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.
Take Your Lover to See a Romantic Comedy
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.
Males and Females Reacted Differently to Movies
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.
The second part of the study involved 81 undergraduates who studied five films, one violent, one R-rated for sex, and three features: "Brokeback Mountain," about two gay cowboys; "American History X," a violent film dealing with brutal racism, and "Notebook," a love story.
Each participant was instructed to imagine watching one of the movies with a spouse, parents, first date, and two same-sex friends.
"By far the most uncomfortable combination was watching the sexual movie with one's parents," the study concluded. Not surprisingly, the men largely felt ok watching a violent film, and the women enjoyed the love story. And most would hate to see a raunchy downer on a first date.
"You go to a movie on a first date and you say, oh, I didn't realize this was so sexual," Harris said. "You don't really enjoy it very much under those circumstances whereas seeing it with someone else would be fine."
Some Films Can Have Immediate Impact, Research Indicates
Even bad movies, or movies about bad things, might be beneficial, he added.
"'American History X' was a very, very grim movie about racist skinheads," he said. "I heard about it when it came out, but I didn't want to see it. I happened to see it later at a conference and it was just horribly grim and wrenching and depressing, but I remember thinking I was glad I saw it.
"It gave me some insight into that mindset, that subculture, but I never want to see it again," he said. "Once was enough. But I think I'm a little better person for having seen it once."
Some of Harris' earlier research suggests that some experiences may be nearly universal.
"About 10 years ago we asked 265 college students to think about a movie they saw as a child or a teen that really scared them," he said. "We asked them what they remembered experiencing emotionally. I didn't know how many people actually have those kind of memories, but 100 percent of our sample could do that. Everybody had that kind of experience."
Some said they couldn't sleep with the light off, and many were terrified of spiders after seeing "Arachnophobia."
"They had very vivid and very specific memories," he said.
Some films can have an immediate impact, especially if you see it with the right person. Harris said a friend of his, who stuttered, went to "The King's Speech" with his son, about 30, who also stutters.
"For them, that was just an extremely powerful experience," Harris said. "It brought them closer together as father and son. They talked about it together long afterward, and the father said it was one of the best things for their relationship in a long time."
So movies, and who we watch them with, can "tap into very powerful emotions."
Incidentally, I asked Harris which film he thinks will win the Oscar this year for best picture. He said it looks like a toss-up between "Social Network" and "The King's Speech."
But then he slipped and let the truth out. He's for George VI, or was that Colin Firth?