Pixar’s new film Inside Out provides an interesting spin on how to understand what’s going on in the mind of an 11-year-old girl. The bulk of the action takes place inside protagonist Riley’s head, where a group of emotions (Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger) work together (or not) to direct her behavior.
The film’s primary conflict is a compelling one: it depicts Riley’s response to a major, life-changing event – a cross-country move. But from the perspective of a practicing clinical child psychologist with 30 years of experience, it’s only partly successful in accurately depicting why children react the way they do.
Most tweens would have difficulty with a cross-country move at the start of middle school, and Riley is, understandably, sad, angry, disgusted and fearful. She loses interest in things she used to like to do. The fact that her parents are also stressed, making it difficult for them to pick up on her angst until it is almost too late, also rings true.
Riley’s life appears to be run by her emotions. The character Joy is chief among them: it’s a core part of who she is, and a great deal of energy is expended to keep her feeling and acting in positive ways. Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger all have roles, and their order of appearance makes sense, developmentally.
Joy not only tries to keep the other emotions in check, but she’s also in charge of making sure that the core memories – which seem to define key areas of Riley’s functioning – are intact. A lot of time is devoted to trying to keep Sadness away, since she could taint these happy memories.
But the notion that memories can be preserved unaltered is not in line with most current research thinking. Childhood traumatic events can be remembered accurately or inaccurately, while the field of eyewitness testimony is rife with examples of memories that are moderated by perception or time.
Furthermore, the emotions and behaviors of Riley are depicted using the same framework that adults often use to interpret their emotions. This misses the mark.
Children aren’t simply little adults; as developmental psychologists like Urie Bronfenbrenner have noted, it’s important to take into account the extent to which children are embedded in systems like family and school, where parents and teachers play a huge role in teaching children Riley’s age how to mediate their feelings.
Most 11-year-olds can tell you that they have feelings – and can name a few (though most would not name Disgust) – but more often than not, these feelings can overwhelm them. Adults, then, help them understand and make sense of their feelings, which is a gradual process.
In the end, the different characters for the emotions are altogether too mechanistic. It might be a nice way to show children that they have feelings, but it’s not really the way feelings work.
The film does have some signature strengths. The most authentic aspect of the film was the portrayal of conversations among Riley and her parents. Seeing her mother’s and then her father’s “inner emotions” react (like Riley, the parents also have characters assigned to their emotions) was a wonderful mapping of the kind of patterns that we see whenever families interact.
For example, at the dinner table, Mom gives Dad a look that’s intended to signal that he needs to take her side during an argument with Riley.
Dad’s emotions frantically discuss what she might mean. (“I wasn’t paying attention.” “Did we leave the toilet seat up again?” “Wait for her to do it again.”) Meanwhile, Mom’s (annoyed) emotions decide that she would have been better off with a former suitor. The humor with which it was handled was truly refreshing.
Similarly, one of the best aspects of the film is that Joy realizes that she must work with Sadness to enrich Riley’s emotional life. This is an age-appropriate realization; increased empathy in girls, especially, occurs at around Riley’s age.
Riley has a lot of experiences coming her way, as evidenced by the installation of the new control console at the end of the film with a red button labeled “puberty.” Like most adolescents, she will experience highs and lows, as her friends become more central and she discovers romantic feelings.
And it also sounds like groundwork being laid for a sequel centered on Riley’s pubescent years.