St. Paul, Minn. — What can children’s movies like Toy Story, Treasure Island, and Old Yeller tell us about how Americans convey and develop moral values? That was the question Rachel Gehman ‘19 wanted to explore for her senior capstone project after she returned from a 2018 summer research opportunity with Prof. David Schwebel, a psychology professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. It turns out there’s a lot we can learn about morality from children’s movies.  

Gehman, who is now in the psychological science graduate program at the University of Vermont, enlisted the help of Psychology Professor Steve Guglielmo, and together, the three transformed Gehman’s original question into two peer-reviewed studies that were recently published in PLOS ONE. Professor Guglielmo shares some of the insights they discovered. 

Q: Why did you choose to focus on children’s movies and their depictions of morality? What about that was interesting?

The main reason is that children’s movies are a vehicle for being able to learn about morality, and they’re designed for the sort of audience whose values and understanding of moral ideas and moral behavior is very much in development. And then the other piece is that we wanted to look at popular movies, with the idea of trying to identify the sort of media that is most widely viewed, digested, and consumed in some way.

Q: Can you give a sample of the range of movies that you looked at in your two studies?

We selected specifically the movies that were top-grossing. A lot of the movies that ended up in the final selection were animated movies like Shrek, Toy Story, Finding Nemo, movies like that. But they included a wide range of other kinds of films as well. One that we talk about at various points in the paper, which was one of my favorite movies growing up, is Treasure Island. We went back about 70 years.

Q: You drew on an influential theory of moral judgment called Moral Foundations Theory (MFT) to develop and test predictions about the depiction of morality in children’s movies. Briefly, can you explain what MFT is?

It’s a theoretical approach to really try to understand ways of categorizing the kinds of moral values or moral concerns that all people have. And what the theory suggests is that you could take all the sorts of moral judgments that we make and the moral values that we have, and distill them into two kinds of overarching categories. Some concerns are what they call the “individualizing concerns.” And those have to do with thinking about the fair and appropriate treatment of individuals. More specifically, not wanting individuals to experience physical or emotional harm and wanting people to be treated fairly as opposed to unfairly. And these concerns contrast with what they call “binding concerns,” which have to do with binding individuals to the social groups they are a part of. These concerns have to do with things like loyalty—being loyal to your social groups—and obeying authority figures that exist in a hierarchical kind of structure.

Then the other piece that the theory talks about is that those two overarching categories are systematically related to people’s political orientation. So depending on whether people identify as liberal or conservative, that’s going to help us predict how much they care about individualizing concerns and how much they care about binding concerns.

Q: This paper covers two separate but related studies. What questions were you looking to answer with the first study?

In the first study, what we wanted to do is take this leading theory, Moral Foundations Theory, and see what the actual moral characteristics are that heroes and villains in children’s movies display. Then more specifically, we wanted to know what might be the profile differences in heroes versus villains. So how can we understand the kinds of characteristics that heroes might have versus the kinds of characteristics that villains might have. And the prediction was that overall, what we know from the literature, is that even though there are some political differences, there’s a lot of agreement that people really care about these so-called individualizing foundations. People really are bothered when someone else experiences physical or emotional harm. People really are bothered when someone else is treated unfairly. So our prediction was that heroic characters would be most concerned with preventing harm and ensuring fairness, and that, in contrast, villains would have the sort of opposite profile, that they would be more concerned with these binding concerns about loyalty and authority. And indeed, this is what we found. 

Q: What questions were you looking to answer with the second study and what hypotheses did you have there?

In the second study, we wanted to answer what we thought was really a complementary question: We wanted to know what might people’s own preferences be for the sort of moral depictions that they think movies should present. What we thought based on previous research is that people who identify as more conservative, they’re going to want movies to present moral depictions that show the characters making decisions that exemplify loyalty and authority. And people who identify as liberal would prefer moral messages or moral depictions that communicate the importance of minimizing harm and treating others fairly.

Q: What were the main conclusions you were able to draw from these studies?

At the most general level, one conclusion is that there is loads of information about morality presented in kids’ movies. But more specifically, we found two key things. The first is that political identity was correlated with preferences. Liberals preferred messages about fairness and conservatives preferred messages about loyalty. 

The other notable result was that there was stronger agreement across political ideology on the importance of fairness. So despite some political differences, liberals and conservatives largely agree that avoiding individual harm and promoting fairness are important moral values, and these are the very values that heroic characters exhibit. 

Q: For whom are these findings most useful—parents, filmmakers, studios—and what should be their takeaways from these results?

Yeah, it’s a good question. You know, I think they are relevant to filmmakers and writers in the sense that one thing we show is that there’s an appetite for messages that show a particular pattern or that present characters that value certain kinds of things, namely minimizing harm and ensuring fairness. Those sorts of moral depictions resonate with a pretty wide range of viewers.

I think there could be takeaways for parents as well. A major part of what enables us to have functional social relationships is being able to recognize when someone is suffering, when someone is in need of help, when someone is being treated unfairly. And having these considerations can be really useful tools for improving our ability to engage in successful social relationships, especially throughout development. So I think that’s one message for parents, that attending to these concerns about fairness and communicating the importance of those to our kids is going to be useful to develop those skills and values. I think the findings are consistent with what is modeled, taught and learned throughout childhood development.

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May 10 2021

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