abdul scam"), in which the FBI hired a convicted con-artist to dupe members of congress into taking bribes from a fake Middle Eastern sheikh.

Purposefully, it’s hard to find a character to really hate in this movie. Each acts on intentions they defend as well-placed.  The first lesson of the Hustle is that it doesn’t matter. Whether or not we think we’re well-intentioned—and may even be able to make a compelling argument that our desires are “good”—uncontrolled desire will have a body count.

That’s the con the movie is really about. The title, “American Hustle”, is only a tangential reference to the fictionalized Abscam con, and more directly a description of the internal con—the one playing out in the neural pathways of our brains—that sucks us into a desire vortex.

The movie gives us a corrective to this problem, ironically illustrated by the master conman, Irving Rosenfeld, played by Christian Bale. Rosenfeld describes himself as a conman “from the feet up” (an inversion of the popular saying that a fish rots “from the head down”).

“From the feet up” is repeated by different characters as the story builds, less convincingly each time as if its power as a motivating mantra is being drained. For Rosenfeld, the guy who started with the worst intentions—only participating in the scam to snare corrupt congressmen and senators out of self-preservation—the world is turning upside down. He sees what’s happening through him and around him and knows that the train wreck is coming.

The master conman is an allegory for painfully learned metacognition—our capacity to detach from the immediacy of our here-and-now and “think about our thinking” to evaluate how we can change course.  We can feel Rosenfeld detaching and seeing what’s coming next, though his own inflated desire has compromised his ability to stop it.

FBI agent Richard Damasio, played by Bradley Cooper, is fond of reminding Rosenfeld, “You’re working for me now.” Damasio’s desire explodes out of control; his ambition for fame as the agent who gets the bad guys and his desire for Rosenfeld’s savvy and seductive girlfriend, Sydney Prosser (played by Amy Adams) has blinded him to pitfalls Rosenfeld can already see.

Damasio’s story illustrates the self-delusion of unchecked desire, its power to invent rationales to justify anything we do to get what we want.  We’ll use others (as he leverages Rosenfeld), we’ll abuse others, we’ll take risks that put everything on the line again and again—and, like Damasio, we’ll keep arguing that “everything is under control.”

The opposing position is embodied by Damasio’s supervisor, Stoddard Thorsen (played by Louis CK) who serves the role of Superego to Damasio’s perilously spastic Id. For a time, he seems to have the upper hand on Damasio’s desire, but his control is short-lived, and soon not only does he lose control, he’s beaten bloody for even trying.

The lesson of Richard Damasio is that dopamine overload is addictive; the more we get the more we want.  When Damasio gets his first big win—the arrest of corrupt politicians—he’s hooked beyond redemption. He’s got to have an even bigger win—more recognition, more power, more everything. Damasio manages the external con, all the while falling prey to an internal con playing out in the flooded corridors of his brain.

Sydney Posser illustrates a different sort of desire, though it’s every bit as intense as Damasio’s.  She’s over the arc of ambition and wants to “reinvent herself” as someone who can “live for real.” The problem is that she’s in a fog created by her desire for a married man (Rosenfeld) whom she can’t have completely.

She tells Rosenfeld, “You are nothing to me until you’re everything,” (a rephrasing of the thinking distortion known as all-or-nothing thinking in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). She knows that desperation fuels desire—a lesson she learned as a con artist taking money from desperate people—but she can’t liberate herself from her own desperation long enough to gain perspective, at least not until the casualties mount.

Rosenfeld’s wife, Roslyn (played by Jennifer Lawrence) is the edgiest of the characters, and in a sense the most conscious. While swayed by bloated ambition, she’s the character Russell uses to deliver overt messages about what’s going on in his darkly comic morality play.

She asks other characters to sniff her nail polish so they can smell its “sweet and sour” aroma—a mixture of the “irresistible with the rotten.” She talks about how all of the great perfumes also use that formula, and once you smell them “you can’t stop.” Just like Roslyn, the point isn’t subtle.

Her desire has a certain purity counterbalanced by her abrasiveness—she wants to be valued, and supercharging the chaos is her means to an end.

The Wrap

For all of these characters, the phrase “Be careful what you wish for” is an epic though excruciatingly true understatement. The cautionary tale embodied in "American Hustle", and buttressed by neuroscience, is that out-of-control desire leads to two things: more desire, and the crash.

I have a feeling that David O. Russell, who also directed "Silver Linings Playbook", boned up on cognitive research for this and his previous movie. I also think he's seen the Alan Parker directed film, "The Life of David Gale," and did some unpacking of college professor Gale's opening lecture to his class about the philosophy of the French psychoanalyst, Jaques Lacan. Gale (played by Kevin Spacey) tells the class that once we possess the thing we've been desiring—the very second we get it—we can't want it anymore.

"In order to continue to exist, desire must have its objects perpetually absent. It's not the "it" that you want, it's the fantasy of "it." So, desire supports crazy fantasies."

That is the uber lesson of "American Hustle" and it's what makes the Hustle especially American. We live in a culture designed to stoke our desire, to hype our "want"—for things, fame, sex—for more. Seldom do we pause to ask whether we really want the "it" or the fantasy of possessing it. Once the fantasy consumes us, it may be impossible to achieve clarity until it's too late.

But Russell isn't a director interested in leaving his audience with a despairing void. What ultimately makes "American Hustle" compelling, and why I think it's going to take home the goods come Oscar time, is that it doesn't shy away from the harsh while also not depriving us of hope.

In the end, Russell leaves us with a “sweet and sour” takeaway: finding a way out of the irresistible chaos of desire is possible—though not without loss. If you survive the wreck, you still have a shot at a silver lining.

You can find David DiSalvo on Twitter @neuronarrative and at his website, The Daily Brain. His latest book is Brain Changer: How Harnessing Your Brain’s Power To Adapt Can Change Your Life.

David DiSalvo is a science and technology writer working at the intersection of cognition and culture.

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