At an early screening of Inside Out, CBS reports, there wasn’t a dry eye in the 4,000-person house. That seems to be the prevailing response to the movie, which follows the anthropomorphized emotions that occupy the mind of a middle-school girl, Riley, who just moved cities with her family. In New York, David Edelstein calls the movie “tear-duct-draining.” A.O. Scott warns New York Times readers that viewers older than the 11-year-old protagonist “are likely to find themselves in tears.” Jack Coyle of the Associated Press asks, “Who better” — than Pixar — “to remind us of the value of a good cry?”
Sentimental themes like the passage of time, homesickness, and social exclusion might make Inside Out an obvious tearjerker, but this is hardly the first Pixar movie to earn that label. In “Dear Pixar: Stop Making Me Cry Like A Bitch,” Deadspin writer and grown man Drew Magary admits to breaking down at most of the Pixar canon (Finding Nemo, Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc.) Bustle recently compiled a ranking of Pixar movies based on how much they make you cry. Psychologists studying tears have used the opening sequence of Up — a montage of a couple’s passage through life, from early romance to shared senescence — to induce crying in lab participants. At this point we know it’s coming, but we’re still powerless to stop it. But what exactly is it about Pixar movies that makes critics, parents, and college students so consistently well up?
Part of the answer may lie in the babyish features of Pixar’s animated figures, which “automatically evoke tender feelings,” according to Ad Vingerhoets, author of Why Only Humans Weep and a professor of psychology at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. In 1943, ethologist Konrad Lorenz theorized that human infants evolved a certain set of “cute” features — large, wide-set eyes; chubby cheeks; disproportionately tiny hands and feet — that function as a signal of vulnerability. That set of traits — which Lorenz dubbed the baby schema — is embodied by other creatures we happen to find cute: puppies, ducklings, and teddy bears. Also: cartoons.
Biologist Stephen Jay Gould posited that the evolution of Mickey Mouse from the long-legged, evenly proportioned, and unpopular character conceived in the 1920s to the pudgy, big-eyed cartoon beloved today actually represents Disney cartoonists’ unconscious realization that audiences are attracted to the baby schema. Pixar characters’ magnified eyes and mouths might also be better than humans’ at conveying emotion. “It could be that with the large facial features, it is simply easier to understand what the characters are really feeling,” suggested Oriana Aragon, a psychologist at Yale and author of several papers on crying.
We’re hardwired to want to take care of cute creatures, and when they’re animated characters on a screen, we can’t. The feelings of powerlessness that may result are also strongly linked to crying: According to Vingerhoets and Lauren Bylsma, a psychiatrist at the University of Pittsburgh, helplessness is the feeling that most often triggers crying (which makes sense if crying evolved as a way to signal distress and a need for help). It’s particularly potent when combined with a secondary emotion like sadness, fear, or disappointment.
Pixar excels at evoking these complementary feelings. Its films tend to dwell on themes like youth, family, friendship, and the passage of time: subjects with which most viewers have no trouble identifying. The more closely we can relate to the experiences portrayed onscreen, the more likely we are to have a strong emotional reaction. That’s something we know intuitively — we seek out stories that “speak to us” and avoid subjects that hit too close to home — but it’s also been demonstrated in the lab. In 2004, Melanie Green, then a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, gave undergraduates a story about a gay man going to his college fraternity’s union and being confronted with homophobia among the new class. Readers who had gay friends or family members or a high degree of familiarity with frats scored higher on tests of “narrative transportation,” indicating that they were more absorbed by the story.
Emotional movies rank among the most common causes of adults’ crying. In 1983, scientist William Frey had 331 adults keep a diary tracking all of their crying episodes for a month, and found that 32 percent of their crying spells were triggered by movies, TV, or books. We’re prepared to cry when we go to the cinema: In a survey of 678 adults, Aragon found that two-thirds said they cry while watching the saddest moments of movies. (Over half said they tear up during the happiest parts, too.) And movie theaters — like shower stalls and other popular crying locations — offer a measure of privacy. “We don’t usually want others to perceive us as vulnerable,” said Randolph Cornelius, co-editor of Adult Crying: A Biopsychosocial Approach. “The darkness that surrounds us at theaters and at home hides our vulnerability.”
The most important piece of the puzzle, though, might be more basic: Pixar movies are emotive because they’re great stories. That’s something that’s hard to break down in the lab.