The 8 Best Psychology Scenes from Your Favorite Movies

From classics to cult favorites, these movies show important ideas in psychology

Posted Aug 31, 2013

Psychological thrillers, dramas, and comedies abound in the movies, with plots involving people with a variety of disorders ranging from dissociative identity disorder (“multiple personalities”) to psychopaths (“antisocial personality disorder”).  Other psychologically-themed movies focus their spotlight on family relationships, “coming of age,” and the use by lead characters of advanced problem-solving skills. However, a number of other popular or cult favorites contain gems of psychological wisdom.  These 8 are my nominees for imparting useful psychological knowledge in scenes that contain either the focal points of the film or, more commonly, random conversations between characters that demonstrate a known empirically-based effect.

The Waterboy: Knowledge of Brain Anatomy

Let’s start with this Adam Sandler film, one that contains plenty of goofy and occasional heart-warming moments, as a college team’s water boy (Bobby Boucher, played by Sandler) finds that he has unusual abilities to tackle and soon becomes the star player. The psychological scene in this movie occurs in class, when a Colonel Sanders-appearing professor asks the class why “alligators are so abnormally aggressive.” Bobby stands up and offers his explanation “Momma says that alligators are ornery because they got all them teeth but no toothbrush.” The professor repeats this sarcastically, asking the question again. Another student most studiously answers as follows: “Alligators are aggressive because of an enlarged medulla oblongata. It’s the section of the brain which controls aggressive behavior.” The professor announces that this is correct, repeating (in a strong Southern accent) “The medul-la ob-lon-gata!”

This scene provides an example of a psychological principle, but unfortunately it’s wrong. As any intro psych student knows, the medulla is the portion of the brainstem that controls autonomic functions such as breathing and heart rate.  It’s, of course, the amygdala that controls (in part) aggression.  This scene, would be useful for instructors who wish to show how even the “best sources” can be wrong (or you can use it as a trick question!).

The Sound of Music: Self-Efficacy

From zany comedy, we turn next to this classic movie musical.  Maria is a young novice nun in late 1930s Austria who is told by the Mother Superior that she must help Captain Von Trapp care for his 7 children. As she rides the train from the convent to his home, she realizes that she knows nothing about taking care of children and is terrified at the thought of being put into this situation. To bolster herself, she sings the inspiring “I Have Confidence.” The song begins with her expressing her mixed emotions of excitement and doubt, and ends “I have confidence in confidence alone; besides which, you see, I have confidence in me!”

The lyrics to this song contain the essence of social psychologist Albert Bandura’s notion of self-efficacy, or your belief in your ability to succeed at a given task.  Donald Meichenbaum, a psychologist who developed a method to bolster a person’s self-efficacy known as “self-talk,” could have written the words of the song himself.  Maria shows that by focusing on her strengths, she can imagine herself as successful and therefore has no need to worry.  The rest of the story follows from this pivotal scene, because not only did she shine at her job, but she succeeded so well that she eventually became the stepmother of the entire Von Trapp brood.

Driving Miss Daisy: Adaptation to Aging

This Oscar-winning1989 film (also a stage play) portrays the complex relationship between the 70-something year old “Miss Daisy” (played by Jessica Tandy) and her driver (Morgan Freeman). In the opening scene, Daisy backs her car into a ditch.  Her son Boolie (Dan Akroyd) then informs her that she will no longer be able to drive as no insurance company will cover her. In this scene, Daisy and Boolie argue, and Daisy insists that there’s nothing wrong with her, refusing to accept the stark fact that the accident was entirely her fault. As she defends her mental and visual skills, you can see a perfect example of the type of denial that may occur when older adults must first confront loss of a valued ability.  Not only was this difficult for Daisy to accept because it reflected on her own aging, but also for the practical reason that loss of the ability to drive means loss of independence.

By the time the scene comes to an end, we see Daisy staring out the window of her home, longingly, as a car passes down the street.  It’s clear that she now is coming to grips with the reality of her new situation.  She’s clearly not defeated, though, and her ability to move on illustrates the principles of resilience and strength that many older adults show in the face of loss.  

Gone with the Wind: Emotion-Focused Coping

Let’s go further back, now, to 1939, and a film that many consider the greatest of all time.  Scarlett O’Hara, a spoiled teenager from Georgia, endures through the years of the Civil War with a strength that even she never knew she had. However, her main coping method relies heavily on denial (“fiddle-dee-dee” being her favorite expression) despite the fact that she often proves to be as hard-headed and cagey as the most problem-focused of copers.

In the last scene of the film, Scarlett shows that despite the psychological toll that her marriages, poverty, hunger, and disappointment have taken, she can still hope to live on because “After all, tomorrow is another day.” We can interpret this statement in two ways: Yes, she shows that she’s still an emotion-focused coper (relying on denial), but we can also take it as an example of how hope can get us through our most difficult moments in life.

Office Space: Early-Stage Career Development

In this low-budget cult classic of the 1990s, several young office workers (headed by Ron Livingston) must deal with the cruel disappointments that 20- and even 30-somethings face when they realize they’re stuck in a dead-end job that will bring tedium into their 9-to-5 worlds for the rest of their lives. In the opening scene of the film, we see its main themes introduced— annoying co-workers and even more annoying bosses, office machines that don’t work, nonsensical regulations, and just sheer boredom.  As the main characters leave work for an early (i.e. 9:30 am) coffee break (due to a “case of the ‘Monday’s’), they sit in misery contemplating their future. “What if we’re still doing this when we’re 50?” Though his friend answers “It would be nice to have that kind of job security,” we get the feeling that this is the last thing that any of them want at the moment.

This is a great illustration of the stresses that young adults face, especially when their job is incongruent with their sense of self, interests, and abilities.  As the plot unfolds, it’s clear that none of them will be in this job in their 50s.  Though no career counselor would advocate such a strategy for even the unhappiest worker, the film provides a nice escapist relief, which undoubtedly explains its continued popularity.

Failure to Launch: The Plight of Empty-Nesters

More insights into developmental issues comes from this Sarah Jessica Parker- Matthew McConaughey rom-com, in which McConaughey is enjoying his life as a 30-something to the emotional expense of his parents (played by Kathy Bates and Terry Bradshaw).   Again, the opening scene sets the psychological stage for depicting the stress placed on former empty nesters when their kids return home. Research shows that although parents of adult children don’t necessarily mind having their kids around for a while, their presence in the home definitely challenges their feelings of freedom to reignite the flames of romantic passion.

It takes only 2 and a half minutes for the opening scene to show the audience the frustration that Bates and Bradshaw are experiencing, and the lengths to which they’ll go to solve the problem. They “accidentally” walk in on the son (“Tripp”) who’s just brought a new date into his bedroom.  Thoroughly embarrassed, she angrily runs out.  Now back in bed with his wife, Dad announces “And she’s leaving,” to which Mom replies “Another one bites the dust.”

This film wasn’t a huge popular success, nor is does it qualify as a cult classic.  However,  it certainly would have comforted many a stressed-out former empty nester.

Forrest Gump: Divergent Thinking

The very popular, award-winning, Forrest Gump is known for many of its compelling themes: A man with intellectual disability who improbably succeeds at everything he attempts, the mother who shows eternal faith in him, and the ways in which we all become a part of history (though few as famously as Gump). I find this movie emphasizes a psychological theme that we rarely experience in film—the higher-order cognitive function known as divergent thinking. Tests of this ability ask you to rattle off as many uses of an object.

So by now you undoubtedly know which scene I’m thinking of, right? It’s when Bubba and Forrest are discussing the many ways to cook shrimp:  In Bubba's words, “Anyway, like I was sayin', shrimp is the fruit of the sea. You can barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it, saute it. Dey's uh, shrimp-kabobs, shrimp creole, shrimp gumbo. Pan fried, deep fried, stir-fried. There's pineapple shrimp, lemon shrimp, coconut shrimp, pepper shrimp, shrimp soup, shrimp stew, shrimp salad, shrimp and potatoes, shrimp burger, shrimp sandwich. That- that's about it."  Anyone who can come up with 21 ways to cook anything certain earns the divergent thinking award of the year.

Napoleon Dynamite: Incentive Motivation

Our last film is another resident of Hollywood’s niche paradise—the cult favorite and very low-budget tale of a high school student whose relationships with his family and friends are beyond what anyone might even call “misfit.”  Among the many travails that beset this strange, though affable, teenager involve his uncle’s scheme to sell plastic containers. 

As he goes around the neighborhood peddling his plastic wares, the uncle demonstrates how, if his couple buys the 24-piece set, she’ll get a model schooner.  Clearly, this is something that any household can easily do without. However, the wife’s exclamation “I want that!” shows that any of us can be lured into wanting anything by a good sales pitch, no matter how ridiculous or unnecessary the bonus may be.

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Whether you’re an educator, a student, or just a fan of psychology in general, I hope you’ll agree that these scenes provide ideal illustrations of such themes as learning, development, parenting, motivation, neuroscience, and cognitive processes.  Of course, in my opinion, I find psychology lurking everywhere, but that’s another story!

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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013