Tears Are Always Empirical: Producing Emotional Responses With Movies

Recently, an article on Smithsonian.com[1] discussed the cinematic catalysts scientists have used to study emotion in people. Specifically, it mentioned “The Champ,” a 1979 remake about a boxer and his young son. In the climactic scene, the son (Ricky Schroder) sobs over his father’s (Jon Voight) dead body after a particularly ravaging match. A 1995 study[2] by Robert Levenson and James Gross claims that this clip is the best at eliciting the single emotion of sadness in study participants.

Levenson and Gross narrowed a batch of 250 titles down to 16 that elicit responses of amusement, anger, contentment, disgust, fear, neutral, sadness, and surprise (two films for each emotion). A key criterion was that the films had to discretely evoke their respective emotions—a requirement that made pinpointing the scenes difficult. For instance, a scene in “Kramer Versus Kramer” in which the protagonist’s young son falls and must be rushed to the hospital caused nearly equal intensities of fear and sadness. The pivotal scene in “The Champ,” on the other hand, evoked sadness almost exclusively.

Other “winners?” For amusement, the fake orgasm scene in “When Harry Met Sally” beat out “Robin Williams Live;” for fear, a scene from “The Shining” evoked more discrete fear than the basement scene in “The Silence of the Lambs.” The runner-up for sadness was the mother’s death in “Bambi,” a scene that many might contend is even more distressing than the climax of “The Champ.”

How about you? What experiences have you had using films as a catalyst in conducting research? And, from your own experience, what other films do you think would perform well at stirring up particular emotions in research participants?


[1] Chin, R. (2011, July 21). The saddest movie in the world. Smithsonian.com. Retrieved from http://www.smithsonianmag.com

[2] Gross, J. J., & Levenson, R. W. (1995). Emotion elicitation using films. Cognition and Emotion, 9, 87-108.

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