Under the Influence

How power, status, and social hierarchy shape us.

Psychology at the Movies

It's surprising how much movie themes reflect psychology research.

It's been a few months since we last discussed movies on this blog. Since my spouse and I moved to Chambana, we have had a lot of time to enjoy $5.50 movie nights at the local cinema. Yeah, you read that right, movie tickets are sold on the cheap out here in the Midwest!

As in my previous posts examining psychological constructs in movies, I'll proceed by describing what happens in a film--roughly from my own memory--and then I will link those events to a construct studied now in psychological research. There may be some spoilers, so don't say I didn't warn you! ONWARD!

 

LOOPER

I really enjoyed Looper, which examined some interesting consequences of time travel from the perspective of a mob hitman who executes people the mob wants killed from the future (because killing people will be more difficult in 30 years or so). At some point in the film, the main character Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) decides that he needs to assassinate the future mob boss who has been cleaning house (Priority 1: Kill all hitmen), and wants to do it in the present--when the mob boss is a child.

Attachment is the psychological construct on display in this film (here on PYM). Attachment style is determined by early family environment, in that children can develop a secure attachment style--if the early environment is characterized by loving and supportive parenting--or conversely, can develop insecure attachment styles--if this family environment is disrupted. In Looper, Joe realizes the importance of early environments on the formation of attachment patterns, and decides not to go through with the hit on the mob boss child. The reason? He's worried that a failed hit on the child in the past created the evil mob boss of the future.

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QUEEN OF VERSAILLES 

In this documentary film, we are treated to an examination of the family life of David Siegel, CEO of Westgate resorts--a timeshare business that made a ton of money selling sub-prime mortgages to people who couldn't afford them. In the first 10 minutes of the film, Siegel reveals a plan to build his wife and their many children the largest house in all of North America. A few months into building this house, the Great Recession begins, and all Siegel's money is tied up in investments. Long story short, Siegel loses a lot of money, defaults on many of his outstanding loans, and gets very frustrated while his family is left wondering what is happening to them.

Social class is the psychological construct on display in this film (here on Psych-Your-Mind). Social class is a context that people inhabit in their daily lives--defined by their material resources, and perceived rank relative to others. In the film, we learn about how much resources fundamentally shape the social contexts of Siegel and his family: Throughout the film, each of the family members struggles to learn how to change their everyday decisions to meet the new demands of their (relatively impoverished) economic environment. The family is no longer able to leave the house lights on when they are not home, no longer able to spend large sums of money on Christmas gifts, and no longer able to finish the beautiful house they planned to build for themselves. Radical changes in economic conditions dramatically shift the kinds of behaviors that Siegel and his family could engage in on an everyday basis.

 

CLOUD ATLAS

In Cloud Atlas, we see a snapshot of the lives of a number of characters at different points throughout human history. Each of the characters deals with structures of power, conceptions of the natural order of the world, and decisions about whether to either fight these forces, or to accept them. And though the characters and the times change, these same struggles play out in each age of history. A beautiful film if you like that sort of thing!

Authenticity is one of the constructs at the heart of this film (here on my other blog, PYM). Throughout the film the characters are faced with choices about whether to stand up for who they are and what they believe in, or to go along with what others want. The ability to express the self freely and without constraint, and the subjective feeling that one need not hide oneself is called authenticity. In general, subjective feelings of authenticity are associated with a number of positive psychological states, including elevated life-satisfaction and elevated sense of power. Authenticity is also good for close relationships--being known and understood by relationship partners improves relationship satisfaction.

 

SKYFALL

In this Bond-on-steroids, James Bond must take on a former agent of the British Intelligence Service (Javier Bardem) who is obsessed with killing all the members of his former British agency. Basically, the movie includes a bunch of awesome explosions and a whole lot of Daniel Craig muscles!

Resilience is the psychological construct in this film (we talked about it here). A recent meta-analysis suggests that lots of adversity gives people a host of psychological problems--such as post traumatic stress disorder and depression. These psychological problems--if they are severe enough--could cause a former British Intelligence agent to seek revenge against his former colleagues. Bond in contrast, has been through some adversity--his paramour died in Casino Royale, if you recall--but not the kind of adversity, we could argue, that would derail his life trajectory. Thus, while Bond uses his moderate adversity to develop skills that help him become a super intelligence agent, Bardem is transformed by his ordeals into a psychopathic killer. EXPLOSIONS!

I hope you've enjoyed this trip to the movies with a psychologist and that we can continue to go to the movies together! Question for the readers: The British love their James Bond, but what is the American character equivalent? Let us know in the comments! Don't forget to follow me on twitter @mwkraus!



REFERENCES 

Seery, M. (2011). Resilience: A Silver Lining to Experiencing Adverse Life Events? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20 (6), 390-394 DOI: 10.1177/0963721411424740

 

Kraus MW, Piff PK, Mendoza-Denton R, Rheinschmidt ML, & Keltner D (2012). Social class, solipsism, and contextualism: how the rich are different from the poor. Psychological review, 119 (3), 546-72 PMID: 22775498

 

Swann, W., de la Ronde, C., & Hixon, J. (1994). Authenticity and positivity strivings in marriage and courtship. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66 (5), 857-869 DOI: 10.1037//0022-3514.66.5.857

 

van IJzendoorn, M. (1995). Adult attachment representations, parental responsiveness, and infant attachment: A meta-analysis on the predictive validity of the Adult Attachment Interview. Psychological Bulletin, 117 (3), 387-403 DOI: 10.1037//0033-2909.117.3.387

Michael W. Kraus is Assistant Professor of Social-Personality Psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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