Why are movies so compelling? Why did I spend the weekend binge watching an entire season of a TV drama? Fortunately for me, I can prevent myself from getting hooked on many such programs. Yet our addiction to the screen can be so seductive that it requires daily fixes. Over the past 100 years, filmmakers have discovered clever ways of capturing our attention and moving us through a dramatic plot. From a psychological standpoint, if we could uncover the attraction of movies, we may better understand basic features of human nature, such as motivational drive, spatial perception, imagination, and social engagement.
The scientific path to our understanding of movies is best approached by considering how filmmakers guide us through a dramatic plot. In one study, psychologist Tim Smithrecorded eye movement behavior while individuals watched clips of feature films, such Blade Runner and There Will Be Blood. Interestingly, as they watched a movie clip virtually all of the subjects began to fixate on the same spots on the screen at the same time. Smith calls this phenomenon attentional synchrony, and it is as if filmmakers—through acting, set design, movement, sound, and editing—know exactly how to direct our attention. Indeed, Walter Murch, the Academy Award winning film editor and author of In the Blink of an Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing, suggested that good filmmakers must be aware of the psychology of the viewer: “What is the audience going to be thinking at any particular moment? Where are they going to be looking? What do you want them to think about? And, of course, what do you want them to feel?” (Murch, 2001, pg 21).