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, as 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.

Annie Luo