8 Things Movies Can Teach You About Human Nature


By studying what makes a great story you can learn a lot about human nature.

Stories aren’t just distractions — our brains are wired for story and studies show they are a fundamental part of the way we perceive the world.

Stories are how we form meaning in our lives and they are vital to everything from career to family to happiness.

UCLA Film School professor Howard Suber’s book The Power of Film is meant to teach cinematic storytelling — but also conveys deep lessons about human nature and the values cultures throughout time have held dear.

Here are some selections:



Via The Power of Film:

Deep down inside many of us lies the fear that there is no deep down inside — that all we are is what our genes, our society, our schooling, and other forces outside ourselves have made us. This leads to the fear that, if other people saw what we were really like, they would cease to love us, cease to respect us, and cease to have anything to do with us. And so, we pretend to be what we are not.

Memorable comedic and dramatic scenes often involve and unmasking, where the pretenses of the character are stripped away. Singin’ in the RainTootsieThe Graduate, and Some Like It Hot all have them, and so do Citizen KaneSunset BoulevardThe Godfather, and ChinatownSo much energy goes into masking; it follows, therefore, that scenes of unmasking are inherently powerful.



Via The Power of Film:

Heroes are better than we are, not necessarily because they possess greater powers than we do, but because they are willing to sacrifice more than we are.

“Sacrifice” comes from the same root as “sacred,” and throughout history there has been a reciprocal relationship between the two. What people hold sacred often demands sacrifice; conversely, when someone makes a sacrifice, he and his actions tend to take on an aura of the sacred…

The hero generally gains little or no reward for his sacrifice — it is the community that gains. To the extent the hero does personally gain from his sacrifice, he ceases to be a hero and becomes simply a smart operator.

Sacrifice becomes sacred when it is truly selfless.



Via The Power of Film:

Like religion, people go to movies, not to see the world as it really is but to see a world that compensates for the one they know. If stories survive, it is because they help us to survive, because what we experience in life is not adequate to sustain us and because the desires we have for justice, truth, compassion, and excitement can often only be fulfilled in the world of the imagination.



Via The Power of Film:

Happiness has nothing to do with being a hero. The need for happiness is, in fact, one of the things the hero has transcended. This is one of the reasons ordinary people aren’t interested in becoming heroes in real life. Parents in democratic societies don’t say, “I want my child to grow up to be a hero”; they say, “I want my child to grow up to be happy.” It is society that wants heroes, not the people who love them.

Heroes are usually the most honorable of people, but they are seldom the most successful or the happiest. Success is something the hero no longer aspires to, and happiness is something the hero no longer is concerned with, or perhaps even capable of.

To choose heroism is to choose pain, sacrifice, loss, and sometimes even death. What sane person would do this? When we hear a character say to the hero, “Are you crazy?” it is often a reasonable question. Heroes are like saints: they die for our sins, and happiness is beside the point.



Via The Power of Film:

The word “decision” comes from the same root as “scissors.” When people make decisions, they cut themselves off, not only from something that might lie ahead but also from a possible escape route that would allow them to back out of their decision. That is why making a decision can, in itself, be dramatic and memorable — in life as well as film.



Via The Power of Film:

The sacred texts of the three major western religions are obsessed with loss, as are a good proportion of the world’s memorable poems, novels and films. The loss of something important is often the true beginning of the film’s story or it ends the story — often both…

Loss and memory go together, and the number of memorable films that evoke or are explicitly about memory is astonishing. This is because memory itself deals with that which is lost; if something is still present, there is no need for memory. On the other hand, if we lose our memories, who are we? The recognition of the crucial role memory plays in defining our humanity explains why Alzheimer’s is often considered the worst of diseases.

A very large proportion of America’s most memorable films are permeated by loss. It is the great universal theme, the emotion that everyone can identify with and be moved by.



Via The Power of Film:

You seek your destiny; you succumb to your fate. Destiny originates within the self; fate comes from outside. Fate is the force that lies beyond individual will and control; it pushes you from behind. Destiny is the attracting force in front of you that acts like a magnet and that you choose to acquire.

Popular American films invariably encourage us to believe in destiny and to deny the existence of fate — if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be popular. The idea that you can seize control of your destiny is the central tenet of America’s unstated state religion, Individualism. It is the ideology that the United States exports to the rest of the world, and perhaps more than any other single factor, explains the ongoing appeal of American films.

At their most powerful, American films are sacred dramas for a secular society. What is most sacred in American society is the faith Americans have, which we see in virtually every popular film, that each individual possesses within himself the power to control his destiny.



Via The Power of Film:

The greatest gift one human being can give another is a recognition of his or her own potential. And the greatest curse is to cause that person to lose faith in his or her own potential.

This is why parents, mentors, teachers, and other authority figures have such power over us. We trust their ability to judge what we are capable of. When they believe we can do something, we believe we can; when they doubt it, so do we.

The function of Obi-Wan Kenobi and a host of other mentors, teachers, trainers and authority figures is not to exert their power over other characters — it is to help them realize that they have it.

Curious to learn more?

Here’s my interview with Howard.

Join 45K+ readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

Related posts:

What 10 things should you do every day to improve your life?

What do people regret the most before they die?

What five things can make sure you never stop growing and learning?

Post Details