20th Century Fox via Reuters
The movie "Titanic," starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo Dicaprio, launched an ocean of tears that swept the movie right into blockbuster status.
By Meghan Holohan
Ever wonder why people like sad movies, no matter how gut-wrenching they are or how weepy they make you feel?
As a student in South Korea, Dohyun Ahn used to take breaks from studying by watching sad movies such as “Elvira Madigan,” a tragic and true love story of a tightrope walker and a lieutenant. Even though the movie made Ahn feel sad, he’d watch it over and over again. “The film was so sad and at the same time, so enjoyable,” says Ahn, who decided to study “the paradox of enjoyment of a sad film.”
To figure out what makes sob stories so enticing to viewers, Ahn—a senior researcher in the department of interaction science at Sungkyunkwan University in South Korea— asked 165 American college students to watch the movie, “Angel Baby,” a love story about two schizophrenic people, Harry and Kate. As the affair continues, Kate becomes pregnant, but dies during labor, leaving Harry alone with their child.
Following the viewing, the researchers asked the participants, the majority of whom were female, how the movie made them feel, and, specifically, whether it was Harry’s or Kate’s story that made them cry.
What Ahn found was that sadness predicted how the students perceived reality and that watching a sad movie changes how people look at the world. People seek out sad movies to help them understand the world.
“On its surface, it is counterintuitive. Common [sense dictates that] people feel sad because a tragic story seems to be real. However, people perceive reality because they feel sad,” explains Ahn, whose study was published recently in the Journal of Media Psychology: Theories, Methods and Applications.
Emotions, such as sadness, help people gather information and process it. Using a sad movie as a vehicle to understand the world seemed interesting to Ahn because most tragedies focus on tenderness and love, rather than vengeance or malice. When people watch sad movies, they observe subtle details and see the movie as more realistic, changing how they perceive the world, Ahn says
“Roughly, enjoyment can be classified into two types. One is self-focused, and the other is other-focused. Enjoyment of sad movies are other-focused enjoyment, driven by altruistic motivation,” Ahn says. After seeing a sad movie, people think of others with more empathy and understanding.
While most of the participants were female, Ahn doesn’t think the results would vary for males. He believes that enjoying sad movies is a sign of higher-level thinking.
“Although males and females have different empathic tendency, the variation cannot surpass the level of being human… most humans have experiences in basic emotions such as sadness and empathy.”
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