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Tearjerkers and altruism

Rachel Macaulay
Watching a sad film might not just be an exercise in self-indulgence; it could make you a kinder person

Certain films are guaranteed to bring a tear to my eye. Beaches. Steel Magnolias. The Jealous Guy scene in Look Who’s Talking Too (you may laugh, but I defy you to watch it without welling up). No doubt you have your own favourite tearjerkers, even if you’re reluctant to own up to them.

It’s easy to dismiss these kinds of films as silly or shallow. But to those that scoff, I have the perfect retort. Crying at the movies makes me a better person – and it can do the same for you.

How? Well, a film is a means to tell a story. And we love to tell, and be told, stories. Whatever the format – cinema, television programmes, plays, poems, songs or even gossip – our appetite for stories is insatiable. But it’s not just a distraction, an escape from the drudgery of everyday life. Telling stories helps us survive and thrive.

In Story Theory, David Baboulene writes that stories are a vital evolutionary tool, and so our brains have evolved to love them. Baboulene explains the concept of “knowledge gaps”: gaps in a story that cause speculation. If I tell you I saw a dead body, you immediately start speculating about the gaps in your knowledge: who is dead, why, how. We’re hooked on knowledge gaps because more knowledge = better chance of survival and speculating is great exercise for our problem-solving brains.

What’s more, as Baboulene writes, our brains don’t distinguish between an actual experience and the representation of that experience. For our ancestors, this meant that when they shared stories of sabre-tooth tiger attacks, their tribesmen gained the same knowledge as if they’d been attacked themselves, and were more likely to survive if facing the same situation. For us, it means that when we watch a movie we’re able to “understand and share the feelings of another”. The brilliance of film is that we can learn not only from the experiences of our tribe, but of people with lives very different from our own.

If we infer, then, that the stronger a reaction we have to a film (e.g. being moved to tears), the more we empathise with the characters in that movie, it’s reasonable to suggest that we’re then more likely to empathise with others in similar real-life situations – and more likely to be motivated to help. This idea is reinforced by social psychologist Daniel Batson’s empathy-altruism theory (“feeling empathy for [a] person in need evokes motivation to help [that person]”).

Sobbing at Up’s opening scenes might not inspire you to call for the United States to reduce dependence on foreign oil (as more than 8,000 people did after watching 2005’s Syriana) – but it might motivate a kinder interaction with the the grumpy widower next door. And what better reason could there be to enjoy a good tearjerker without guilt?

Rachel Macaulay is a London-based screenwriter. @rachelmacaulay



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