Research on Cinema as Artistic Creativity: A Permanent Scientific Renaissance?

Psychological science has finally rediscovered film as the seventh art.

Dean Keith Simonton1, PhD
University of California, Davis

Just twenty years after the first commercial film showing took place in an Edison Kinetoscope peep-show parlor, Hugo Münsterberg (1913), a Harvard professor and doctoral student of Wilhelm Wundt, psychology’s progenitor, published the first psychological study of the new artistic medium.  Shortly after the advent of “talkies” in the 1930s, the psychologist Rudolf Arnheim—who did his doctoral thesis under eminent Gestalt psychologists Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Köhler, and Kurt Lewin—began publishing a series of essays that were later translated and collected in his Film as Art (Arnheim, 1957).  Yet somehow, this very promising beginning launched by two notables failed to go anywhere in later research.  To be sure, social scientists in media studies, including media psychologists, often turned to movies as an indicator of popular culture, whether sexist and racist attitudes or violent and aggressive behaviors.  Even so, film in such studies was most often used for some other end rather than an end in itself.  Few, if any, empirical inquiries focused on film as art or as entertainment.  The main exceptions came from colleagues in other disciplines, especially those in communications, sociology, marketing, and, most recently, cultural economics.  Since the onset of the 21st century, increasingly more psychologists have become involved (e.g., Plucker, Holden, & Neustadter, 2008; Plucker, Kaufman, Temple, & Qian, 2009; Pritzker & McGarva, 2009).  This increased involvement was probably facilitated by the emergence of psychology journals that would be more open to research of this kind. Examples include two relatively new journals of the American Psychological Association— the Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts and the Psychology of Popular Media Culture.

Besides numerous journal articles, this research has most recently generated three book-length treatments, a monograph and two edited volumes.  The first book is mine, namely, Great Flicks: Scientific Studies of Cinematic Creativity and Aesthetics (Simonton, 2011; for review, see Carson, 2011) which represents my attempt to review everything so far known about what makes a film great.  Three main criteria of cinematic greatness are used: critical acclaim, movie awards, and box office performance. The predictors of these criteria are then scrutinized; these predictors include aspects of the screenplay, directing, acting, production values, special effects, and music, both score and song.  Also examined are such special issues as (a) the “Auteur theory” of directorial creativity, (b) the role of sex and sexism in cinematic impact, and (c) how some movies might become so bad that they might also become “good” in a campy way.

The above was followed only a couple of years later by Psychocinematics: Exploring Cognition at the Movies, edited by the cognitive psychologist Arthur Shimamura (2013; for review, see Kass, 2013).  After chapters devoted to the philosophical foundations of the cinematic experience, subsequent contributions deal with sensation and attention, narration, imagination, representation, and emotion, including emotion regulation.  Although the treatments range from philosophy to neuroscience, the center of gravity lies in cognitive psychology, hence the bulk of the work is firmly grounded in laboratory experiments.

Third, but more comprehensive, is The Social Science of Cinema, which I co-edited with James C. Kaufman (Kaufman & Simonton, 2014).  Where the former edited volume concentrates on mental processes, this one spends more time on the larger social context.  More specifically, it contains chapters devoted to the creation of films (e.g., the role of music), the audience who appreciates films (e.g., the relation between personality and preference), the production of films (particularly collaboration), and the reception of films (including both box office and movie awards).  Although most chapter authors are psychologists, the entire product is truly multidisciplinary.  A complex such as cinema cannot possibly be completely understood from the perspective of a single discipline.

Because Oxford University Press published all three books, they comprise a mini-library that covers all of the most current work in this emerging specialty.  I anticipate that these volumes will also provide the foundation for future research.  This time I hope psychologists will not drop the ball as they did when Münsterberg and Arnheim broke new ground way back when. If psychologists are dedicated to understanding the profound experiences of which human beings are capable, then the discipline cannot ignore what we so often experience in the movie theater or home entertainment system—the feature film. It just takes one moving encounter with a great flick to know why.


Arnheim, R. (1957). Film as art. Berkeley: University of California Press

Carson, S. H. (2011). Reel greatness: The contributions of money, art, and sex to movie success (Review of book, Great flicks: Scientific studies of cinematic creativity and aesthetics, D. K. Simonton). PsycCRITIQUES, 56(33).

Kass, S. A. (2013). Of popcorn and tearjerkers: In search of the psychological basis of the cinematic experience (Review of book, Psychocinematics: Exploring cognition at the movies, A. Shimamura, Ed.). PsycCRITIQUES, 58(37).

Kaufman, J. C., & Simonton, D. K. (Eds.). (2014). The social science of cinema. New York: Oxford University Press.

Münsterberg, H. (1916). The photoplay: A psychological study. New York: Appleton.

Plucker, J. A., Holden, J., & Neustadter, D. (2008). The criterion problem and creativity in film: Psychometric characteristics of various measures. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 2, 190-196.

Plucker, J. A., Kaufman, J. C., Temple, J. S., & Qian, M. (2009). Do experts and novices evaluate movies the same way? Psychology and Marketing, 26, 470-478.

Pritzker, S. R., & McGarva, D. J. (2009). Characteristics of eminent screenwriters: Who are those guys? In S. B. Kaufman & J. C. Kaufman (Eds.), The psychology of creative writing (pp. 57-59). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Shimamura, A. P. (2013) (Ed.). Psychocinematics: Exploring cognition at the movies. New York: Oxford University Press.

Simonton, D. K. (2011). Great flicks: Scientific studies of cinematic creativity and aesthetics. New York: Oxford University Press.

1. Dean K. Simonton received the 2013 Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from APA Society for Media Psychology and Technology.

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