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.