Social Psychology of Emotion in Inside Out

I was literally tearing up when I watched the Pixar movie Inside Out in our final lecture of Social Psychology of Emotion. As a psychology student, I can truly appreciate the calibre and thoughtfulness behind the production of Inside Out. With the five basic emotions as the main characters, the level of scientific rigour is truly admirable. During the planning phase, the production team consulted Paul Ekman, a well-known emotion psychologist focused on facial expression, and Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who has explored the science behind happiness, compassion, love, power, and social class. Notably, these two scholars are the foundational psychologists in developing theories on the expression of emotions.

Emotion Theory by Ekman and Keltner

Paul Ekman initially proposes 6 basic emotions, which includes fear, anger, disgust, surprise, happiness, and sadness. He later developed the basic emotions theory (BET), where these basic emotions have brief patterns of facial behaviour that are distinct and serve as signals of the senders’ current state, intentions, and assessment of situation. Moreover, these basic emotions also manifest some degree of cross-cultural universality and have evolutionary roots to help us with better adaptation in life.

On the other hand, Dacher Keltner proposes a multimodal approach to the basic emotions theory (BET), where he believes emotions are about actions. The expression of emotion should manifest in multiple modalities, such as facial muscle movement, voice, bodily movements, and gesture, since emotions cannot happen in isolation.

Emotion is Functional: Sadness can Strengthen Relationships

Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust, and Sadness in  Inside Out

Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust, and Sadness in Inside Out

To start off with the definition of emotion:

Emotion is an inferred complex sequence of reactions to a stimulus [including] cognitive evaluations, subjective changes, autonomic and neural arousal, impulses to action, and behaviour designed to have an effect upon the stimulus that initiated the complex sequence (Plutchik, 1982).

In the beginning of Inside Out, Sadness feels that she is not doing any good and only makes things worse in improving and regulating Riley’s emotion. From time to time, Joy tries her best to stop Sadness from touching any memory balls and thus stop “contaminating” happy memories into sad ones. However, the culminating moment (and turning point) in the film is in fact when Joy realizes Sadness evokes reaction from the surrounding and makes other people to come help Riley out of the situation.

In the scene where Riley is sad because she has lost a hockey match, her sadness actually makes her parents come out to support her. Furthermore, when her friends also come over and celebrate with her, she is now happy and full of joy. This is a great illustration of how emotion actually helps evoke a set of complex reactions that help regulate and improve the situation for Riley. From then on, Joy begins to recognize the importance of all five basic emotions instead of trying to get rid of Sadness because it seems “useless”. Notably, Keltner proposes that sadness is actually an emotion that can strengthen relationships. Although Joy does play a major role in controlling and regulating the other four emotions, they each have their own job and functionality as a team.

Emotion is Complex: a Healthy Psychological State is a Team Sport

Look Out from the “Emotion Headquarter”

Look Out from the “Emotion Headquarter”

In the emotion literature, there are two approaches to understand emotion: the categorical approach, where emotions are distinct entities as in Inside Out, and the dimensional approach, where emotions are defined based on three core dimensions (i.e. valence, activation, and arousal).

In Inside Out, the film applies the categorical approach to define emotion, but at the end of the plot where Riley plays hockey in a team, all of the emotions (i.e. Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Anger, and Fear) are activated to perform as a team at that moment. Thus, emotions actually function in a more complex way than simply having the five emotion types function separately at work. In fact, most emotions encompasses more than the dominant type and may shift as we navigate through the situation. For example, an initial sad memory may actually help evoke care from other people, thus strengthening relationships and turn the event into a happy and joyful ending. Inside Out is able to depict this complexity through careful design of the visual depiction, which is really admirable and scientifically accurate.

The Visual Depiction of Human Memory and Personality Formation is AMAZING

The visual depiction and representation of how human memory regulate and develop is really mind-blowing in Inside Out. Just as how the human brain works in reality, Pixar is able to narrates how our personality is supported by several core events and memories, and that each piece of memory is a “memory ball” with a more dominant emotion. I especially love the depiction of the long term memory database in the film, where there are “memory cleaners” who get rid of old and dysfunctional memory balls to maintain a healthy state of memory storage.

From a developmental perspective, the first emotion that Riley born with is happiness, but more accurately, within 30 seconds, other emotions kick in and the baby begins to cry — as part of the developmental process to grow and perceive the world based on these distinct but cooperatively emotion types.

Riley’s Imaginary Friend Bing Bong in the Long Term Memory Database

Riley’s Imaginary Friend Bing Bong in the Long Term Memory Database

Long Term Memory Database

Long Term Memory Database

Our Core Memory Transform and Help us Grow

Moreover, as in our emotion regulation lecture, when Riley’s emotional state has a breakdown, some of the core memories and islands get destroyed. As much as we lament the disappearance of childhood fun times and our imaginary friends, it is quite true that these may all fade as we grow up and we will meet new adventures down in the journey. Some old memories must go, as we need to build resiliency through each phase of human development from a child, a teenager to a fully grown adult.

Understanding Human Beings Inside Out is to Build Empathy with Others

Recall Happy Memory from a “Memory Ball”

Recall Happy Memory from a “Memory Ball”

Lastly, I love the last scene where we can now take a peak in different characters’ minds inside out, from the teacher, the pizza server, the teenage boy, and even the cat on the street. Recognizing and trying to understand others’ emotional state is part of our ability to empathize with the world. When we attempt to listen, observe, and understand how others navigate the jungle through managing the five emotions in their own heads, we reach a better and in-depth understanding of each other. The world is more interesting precisely because we have complex and functional emotions at work all the time. Thank you Inside Out for doing such a great job in bridging all this in a fun and accessible way for a broad set of audience.

Value of the Ordinary

This semester, I am taking a year-long course on Chaucer's literature and we were assigned to read the Canterbury Tales for the spring term. We are now at the Miller's Tale from the first fragment, but I found it quite difficult to appreciate the value behind these medieval comedic stories, where its narration of the ordinary people and their lives are filled with jokes (and sadly I do not find it funny in anyways), adulteries, and superficial horseplays. The style of Medieval conversations for the lower class uses plenty of coarse and even "bawdy" language in their dialogue and storytelling.

Canterbury tales mural by Ezra Winter. North Reading Room, west wall, Library of Congress John Adams Building, Washington, D.C.

Canterbury tales mural by Ezra Winter. North Reading Room, west wall, Library of Congress John Adams Building, Washington, D.C.

During this week's office hour, I asked my professor "what is the value of comedy beside serving as a satire and reflecting the state of society at the time? It seems that tragedy has more 'literary value', because the themes in tragedy are eternal and more weighted to humanity." My professor then replied, "the value of comedy lies exactly on the narration of the ordinary. Comedy reflects the social convention at the time, the thoughts, the emotion, the constraint, and the dialogue of the average people, the 'invisible' population from heroic or epic stories. The experience of the ordinary people may be a 'truer' reflection of the society in the history, as opposed to the exciting and heroic stories of the knights and kings. The ordinary has its own unique value, although it is not so easy to appreciate and resonate with what they cared about at the time." I quietly agree and I think because the value of the ordinary is often "invisible" and "not-so-exciting-to-recount", it is often undervalued and out of sight.

In our modern society, along with our limited attention and mental resources, it is the wisest to put our focus to the more "significant" things and events, rather than spending time on the more trivial and mundane. With this mindset, it is great that we can act more efficiently, by attending to the most important and the most "valuable" aspect of the world. But with this focused and "filtered" mindset, we are also vulnerable to overlook the value of the ordinary, the "not-so-significant" events, and the trivial every day life that occupies a huge portion of our daily experience. A hundred years from now, the part of our experience that does not fit into the category of having "historical significance" may be forgotten and become irrelevant for the future, just as how we may find it difficult to appreciate the mundane life of the average medieval people narrated by Chaucer. 

The Beauty of Emotion Narrative

A film review of “Call Me by Your Name”, directed by Luca Guadagnino, 2018

On a bright summer day in northern Italy, the 17-year-old Elio puts on his sun glasses and lies on a chair in the yard with sunlight washes over him. A typical pleasant summer afternoon with cheerful music, hot air, shiny green leaves, and cool water in the pond. Orange trees have filled the garden, leaving plenty of space for shades and gentle breeze. 

Elio writes music. Delightful and simple tones are the most beloved in the film, partly because it suits the best with the relaxation (and perhaps idleness) of the day to day life in the villa. He is having the best time in his youth, enjoying the glittering days of inspiration and exploration.

Things have changed once Oliver, a charming visiting scholar, arrives to spend the summer with his family. Every eye contact, body movement, and slip of word between the two becomes hint for emotion narratives. There are different phases of emotional development between the two protagonists. Elio and Oliver first begin with careful exploration of each other, where both of them are aware of the emotional tension, but will not disclose it. The awakening desire for sensual pleasure gradually dominates Elio, where he craves deeply for Oliver, for an unexplored territory and sensation in his life. These subtle desire are narrated in a very open and unsophisticated way that guides the viewers to appreciate the authentic desire and sensibility of human experience.


As a viewer, the mundane day to day narration of their summer seems perfectly ordinary. But it is evident that Guadagnino embeds complex emotional tension within the simple family dialogue. By gradually unveiling the relationship of Elio and Oliver, Guadagnino in fact investigates the nature of love, emotion, and relationship, as well as their influence on human experience as a whole.

Specifically, Guadagnino conveys a stance on the significance of having courage to confront your own awakening desire in life, because there is nothing to be shameful of when you encounter your true emotion. As Mr. Perlman says to Elio, “you had a beautiful friendship...Maybe more than a friendship. And I envy you.” Encountering and embracing your true desire and emotion is a courageous thing to do, and it is incredibly beautiful too." 

In every stage of our growth, we gingerly perceive, silently observe, and sometimes reluctantly constrain our emotion toward a relationship, a desire, or an experience. Instead of snuffing the flame at the root, Mr. Perlman reminds us to all be gentle to these precious moment of emotion awakening. As Perlman points out “withdrawal can be a terrible thing when it keeps us awake at night, and watching others forget us sooner than we’d want to be forgotten is no feel nothing so as not to feel anything—what a waste!” Indeed, we value emotion and regard it as a unique human experience that distinguish us from the crowd. The process of emotional exploration guides us to understand ourselves, our identity and our value. When Oliver and Elio initiate their jargon of “call me by your name” and repeatedly call each other “Elio” and “Oliver”, the intimate affection leads to something symbolic and abstract that represent their hearts.


Interestingly, in Chaucer’s writing, he also repeatedly mentions that “love is the greatest law above all”. However, in this film, neither the fidelity of love nor the promise of love matters that much. It is the emotion within human affection that moves us and guides the growth of the protagonists. Love can be arbitrary, demonstrated in the final phone call from Oliver, telling Elio that he will get married soon. Love hurts. But love, as well as other types of emotion, has the power to move us and reminds us of its preciousness.

Lastly, the title “call me by your name” is a hint of intimacy for those who are engaged in a deep relationship. It serves as a symbol that suggests a blurring line between “you” and “me”, which is referred by the blurring identity between the two names. Eventually, Guadagnino reminds us to never devalue the beauty of emotion, the confusing moment of ambiguity, and the precious awakening moment of desire.