Emotions color movie viewing

10:22 AM, Feb 27, 2013

'Life of Pi' evokes appreciation because it helps us 'understand the human spirit,' say researchers. (20th Century Fox)/

Written By Sharon Jayson | USA TODAY

There’s a big difference between enjoying a movie and appreciating it, say behavioral researchers who study how what we see on the big screen affects our moods and psyches.

Enjoyment is all about when good things happen, says Ron Tamborini, a professor of communication at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

People both like and enjoy movies where “the good guy wins,” he says.

Even if bad things happen, all we’re thinking about is that in the end, it turns out the way you wanted it to. You have this intuitive, positive response. We call that enjoyment.”

But for some movies, such as Lincoln, it’s more about appreciation, he says. The story of the political fight over ending slavery is about great conflicts, and “often great moral conflicts that make us think. … If equality and loyalty were in conflict, in the end, fairness had to win out because it was more important,” he says.

Other films are meaningful because they focus on the human condition, says Mary Beth Oliver, co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory at Penn State University in University Park, Pa. Life of Pi evokes appreciation because it helps us “understand the human spirit,” she says. It tells the story of the son of a zookeeper who survives a shipwreck by sharing a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger.

When we watch films that you have to sort through these very big existential questions, when we make the emotional investment, we feel enriched. We value it,” she says.

She has studied viewers’ reactions to movies with disturbing themes such as Hotel Rwanda and Schindler’s List, which she says people “value a lot,” but wouldn’t say they enjoy.

Her research, published last year in Human Communication Research, focused on what she calls “the ‘sadfilm paradox’ —why people ‘enjoy’ entertainment that is sad.”

A new study published online in the journal Communication Research also looks at why we like sad movies, says lead researcher Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, a communications professor at Ohio State University in Columbus. Subjects watched a 2007 movie, Atonement, about lovers who are separated and die as war casualties. Before, after and three times during the movie, they were asked via computer how they felt.

Sadness, the study finds, “instigates life reflection.”

That causes you to think more about your own close relationships and appreciate them more,” which leads to greater happiness, Knobloch-Westerwick says.