If you’re like most people you probably assume that movies are simply a fun way of spending a few hours and nothing more. However, many psychologists are exploring the idea that movies can deliver psychological goods far more meaningful and sustaining than momentary pleasure. This idea was initially coined ‘cinematherapy’ by Berg-Cross, Jennings and Baruch. It embodied the idea that film could potentially aid or enhance the therapeutic process.
As psychological theory and research on the subject has evolved, so has the list of cinema’s potential functions.
The Impact of FilmsWhile few controlled research studies exist to precisely outline which films cause which benefits and why, plenty of anecdotal evidence and conventional wisdom suggest myriad outcomes related to improved mood, physical health and well-being. For instance, Mangin has observed that many individuals cry freely during a sad movie, including people who rarely show such emotion in real life, even when distressed. Given that learning to lower defenses in response to painful emotion is considered one of the more central and complex mechanism in achieving mental health, this is a striking demonstration of the potential efficacy of cinematherapy.
Does film even possess the power to affect us to such a significant degree? I’m convinced that the answer is “Yes.” Recall the famous Bandura experiment in which children watched a video of Bobo, a large clown doll, getting throttled by bat-swinging characters. Viewing the video had a surprising influence on its audience: 88% of the child viewers subsequently imitated the aggressive behavior.
What Happens When We Watch Movies?
Given that we are impacted by what we watch, how does this happen? I suspect the process goes something like this:
You sit down to watch a movie and find yourself face to face with an on-screen protagonist who is not only likeable but oddly familiar. In a vague way the protagonist reminds you of yourself, a notion that kick-starts a process termed identification. As the plot unfolds you watch as the identified-protagonist struggles with and overcomes obstacles that parallel the adversity in your own life. Because you are watching from the safe, objective vantage point of a removed third-party you find yourself thinking more clearly about yourself and the healthy decisions you’ll have to make in the service of achieving what the protagonist achieves. You might even go so far as to take a concrete strategy from the movie and apply it to your personal life. This process is consistent with identification, catharsis and insight, the crux of Morawski’s theoretical model for why bibliotherapy works, where bibliotherapy refers to the broader notion of using film, art, and literature to therapeutic ends.
At one time or another, we’ve probably all had experiences like this, whether we’ve realized it or not. This is how cinema constructively reconnects us to painful, previously-suppressed experiences, prompts new self-insights, and stimulates forms of growth, as theorized by Schulenberg.
An evolving definition of cinema-therapy, therefore, may inform the ways in which we can increase the frequency and intensity of such personally useful cinematic experiences. I surmise it’s all a matter of learning how movies affect us and how to watch them with the requisite sense of purpose.Looking at the Dark Side
In my clinical work with couples who present with a distressed, disconnected view of the relationship, I often recommend the film “Revolutionary Road,” which depicts the struggling newlyweds, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, as they spiral from bad to worse in 1950’s suburban America. After they watch the rather vicious cycle of escalating feuds that Leo and Kate tragically co-construct, I engage them in a rich discussion about their visceral responses. Someone might say, “Leo and Kate fight worse than we do!” We talk about the ‘reel’ versus ‘real’ life parallels. Someone might say, “I yell about the same things that Leo yells about!” These discussions ease them into addressing raw emotions and feared confrontations.
Furthermore, I can more vividly communicate important ideas, such as Gottman’s research on the ratio of positive to negative exchanges in successful and unsuccessful relationships, by referencing specific scenes from the film.
Now the Light SideOn the flip side of this ‘couples’ coin, I suspect that other films succeed in injecting subtle doses of positive affect into already-happy couples. “The Back-Up Plan,” which inspired me to write about a new movie genre called dating enhancement is about a woman who meets the man of her dreams shortly after becoming impregnated via artificial insemination.
When I’ve seen this film in the theaters, I’ve observed that the end credits are accompanied by couple after couple exiting the theater laughing, smiling, and holding hands! Such an outcome is consistent with more scientific studies noting that stories of love lead viewers to reflect on their close relationships, which in turn boost life happiness.
If cinematherapy suggests anything it’s that film has the potential to impact our lives in surprisingly diverse and rich ways. So, the next time you watch a film you may want to tune into not just your sense of feeling entertained but any deeper emotional stirrings that could mark the first step toward such a profound psychological journey that… could get made into a movie!
Knobloch-Westerwick, S., Gong, Y., Hagner, H., & Kerkeybian, L. (in press). Tragedy viewers count their blessings: Feeling low on fiction leads to feeling high on life. Communication Research.
Bandura, A., Ross, D., & Ross, S. A. (1961). Transmission of aggression through imitation of aggressive models. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63, 575-582. doi:10.1037/h0045925
Berg-Cross, L., Jennings, P., & Baruch, R. (1990). Cinematherapy: Theory and application. Psychotherapy in Private Practice, 8(1), 135-156.
Mangin, D. (1999) Cinema therapy: How some shrinks are using movies to help their clients cope with life and just feel better. Health and Body, May 27.
Morawski, C.M. (1997) A role of bibliotherapy is in teacher education. Reading Horizons, 37, 243–259.
Schulenberg, S. E. (2003). Psychotherapy and Movies: On Using Films in Clinical Practice. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 1, 36-48.
Gottman, J. M. (1994). What Predicts Divorce?: The Relationship Between Marital Processes and Marital Outcomes. Hillsdale, NJ, England: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
Wedding, D., Boyd, M. A., & Niemiec, R. M. (2010). Movies And Mental Illness: Using Films To Understand Psychopathology. Cambridge, MA: Hogrefe.