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MSU Professor seeks to find out how we interpret moral understanding from films

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When we’re kids, we start to learn the difference between right and wrong. But how much of that development comes from the movies we watch at that age?

A team of researchers that includes a Michigan State University professor is trying to answer that question through a three-year interdisciplinary study funded by a $1 million grant from the Art Seeking Understanding initiative of the Templeton Religion Trust.

The study brings together professors from four different academic disciplines: communication science, psychology, philosophy and film studies.

Carl Plantinga teaches communication at Calvin University and is the project director. The co-investigators are Murray Smith who teaches film studies at the University of Kent and Daniel Levin who teaches psychology and human development at Vanderbilt University.

WKAR's Megan Schellong spoke with the group's co-director, Allison Eden, an associate professor in the Department of Communication about the research project.

Interview Highlights

On determining which films will be used to study moral right vs wrong

We're working to figure out what films actually do instigate these types of changes in moral beliefs and attitudes. And so right now we're in the process of narrowing down the films that we're going to study. So ... we haven't finalized that yet. That's actually the first step of our study.

On what Eden thinks is the most unique aspect of the study

We've got experts from domains of aesthetic cognitivism philosophy of film, media, psychology, and communication science and neuroscience, all working together to really understand how character engagement might drive changes in moral understanding through film. And so having experts from all these different domains, working on the same question and trying to work together to answer it from lots of different ways of knowing is really unique and a really exciting opportunity.

On the questions she’s hoping to answer at the end of the 3-year study

One of the things that we're working on in this three-year project is how can we contribute insights from lots and lots of different ways of knowing to understand how films specifically, characters in films might change people's moral understanding? Is it character engagement? Is it post-film reflection? Is it the viewing situation? Is it specific elements in the film itself or in the individual themselves?

Interview Transcript

Megan Schellong: When we’re kids we learn the difference between right and wrong, but how much of that development comes from the movies we watch at that age?

A team of researchers that includes a Michigan State University professor is trying to answer that question through a three-year interdisciplinary study.

Allison Eden is an associate professor in the Department of Communication and is the group’s co-director.

Allison, thanks for joining me.

Allison Eden: Thanks for having me, Megan.

Schellong: So walk me through this. How is the study going to work?

Eden: Well, the study is a three-year project, we're looking at how we contextualize moral behavior that we see in films and how that might lead to changes in our moral thoughts about what is right and wrong outside of the film environment. So, we're working on some ideas, including things like, do characters make a huge difference in the types of things we think about after seeing a movie? And how does thinking about those characters lead to changes in what we are terming your "moral understanding.” Your moral understanding is basically your ideas about what's right and wrong in a broader societal sense.

Schellong: Is there a specific film that made you want to pursue this study or had an impact on your own understanding of morality?

Eden: Well, I think I came of age, sort of in that the era of the anti-hero, so the late 90s, you know, Fight Club and The Matrix and things like that, where we watch some people that were not very good, take on really, sort of, complicated moral choices. And so for me, I've always been interested in how people respond to those types of morally ambiguous characters, and how we, you know, relate to them and rationalize them within our own moral frameworks.

Schellong: Parents with young kids are often selective about the types of movies that they're showing their kids. How will your study play into this selection, if at all?

Eden: Well, I have to say we're really focusing on college students versus younger children. Although what's interesting is when we asked college students about the films that they felt had a large moral impact on them, a lot of those films were films that they watched as children.

So we have things like Finding Nemo and The Lion King really come up strongly in our surveys of what films made a big moral impact on you. One thing that also seems to play a big role in in these moral lessons that students learn from films is the parental influence.

So I remember watching this film with my parents, and we talked about what it would feel like to be in that situation as the character. So, it's not necessarily about what type of film but it's sort of about the viewing environment and how you incorporate those lessons later in life.

Schellong: Can you point us to a particular film your study is going to explore that opens up the conversation between this idea of a moral right and wrong?

Eden: Well, not really a particular film. We're in the process right now. We're working to figure out what films actually do instigate these types of changes in moral beliefs and attitudes. And so right now we're in the process of narrowing down the films that we're going to study. So, we haven't, we haven't finalized that yet. That's actually the first step of our study.

Schellong: Allison, what would you say is the most unique aspect of this study?

Eden: Well, I think something that's really unique about this study is that we've got experts from domains of aesthetic cognitivism philosophy of film, media, psychology, and communication science and neuroscience, all working together to really understand how character engagement might drive changes in moral understanding through film. And so having experts from all these different domains, working on the same question and trying to work together to answer it from lots of different ways of knowing is really unique and a really exciting opportunity.

Schellong: What is the ultimate conclusion you're hoping to reach at the end of the study, at the end of the three years?

Eden: Well, what's interesting is, even though this is, like I said, an interdisciplinary project, and we've got people from really different modes of scientific inquiry, looking at the same question of how do films change people's beliefs, and attitudes and behaviors? We all use really different methods to get at that. So one of the things that we're working on in this three-year project is how can we contribute insights from lots and lots of different ways of knowing to understand how films, specifically characters in films, might change people's moral understanding? Is it character engagement? Is it post-film reflection? Is it the viewing situation? Is it specific elements in the film itself or in the individual themselves when you're watching a movie? We're trying to look at all those parts at once, in order to have, you know, a greater understanding of that process.

Schellong: Allison Eden is an associate professor in the Department of Communication at MSU. Allison, thanks for your time.

Eden: Thank you, Megan.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

Megan Schellong is the local host and producer for Morning Edition on WKAR.
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