Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Vice, virtue, and the box office

Movie audiences just wanna have fun.

It is summertime, and the movie studios trot out their summer blockbusters and comedies. That's what summer is all about. In Texas, when it gets to be 102 outside, sitting in an air-conditioned movie theater is not such a bad thing. But why are people flocking to movies that are clearly so awful. The poster-child for awful movies this year is Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. The reviews of this movie are uniformly terrible, but the film has already done over $300 million in sales in the United States alone. What gives?

We could assume that the critics are all just wrong. But that doesn't seem to be a complete explanation. My sons all saw the Transformers movie, and they didn't like it either. So the hordes going to the movie must reflect something more basic about the way people make decisions.

The success of summer movies rests on what the behavioral economist George Loewenstein called vices and virtues. He's not talking about the themes of movies here, but about the way people make their choice about the movie they want to see. The vices in movies are all about the enjoyment. The virtues are all about the value of the experience of seeing the movie.

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Some of the vices in movies are thrills. Car chases, explosions, and action heroes mowing down endless rows of evildoers are all vices. Neatly-tied emotional experiences are vices as well. The standard boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl plot of the standard romantic comedy is a vice. We know by the closing credits the two beautiful stars will be locked in a kiss. Familiarity is also a vice. We are far more comfortable with remakes, sequels, and movies that come from familiar TV shows and toys than with things that are new.

Virtues are things that add value to the movie-going experience. Learning something new is a virtue. (Documentaries-even well-made documentaries-are chock-full of virtue.) A complex emotional experience is a virtue. Grappling with real-world issues is a virtue. Movies with virtues are satisfying both in the theater and also long afterward.

Loewenstein suggests that people recognize the value of virtues, but when they are actually at the theater ready to buy a ticket, they invariably fall back on vices. In one study (which I have described once before), he gave people a coupon good for a free rental of a movie that they could pick up either that night or the next week. They had to select the movie they wanted when they selected the coupon. They were given the choice of a virtue movie (Schindler's List-a movie about the holocaust) or a vice movie (a low-brow comedy). When people were choosing the movie they would watch next week, they tended to pick the virtue movie. When they were choosing the movie they would watch that day, however, they would pick the vice movie. In the moment of choice, people were worried that they would be bored, or sad, or generally not entertained.

Interestingly, movie delivery services like Netflix provide an interesting test of this explanation. With Netflix, you set up a queue of movies and they get mailed to you. So, you are choosing movies that you are going to watch some time in the future. I find that I will put a documentary or a complex heavy "virtue" movie on my queue, and it will get mailed. But then, it will sit at the house for a few weeks because the time never seems right to watch it. Eventually we watch it, of course, and typically we really enjoy it and value the experience. But in the moment of truth, it is hard to actually decide to watch it.

The same thing happens at the movie line over the summer. In the end, we just want a pleasant experience at the movies. So, even if the reviews are horrible, we end up valuing the potential thrills, comfort, and familiarity over the virtues of depth, complexity, and knowledge.

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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