How do movies really make us feel?
When was the last time you finished watching a movie in a different mood to when you started it? Isn’t it puzzling that something so removed from one’s life can have such a profound impact on one’s emotional state? We all have the power to choose whatever film we want to watch but beyond that, evidence suggests it’s the film that governs how we feel. Westernmann et al. (1996) conducted a meta-analysis on mood-inducing strategies, highlighting film clips as the most potent influencers on positive and negative affect. Almost everyone has been blessed with the gift of time as a result of Coronavirus restrictions. This year, we have spent 6 hours and 25 minutes a day watching television and streaming online video content – a third greater than the previous year’s average (Ofcom, 2020). This makes understanding the emotional impact of our chosen sources of escapism all the more important.
A study involving the use of 70 film clips from a series of different emotional categories was used to measure their subsequent effects on wellbeing. Schaefer and colleagues (2010) were able to evoke both positive and negative affect in 264 participants with film clips corresponding to 7 emotional states (anger, sadness, fear, disgust, amusement, tenderness, and neutral state). Interestingly, negative affect was found to produce more potent emotional responses than positive affect. This means that, on average, people are more deeply affected by negative emotions induced by films than by positive ones. This may actually originate from the evolutionary role of the amygdala responding more frequently to negative emotions as those are most likely to be evoked in periods of stress i.e. predation. The overall conclusion was simply that sad movies make you sad, funny ones result in amusement and sentimental films induce feelings of tenderness, perhaps in addition to sadness or fear too. According to Larsen, McGraw and Cacioppo (2001), positive and negative emotions are separable, meaning they can co-occur. This makes sense as we can all agree that there are many movies that can make you feel an overwhelming abundance of emotions.
With the knowledge of how impactful films can be on our moods, it makes sense to choose them according to how we are already feeling and how we would like to feel by the end. It is common to want to listen to sad music or watch sad movies when one is feeling down. Based on Schaefer’s previously mentioned study, this is a highly ineffective way of evading a bad mood. However, Ahn et al. (2012) has found evidence for the enjoyment of sad movies owing to a sense of involvement and realism. These two conditions are believed to mitigate any negative affect of correspondingly negative movie categories and can actually result in happiness instead. In light of this, the more realistic and relatable a film is to the viewer, the higher its potential to make them feel happy.
Within just the first two months of the Coronavirus pandemic, mental health had declined by 8.1% in the UK (Institute for Fiscal Studies, 2020). By now, this number has likely increased so a repertoire of effortless and easily attainable methods by which one can elevate mood is more valuable than ever before. There are copious amounts of research into the effects of different art forms on wellbeing. With regards to the film, the most commonly accepted rule seems to be the most intuitive; the emotional category of a film directly correlates to the emotions they provoke. There is some evidence for exceptions to this through the simultaneous feeling of conflicting emotions, the involvement the viewer feels with the story presented, and how realistic they deem the film to be. Let’s use what little control we have left in this period of unprecedented uncertainty to manipulate our emotional states through the multitude of films we are yet to watch.
Ahn, D., Jin, S-A. A. & Ritterfeld, U. (2012). 'Sad movies don’t always make me cry': The cognitive and affective processes underpinning enjoyment of tragedy. Journal of Media Psychology: Theories, Methods, and Applications, 24(1), 9–18. doi:10.1027/1864-1105/a000058
Banks, J., & Xu, X. (2020). The mental health effects of the first two months of lockdown during the COVID‐19 pandemic in the UK. Fiscal Studies,41(3), 685-708. doi:10.1111/1475-5890.12239
Institute for Fiscal Studies. (2020). The mental health effects of the first two months of lockdown and social distancing during the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK. https://www.ifs.org.uk/publications/14874
Larsen, J. T., McGraw, A. P., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2001). Can people feel happy and sad at the same time? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81(4), 684–696. https://doi-org.ezproxy.st-andrews.ac.uk/10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.1994
Ofcom. (2020, August 5). Lockdown leads to surge in TV screen time and streaming. https://www.ofcom.org.uk/about-ofcom/latest/features-and-news/lockdown-leads-to-surge-in-tv-screen-time-and-streaming
Schaefer, A., Nils, F., Sanchez, X., & Philippot, P. (2010). Assessing the effectiveness of a large database of emotion-eliciting films: A new tool for emotion researchers. Cognition & Emotion,24(7), 1153-1172. doi:10.1080/02699930903274322
Westermann, R., Spies, K., Stahl, G., & Hesse, F. W. (1996). Relative effectiveness and validity of mood induction procedures: A meta-analysis. European Journal of Social Psychology,26(4), 557-580