Mind games: The psychology of the Hunger Games

This week’s edition of Psych Wednesdays was written by Maya Kuehn and was originally published on Psych Your Mind on April 9th, 2012.

Watching The Hunger Games come to life on screen (at, full disclosure, a midnight show), I found that actually witnessing the slaughter of several teenagers was more gut-wrenchingly graphic than it had seemed in the books. So when (PYM blogger and fellow social psychologist) Amie asked me whether the movie was gruesome, I had to admit it was. But because I can’t resist translating my bizarrely specific psychological know-how to daily advice, I encouraged her to use her favorite emotion regulation strategy while viewing the more horrifying scenes. Just what does this mean, and what other aspects of The Hunger Games could social psychology address? Allow me to elaborate. 

Pick a strategy, any strategy: Emotion regulation techniques

We have an arsenal of tricks we can use to handle a repulsive or upsetting image on the silver screen, known as emotion regulation strategies. My personal favorite is simply closing my eyes (or hiding them behind my fingers, staring at the Exit sign, etc.), which is a strategy known as “attention deployment,” aka distraction. By not fixating on the scary/gross/tragic scene, I calm myself down. This is a very effective strategy for dealing with images that are upsetting but fleeting, like a Tracker Jacker victim’s decomposing body.

Another useful technique is “cognitive reappraisal,” which means changing how you’re thinking about the scene in front of you and saying things to yourself like, “It’s just a movie. They’re just actors. That’s just makeup, not blood. And this is made up!” Viewing it in this detached, clinical way reduces your emotional response to the movie, but lets you keep watching your favorite gorgeous characters (instead of avoiding it entirely, as in distraction).

But can everyone easily remove themselves from the fantasy presented in a movie, or are some people likely to get more wrapped up in Katniss’s reality?

Empathy for everybody, even fictional characters

Do you frequently cry when reading books? Readily identify with characters in novels and/or plays? Feel yourself swept along with a narrative and invested in its endpoint? I surely do. And it turns out researchers think of this as a component of empathy (Davis, 1983). Being able to put yourself into imagined roles, situations, and worlds is, as Amie has written about on this blog before, associated with greater concern for others and more emotional vulnerability, as well as higher SAT verbal scores (maybe because such folks enjoy reading more).

If you are easily immersed in fictional worlds and prone to intense emotions in the movie theater, it may be trickier for you to disengage from the scene in front of you. That is, once a stimulus (like a movie scene) has elicited a full-blown emotional response (deep sadness at the death of Rue, for instance), it’s more difficult to pull back and re-interpret the scene in a less upsetting manner (Sheppes & Meiran, 2008). At that point, distraction is an easier option, though it will probably reduce your memory of whatever you’re watching (or avoiding by carefully studying your hand, as the case may be). Sometimes I combine strategies to make it easier, distracting myself until I’m calmer and then telling myself it’s just a movie.

So even if you’re prone to blubbering your way through a mound of tissues while watching, well, pretty much anything (I regularly cry at ASPCA commercials, no lie), there are ways to calm yourself down.

Love on the battlefield: Misattribution of arousal 

Misattribution of arousal (previously described here) states that we often will mistakenly attribute our arousal to someone around us, like a potential romantic partner. So if you’ve just narrowly evaded death, you might find yourself suddenly attracted to someone who normally doesn’t interest you.

Obviously, the arena in The Hunger Games is rife with fear and adrenaline, putting the characters in a constant state of arousal. Katniss and Peeta, who have an admittedly rocky relationship on the way into the arena, find themselves experiencing intense feelings for one another while huddled in a cave, terrified and hiding for their lives. Perhaps they channeled their adrenaline into this newfound love connection, helping them gain a sense of control and clarity in understanding their own bodily signals.

Of course there were countless other dramatic reasons for Katniss and Peeta to fall for one another. But next time you find yourself cowering in a cave with a potentially special someone, keep your wits about you to avoid falling falsely in love. Unless that someone wants to save your life, in which case you were clearly meant to be — just like the star-crossed lovers from District 12.

Did you notice other psychologically-relevant moments in the Hunger Games? Did you think the movie lived up to the book? What was your favorite part??

Further Reading  

  • Davis, M. (1983). Measuring individual differences in empathy: Evidence for a multidimensional approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44 (1), 113-126 DOI:10.1037/0022-3514.44.1.113
  • Dutton, D., & Aron, A. (1974). Some evidence for heightened sexual attraction under conditions of high anxiety. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 30 (4), 510-517 DOI:10.1037/h0037031 

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