John Suler's Teaching Clinical Psychology

Psychology and Film

Course Outline

Dr. John Suler - PSY 375
Science and Technology Center
Rider University


The Power of Movies: How Screen and Mind Interact - by Colin McGinn

Psychologists' use of motion pictures in clinical practice - by Lampropoulos and Kasantzis

Concepts in Psychology - a set of images in Flickr by John. Suler

Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche - by John. Suler

psychology of film

This course explores the psychological aspects of how movies are filmed, how they portray fundamental issues in psychology, and how viewers react to them. Understanding images, personality styles, and interpersonal relationships will be essential in our studies. The course emphasizes the learning goal of applying psychological knowledge to the real world issues of how movies are made and how they influence our understanding of human nature. It also emphasizes intrapersonal insight in that we will learn how to understand ourselves by exploring how we react to images and films. We also will use role plays to enhance our understanding of psychology and film.

Part 1 - Introductory lectures and exercises
These lectures and exercises will address the fundamental psychological aspects of images and film making. We will discuss camera angles, temporal and spatial continuity, cutting, close-ups, composition, symbolism, and story boards.

Part 2 - Psychological Issues in Film
During this part of the course, we will watch films, beginning each film on a Tuesday and finishing on Thursday. On Thursdays we will engage in class activities and discussions concerning the movie for that week. The class will participate in suggesting the movies that we will watch. The final selection of movies will be made by Dr. Suler.


In this paper, you will be doing a psychological analysis of a movie of your choice, similar to the kinds of analyses we do in class. Pick a movie that you find interesting, that is personally meaningful to you, and that explores an important psychological issue. It can be one of the issues we discussed in class, or a different one.

Create a title for the paper that is interesting and descriptive, and that captures something important about your psychological analysis. For example, “Reality and Hallucination in The Matrix

Divide the paper up into the following sections, and use these subheadings (left justified and underlined)

1. Summary: Your concise summary of the story, from the beginning to the end of the movie
(one paragraph, half a page)

2. The Issue of XXX: Describe how the movie explores a specific issue in psychology. “XXX” is that issue in the title for this section. (one page total, be sure to organize your writing into separate paragraphs with topic sentences, and not one long paragraph).

3. The Character of XXX: Write a psychological analysis of one particular character in the movie. Devote a separate paragraph to each of these questions (one page total):

  • What are the personality traits of this character?
  • What are his/her underlying needs and motives?
  • What are his/her relationships like with friends, family, people in general, etc.
  • How does he/she change during the course of the movie?
  • How does this character relate to the psychological issue?

4. Scene Analysis: Pick two scenes in the movie. Analyze those scenes according to the ideas from our lectures and readings. Describe how these scenes reveal something important about the character and the psychological issue. Describe the symbolic elements of the scene. Devote one paragraph to each scene (half a page for each scene). If possible, include photos of this scene on a separate page. This is not required, but will be helpful. Online, you may find photos of your movie and they may in fact remind you of important scenes.

5. What This Movie Means to Me: Describe why this movie is interesting to you. How does it relate to your personality and your life? What does it “say” to you? What characters or situations do you identify with, and why? Did you learn anything from this movie? (one paragraph, half a page)


Using APA format, you must cite at least SIX references within the paper, and then include them in a reference list at the end of the paper. These references should include:

STUDY QUESTIONS for the Exam Items about Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

Part 1: Sensation and Perception

- What is the psychological significance of using different types of lines in a movie scene?
- What effect does synesthesia have on a person looking at a visual scene?
- What is the psychological significance of visual texture in a movie scene?
- Why is eye contact important?
- What is the psychological effect of blurry and sharp images?
- How might “habituation” affect your movie watching?
- How does visualizing versus verbalizing affect movie appreciation?
- What effect does vignetting have on how we view a scene in a movie?
- How does bokeh affect a scene in a movie?
- How does “mindfulness” affect watching a movie?
- How might facial asymmetry affect how we perceive an actor?
- How can the Rorschach explain personality differences in how people react to a scene?

Part 2: The Psychology of Composition

- How is the effect of a movie scene with excellent visual composition?
- How does symbolism work in movies?
- How is selective coloring used in a movie scene?
- How does symmetry work in a movie scene?
- How does the “rule of thirds” work in constructing a movie scene?
- What is a change in the “viewpoint” of a scene?
- How is “cropping” in photography similar to “zooming in” in cinematography?
- What are the different types of balance in a scene?
- What would be an example of an “abstract” in a movie scene?
- What is “negative space” and what different psychological effects does it create?
- What are different types of circular compositions? What psychological effects do circular compositions have on viewers?

Part 3: Creative Captures and Post-Processing

- What happens when one breaks the rules of photography or cinematography?
- What is “serendipity” in shooting a scene?
- Why might clones be used in a movie?
- What would be the psychological significance of asking someone to make a list of the different categories of visual images that they like?
- What is artistic voice?
- What does it mean to “capture” a visual image in photography and cinematography?
- Why might head transplants be used in a movie?
- Why would a movie scene be shot during the Golden Hour?
- What are microexpressions?
- How is a movie a kind of self-portrait?

Part 4: Sharing Images

- How can you offer a psychologically “deep” comment on a scene from a movie?
- How can images be therapeutic?
- What would be the differences between a technical and an artistic cinematographer?


the power of movies mcginn

The Power of Movies: How Screen and Mind Interact - by Colin McGinn

You would think that there would be lots of books that take a psychological approach to understanding films and movie-making. Unfortunately, that's not the case. Although a variety of people have written about psychological issues portrayed in movies (such as mental illness), there are relatively few books that specifically apply psychological concepts and theories to how movies are made and what impact they have on us. In my course, I like to focus on this psychological understanding of movies, rather than just discuss how movies portray issues related to psychology.

McGinn's book is one of the exceptions. He takes us on a fascinating journey into how the mind and movies interact with each other, how movies are constructed in a way that mimics the way the mind works, and, of special interest, how movies reflect a dream-like state of consciousness. He compares our experience of movies to how we experience windows, mirrors, microscopes, telescopes, the sky, and fire, as well as how we associate movies with the essence of reality and the self, religion, being inside the mind, and dance.

This is a fascinating work and one I'd highly recommend for anyone teaching a course in psychology and film.

psychology at the movies

Psychology at the Movies - Skip Dine Young

Here's another excellent and easy to read book that applies psychological principles to understanding movies. He covers such topics as what the behaviors seen in movies say about real people and society, the way movies influence our perception of mental illness and psychotherapy, how films reflect the psychology of the film-makers, what makes a film popular, how films are constructed so people can understand them, and how movies influence our behavior.

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