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7 scientific findings that support Pixar’s Inside Out

in Editor Pick/Film & TV Psychology by

When I was attending a lecture in psychology on Sensation and Perception, the lecturer described a story in amazement where a student said to him ‘what’s this got to do with psychology?’. Sensation and perception, the lecturer explained, was the very heart of how we understand and interact with the world around us.

The lecturer was right but missed the irony that this student had misperceived his material on perception.

This isn’t uncommon in psychology classes. Students walk in with dreams of Freud, inkblot and word association tests, and also the hope of understanding themselves.

Instead, they sit through countless lessons on statistics and listen to lots of different and seemingly loosely connected topics on personality, social psychology, sensation and perception, developmental psychology and so on.

What’s missing is what ties all the disconnected threads together. Some call it a theory. I think of it as more of a story.

Inside Out is a story that essentially integrates and explains the seemingly disparate pieces discussed in dry lectures. The film shows how these pieces come together using the metaphor of characters inside a young girl’s head, called Riley, representing the little girl’s emotions.

Here are seven clever and important psychological mechanisms that Inside Out nails.

Emotion helps formulate memories

Research shows that emotion helps us retain and recall memories. In Inside Out, the characters in the little girl’s head work to guide her through life but their ultimate output at the end of the day is memory formation.

Forcing yourself to be happy will make you miserable

My favourite depiction of emotion was ‘Joy’, a character who obsessed with suppressing another character, called ‘Sadness’. The harder she tried to prevent Sadness from generating memories, the more Sadness seemed to influence the memories and mood of Riley. This aligns with research that shows that suppressing emotions can simply make us more miserable.

Distance in time changes our perception of events

A powerful scene in Inside Out shows Riley recollecting a past, happy experience but suddenly feels a twinge of sadness as the character in her head, Sadness, contaminates the memory. Of course, it isn’t really contaminated. Riley is experiencing nostalgia, which is an emotion that connects us with meaning in the past and is associated with feelings of sadness.

Emotional diversity and complexity promotes resilience

Experiencing a wide range of emotions helps us adapt, according to studies. Riley’s character development was represented as forming more complex memories and emotions, which supports this research. This is different from many characters in films who are perceived as successful when they overcome, rather than embrace, ‘negative’ emotions.

Sadness triggers social support

According to functional views of emotion, sadness is believed to help trigger social support. When Riley finally accepts the emotion of sadness, she not only forms more complex memories but this emotion triggers support and love from her parents, which helps her cope.

Sadness helps you plan and improve

When we get an insight into the mind of Riley’s mother, some interesting foreshadowing is revealed. In contrast to Riley, the character in her head representing sadness has control, instead of joy. We realise that the character, Sadness, serves an important function. She helps Riley’s mother navigate, plan, and respond, which aligns with research that shows that mild dejection activates the region of the brain that helps us plan.

This makes sense given that after failing to fulfill our goals and dreams, we feel flat, which can help us re calibrate and change our approach.

Memories form our identity

Research shows that when we access experiential memory–where we store our most meaningful memories–we are more engaged. In Inside Out, Riley struggles for much of the film to recall and lean on her identity when she experiences agitation. This is consistent with research that shows that anxiety reduces access to this part of the brain.

Through metaphor, I was impressed how the writers of this film where able to engage me the way many University lecturers failed. In a strange way, the individuals who work at Pixar seem to instinctively express and communicate their knowledge of psychology more than individuals who devote themselves to analysing them. This includes me. I’m envious but also in awe.

Want fulfilment? Send your mind away

in Work Psychology by


Some may say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one.

Are you the type to reflect on the past? Do you think about where you’ll be in the future? Perhaps you’re more of a person who likes to propel the mind into hypothetical scenarios. I’m not sitting in an office. I’m sitting on a beach somewhere overseas. The person on the beach overseas is thinking what’d it would be like to be in an office…maybe not.

When we imagine these scenarios, we’re essentially sending our minds into a world that doesn’t exist. It’s the wonderful joy of abstraction that can help us pass the time on a crowded train or send us into despair as we contemplate our existence.

A recent series of studies shows that this ‘mental simulation’ might be the gateway to a more meaningful existence. Across several studies the researchers showed that people reported a greater sense of meaning when they were asked to contemplate the future or past in detail (also see blog on nostalgia).

In contrast, when they were asked to think of these points in time superficially, they didn’t feel the same sense of meaning. That is, the superficial recollections didn’t evoke vivid enough recollections. Interestingly, these effects were also found when participants were asked to imagine themselves in another location, suggesting that when we simply mentally simulate a scenario, we somehow feel as though life is more meaningful.

But it’s all well and good to feel like life is meaningful. Is meaning actually meaningful? The researchers suggest that when individuals feel as though life has purpose, they are also less depressed and anxious and their physical health can improve. There is also a sense of connectedness that could promote cooperation and teamwork (I’ve also posted a blog on the importance of meaning here).

Now ask yourself whether returning to your work feels like a meaningful exercise or if you’d prefer to contemplate these ideas further and propel your mind somewhere else.

Is Dr Duck stressed?

in Work Psychology by


Referring to yourself in the third person may help you manage stress. During a stressful event, we can talk to ourselves—literally or in our thoughts—using phrases like ‘I need to get this done’, ‘almost there…’ etc.

Research suggests that if we instead refer to ourselves in the third person (e.g. ‘Nick needs to get this done’) we experience less stress. Referring to ourselves in the third person distances ourselves from the stressful event. That is, we are better at untangling ourselves from the situation and can observe and accept situations with greater objectivity.

I’m sure you’ll enjoy this one

in Work Psychology by


How do we know how someone will react? For example, when telling a joke, we already have a hunch that the audience will find it funny. When we recommend a difficult course of action, we anticipate that the person may become agitated or angry. If you are like most people, you simulate in your head how you would feel in the situation to predict how someone else will feel.

However, research suggests that we often get this wrong. Because we don’t tend to get emotional about events or difficult situations that we have experienced many times, we can underestimate the effects of these situations on others.

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