The psychology behind Pixar’s Inside Out

Chuck Bednar for – @BednarChuck

It isn’t just Hollywood heavyweights such as Amy Poehler, Mindy Kaling, Lewis Black, and Bill Hader who have been working to make the newest Disney-Pixar film Inside Out a success, as one University of California-Berkeley psychologist also played a key role in the movie.

Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the university and the director of the UC-Berkeley Social Interaction Laboratory, served as a consultant on the movie. The movie centers around an 11-year-old girl and the personified feelings that live in her head, helping her deal with her family’s move from Minnesota to San Francisco (and with life in general).

As the university explains, children typically dislike identifying or sharing difficult feelings that they may be experiencing, so when Keltner attended the premiere and saw youngsters pretending to be characters such as Fear, Anger, or Sadness, he was thrilled. Inside Out, he said, shows kids how different positive and negative emotions can come together to solve problems.

“I hope this movie becomes part of our cultural understanding of what it means to be a child and what it means to be a human being and to grapple with these emotions,” Keltner added.

Movie inspired by shared struggles of parenting during puberty

The professor visited Pixar’s Emeryville on multiple occasions discussing the fundamentals of emotions and their physiology and purpose. He also was in regular communication with them via email, explaining in particular how emotions can interact with and be influenced by memory (i.e. how sadness alters perception of childhood).

According to the university, the professor’s insights helped the film’s cast flesh out each of their characters. Keltner first met Pete Docter, the film’s director, when both of their daughters were in the midst of puberty, and the pair reportedly formed a bond over the trials of being a parent in those difficult preteen and early teenage years. Their discussions ultimately evolved into Inside Out, a film that Keltner said was unlike anything he had ever seen before.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it,” the professor said, noting that the filmmakers initially struggled with the concept of sadness, but that he told them that it is “a powerful trigger for seeking comfort and bonding.” He added that anger “is often about the sense of being treated unfairly, and can be a motivator for social change.”

Keltner also said that he believed that all people have a “signature emotion” similar to how the main character of Inside Out, Riley, is predisposed to joy. However, this emotion evolves over the course of a person’s lifetime, he added. As for the movie itself, and the interplay between the different emotions in Riley’s head, the professor offered no spoilers.

“You’re just going to have to watch the movie and find out,” he said.


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