Emotions, Psychology and Evolution

According to Billy Wilder, if you want to be a director you must be a policeman, a midwife,  a sycophant, a bastard and a BjChFQOIUAEvdnj psychoanalyst. It took me some time to realize the importance of the last point and truly appreciate psychology. It might have been because of the unhealthy obsession many scholars have (or had, I hope) with Freud and Lacan (or Marx and Althusser, but that is another topic). Do not get me wrong, I can find ‘enjoyment’ in the analysis provided by the likes of Slavoj Žižek in their exploration/exploitation of popular culture (especially in the audiovisual format used in his Perverts Guides). Call me entertained and intellectually stimulated, but I do not have to agree.

Strangely, the words Evolutionary Psychology seem to be too often faced with criticism from the supporters of free-associative film interpretation. I am not an expert in the field of psychology and I investigate these subjects with the somehow narrow filed of view of a ‘maker’. I am looking for tools and understandings that can be applied and exploited in the making of films and not only at the watching/analysis stage.

What is Evolutionary Psychology? In summary, let’s outline the five principles from Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby.

Principle 1. The brain is a physical system. It functions as a computer. Its circuits are designed to generate behavior that is appropriate to your environmental circumstances.

Principle 2. Our neural circuits were designed by natural selection to solve problems that our ancestors faced during our species’ evolutionary history.

Principle 3. Consciousness is just the tip of the iceberg; most of what goes on in your mind is hidden from you. As a result, your conscious experience can mislead you into thinking that our circuitry is simpler that it really is. Most problems that you experience as easy to solve are very difficult to solve — they require very complicated neural circuitry

Principle 4. Different neural circuits are specialized for solving different adaptive problems.

Principle 5. Our modern skulls house a stone age mind.

These principles are tools for thinking about psychology and can be applied to a variety of topics. For example, I have seen numerous people (myself included) being labeled as ADD. Instead of using the word ‘disorder’, we could argue that we are hunter-gatherer stuck in a farmers world and only time will test the strength of our survival skills (and hopefully we will not become a casualty of evolution and its natural selection) The concept of survival is essential when discussing emotions.

What is an emotion? From Evolutionary Psychology and the Emotions by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, “To behave functionally according to evolutionary standards, the mind’s many subprograms need to be orchestrated so that their joint product at any given time is functionally coordinated, rather than cacophonous and self-defeating. This coordination is accomplished by a set of superordinate programs – the emotions.”

Back to filmmaking, I have been taught to concentrate on making your audience feel more than making your audience think. Therefore, understanding emotions from a evolutionary psychology point of view is rather important in informing the craft of audiovisual storytelling.

What are the main emotions a filmmaker can exploit when playing puppeteer with the audience’s minds? In Psychoevolutionary Theory of Emotions Robert Plutchick’s outlines the 8 following basic emotions:

  • Joy
  • Trust
  • Fear
  • Surprise
  • Sadness
  • Disgust
  • Anger
  • Anticipation

Most importantly, it links the stimulus, the appraisal, the behavioural reaction and the survival function of these various subjective reactions (all key ingredients to enhancing storytelling).

Screen Shot 2014-07-19 at 15.30.49

These 8 basic emotions can be experienced and expressed at various intensities.

Screen Shot 2014-07-19 at 15.45.17

Also, it outlines the most (and least) common combination (chords) of emotions and their effect (or label), as well as the odd yet powerful conflicting emotional combos. Imagine, what would be the effect of having your characters and/or your audience experience different emotions at the same time?

Screen Shot 2014-07-19 at 15.46.10


Powerful storytelling is a melody played on the audience’s emotional strings where combinations and dissonances are carefully arranged in an effective progression. If our behaviour is orchestrated by emotions, one can understand how these tools can become valuable weapons to anyone working in marketing, sadly.  I prefer to aspire to manipulate someone’s emotions after they grant me the right to do so.


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