The Motion Picture Experience as Modified by Social Background and Personality

Paul G. Cressey
New York University

SYSTEMATIC research upon the theatrical motion picture has established many significant facts concerning its effects upon the information, the attitudes, and behavior of children and youth. That children and young people see many films, that these are exceedingly varied as to content,[1] and that they remember much from the plots of these photoplays, has been definitely demonstrated. It is equally well established that social attitudes and racial prejudices, at least upon "debatable" issues and type characters, can be affected by photoplays. Peterson and Thurstone, by measuring attitudes before and after their subjects had seen certain films, have shown convincingly that appropriate photoplays affect the social attitudes of youth toward such stereotyped groups as "Negroes," "Chinese" and "Germans," and upon controversial issues such as warfare, patriotism and the punishment of criminals.[2]

When properly interpreted, other findings from recent research may be accepted. That children and young people when seeing films can be disturbed emotionally, i.e., physiologically, in a manner and degree recordable upon laboratory instruments, and that the film content which stimulates in this way varies greatly with age and maturity, is well established.[3] That photoplays can provide young people with patterns for make-believe play, for phantasy and daydreaming, and for conscious or "unwitting" imitation of dress and beautification, of lovemaking techniques, of mannerisms and gestures, and that theatrical films can furnish schemes of life which are utilized experimentally by young people in their own social activities, has been shown clearly by Blumer and others.[4] Even though some critics may

( 517) seek a broader perspective for interpreting such findings, they cannot disregard the simple facts that boys and young men, when suitably predisposed, sometimes have utilized techniques of crime seen in the movies, have used gangster films to stimulate susceptible ones toward crime, and on occasion in their own criminal actions, have idealized themselves imaginatively as possessing the attractive personality or as engaging in the roman-tic activities of a gangster screen hero.

Such attempts at summarization of our present knowledge are inadequate, but at least they show the problems involved are very complex and that the widespread loose thinking, the public controversy and the prejudice which have prevailed, make scientific study in this field even more difficult. In practice, one must constantly buttress all his generalizations with supplementary explanations and with reiterated statements of the limitations of his evidence. Thus, in the above statement of the relation in certain cases of motion pictures to crime, one must follow it with the explanation, however gratuitous, that he does not mean that movies have been shown to be a "cause" of crime, that he does not mean that thoroughly "good" boys are enticed into crime by gangster films; in short, that he merely means what he has said, namely, that boys and young men responsive to crime portrayals have been found on occasion to use ideas and techniques seen at the movies. Similarly, in summarizing motion picture influence on imitation, daydreaming and thinking, we always must add that we merely mean that the motion picture, together with other socializing agencies, has been found at times to be a source for the individual's patterns of thought and behavior.

We are confronting here at least two distinct "levels" in the interpretation of cinema influence. Some have been content to cite evidence that motion pictures are sometimes sources of various patterns utilized in subsequent behavior and in the formation of attitudes. Others have contended that such findings can-tot be true. They have attacked both those studies showing the cinema as an occasional source for crime patterns and ideation and those indicating it as a source in the formation of attitudes and behavior by asserting that the data do not "prove" the photoplays "caused" these crimes and personality changes—something, obviously, that the mono-graphs had not attempted to demonstrate.

This confusion is due primarily to inadequate conceptualization of the problem. We must make clear the methodological distinctions between a study of the cinema as a source for patterns of thought, feeling and behavior and a study of its net contribution in terms of the total social situation, or "configuration," in which it is experienced. Fundamentally, the motion picture is an instrument of communication and informal education and it can be best studied sociologically when so conceived. Recognition of the educational potentialities of the theatrical film, ably demonstrated in experimental settings and specific social situations, must not be allowed to

( 518) obscure an equally significant consideration, viz., that the cinema's "effect" upon an individual, a community or a society never can be gauged accurately if the motion picture experience is studied only segmentally and never in its essential unity. "Going to the movies" is a unified experience involving always a specific film, a specific personality, a specific social situation and a specific time and mood; therefore, any program of research which does not recognize all essential phases of the motion picture experience can offer little more than conjecture as to the cinema's net "effect" in actual social settings and communities. Moreover, because the cinema in itself is merely an instrument of communication, the responses to it must always be a product of the interplay of all the above mentioned variables. It is, therefore, a serious misconception of social process to assume that accurate knowledge of the cinema's "contribution" can be deduced from particularistic studies of the motion picture experience.

This failure to include all the phases essential to the motion picture experience has misled not only the above critics of published studies, but also many "popular" writers and speakers. Disregarding the social background and personal interests of their subjects, they have made sweeping statements about the motion picture's "effect," even though their information pertained to but one phase of the cinema experience. Thus, some have argued, solely from a sampling of film content, that young people who see "undesirable," "immoral," or even criminal conduct upon the screen will go out and do likewise, or at least will tend inevitably to acquire corresponding attitudes and values. Others, merely from knowledge of instances of conduct and attitudes patterned after specific screen action or values, have jumped to the conclusion that the cinema "caused" these changes in behavior or attitudes. While it is possible to deduce from these latter in-stances the simple, though not unimportant, fact that the photoplay had been a source for the acquisition of these specific patterns or values, it is not possible to infer from such information alone that the film has "caused" these changes. Social causation is entirely too complex a problem to be explained by any such simplistic interpretation of incomplete data.

What is most needed today is an adequate frame of reference for studying the motion picture which is acceptable to all the special disciplines involved in such research. Its absence is the cause of much misunderstanding and fruitless controversy; our inability to use many specialized research findings is largely due to this lack of a common frame of reference. Such a conceptual scheme must recognize the cinema's function as an instrument of communication and informal education and must provide a formulation by which later quantitative and experimental research may be enabled to supply more precise knowledge concerning this function. It should provide a conceptualization of the whole motion picture experience by which we may be able to study the cinema's "contribution" under various circumstances and social situations and to perceive more fundamentally its role in

( 519) the growth of attitudes and personality. Such a frame of reference must be sufficiently comprehensive to provide as a basis for study a "unit of inter-relationships," i.e., a closed system, [5] which includes all of the essential phases of the motion picture experience.

One necessary step in that direction is a better understanding of the motion picture situation itself. It is not essentially a social situation, since it does not involve social interaction. The spectator obviously is not a part of the screen milieu and, whatever his wishes, he can never participate in the screen action. There is none of that mutual responsiveness and adaptation of actor and audience which characterizes the legitimate theater. Except for emotional "contagion," the incidental and quite extrinsic interaction among spectators, social participation is wholly absent. Yet the motion picture situation involves important social features. The spectator's reactions to the screen, his interests and affects are socially conditioned, and what he "carries away" with him is altered by later social contacts. Strictly conceived, the motion picture situation is neither wholly "social" nor wholly "nonsocial"; it is extrasocial. It denotes a distinctive type of semisocial behavior which, because of such inventions as movie and radio, is becoming more common. It merits much more attention from sociologists and educators than it has yet received.[6]

Instead of facilitating social interaction, the cinema serves chiefly to set up imaginative states. In these, imaginative participation takes the place of social participation and identification becomes the means by which a semblance of vitality and substance can be discovered in the movies. It is significant that this imaginative participation constitutes really the essence of social participation, as Mead, Cooley, Stern,[7] and others have shown in studies of "role-taking" or "personation"; and that the spectator at the cinema is but continuing, in this more symbolic form, the type of behavior which is basic to all face-to-face social interaction. Identification also con-notes, as White has suggested, a certain "vagueness in the province of the self."[8] It is perhaps because of this "vagueness" in the imaginative delimitation of self and social world that one discovers in a screen milieu values, sentiments, and activities of consequence to oneself.

This is suggested by the three distinct modes or "imaginative adjustments" in identification which have been noted in our New York study. Using the formulations of social psychiatry, these may be described as pro-

( 520) -jection, introjection, and displacement. Projection, described by Kimball Young as the "thrusting upon others imaginarily" of "qualities which we ourselves possess,"[9] appears to be the most frequent imaginative adjustment to the screen and is found in some degree whenever any sense of "participation" is reported. Introjection, on the other hand, is an intermittent imaginative adjustment involving momentary loss of both social orientation and self orientation and is found among those who experience identification in a "more complete" form. Whereas projection implies an unwarranted de-limitation of the province of the self, introjection is an "incorporation of a part of the environment into the concept of the self."[10] Displacement, how-ever, denotes a partial substitution of certain personalities and values of one's own social world for the characters and objects in the screen milieu while continuing, as oneself, to experience imaginative participation in the screen action. It is a derived imaginative adjustment, used quasiconsciously as a means of enhancing the film's affective significance, and, in contrast to introjection, involves only social disorientation, not self disorientation. Through such imaginative adjustments, the spectator bridges the gap between himself and the screen milieu and gives the latter affective significance to himself.

It is of interest also to note that imaginative screen participation never can be "complete" in any sense and that this imaginative and ideational interrelationship must always remain quite "relative." The illusion of reality is achieved through the spectator's ability to find in the screen action and plot some satisfaction of personal interests and feelings, to perceive there attributes which appear to him in some way "human," or to find in the film social values, sentiments, and behavior which, upon the basis of his experience and insights, seem "true to life." However, while it is necessary for the film to present enough familiar attributes to make it interesting and pleasurable, it is equally desirable that it should not possess so great an identity of elements as to make it "too realistic" or "painful." Especially because the theatrical motion picture is primarily a medium of entertainment, the maintenance of an appropriate, or optimum, "psychic distance" between film content and the constantly shifting public interests and tastes is most important, and is possibly the most vexing problem confronting producers and directors.

A second phase of any frame of reference which is adequate for the prob-

( 512) -lem must be inclusion of a point of view and procedures for systematic consideration of differentials in personality and social backgrounds of spectators as these impinge upon and modify their responses to the motion picture. This conceptualization must take cognizance of the interrelationships between film content and the spectator's personality and social background, his special interests and values, and the events which are subsequent to the motion picture experience but which may serve to redefine it. This is necessary because the cleavage between the motion picture situation and the patron's social background and other personal experiences is more apparent than real. At the cinema, he is physically but not psychologically detached from his own background and at least some of his responses are necessarily affected by his earlier associations, his present interests, and his other contacts. What he perceives or fails to perceive upon the screen, what he feels or does not feel, what he remembers or fails to remember, and what he does or does not imitate, are inevitably affected by his social background and personality as much, or more than, by the immediate motion picture situation. Likewise, the ultimate meaning of the cinema experience cannot be determined without consideration of subsequent events which have reference to it.

In practice, such an approach calls for procedures and considerations which may not be required in other research. It involves not only detailed study of personal and social background data but also the attempt to gain greater understanding of the cinema's "net contribution" through analysis of all other essential phases of the motion picture experience which are imaginatively or socially interrelated. This requires not only a comprehension of specific personalities and social backgrounds, but also a knowledge of collateral experiences, of the imaginative response to movie patterns and ideas before, during and after cinema attendance, and of later successes and failures in utilizing movie patterns, ideas, and values. It also involves tracing the imaginative and social interrelationships between screen and subject and between the subject and his social world in an effort to perceive the cinema's "contribution" in the light of this broader perspective.

In this approach, the cinema is evaluated from a wholly different con-figuration, or gestalt, and from different premises. Its "influence," in-stead of being revealed by observing and recording disjunctive items of screen content and postcinema behavior, as commonly is thought to be the case, is recognized as being intertwined complexly with the entire web of social and imaginative processes which arise with reference to the motion picture.[11] The cinema, moreover, is seen to acquire its meanings, its definitions for its patrons, in the interaction between imagination and social be-

( 522) -havior; its valuations and utilizations, its effects, in turn, result from the efforts to relate film content to personal interests, values, or to overt activities. Thus, the cinema is interpreted neither as a prime "cause" nor a prime "effect" of the social and personal manifestations subsequent to the motion picture experience. Rather, its "contribution" is regarded as the product of the interplay of forces in which it may be both "cause" and "effect" and by which its own social role is established.

Such a conceptualization conceives the cinema, not as a unilateral social "force," but as a reciprocal interrelationship of screen and spectator, of screen patterns and values, and of social patterns and social values. When the motion picture is viewed only "externally," it certainly appears to be only unilateral, i.e., the patrons are wholly passive agents who are merely "played upon" through the arts and skills of cinematography. We have, however, abundant evidence that this is an erroneous conception. Through imaginative participation, identification, random reflection, phantasy be-fore and after cinema attendance, and through the impact of prior interests and values, the cinema experience is redefined in many ways and may affect the patron in forms only incidentally associated with film content. It is for this reason that it is impossible accurately to describe cinema influence as a "contribution" or an "effect" unless these familiar words are used in such a way as to imply something more than a unilateral relationship.

To ascertain the cinema's "net contribution" to personality or community and to develop an adequate frame of reference for conceptualizing it will require further study of concrete community situations in which sufficiently complete data are available. These should include other types of community settings than the interstitial areas studied at New York University.[12] Assemblage and collation of enough such studies give promise of providing a basis for valid generalizations regarding the motion picture experience in typical community settings and social situations and with reference to personalities differing in age, sex, intellectual and emotional "maturity," and in cultural and ecological antecedents. It would also provide a basis for obtaining inductively a valid set of principles which might be of great practical assistance in determining public policies relative to the motion picture. These formulations would not deny the cinema's incidental function as an instrument of communication and informal education, but they might make possible, ultimately, an objective and critical evaluation of those other aspects of cinema "influence" now the subject of so much futile controversy.

Immediately, moreover, this approach to the problem gives promise of averting much of the popular misinterpretation and the public misrepresentation which have attended earlier studies. The fact that the findings as reported must always include consideration of the entire motion picture

( 523) experience, of social background and personality differentials, may prevent the uncritical from making unwarranted inferences from partial findings and may forestall premature judgment as to whether the cinema's "contribution" in specific cases is "socially desirable" or "socially undesirable." Thus, to take but one illustration, the knowledge that the motion picture had been in certain instances a source of crime techniques later used by delinquents is not allowed to stand alone but always is related to the subject's social background, personal values, character, and interests, insofar as these can be seen to have been related to his screen responses. While this procedure confirms findings from earlier studies that gangster and crime films occasionally have supplied patterns later used in crime, at times have evoked criminal responses and attitudes, or have been a means occasionally by which a delinquent romantically might idealize himself, it reveals also that in most instances, if not in all, there were individual values and preconceptions, personal problems, and immediate interests which clearly served in some degree to condition these screen responses.[13] Reporting these socially undesirable "effects" only when careful consideration is also given to significant contributing factors may serve to deter hasty judgment by many readers. On so controversial an issue, it is probably impossible to prevent misconstruction and misinterpretation, especially by the zealots at each extreme, but such a procedure at least will direct the reader's attention to the essential problem.

The chief importance of this comprehensive approach, however, is the different order of findings obtained. The cinema's role in general conduct is found for the most part to be reflexive, to take its specific character from the social configuration, the social-psychological "frame" in which the motion picture is experienced and in which responses to it arise. While this approach does not disprove the finding that in certain cases the cinema's incidental "contribution" as reported has seemed to be "socially desirable" and in other cases definitely "undesirable," it adds the significant conclusion that the types of conduct in which cinema influence is discernible appear to be determined largely, if not entirely, by the subject's previous experiences and associations, his problems and interests at the time, and by the pleasure or displeasure later experienced with this conduct. Some of these associations and experiences can be, of course, cinematic in origin but, except for cases involving intense personal conflict and crises in which the subject is a problem to himself, or in cases of psychopathic personalities, all cases thus far intensively studied reveal that the immediate behavior has been so conditioned and modified. Behavior which is affected by the cinema

( 524) is found to constitute either suggestion, i.e., "a release of attitudes and tendencies" already a part of the subject's personality, the "unwitting" acquisition of mannerisms and gestures, or the "conscious" or deliberate imitation of screen patterns.[14] All three forms involve a response to prior conditioning, interests or values. Moreover, the subject's continuance of this behavior when he already has experienced it, and his returning to film showings of a type known to be stimulating, implies some tolerance of this conduct by the subject or his friends and a further selection of screen reactions through social control.

Social attitudes as well as general and special information are also re-fashioned through the interplay of social and personal background, but in these fields there is indubitable evidence of a significant "net contribution" by the cinema. In contrast to overt behavior, in which only a limited divergence in conduct is usually tolerated by the group, a wide range of individual differentiation in the acquisition of attitudes and information is permitted and even encouraged. This at least partially explains the fact that the cinema's "net contributions" are found to relate mostly to the acquisition of social attitudes and new information rather than to overt behavior. These "net contributions" are found in those areas of knowledge for which children and young people do not have other more adequate sources of information; screen representations are accepted only so long as other more "authoritative" knowledge is unavailable and only when they do not seem to contradict the mores, codes, and the axiomatic "truths" accepted by the subject and his group. Thus, though many cinema stereo-types are found to be reflected significantly in the attitudes of children and young people, they are effective only in connection with inadequate social background and individual limitations in intellect and alertness. In acquiring general information, what one perceives or fails to perceive in a film, or what he remembers or fails to remember, appear to be similarly affected. In the acquisition of special information, however, there is involved not only an inadequacy of other sources but the presence of positive interests which impel toward learning. It is perhaps for this reason that much cinema learning involves "techniques" for meeting special situations and personal problems.

Though these findings indicate that the cinema is reflexive in its influence, it is unwarranted to describe them as "negative." In a society in which there are many factors making both for disorganization and social amelioration, the cinema is an important social and educational force contributing directly and incidentally to both. Under certain circumstances, it has been

( 525) found to influence greatly the shaping of attitudes and the acquisition of information, and even to affect overt behavior in certain situations. The nature of these "effects" is determined by many forces external to the motion picture but the fact of its educational and social role cannot be denied for that reason. Moreover, even though the motion picture's influence is reflexive, it is still possible to discover certain characteristic circumstances in which the cinema's contribution to ideation and conduct is great. In fields of vital interests not adequately met through other community institutions and agencies, in fields where prestige is attached to the acquisition of the "latest thing," as in fashion, popular songs, and slang, and in fields where the movie facilitates trends in standards or public opinion which are already under way, the motion picture makes some of its most distinct "contributions." Careful study of these special circumstances and comparison of them with other settings in which the cinema's contribution does not appear to be appreciable gives promise of more precise knowledge of the circumstances under which the motion picture's specific "effect" becomes exceptionally significant.


  1. Edgar Dale, Children's Attendance at Motion Pictures, Motion Pictures and Youth Series (Payne Fund Studies), New York, 1933; Alice M. Mitchell, Children and Movies, chap. 3, Chicago, 1929; Edgar Dale, Content of Motion Pictures (Payne Fund Studies), New York, 1933; C. C. Peters, Motion Pictures and Standards of Morality (Same Series), New York, 1933; P. W. Holaday and G. D. Stoddard, Getting Ideas from the Movies (Payne Fund Studies), New York, 1933.
  2. Ruth C. Peterson and L. T. Thurstone, Motion Pictures and the Social Attitudes of Children (Payne Fund Studies), New York, 1933. See also, S. P. Rosenthal, Change of Socio-Economic Attitudes Under Radical Motion Picture Propaganda, Columbia University Archives of Psychology, No. 166, 1934.
  3. W. S. Dysinger and C. A. Ruckmick, Emotional Responses of Children to the Motion Picture Situation (Payne Fund Studies), New York, 1933; S. Renshaw, V. L. Miller, and D. Marquis, Children's Sleep (Payne Fund Studies), New York, 1933.
  4. 4 H. Blumer, Movies and Conduct (Payne Fund Studies), New York, 1933; H. Blumer and P. Hauser, Movies, Delinquency and Crime (Same Series), New York, 1933.
  5. F. Znaniecki, Methods of Sociology, 10-20, New York, 1934.
  6. Though courses in literature, art appreciation, and photoplay appreciation are among those which attest to the fact that such extrasocial situations are believed to be culturally significant, sociological study of such situations is hardly begun. See, however, Katherine Niles, "Sociology of Reading," M.A. thesis, University of Chicago, 1935-
  7. G. H. Mead, Mind, Self and Society, Chicago, 193S; C. H. Cooley, Human Nature and the Social Order, New York,1902; William Stern, Psychology of Early Childhood, 316-323, New York, 1930.
  8. W. A. White, .An Introduction to the Study of the Mind, 76, Washington, D. C.
  9. These are usually described as "dynamisms," "mental mechanisms" or as "imaginative processes," but the above conception of them as "modes in cinema identification" or as "imaginative adjustments" does not differ from their more precise usage. K. Young, Social Psychology, 135-136, New York, 1930; T. D. Eliot, "The Use of Psychoanalytic Classifications in Analysis of Social Behavior," Proc. Amer. Sociol. Soc., 1927, 21:185-190.
  10. J. K. Folsom, The Family, 85, New York, 1934; S. Ferenczi, "Introjection and Transference," Contributions to Psycho-Analysis, Boston, 1916; Folsom, op. cit., 84 defines displacement as the "substitution of another object, goal or idea for the original object of the emotion, while the emotion itself remains the same."
  11. Studies of direct bearing on this specific problem are few; cf. however, M. Halbwachs, Les Cadres Sociaux de la Memoire, Alcan, Paris, 1925; Karl Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia, New York, 1936; F. C. Bartlett, Remembering : A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology, New York, 1932; Muzafer Sherif, Psychology of Social Norms, New York, 1936.
  12. J. Educ. Sociol., Dec. 1932, 238-244, and April 1934, 504—518; also, Proc. Amer. Sociol. Soc, 1934, 28:90—94
  13. From findings of special study of this question, later to be reported. Conversely, evidence that behavior affected by the cinema is sometimes exclusively of a socially desirable sort can-not be accepted as ipso facto proof that other less desirable elements were not presented in the films which were seen, as some have claimed. Rather, absence of such screen responses may signify only the stable character and socialized training of these patrons.
  14. See esp. E. Faris, "The Concept of Imitation," The Nature of Human Nature, 61—83, esp. 75—78, New York, 1936; G. Humphrey, "The Conditioned Reflex and the Elementary Social Reaction," Jour. Abnor and Soc. Psychol., 1922—23, 7:113—119; E. Faris on "unwitting" imitation, op. cit., 75—76; F. Znaniecki, Social Actions, New York, 1936, on "Impersonative Imitation," 304—309; E. Faris, op. cit., 76 and 79—80, and F. Znaniecki, op. cit., 309—311, on "conscious" or "independent imitation."

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