It has to be rare that a psychological theory becomes the basis for a Disney movie. As far back as Darwin, evolutionary theorists have searched for the function of emotions in human life. The assumption behind evolutionary theory, of course, is that the features of living things exist because they aid in securing survival. Beyond the more physical and physiological features, the ultimate goal of evolutionary theory is to produce an account of all features, including psychological features of living beings. Thus, the emergence of the evolutionary theory of emotions. Emotions are features of living things, thus they must have functions in securing the survival of the species in which they inhere.
Without raising explicitly the specter of evolutionary origins, Disney’s Inside Out provides an introduction to the basics of an evolutionary/functional theory of the emotions.
The movie is set in the interior world of the self, where figures representing different emotions govern the behavior of a little girl named Riley. When Riley is born, we are told, her inner world was first directed by Joy – being both a proper name and a descriptive account of the character. In general, this fits with the typical modern idea that human beings are directed first by their desire for pleasure. For the rest of the movie Joy will be the primary narrator and the ideal leader of the group controlling Riley’s mental life.
Of course, it is not long before Joy is joined in the control room of Riley’s mind by Sadness. Sadness immediately makes Riley upset, and she and Joy spend most of Riley’s early years fighting for control. Eventually, these two are joined by Disgust, Anger, and Fear.
Joy explains the function of each of the emotions. Disgust prevents Riley from coming into contact with things that are poisonous to her body. Anger is, following a classical account, “the moral emotion.” It/He takes control when Riley perceives that something is unfair (thus securing that she gets her share of goods). Fear inhibits dangerous activities so as to preserve Riley’s life.
Joy is, however, unsure of the function of Sadness. Indeed, for much of the movie, Joy believes that Sadness has no proper function, and tries to marginalize Sadness at every opportunity. The conflict between the two sets off the events that will drive the narrative. Joy’s wish to prevent Sadness from influencing Riley leads to a catastrophic collapse of Riley’s personality as Riley is progressively cut off from her relationships and social activities– parents, sports team, play, etc.
Ultimately, in order to bring things back into balance, Joy has to realize that Sadness does serve a function. Namely, Sadness triggers reactions from others that come into support Riley’s life. When Riley is sad, Riley’s parents step in to comfort and nourish her. Sadness is an alarm bell that engages Riley’s social safety net.
Is this psychological thriller an adequate account of human psychological functioning? No. In part this is a function of the mechanisms necessary for imagining the mental world as run by homunculi. Since the emotions are imagined as different characters, they are artificially separated from each other. Anyone who has ever gone on a roller coaster, for instance, knows that fear and joy are sometimes indistinguishable. It is also impossible to maintain the scheme of characters that are identified only with one emotion. All of the emotions in the movie are, for instance, at some point afraid of something.
More problematic are some of the assumptions of modern psychology that are built into the background of the narrative. The picture of the person that we get is driven by emotions, especially by the drive for pleasure. Reason is almost entirely marginalized. There are references to thoughts and abstract thinking, but these appear to be tools for the emotions to use in directing the person, not substantive features of personality themselves.
It is also noteworthy that the idea of a unified person is entirely left behind in the scheme of the movie. Riley, as it turns out has no identity. She is not an agent, does not have free will, and it is hard to think of any sense in which she would be responsible for her own actions. Her decision to run away from her parents in the movie, for instance, is “plugged in” by Anger.
This said, the picture of human psychology presented will probably provide some language for discussions with children. While the process of maturing into adulthood is not explicitly discussed, it is interesting to muse that it might require certain destructive periods as we re-make our personalities across time. And the movie presents really interesting possibilities for discussing depression, which is notably separated from Sadness in helpful ways in the movie. The movie does well in recognizing that our mental life is tied to our social and material context. Finally, I have already had to field questions from my eldest daughter about the “puberty” alarm that is highlighted at the end of the movie!
Now, before you say it (if you haven’t already), I know that this is a Disney cartoon. It is fun, funny, and action pact. The psychological scheme represented is necessarily overly-simple, and in service to a story line. So, you don’t have to process all the way through the psychological theory behind the narrative. But, if you do, it is worth it to find some of the background assumptions that will be shaping your child’s imagination as they conceive of themselves in the future.