Want to make people cry? Try sad kids, sad animals, or sad animation

Among the difficulties of doing experimental research on emotions is getting people to have them in the lab, where you can study them up close. There are quite a few ways researchers try to elicit emotions — in fact, half of a recent book is dedicated to the topic.

One of the most common approaches is to show subjects film clips. In principle, film clips ought to have a lot of advantages for an experimenter. Unlike asking people to recall personal memories, film clips are standardized – everybody gets the same treatment, so there are no differences in the content of the emotion-eliciting stimulus. And film clips can be a lot more engrossing and evocative than other standardizable stimuli like pictures or music.

That’s the ideal. In practice, though, it can be very hard to find film clips that will elicit a similar reaction from lots of different people. One person’s tearjerker is another person’s boring chick-flick. In fact, when I was part of a team a few years back that was developing a set of new film clips to elicit sadness in the lab, the two female grad students that were trying to find the clips kept getting pilot data showing that the men were unmoved by anything. It turned out that the grads were picking clips that they personally found sad — which was all Beaches-style stuff about women’s relationships with women. We eventually had to ban anything with Susan Sarandon. The stuff that worked the best with everybody, men and women alike, turned out to be clips of sad kids and sad animals. (Futurama fans will know what I’m talking about. Two words: Jurassic Bark.)

Perhaps that shouldn’t have been too much of a surprise. At the time, the state of the art in sadness elicitation was a clip from The Champ where a seven-year-old Ricky Schroder watches his father die in front of him. That one still works well, and the other clips that ended up working were similar themes.

Now, according to a recent article in Time, it seems like we can add animated films to the list of guaranteed tear-elicitors. Apparently there was an epidemic of adults weeping at screenings of Toy Story 3. I haven’t seen that one, but I did see Up, and you’d have to be a psychopath not to at least well up a little bit during the flashback sequence. A filmmaker has an interesting theory on why that may be:

Lee Unkrich, who, having directed Toy Story 3, co-directed and edited Toy Story 2  and edited the original, is something of an expert; he has a few theories on why the latest film set people off. The most interesting is that animated movies can be more affecting than movies with real people in them. “Live action movies are someone else’s story,” he says. “With animation, audiences can’t think that. Their guards are down.” Because the characters are clearly not alive, he suggests counterintuitively, people identify with them more readily.

It’s an interesting explanation, and it becomes especially interesting when you try to extend it to animation of adult human characters (like Up) or live-action movies about kids. Why is a live Susan Sarandon perceived as “somebody else” by a substantial part of the audience (especially people of a different age group and gender), but audiences have no problem immersing themselves into an animated Carl and Ellie Fredricksen or a live, seven-year-old Ricky Schroder? What triggers that barrier with some people and drops it with others? The answers would reach far past methodological questions about how to elicit emotions in the lab, and get at basic questions of empathy and identity.

Modeling the Jedi Theory of Emotions

Today I gave my structural equation modeling class the following homework:

In Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace, Yoda presented the Jedi Theory of Emotions:  “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

1. Specify the Jedi Theory of Emotions as a path model with 4 variables (FEAR, ANGER, HATE, and SUFFERING). Draw a complete path diagram, using lowercase Roman letters (a, b, c, etc.) for the causal parameters.

2. Were there any holes or ambiguities in the Jedi Theory (as stated by Yoda) that required you to make theoretical assumptions or guesses? What were they?

3. Using the tracing rule, fill in the model-implied correlation matrix (assuming that all variables are standardized):


4. Generate a plausible equivalent model. (An equivalent model is a model that specifies a different causal structure but implies the same correlation matrix.)

5. Suppose you run a study and collect data on these four variables. Your data gives you the following correlation matrix.

ANGER .5 1
HATE .3 .6 1
SUFFERING .4 .3 .5 1

Is the Jedi Theory a good fit to the data? In what way(s), if any, would you revise the model?

Some comments…

For #1, everybody always comes up with a recursive, full mediation model — e.g., fear only causes hate via anger as an intervening cause, and there are no loops or third-variable associations between fear and hate, etc. It’s an opportunity to bring up the ambiguity of theories expressed in natural language: just because Yoda didn’t say “and anger can also cause fear sometimes too,” does that mean he’s ruling that out?

Relatedly, observational data will only give you unbiased causal estimates — of the effect of fear on anger, for example — if you assume that Yoda gave a complete and correct specification of the true causal structure (or if you fill in the gaps yourself and include enough constraints to identify the model). How much do you trust Yoda’s model? Questions 4 and 5 are supposed to help students to think about ways in which the model could and could not be falsified.

In a comment on an earlier post, I repeated an observation I once heard someone make, that psychologists tend to model all relationships as zero unless given reason to think otherwise, whereas econometricians tend to model all relationships as free parameters unless given reason to think otherwise. I’m not sure why that is the case (maybe a legacy of NHST in experimental psychology, where you’re supposed to start by hypothesizing a zero relationship and then look for reasons to reject that hypothesis). At any rate, if you think like an econometrician and come from the no true zeroes school of thought, you’ll need something more than just observational data on 4 variables in order to test this model. That makes the Jedi Theory a tough nut to crack. Experimental manipulation gets ethically more dubious as you proceed down the proposed causal chain. And I’m not sure how easy it would be to come up with good instruments for all of these variables.

I also briefly worried that I might be sucking the enjoyment out of the movie. But then I remembered that the quote is from The Phantom Menace, so that’s already been done.