Movies can recreate history in a convincing way, leaving us with vivid memories of events that helped shape our lives. Even if they never really happened.
"For millions of people the way Jesse Eisenberg played the role of Mark Zuckerberg became Mark Zuckerberg," according to cognitive psychologist Richard Harris. "Whether that happens to be true, or not true," the image portrayed by Eisenberg in the Oscar contender Social Network will for many people always be Zuckerberg, the cofounder of Facebook, Harris said.
Harris, a psychology professor at Kansas State University in Manhattan, has been studying how movies affect us for more than a decade, but he began experiencing the lingering impact of a good drama many years earlier.
"I saw 'The Ten Commandments' as a kid, and to this day, and for the rest of my life, every time something comes up about Moses I think of Charlton Heston," he said.
Harris's latest study, involving more than 400 college students on his campus, found that a movie's impact doesn't just depend on the content, although that's by far the most important element. It also makes a difference who you see the movie with.
The bottom line is this: Don't see a porno flick with your parents. Do take your lover to see a romantic story. You're more likely to feel disgust than sadness over violence or raunchy sex, but being sad might be more useful, even if the dog dies in the end.
Harris's latest research, to be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, concedes some of his findings are preliminary, and they result from an imperfect world where even a research scientist has to make mild compromises.
For part of the study, he had to be satisfied with what his participants thought would happen, not with an actual real-life experiment.
For example, in his Midwestern community, he couldn't sit down his students with their parents to watch a movie with bits of explicit sex. If he had tried that he probably couldn't have stopped running until he reached California.
But the thing his participants thought would be the most dreadful movie-watching experience of all would be just that -- watching porno with their parents.
"We didn't know until we did the study that that would be a really toxic combination," Harris said. But he said it's a "fairly reliable conclusion."
Who would doubt it?
The research consists of two experiments. The first involved 338 undergraduates enrolled in a psychology class. They were asked to come up with the name of a movie that made them really uncomfortable. They ended up with a long list of 159 different movies, including "Brokeback Mountain," which led the list, "The Hills Have Eyes," "American History X," "Saw" and others.
Not surprisingly, males and females reacted differently to the movies.
Women were more likely than men to discuss their reaction with others after the movie. Men would just as soon forget it.
"By far the most frequent emotional reaction across all movie types was disgust," the study found. "Particularly for comedy (apparently not very funny) and pornography."
Sadness ranked second to disgust, but more participants were willing to watch the sad film again than the disgusting film, leading Harris to conclude they were more open to being sad than being disgusted.