Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

People, Situations, Attributions, and the Hollywood Movie

Why we see movie characters as being redeemed.
Gran Torino movie posterI went to see Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino the other day. This excellent movie is an example of what can be called a redemption drama. In movies of this type, a flawed character has a set of transformative experiences that causes them to act differently than they did at the start of the movie. Ultimately, the main character performs actions that would have been unthinkable for him or her at the start of the movie. Without giving anything significant away about Gran Torino that newspaper reviews haven't already divulged, the character played by Clint Eastwood slowly grows to love a Hmong family that lives next door, despite his racist attitudes at the start of the film.

We leave the theater after these films uplifted, because the main character has changed (typically for the better). In Gran Torino, we see Clint Eastwood's character as a racist at the start of the film, and as a move loving character at the end.

This conclusion is typical of the way we evaluate other people. Decades of research in social psychology has demonstrated that when we assess the actions of other people, we attribute their actions to some aspect of their character. That is, we typically assume that other people's actions are caused by their personality characteristics.

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In general, though, people's actions are caused by an interaction between their personality characteristics and their environment. For example, most of us don't think of ourselves as particularly mean or nasty people. Nonetheless, most of us have gotten angry at another driver on the road at some point, and some of us might even have yelled at that driver or even made a colorful gesture. We realize that this loss of self-control is not a deep aspect of our character, but rather a reaction to the situation we were in.

Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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