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Why we look like our names…or does this mean I look like a duck?

in Editor Pick/Media Psychology/Work Psychology by

For many of those who know me, I have had a bill for a mouth and a feathered complexion for many years. Let’s not be silly here. Aside from the u, c, and k following the letter d, there’s nothing about this name that reflects who I am. It’s just a name, right?

Wrong. According to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a person’s name may be more closely aligned to our physical appearance than you would think. In one study, when shown a photo and a list of possible names, participants seemed to be able to link the right name to the face more often than could be explained by chance.

Suddenly, all those moments you had when you were thinking, “He really looks like a Peter,” may have been right all along.

The specific mechanisms why we can do this are not entirely clear. However, when researchers were presented with unfamiliar names from other cultures, the effect vanished. The researchers suggest that the stereotypes and cultural norms about names establish mental “schemas” that people use to predict how a person looks.

In the absence of these schemas, there is no easy reference we can use to make accurate predictions.

One possible explanation is that we simply match the name to the face. That is, that little infant, Bob, looked like Uncle Robert when he first made his way into the world. This seems unlikely. First, many parents have a name selected well before the delivery day.

Second, we have all been in a situation where we hold off saying “her” or “him” when meeting an infant for the first time. Why? Usually, babies look very similar and even gender is difficult to differentiate during infancy. I can recall gazing lovingly at my first-born daughter in the hospital only to realise I was staring lovingly at some other baby.

This also explains why babies sometimes get sent home with the wrong parents. They don’t usually have pronounced facial features until much later. Did you ever take the wrong toddler home? No? What about the wrong spouse? Ok, let’s not discuss that one.

The findings from this study underscore the importance of social identity. Whilst many of our personal characteristics are strongly wired at birth through genetics, our social and cultural upbringing also shapes what we value and how we behave.

Fashion, for example, continually changes and influences how we dress, style our hair and groom ourselves.  As such, our outward appearance can reflect the expectation of society. Perhaps our names may subtly influence how we style our hair to conform with preconceived ideas of what a person with “that name’” looks like.

Interestingly, one of the key physical characteristics that we can change quite easily is hairstyle, and this was found to be a cue for name recognition. That is, when people accurately predicted a name, it was often based on matching the person’s identity with their chosen hairstyle. Participants did not realise this, of course, but the researchers could determine this based on measuring where participants were focusing their gaze.

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to be called “Nick Smith” or “Nick Jones”, something very different from the “Duck” surname. At school, it was a non-stop circus of quack, quack jokes and Donald/Daffy Duck references.

A name like “Duck” could be a curse if you always wanted to be taken seriously and if you wanted to blend in with everyone else. But it can be a strength if you value being different.

In adulthood, the jokes remain but I’ve learned to appreciate having a relatively silly and comical sounding name. People also seem to like pairing it with “Dr”. Perhaps the juxtaposition with such a formal title is pleasing for people.

A good name can also make you more endearing. There was that clip of Melbourne-based news reporter Amy Parks finally giving a news report from the Melbourne-based “AAMI Park”. This mere coincidence gained the reporter at lot of attention and social approval.  That clip currently sits on a couple of hundred thousand views on YouTube.

A name may not always be so harmless. There are apparently a lot of people sharing the names of notorious fictional serial killers (96 Norman Bates, 12 Jason Voorhees, and five Freddy Kruegers) in the United States. Is it a nice icebreaker to be called Norman Bates or something that would feel a bit creepy?

Interestingly, how much you like your name is also related to your self-esteem. Individuals who rate their name lower than others also tend to have lower self-esteem. Self-esteem is believed to be a gauge of social acceptance. That is, lower self-esteem indicates that we feel less accepted by our social groups than individuals with higher self-esteem. So, we now know that our names can tell us a lot about how we feel and behave. These things are intrinsically linked to fitting in.

Over the years, I’ve also accumulated a number of odd friends and colleagues. I sometimes wonder if my own experiences with my name have led me to look to other quirky individuals with a similar sense of humour, or strange peculiarities that make them black sheep–or black ducks–in their own right.

Have a think about your own name. Has it had any influence on your friends, colleagues, or career? Would a different name elevate your status in a job interview? Is it associated with a sense of pride or something you’d rather redefine?

Quack, quack, quack.

A few misconceptions about working for yourself

in Editor Pick/Work Psychology by

Running my own business, I don’t presume to know it all.

But now that I’ve reached the milestone of two years in business, I have noticed a few misconceptions about working for yourself that just don’t add up.

Here they are:

#1 You need to work harder

There is no doubt that I have needed to work hard but, you know what, most people do regardless of whether you work for yourself or not. Day in and day out, I work with people in permanent roles who continue to take on more and more work, weekend work, and endless intrusions from their mobile phones.

#2 You have less job security

I was warned from day one by other consultants and colleagues about how in small business you wear a lot more risk when the work dries up. I hope our team continues to be seen as useful well into the future but my experience to date is that working in big organisations is riskier.

In a big organisation, restructures occur regularly. If the workplace is too slow to change to a diminishing market, a common strategy is to lighten the load through redundancies. Even if you are clever, handy, motivated, and committed, you can still find the organisation dispassionate and cold when only years before it was welcoming you with open arms.

In small business though, you have agility. You can move with the market and you ultimately have a lot of passion for keeping you employed because, well, you’re you.

#3 It can be isolating and lonely

I fortunately had a great colleague who offered a chance for regular coffee catch-ups because he knew working for yourself can be isolating. But it can also mean reconnecting with dozens of people who you haven’t seen in years.

I’ve been fortunate to have been able to work with and catch-up with former bosses, friends and colleagues. Every trip to the city can mean squeezing in time to see someone you haven’t seen in years.

Not to mention that I’ve been able to invite friends and study companions to work with me. I’ve reconnected with half a dozen peers from my University who I would otherwise struggle to see once a year if ever.

So, working for yourself can actually promote your connectivity with people.

#4 Your work-life balance is thrown off

I am actually writing this blog on a Saturday afternoon. It’s a nice enough day outside and my kids are home. What am I doing?

Well, working for yourself means that each day can be seen as a work day. It can also mean each day can be time with the family. You can work from home or take a few days off without getting approvals.

You can even invite your family to work with you. Every week, my wife comes in to help us run the office. If I was working for another big organisation, she would have found a job in one just like me and we would have seen each other less often.

Things are not thrown off balance. They just end up being different.

Now, excuse me while I eat my cake too and invest some of my Saturday on the nice day outside.

Happy birthday to us!

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.

You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry

in Work Psychology by


When Bruce Banner gets angry and becomes the Incredible Hulk, he gets results.

For that reason, anger is one of those interesting emotions that can make us uncomfortable but—strangely—feels compelling.

Anger typically helps us to overcome obstacles to certain goals. Specifically, when we are pursuing rewards or ideals and someone or something gets in the way, our ‘fight’ response kicks in to help us push through these obstacles.

For example, when delivering a pet project you may regularly come in contact with others who throw up smokescreens and barriers to prevent you from reaching your goals. They’ve got their own goals, mind you, and maybe you’re getting in the way of them.

That’s why we all bounce around like ping pong balls between one person and the next to try to reach our own preferred outcome. And we often step out of the way or avoid the angry, vocal lot. Anger can work wonders in getting you closer to a goal.

But there are some drawbacks with anger. Aside from the obvious problems it generates—the inevitable outbursts, alienation of co-workers, and even violence—anger can also give you tunnel vision.

Studies show that anger makes us better at dealing with details but impairs our ability to see the bigger picture.

In one study, participants were required to hit a button when they saw a particular letter of the alphabet on a computer screen. The letters were presented in clusters so that when viewed as a whole they actually showed a larger pattern which also resembled a letter.

The participant had to try to switch their attention from the larger ‘bigger picture’ letter to the smaller letters from which it was composed. Essentially, the test lets the researcher know how easily the participant can broaden or narrow their focus.

The researchers also flashed split-second images designed to elicit feelings of anger to half of the participants. The images were outside conscious awareness but nevertheless made some of the participants angry.

These angry participants found it easier to see the smaller letters but their reaction times were slower when detecting the larger letter. That is, they were better at narrowing their focus but couldn’t rise out of the weeds to see the bigger picture.

The researchers also found that angry individuals were also less inclusive in how they categorised things. For example, they rejected the notion that words like ‘camel’ and ‘car’ could be classified under one heading (e.g. mode of transport, words starting with c).

Anger appears to help individuals to focus on a specific goal and works to close us off to alternatives. Of course, unlike the Incredible Hulk, I am open to an alternative interpretation.

Not another blog about that blue/black dress

in Media Psychology by


It’s not about the dress. It’s about your fundamental views being challenged about the world.People often view the world as if we are ‘observers’ looking at reality. This viewpoint is referred to as ‘realism’. Scientists have discovered time and time again, however, that the observer cannot be disentangled from reality.

In the case of ‘dressgate’, this is a simple demonstration of how there is no true reality. It all depends on the context, including how our brains decide to decode information.

We all know this, of course. When we disagree about the quality of a film or dinner, we are essentially disagreeing about reality. But at the back of our minds, perhaps we are thinking ‘they just don’t understand’ rather than recognising that we are having different perceptual experiences.

Of course ‘dressgate’ is more than just a reality check about reality. It’s also yet another bizarre case study in viral communication. Soon our perception becomes less about the topic of conversation and more about the conversation about the conversation.

Here are some of the key players in viral communication. Which one are you?

The early adopter

This is the first person in your twitter or facebook feed that you see talking about the issue. They are the ones who started the whole thing. Much of the conversation tends to cluster around the early adopter, sucking traffic from the late adopter.

The late adopter

They may only be a few hours late but the late adopter is notorious for throwing up a comment on facebook or twitter well after the topic is starting to wind down. Maybe a few friends will throw a couple of likes in their direction out of pity.

The cynical observer

This person pretends they are above the discourse about triviality. They might throw up a comment about the sad state of society for such superficiality. The more covert cynics will simply like the posts or blogs of other cynics.The interesting thing about the cynic is that through their commentary they are essentially helping to perpetuate the same conversation they are criticising. They fail to realise they are just one of the many varied active participants in the viral communication.


The social media opportunist

This person is always looking for an opportunity to leverage off the social traffic to boost their own twitter, facebook, and website traffic.

The comedian

The whole social media trend is open for humour. The comedian creates memes and other media to mock the discussion and leverage off other trending topics.


The genuinely disconnected

This person misses the social media virus completely by chance or through being cut off from technology. This person is likely your parent or grandparent who still stare at you blankly when you try to explain facebook. But they could be a friend or colleague who heard ‘something’ about the topic but genuinely wasn’t interested in engaging.

The meta-commentator

The meta-commentator likes to summarise the whole network of issues, traffic, and comments and explains how this whole situation came about in the first place. They like to assume a position of all-knowing.The meta-commentator is actually a covert covert cynic and likes to tie their ramblings up in the end with a tongue and cheek reference that shows they too are just an active participant in the whole thing.

And, just for the record, the dress is blue and black.

If you want to influence someone, dance with them

in Work Psychology by


Have you ever seen the end goal so clearly that you thought you had no choice but to drag everyone along, kicking, screaming and wailing. How did that work for you?

If you are like most people, you probably discovered that trying to force an issue only resulting in pushing people away. According to reactance theory, when our freedom is compromised, our motivation plummets and we try to reassert our autonomy.

But here’s a clever way to influence. Get ready to slap your head with me in disbelief. Research suggests that people are more prone to conform when they syncronise their movement with others.

Think of the uniform marching of a squad, a group of dancers or the coordinated movement of athletes. Think of the years at school where you and your fellow students walked from class to class like robots and greeted the teacher in unison before each class.

When we coordinate with other individuals we adopt a ‘copying others’ mindset. When in this frame of mind, we are more inclusive and agreeable. This means we are also more susceptible to complying with the ideas or demands of others. Are you listening? Right?

What’s important is that people feel like they are choosing, not being forced to get involved. So, you can’t simply coerce or pressure another person and expect to get results.

You might, however, invite a colleague to discuss an idea on a walk around the block. Perhaps this coordinated journey may lead to them agreeing with your point of view?

Going for a job interview? Don’t wear red!

in Work Psychology by


Film and TV nerds already know it’s a bad idea to be a ‘red shirt’. Red shirts were the TV extras who were dressed in red uniforms on the TV series Star Trek. Each week, they were unceremoniously killed off. So, if you saw a character wearing red, you knew it wasn’t going to end well.

The next time you wear red, you may not suffer the same fate as the red shirts but you could be unceremoniously excluded from a job.

Whilst urban myths suggest red is a great way to stand out and is a signal of intelligence, research shows that people who wear red are actually perceived by others as less likely to earn a decent salary, become a leader, get hired, and less intelligent.

Across three experiments, the researchers showed participants photos of job applicants. Some people viewed photos of a man wearing red, such as a red tie, whilst others examined the same photo of the person wearing green or blue. Consistently, the red-wearers were downgraded compared to their blue/green doppelgangers.

So, what is it about red that influences these perceptions? The researchers argue that red is often used to signal trouble or failure, such as when a teacher pulls out the red pen to correct homework.

Think about all the other times you see red. In your car, it shows up when a battery or petrol gauge is too low, or if you’ve revved the engine vigorously. It seems that in some contexts, the colour red is a symbol of under-performance.

Of course, the research didn’t examine the colour red in a real interview context. It’s possible that red is perceived unfavourably in photos but comes alive in a real job interview.

Nevertheless, next time you apply for a job, it might be wise to wear blue or green, or some other colour that doesn’t increase the chances that you placed at the bottom of the job queue.

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