Psychologists Reveal Hollywood's Formula for Making Audiences Cry


Science says there are five experiences that make someone cry: physical pain, personal loss, empathic pain, ritual weeping, and art-elicited tears. This last group — those big, fat, crocodile droplets that fall during an emotional song or film — are probably the only tears that we knowingly and willingly shed. In a new study, scientists identified the specific elements of a film that are likely to trigger goosebumps and sobs — emotional reactions that could pay off big when it comes reviews and rewards.

In a new paper published in Frontiers in Psychology, a team of German researchers report that they broke down the components of films that elicit intense emotional reactions. To do this, they asked 25 university students to bring in movie clips that had previously moved them to tears. As each individual watched their chosen clips, the researchers measured their skin conductance, cardiovascular, and respiration activity and used a “goose cam” to videotape their calf muscle to record the moment goosebumps appeared. Taken together, these biometric data represented the viewer’s emotional response. As the participants watched their clips, they were also asked to rate the intensity of their emotions from zero (no tears) to five (a lot of tears), and then they were interviewed about how they felt when they clip was over.

The movie clips that caused people to cry the most shared certain elements. As expected, approximately 68 percent of the clips showed moments that are categorized as sad — moments like break-ups, goodbyes, and deathbed scenarios. Interestingly, the next most common group were joyful events; roughly 33 percent of tear-inducing scenes, the researchers found, were scenes depicting emotional reunions and personal goal achievement. As the researchers expected, the vast majority of clips displayed social interactions: 70 percent displayed human-to-human moments, 13 percent were human-to-animal or animal-to-animal, while 11.3 percent were human interactions to anthropomorphic characters.

Camera perspective affected emotional response.

Frontiers in Psychology

Certain filmmaking techniques also correlated with more tears: Overall, the researchers found that the clips that elicited the most crying also used the most close-ups. Clips where the camera focused on the facial expressions of protagonists from an eye-level perspective were more likely to cause goosebumps and tears to emerge than those shot at lower or higher angles.

While the films the participants brought in ranged widely in genre (someone brought in the 1941 classic Citizen Kane, and another chose a clip from the 2012 hit, Les Misérables), the most commonly tear-inducing category was drama, which 38.6 percent of the clips analyzed fell into. After that was romance (18.5 percent), followed by comedy (7.9 percent). The researchers peg this observation to the fact that most of these tear-inducing moments were based on human relationships, and drama and romance, they write, are typically associated with “societal values and virtues such as altruism, bonding, self-sacrifice, faithfulness, and so forth.” These are all involved in “prosocial” situations — those in which individuals perform positive behaviors toward others — which previous studies have shown are an essential element of scenarios that typically move people emotionally.

Stirring up these emotions is important for filmmakers who want people to become emotionally attached to their films: Previous studies have found that sad movies that move audiences to tears are more likely to receive higher ratings and be judged as a quality film. We’ll see if this holds true this Sunday during the Academy Awards: Statisticians are betting that the relatively light-hearted La La Land will win over emotional films like Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea, but from a biological perspective, it’d be far more likely that the movie that walks away with the Oscar will be whatever movie made people cry the most.

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