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Mixed Feelings About The Business Of Mining — And Manipulating — Emotion

Why everyone, from the creative minds at Disney-Pixar to advertisers and the CIA, are tapping the science of decoding emotions. (Daniel/flickr)
Why everyone, from the creative minds at Disney-Pixar to advertisers and the CIA, are tapping the science of decoding emotions. (Daniel/flickr)
This article is more than 5 years old.

In the charming new animated movie, "Inside Out," we are taken inside the head of Riley, an 11-year-old girl, to meet characters representing five of the six emotions that psychologists have characterized as universal: happiness, sadness, fear, anger and disgust. (The sixth emotion, surprise, was omitted, perhaps because movie producers, like most business people, hate surprises.) Without revealing any spoilers, suffice it to say that in Riley, as in the heads of most real girls her age, Joy cedes some mindshare to Sadness, Anger, Fear and the other, less cute members of the emotional coterie.

...in Riley, as in the heads of most real girls her age, Joy cedes some mindshare to Sadness, Anger, Fear and the other, less cute members of the emotional coterie.

In this film and in movies like "Avatar" and "Toy Story," animators were informed and inspired by psychologist Paul Ekman’s pioneering work in mapping the minute changes in facial expression. But movie-makers aren’t the only professionals who turn to Ekman for inspiration and guidance. The CIA, TSA and other security-conscious, acronymed organizations employ facial activity coding to root out liars and people with bad intentions. And advertisers, eager to get inside consumers’ heads and shape our decisions before we’re even conscious of making them, go panning for marketing gold in functional MRI machines and in webcam detection of our tiny smiles, grimaces and eye movements. They are trying to test how ads make us feel, microsecond by microsecond, to ensure that they minimize the emotional barriers to their message and maximize the joy or other emotional incentive it generates.

Based on the interviews I’ve read, the makers of "Inside Out" are nice guys, with nary a cynical atom in their flesh-and-blood bodies. But one can imagine a marketing strategy for the movie formulated to arouse the feelings of potential ticket-buyers who won’t be seeing the movie just because their kids demand to see it. In this scenario, a different cast of emotional characters finds work. Advertising’s go-to players — Envy, Insecurity, Lust, Superiority and Conformity -- take charge.

“Come on! Let’s go see 'Inside Out!' ” Envy implores his emotional companions. “Everyone who has makes all these references that I don’t get. I hate when that happens.”

“Aren’t they embarrassed to go to an animated movie without their kids?” Insecurity objects.

“I dunno,” Conformity chimes in, sounding a lot like Eeyore. “Lots of people are doing it.”

“Yeah, and they’re having a great time,” Envy charges on, “a much better time than all those losers sitting at home posting status updates on Facebook.”

“I’d like to have a good time,” Lust mutters.

“Shut up,” her brain mates snap in unison. “This is a kid’s movie.”

Superiority sighs heavily. “Which is why I wouldn’t be caught dead going to it.”

Fortunately, "Inside Out" is good enough to rely on the pleasure-producing effects of its trailer. No six-pack abs, expensive watches, sleek cars, beautifully unlined faces or laughing babies have been needed to generate ticket sales. Imagination and humor have proven to be powerful enough.

Greed, Altruism, Xenophobia and Anxiety remain on the dole, waiting for their next big break. But as the 2016 political season ramps up, they seem destined to have a breakout year.

Meanwhile, Greed, Altruism, Xenophobia and Anxiety remain on the dole, waiting for their next big break. But as the 2016 political season ramps up, they seem destined to have a breakout year. Witness Ted Cruz’s ad, “Blessing” (which not-at-all coincidentally aired on Easter Weekend), a frightening ode to Submission. Rand Paul’s aims for a heady marriage of Defiance and Triumph, while Chris Christie’s, beginning with ominous graphics of falling stock prices and fanatical ISIS combatants, then abruptly switching to smiling school children and upright American soldiers, offers a battle between Despair and Determination. Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders’ ad has Outrage clearly in charge, but with Wistfulness as his trusted, occasionally heroic sidekick. And Hillary’s? Hope, Confidence and Comfort all have their hands on the control panel.

But there’s one actor that will never be aroused by these or any other ads. Diffident, ostracized, disliked by all, Uncertainty is the one emotion that no advertiser wants to cast. Too bad. She’s got stamina and a flexibility that might be of service in the long run.

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Julie Wittes Schlack Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Julie Wittes Schlack writes essays, short stories and book reviews for various publications, including WBUR's Cognoscenti and The ARTery, and is the author of “This All-at-Onceness” (Pact Press, 2019).

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