Pixar’s new movie “Inside Out” has generated a lot of buzz in many different domains including family entertainment, animation and the psychological community. While most of us have just seen trailers, there are high hopes that Pixar will deliver a quality product that will wow us visually, emotionally and even educationally. It’s these last two categories that offer so much excitement for me.
I’d love to see a compelling, fun and creative film that also draws out informative points about human emotion.
As you might have heard, The story follows a young girl, Riley, and her 5 personified emotions- Anger, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Joy. Each of these emotions have to work together to help Riley get Joy back.
So, you might be asking, “Why these 5 emotions and not others?” The answer is that they are all “Primary Emotions.”
Most of us are familiar with “Primary Colors” from art class in school. As you might recall, they are red, blue and yellow. At least this is true if we are talking about pigment; if we are talking about primary color with light, we drop blue and add green so now the primary colors are red, green and yellow. Mix any of these together in the right proportions and you can get every other color the human eye can see!
Likewise, the field of psychology has proposed a list of primary emotions that mirror our concept of primary colors. Most lists have been narrowed down to 4-7 emotions with some added or taken away depending on who composes the list, but almost all agree on Joy, Sadness/Grief, Fear and Anger while still others debate that the list should also include Disgust, Surprise, Shame or Compassion.
All of this to say that Pixar seems to be on the right track so far. So the next question you might be asking is, “Why are these emotions so important that they are considered primary?” The answer lies in how they absorb and reflect fundamental social and existential desires. To further explain this, let’s look at the motivation of each of the personified emotions:
Fear is there to keep us safe. It gets sparked within us when we feel we are in danger or are threatened. Without fear, we may make risky or reckless decisions like swim in shark infested waters or skydive without a parachute! When fear is used appropriately, we take the proper precautions like deciding to go swimming where it’s safer or make sure we pack a parachute or wear a seatbelt when driving.
Anger occurs when we perceive injustice and believe we orsomeone we love was treated unfairly by a person, situation or life itself. Anger motivates us to recover justice, to right the wrongs, to catch the bad guys and see them get their just deserts! Without this sense, we would all let others walk all over us. When used correctly, anger fights for truth and justice!
Sadness or Grief occurs when we have experienced loss. When we lose something like a loved one, a phone or a game. It can also happen when we fail a test or lose an opportunity. It’s job is to motivate us to recover the loss or stop the loss from happening next time. When we lose a friend or family member, and sadness is working properly within us, we will look to connect to their memories or reach out and attach to others more to fill the void.
Disgust serves as a filter to prevent contact and contamination with unwanted material. Our brain is preprogramed to be disgusted by things like germs, feces, blood, and decomposing substances because these things can be harmful to our health. Likewise, we can be disgusted by behaviors because we perceive them as potentially harmful to our system (socially, emotionally or physically). In this way, disgust is similar to fear because it protects us from harm which is why some say it’s a derivative of fear and therefore not primary.
Joy doesn’t need much of an introduction. We all know it’s good because it feels good. We feel joy when we are well loved, when we accomplish an important task, or grow in our awareness and appreciation of the life around us. It’s our emotional reward system for the goodness we participate in and experience.
We know that Joy cannot be achieved by going after happiness itself but only when it’s a byproduct of some other good. Joy is the carrot that motivates us to continue to go towards the good.
Let’s hope that Pixar continues to use the psychological research on emotions to give us a quality and educational experience!