I’ve noticed something that can be controversial to admit as a movie fanatic: I enjoy knowing the outcome of a movie. Predicting the plot twist and being correct gives me a kick. I like it when I correctly guess who the ‘mysterious’ villain is, who you haven’t seen on the screen yet. Even worse, I hate it when the movie doesn’t give enough information to guess the cryptic bad guy. For me, a movie that is unpredictable is substandard and leaves me unsatisfied. Why is that? As any reasonable Communication Science student would do, I decided to do the only logical thing: research.
The Aesthetic “Aha!”
To begin, seeing familiar tropes and expected outcomes makes us feel good mentally. Behavioral scientist, Pamela Rutledge, explains: “The human brain loves patterns and the predictability is cognitively rewarding”. It is proven that predictability creates a sense of comfort, it reduces anxiety and uncertainty within ourselves. If we can figure out a complex movie before the reveal happens it can make us feel better and more comfortable. It’s like the infamous quote “I told you so”. It makes us feel good that we were able to put all of the puzzle pieces together. Maybe it’s even a moment to feel proud, or smart. It’s the moment we recognize the pattern of the story that we go “Aha! I know what is going to happen. I did it”.
Why is it that most movies follow roughly the same story arc? And why does it work? It’s interesting to look at the Hero’s Journey that is often used as the storytelling framework in movies since the ’70s. The Hero’s Journey based on the book ‘The hero with a thousand faces’ from Joseph Campbell explains the stages that the protagonist goes through during his story. Based on the old Greek mythology, a fill-in storyline of twelve steps is created. When simplified, in the first act the ‘hero’ is shaken up from his ordinary world and called towards an adventure. Then in the second act, the hero has all kinds of tests, allies and enemies he faces before he reaches the crisis with an emotional all-time low as a consequence. Out of this crisis, the protagonist finds new hope. Then, in the third act, he overcomes the biggest challenge, which eventually leads to success. But why do we like to watch this storyline over and over again? What is the selling attribute?
People seek certainty and a clear narrative structure is familiar, predictable and comforting.
There are several reasons why the hero’s journey can be powerful: first, it helps us understand the protagonist; we see the change he goes through and the challenges he faces. Second, it also provides us with order; people seek certainty and a clear narrative structure is familiar, predictable and comforting. It offers us a pattern to follow, which at the same time gives us the opportunity to know what is going to happen. It makes a movie logical, and with it, predictable.
Attraction of Stereotypes
Nothing feels more deserving than a villain who is punished for his crimes, and a protagonist who gets what he wants in the end. When we watch a film we are constantly morally evaluating the actions of the characters. According to the Affective Disposition Theory, this judgment of good and bad determines our enjoyment of the movie. When we have a positive affect towards a character, we hope for a good outcome and fear a bad one. If this expectation is met, we enjoy the movie more. Coupled with when we have a negative affect towards a character, we hope for bad and fear good. When this is proven to be the case, we experience pleasure.
The easiest way to have people enjoy your movie is to make this moral evaluation clear. What better way to make it happen than to use predictable stereotypes? According to researchers from Taylor’s college, we use stereotypes to simplify our social world and reduce the amount of processing we have to do upon meeting a character. A predictable character is easy to evaluate and morally judge, which makes it easier for you to predict what is going to happen to them, which will make your enjoyment of the movie bigger.
A Communication Science Student’s Judgment
Now that I have hyper-analyzed my own psyche it feels easier to admit: I like watching predictable movies. And according to (my own) research, I am probably not alone. When we watch a movie we find enjoyment in the predictability, we like to recognize patterns, we like to be right. The only thing awaiting me now is finding a solution for the rage my housemate feels when I do my predictions out loud…
Edited by: Debby Mogot