Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Keep Telling Yourself It's Only a Movie: The Psychology of Horror Movie Enjoyment, Part 2

As I said in my last post, I love horror movies. I set out to explore some reasons why I (and many other people) might love movies that others might find disturbing. Little did I know, this search would turn up so much information, in addition to my personal notes on the subject, that 1) my first blog post was quite long and 2) I still had to cut it off and add the ever-annoying "To Be Continued". Who knew that something so trivial could bring up so much relevant information in the scientific community? Well, I did, but that was what we call a rhetorical question, dear reader.

So what is it that sets horror movie lovers apart from others? Last time, I wrote about the sensation-seeking personality, which includes love of horror movies in a long list of traits held by people who seek out thrills in all the wrong places and suffer from an insatiable case of neophilia (and if you thought, "Ew, they like dead people?!" dear reader, read that word again). As I said, though, I hesitate to accept something so clinical. As a social psychologist, I try to look for situational explanations as well. And as a recovering radical behaviorist (hi, my name is Sara, and I'm a Skinner-holic), I try to think of how learning and patterns of reinforcement & punishment might have shaped a behavior.

Love of horror movies, for instance, seems to be correlated with gender. Men are more likely to enjoy them than women. Of course, you could make the case that there are some innate, biological differences between men and women that make them respond differently to these images, but behavior shaping and reinforcement could also explain some of these differences. When children start growing up, they begin going through what is called gender socialization: they learn how to be little boys and little girls.

One way this happens is through selective reinforcement. We reinforce (through our verbal and behavioral responses) when little girls play with dolls and little boys play with trucks; we may not necessarily reinforce when little boys play with dolls and little girls play with trucks. We often reinforce when little boys play rough, but sometimes even punish little girls when they play rough.

Gender stereotypes can become so internalized, we even get the kids to do the dirty work for us:

Even parents who insist they don't want to reinforce gender stereotypes with their kids may inadvertently reinforce gendered behaviors; a parent may not "have a problem" with Jr. playing with dolls but they may not say anything or join him during that kind of play, but would respond positively and join when Jr. plays with a truck.

As a behaviorist (oops, I mean recovering behaviorist), I love observing these kinds of interactions; people often fail to realize what kinds of behaviors they're rewarding.

So you could argue gender socialization influences movie choice. When children pick out a movie to watch at the movie theater, at home, etc., parents always have to option of saying, "No, not that one. How about something else?" Do that often enough, and with certain movie selections, and over time, children learn what sorts of movies they should be watching (and what they should avoid – or at least, what movies they should be watching when the parents are around; people constantly test to see what they can “get away with”).

The problem with explaining a behavior with reinforcement and punishment is that the definition is circular, and it's difficult to get to the root cause. What is a reinforcer? Something that reinforces, that is, makes a behavior more likely to occur again. The thing is defined by the effect is has on behavior, and if it doesn't have that effect on behavior, it was never that thing to begin with (do you see why I say recovering behaviorist? - I love this subfield of psychology but it definitely gives me a headache). You are never able to get away from individual differences here, because something that may be reinforcing for one person may be neutral or punishing for another. Individual differences are fine, of course (I love including some of these variables in my studies), but where do they come from? Biology, perhaps? Very early experiences? Start thinking too much about this, and Watson's insistence that, "I can shape anyone to be anything I want, mwa ha ha" and Skinner's "Innate schminnate" attitude start to unravel, and the only way to repair it is to weave it with – gasp – cognitive psychology, evolutionary psychology, and psychodynamics. Oh, the horror.

Of course, timing is key when it comes to reinforcement and punishment. We know that for a reinforcer to be truly reinforcing, and a punisher to be truly punishing, it should happen quickly after the target behavior; this is one of the basic tenets of behaviorism. To take this one step farther, something may only work if it is delivered at a certain time. Perhaps one has to be in a certain state of mind for a horror movie to be enjoyable, and if you see a movie during that proper window, you’re more likely to seek it out again. Your mind shapes to enjoy these images (there is evidence that experiences actually change your brain physically, and that early stimulation may have long-term implications for brain development and, therefore, things like intelligence), and you become, over time, a horror movie fiend.

If you first view a movie during one of those off times, your response may be disgust, a response that strengthens over time. This is similar to something I’m exploring for another blog post (coming soon!) about cravings. This argument still depends very much on inner states, like mood, but considering that other research has established things like mood influence our decision-making and processing of information, it stands to reason that mood could influence whether something is reinforcing or not. And also considering we know that physiological states influence whether something is reinforcing or not (a cookie isn’t very rewarding if you’re not at all hungry), it doesn’t seem like a huge leap to weave these two lines of thinking together.

Hard to believe I once spouted Skinner constantly – Skinner, the man who said, “So far as I’m concerned, cognitive science is the creationism of psychology. It is an effort to reinstate that inner initiating or originating creative self or mind that, in a scientific analysis, simply does not exist.” Ah, Skinner, you were a brilliant man, but just because you can’t take something out and dissect it, or put it in an operant chamber and train it to press a bar, doesn’t mean it isn’t real or important. Not to mention, with advances in technology and scientific methods, something that was once unobservable, and therefore untestable, unfalsifiable, and unscientific, often becomes the subject of routine scientific study.

If we keep moving forward in the 20th century in the history of behaviorism, we come to Albert Bandura and his work on vicarious learning, imitation, and modeling. We learn a lot by watching others and chose role models to imitate (something Thorndike began studying almost a century prior to Bandura, but he found little to no evidence in his studies of animals and determined such learning did not exist). It’s possible, then, that love (or hatred) of horror movies develops in part from who we aspire to be and from observing the responses of others. This could even explain why behaviors not in line with gender stereotypes get shaped and reinforced; a little girl may learn to behave in “boyish” way by observing and imitating little boys (perhaps one reason that little girls with lots of brothers become “tomboys” themselves – I use the quotes because I personally hate these terms, but sometimes there is no better way to explain something).

 To use a personal analogy, I grew up with a brother and mostly male cousins, so perhaps my early models were mostly male. And though I did engage in some “girly” play behaviors, I would also play with action figures and train sets with my brother, and we would often watch TV together: lots of He-Man, Justice League, and even WWF. (I was traumatized when I learned pro wrestling was fake. Hulk Hogan, I still remember that sobbing letter I wrote to you after you “broke your back”. Hope you had a nice vac-ay, you liar!)

Once again, we come back to the original dilemma, and to play devil’s advocate, you may be asking, “Okay, but where did the behavior originally come from? If we’re imitating, where does the imitated behavior come from? What makes parents want to reinforce gendered behavior? Which came first, the chicken or the egg? And you really wrote a get-well letter to Hulk Hogan? Dork.” Yes, yes, I know. I suppose we can never truly get away from the cognitive, personality, and clinical arguments. But depending on them entirely seems as misguided as depending entirely on contingencies of reinforcement as the sole explanation for behavior (sorry Skinner). Taken together, I think we… well, I think we perhaps created more questions than we started with, but isn’t that what good science is all about? What do you think?

Thoughtfully yours,

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