The Psychology of Movies
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As an old market researcher turned movie reviewer, it has always seemed obvious to me that different kinds of people like different kinds of movies, and that that’s perfectly reasonable. This is not, however, a common view among film critics, most of whom became critics because they have strong views on which movies people should like.

So, I was pleased to see this new academic study at PsyArXiv by some marketing psychologists:

We Are What We Watch: Movie Plots Predict the Personalities of Those Who “Like” Them

Gideon Nave, Jason Rentfrow, Sudeep Bhatia

They’ve merged a vast amount of data from Facebook on which 846 popular movies were “liked” by several million people who filled out a Big Five psychological quiz. The OCEAN model of personality asserts that there are five main dimensions:

openness to experience (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious)
conscientiousness (efficient/organized vs. extravagant/careless)
extraversion (outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved)
agreeableness (friendly/compassionate vs. challenging/callous)
neuroticism (sensitive/nervous vs. resilient/confident)

Here is the paper’s table of correlations among the Facebook movie fans, with positive correlations in blue and negative correlations in red:

The Metadata variables that show significant relationships with AFPP dimensions are quality ratings, popularity (i.e., box office revenue), and budget. Liking of high-quality movies is most strongly associated with Openness, consistent with higher aesthetic sensitivity that characterize high Openness individuals. High Openness movies also tended to be less popular, in line with the trait’s association with a greater need for uniqueness. On the other hand, fans of popular movies are higher on Conscientiousness and Agreeableness, reflecting these traits’ links with conformity. Box office revenue also has a positive relationship with Extraversion.

IMDB offers a huge number of keywords for each movie. For example, The Big Lebowski’s IMDB entry features 379 keywords, beginning (not surprisingly) with “rug” and “nihilism.”

Liking of movies from eight genre categories has significant relationships with AFPP dimensions, typically with medium effect sizes. Crime movies

E.g., The Dark Knight, Pulp Fiction, The Godfather, Se7en.

have more Extroverted and less Agreeable fans, mirroring these traits’ links to actual criminal behavior. Liking sci-fi [Inception, Matrix] and fantasy [Lord of the Rings, Star Wars] movies is related to higher Openness, lower Extraversion, and lower Conscientiousness, indicating that fans of these genres are imaginative, reflective, and spontaneous.

More Agreeable fans like family movies [e.g., Pixar films], and horror movies [The Shining, Alien, Psycho] have fans that are less Agreeable and Extraverted and more Neurotic.

One interesting aspect of this is that the Neurotic like scary movies. In contrast, I’m rather jumpy, so I don’t like loud noises, much less serial killers jumping out of the closet. Hence, I almost never go to horror movies. That strikes me as pretty sensible. On the other hand, most people don’t seem to see it that way.

Surprisingly, the genre most strongly associated with all AFPP dimensions is sports, whose fans are lower on Openness and Neuroticism, and higher on Conscientiousness, Extraversion, and Agreeableness. The latter two traits were previously found to be higher among sports fans (Donavan, Carlson, and Zimmerman 2005). Of note, liking for sports movies was not assessed in any previous studies of personality and media preferences.

The most voted-on sports movie is The Big Lebowski, which isn’t exactly a sports movie, followed by a whole bunch of boxing and other fighting movies, such as #3 Rocky.

Here’s a wonderful table of the most Openness keywords (e.g., cigarette smoking, shaving, record player) and the least (helicopter, scene during end credits, singing in a car):

Table 2.The top 20 plot keywords with the strongest positive and negative associations with each dimension of the Big Five traits, controlling for demographic and metadata variables. Values represent the predicted difference between the aggregate fan personality trait of a movie that only includes the corresponding keyword and the average movie in the dataset.

Here are the Top Ten and Bottom Ten for Openness:

Supplementary Table 1. Movies with the top/bottom 10 values of the aggregate fanpersonality profile, for each of the Big Five traits.

The Top 10 for Openness are dominated by extremely white directors:

Texan ballplayer/artiste Richard Linklater for his philosophical animated films Waking Life and his Philip K. Dick movie A Scanner Darkly.

Darren Aronofsky for Pi, which is a quite good early work about a genius grad student who has built a mainframe computer to solve a math problem, and The Fountain.

Wes Anderson for The Darjeeling Limited and the Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.

David Lynch – Mulholland Drive

Michel Gondry – The Science of Sleep, which I found delightful.

Spike Jonze – Charlie Kaufman’s script of Being John Malkovich.

And a documentary The Buddha featuring Richard Gere and the Dalai Lama.

Mostly these are films that appeal to fans of the director but not as much to outsiders, although Mulholland Drive is probably peak David Lynch. For example, I don’t like Wes Anderson movies as a rule, but he won me over with the extremely Wes Adersony The Grand Budapest Hotel and the more Wilson Brothery Bottle Rocket. I’d recommend you start with one or the other. If you like it, move on to the ones on this list.

The low Openness movies are mostly pretty lowbrow ones, although I liked Shrek Forever After more than I liked the other Shrek movies.

The high extraversion movies are fairly heavily black, such ATL, The Wood, Love & Basketball, Baby Boy, Friday, and Juice. The introvert movies are heavily East Asian.

High Agreeableness movies are feminine, low Agreeableness movies are masculine:

One interesting aspect of movies is seen in the classic Taxi Driver being one of the ten least Agreeable movies. Objectively, the message of Taxi Driver is that highly cultured individuals such as Martin Scorsese, Robert DeNiro, Jodie Foster, and Paul Schrader want you to take away from the movie is, "Don’t be like Travis Bickle.” On the other hand, the message that John Hinckley Jr. and, evidently, a lot of viewers took away from Taxi Driver is, “Hell, yeah, be like Travis Bickle.”

I don’t know how to measure this statistically, but my guess is that most people want movies to vindicate their own personalities. They want to see on screen people who are like them in personality, only much, much better looking.

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