The Art of Ranking: Understanding the Science and Psychology Behind List-Making
30 March 2023
Pixar has a proud tradition of imagining a world in which things that are incapable of expressing human emotion—such as robots, toys, rats, and automobiles—can actually feel. The studio’s most recent release, the critically acclaimed and box office success Inside Out, takes viewers inside the head of a young girl named Riley and shows them what Despite the fact that Inside Out is ultimately an animated children’s film, Pixar, which is owned by the Walt Disney Company, took the task of personifying emotions very seriously.
They turned to Paul Ekman and Dacher Keltner, two of the most prominent researchers in the field of emotion research, to ensure that they accurately and clearly translated intricate psychological issues. Keltner, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley, spoke with us recently. He told us what the filmmakers did right, how it can change how Westerners think about emotion, and what it might look like inside the mind of a lustful college student.
Seven or eight years ago, I met Pete Docter, the director of Inside Out, at an Association for Psychological Science conference. I was asked to join Paul Ekman, a psychologist and co-Inside Out consultant, on a panel about expression. He was discussing the portrayal of emotions in other Pixar films.
“I want to talk to you about this idea for a movie all about emotion,” Pete called me about five years ago.
There were actually two parts to my involvement: One of them was to go to Pixar and meet Pete’s core creative team so that they could just talk about science, what we know, the brain, and expression. The second was responding to Pete’s emails, which he still sends me to this day and in which he asks me very specific, scientific questions like, “What is joy, in terms of its physiology?”
Let’s get really general: What did the movie succeed at?
The movie, in my opinion, really got a few big ideas about emotions right. First, how we perceive the world, pay attention to it, remember it, and make judgments are all influenced by our emotions. They help us deal with really important life events like moves and changes in our development.
The second thing, which we’ve been arguing for in my lab and is harder to see in the movie, is: Emotions are frequently referred to using a social idiom or a grammar of social interactions by members of various traditions. The structure and substance of our interactions with other people are our emotions.
Everything I do in the euphoria of love—buying flowers, reciting poetry, touching the person’s hair—is textured by the feeling and establishes patterns of how we relate to one another if I’m in love with them. Those particular scenes, in which Riley fights with his parents and flees and returns, are all about sadness. That’s exactly what it did right. Our interactions with others are shaped by our emotions.
How accurately did the movie portray the influence that emotions have over our memories?
There are pretty good studies by Linda J.It is true, but we do not know how strong this is or how much our current emotions cause us to ignore facts about the past. That strikes me, especially given how well the film portrays the loss of childhood.
There were times in the movie when sadness would touch a memory, causing it to partially or completely turn blue.
How well did the filmmakers show how emotions can change over time?
It is so fascinating: Although you may believe that your memories accurately depict events, we actually lose a lot of information. Emotions play a role in the reconstruction of the past, and the fact that memory is imperfect is acceptable. People say they understand, but when you portray that concept artistically, people cry and are struck by its existential truth.
What did you think of the islands, memory balls, and other visual representations of it all?
For the sake of artistic narrative, you simply need to simplify at that point. I really liked the five islands of personality’s choices. The fact that they provided a zany island for an 11-year-old child pleased me. But if we think about the actual structure of the mind—and they only briefly discussed this with me—it will involve not only friendship, family, and the imagination, but also traits based on genes: Is it true that I’m outgoing? Context will be involved. They simplified it there, but I think they got some fundamental truths right, like the fact that our minds are relational. That, I believe, really resonates with people.
Speaking of simplifying, they used five emotions, which clearly had narrative justifications; however, what did they leave out?
Are there some fundamental feelings that we acquire as we get older?
The [five] emotions were the primary focus of the initial wave of emotion science. Paul Ekman has written a paper that will be published soon. In it, he surveyed a few hundred emotion scientists and found that there was a lot of agreement: Yes, those are the feelings that are a part of our identity and nervous system. However, I have devoted my professional life to studying newer feelings like shame, amusement, awe, and sympathy.