For an animated movie aimed at children, “Inside Out,” the latest from Pixar, has received an unusually serious response from adults.
It was “so powerful that it changed the way I understand my own emotions,” wrote Business Insider’s Ian Phillips.
Yet all these high-minded responses are perhaps to be expected: It turns out Pixar brought in two of psychology’s foremost experts on emotions to serve as scientific consultants on the film.
In a column in The New York Times, those experts (Dacher Keltner and Paul Ekman, both of the University of California — Berkeley) explain one thing that the movie gets right that most people get wrong.
Emotions organise — rather than disrupt — rational thinking. Traditionally, in the history of Western thought, the prevailing view has been that emotions are enemies of rationality and disruptive of cooperative social relations.
But the truth is that emotions guide our perceptions of the world, our memories of the past and even our moral judgments of right and wrong, most typically in ways that enable effective responses to the current situation.
Anger, they note, makes us “acutely attuned to what is unfair, which helps animate actions that remedy injustice.”
Indeed, despite the popular perception that thinking and feeling are two separate spheres constantly at odds with each other, the “vital role of emotions in determining decisions” has been recognised by “a growing body of literature,” a team of Israeli researchers wrote in 2012.
Research suggests that emotion is an important component of rational decision-making, not a crutch, a shortcoming, or some kind of weakness. “Emotion is adaptive, guiding us to make sound decisions in uncertainty,” scientists noted earlier this year, in Frontiers in Psychology.
How does this all play out in “Inside Out”? Keltner and Ekman explain: Sadness “guides Riley to recognise the changes she is going through and what she has lost, which sets the stage for her to develop new facets of her identity.”
The movie makes clear what psychologists have long known: that emotions aren’t some rogue force pulling us away from our perfectly rational selves, but rather an important expression of what really matters most to us. Dismiss them at your own risk.
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