Friday, February 07, 2014

behavioural science at the movies

This probably tells it's own tale of extreme nerdiness but we particularly enjoyed a couple of movies recently in which the plots leaned heavily on some choice behavioural nuggets.

First up is the latest Richard Curtis rom-com, About Time.

The main protagonist Tim, as played by Domhnall Gleeson, learns a secret about the men in their family from his father.

They all have the ability to time travel.

Upon learning the trick, Tim is then able to transport himself back in time to pivotal moments in his life and remake certain decisions, for the most part around relationships with women, that resulted in sub-optimal outcomes.

But the real stars of the film, are of course, our old friends system one and system two. Most of Tim's bad decisions that he goes to fix are of the automatic and emotionally driven.

With the benefit of his time machine superpower Tim is able to revisit the system one emotional errors and put them right with a bit of system two logic.

Hindsight bias a-go-go.

Now you have a scientific excuse to enjoy some rom-com fluff.

Using the splendid Random Cognitive Neuroscience Paper Title Generator we've retitled the film as 'Neural systems for romantic love: A new hypothesis'. Or perhaps even 'Quantification of episodic retrieval and semantic processing'.

Next one, and probably no surprise is American Hustle.

It was down ther on our to watch-list but rapidly moved up to the top following a tweet by radio presenter, ad chap and behavioural/psychology author of Born Liars, Ian Leslie.

Leslie commented 'Unacknowledged scriptwriters on American Hustle: Daniel Kahneman and Robert Cialdini' which is a pretty spot-on assessment.

Loosely based on a real-life 70's political and mob corruption scandal, two con artists, Irving Rosenfeld Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser are coerced by an FBI agent, Richie DiMaso into devising - perhaps the original - classic fake sheikh sting operation, by which the bureau hope to nab some 'bent' politicians and the New Jersey mobsters.

The phoney sheikh is introduced to supposedly fund the building of some super casinos thus boosting both the local economy, which pleases the basically good but somewhat flakey mayor, and the mafia (aka the local business community) lot that he has to keep in with.

As one would expect with a narrative about con-artists the recurring theme is 'people believe what they want to believe', aka confirmation bias.

As it is set in the 70's there are no social media experts present, however.

With liberal doses of justification bias and cognitive dissonance - good people rationalising why they are doing bad things - it's also a psychology-of-persuasion-fest.

Essentially every trick in the Cialdini book (count 'em) comes into play between all the characters as they each try and out-manipulate each other.

So it goes, and may the best persuader win, but although there are a good few laughs don't expect a Richard Curtis-esque feel-good fuzzy ending.

We retitled this one as 'A double dissociation of narrative comprehension from spoken cued recall in motor cortex'.

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