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Survival Is Memorable, But Do You Want to Go There?

Winning minds without winning money

If you followed the Academy Awards this year, you know that The Hurt Locker won Best Picture. But did you know that it was the lowest grossing academy award winner of all time? It is estimated to have made about $15 million in the U.S. The low budget Precious made three times as much money, Up made twenty times as much, and Avatar brought in fully sixty times as much of the long green!

This raises two questions. How did the Hurt Locker beat out nine other movies, nearly all of which were more popular at the box office? And if people who watched The Hurt Locker thought it was the best movie of the year, why haven't more people seen it?

Winning over our memories with lessons of survival.

Neither of us picked The Hurt Locker as our favorite movie of 2009. But thinking back on the movie, we realized we could both remember nearly every scene in that movie -- more than we can say about most other films we watch. I loved Precious, and my dad loved An Education, but honestly, we would be a little hard pressed to tell you every scene in those movies. The Hurt Locker, on the other hand, we can easily recollect in its entirety. (See links to our reviews of other Best Picture nominees below)

Purdue psychologist James Nairne and his colleagues have done some clever research that may explain why this might be. Nairne's research suggests that information relevant to survival gets special processing. The program of research is one of the few that adopts an evolutionary approach to thinking about memory, reasoning that memory ought to be biased in ways that would have promoted our ancestor's fitness. To reproduce successfully, of course, the first hurdle is to survive. Hence, these researchers have asked the simple question: Will I remember something better if it has to do with survival?

If you were a subject in an experiment conducted by Nairne and his colleagues, you would be asked to remember a list of random words (e.g., stone, meadow, chair). But before reading the list of words, you would be instructed "to imagine you are stranded in the grasslands of a foreign land, without any basic survival materials. Over the next few months, you'll need to find steady supplies of food and water and protect yourself from predators.... We would like you to rate how relevant each of these words would be for you in this survival situation." If you were in a control condition, you might be asked to think about how pleasant each word is, or how each word might be relevant if you were moving to a foreign country. As the figure indicates, memory was substantially better when people thought about survival relevance. Other research by Nairne's team has shown that survival processing trumps all the other known memory tricks - such as thinking about how personally relevant the word is.

This research could explain why, when Oscar voters were tasked to pick a movie from a list of ten, the movies about survival sprang more easily to mind than movies about romance and friends. If you are in the minority who saw The Hurt Locker, you know that it paints a very vivid and realistic picture about survival. It's about a bomb squad made up of young American soldiers who try (sometimes unsuccessfully) to defuse terrorist bombs in Iraq. While other nominees, such as District 9 and Avatar, also dealt with the theme of survival, the Hurt Locker dealt with a situation people that you or someone you know might actually encounter. In fact, my good friend Richie Keefe had this very job when he did his military service in Iraq.

But if people remember this movie, why didn't they tell their friends to see it?

So, if many who saw The Hurt Locker liked it more than Avatar, and remembered it long afterward, why didn't Hurt Locker do nearly as well at the box office? Here's one possibility: The two pictures generated a very different "word of mouth." Avatar invented a strange and beautiful new world, filled with abundant natural resources. When people discover a real place like this, they tell their friends and family, "Hey, you should go there" (think of the "New World" a few centuries ago, or of California during the 20th century). Likewise for the movie Up, which painted a colorful picture of a quaint little house floating through the air to an exotic and beautiful waterfall in South America, powered only by thousands of helium-filled balloons. Hurt Locker, on the other hand, was a strong depiction of a place to which you might not want to send your friends. So, when asked, viewers may say that the Hurt Locker was good, but then caution "You might not want to go there." For example, after hearing our summary, both our wives decided they wouldn't want to see The Hurt Locker. Incidentally, Richie Keefe, my friend who was brave enough to actually defuse bombs in Iraq, decided it wasn't someplace he wanted to return to, even in a movie theater. So he hasn't seen The Hurt Locker. But he has been to see Avatar, and gone back to see it again.

Coauthored by Douglas T. Kenrick


Nairne, J.S. & Pandeirada, J.N.S. (2008). Adaptive memory: Remembering with a stone-age brain. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17, 239-243.

Links to our review of Hurt Locker and the other Best Picture nominees

Evolutionary Psychology and the Oscar Race II: The Hurt Locker

Avatar 3D: Evolutionary Psychology goes to Hollywood

For a psychological lift on Valentine's Day, Watch UP

Mating Budget Bankruptcy: Review of Precious

Young Girls and Seductive Older Men: An Education

When Life Imitates a Made-For-TV movie: Review of The Blind Side

The Morality of Mayhem and Murder: Inglourious Basterds

Modern technology as intimacy's enemy: Are we all "Up in the Air?"

Two kinds of bad guys: District 9 and human prejudice.

Does God Exist, and If So, Who Cares? A Serious Man

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