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Pixar Psychology

What the film "Soul" got right about the human mind.

Inside Out showed us that Pixar is up to date when it comes to the psychology of emotions. Their new film Soul (released exclusively online) demonstrates that they know their psychology of motivation as well.

Soul is already one of the highest-rated Pixar movies ever, in spite of its dwelling on life before birth (just a shade less dangerous a topic than life after death) and its use of music that today's main demographic will not find that alluring. The film is about a jazz musician, who, after many rejections, gets the gig of his lifetime.

Without spoiling the main narrative complication, what leads to the final resolution of the story is that while he enjoys his dream-gig, he doesn't enjoy it as much as he thought he would. And some recent experiments about frustrated desires show something very similar.

It has been known for a while that liking and wanting don’t always go together. You don’t always like what you want to do. Recovering addicts, for example, often want to take drugs, although they really don’t like anything about any part of the process of doing drugs.

But liking and wanting can come apart in less unusual situations. Experiments show that when your desire to do something is frustrated, you want it more but like it less. The "want it more" part of this is hardly surprising. We know we are prone to overcompensating when we fail at something. Frustrated desires lead to stronger desires. Nothing new here.

What is new and surprising in the findings about how wanting and liking come apart is that if our desire for something is frustrated, we don’t just want it more, we actually like it less. In a recent experiment conducted at Stanford University (not far away from the Pixar Studios), subjects wanted to win a prize, but this desire was constantly and deliberately frustrated by the experimenters. The more they failed, the more they were willing to pay for it. Again, nothing surprising so far. What is surprising is that when in the end they did end up winning the prize after many failed attempts, they traded it away more easily. They wanted the prize more, but when they finally got it, they liked it less.

And that is exactly what happens to the main character in Soul: After so many rejections, when he actually gets to play the gig he has always dreamed about, it feels less amazing than he had imagined. It feels a little more than "meh."

What is truly remarkable about the film is that the protagonist draws the right kind of conclusion from this experience (and changes his life accordingly). Some activities are trophy-activities: it only makes sense to do them if you reach the goal. If you don't, you have just wasted your time. The jazz musician was obsessed with activities of this kind — defined by some kind of concept of success in the musical world. But when he saw the error of his way, he started to focus on process-activities, not trophy activities.

Process-activities make sense also if you do them just a little bit. Like walking around. Or watching the shadows change on the facade across the street. Or playing music — without being obsessed with what venue you are in or what the music critics write. It makes sense to engage in process-activities even if they don't reach any goal. It is not therefore a waste of time (like trophy-activities are).

At the very end of the film, the protagonist of Soul says that from now on he'll live every minute of his life. That sounds like a life consisting only of process-activities. While this is a nice and inspirational ending, it is also probably an illusion. There are always bills to pay, jobs to finish, pressing deadlines. Sometimes we do need to do those trophy-activities. But we also need to make sure not to forget about process-activities either. What we need more than anything else is some kind of trophy-process balance.

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