Why Movies Like Oscar-Winning ‘Undefeated’ Make Grown Men (and Women) Cry

The newly minted Oscar winner for best documentary, Undefeated, has left many critics gushing—with praise, but also tears. The true-life sports tale follows a struggling high school football team in a poor area of Memphis, Tennessee, whose fortunes begin to turn under the guidance of a devoted and determined coach. The emotional story has reduced folks at Forbes, Esquire, and other media outlets to sniffles and sobs. It made us wonder: What actually causes people to cry at movies?

To find out, Pop Omnivore reached out to Paul J. Zak, founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University. Zak’s work has helped pioneer the study of neuroeconomics, which integrates the fields of neuroscience and economic behavior; his new book, The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity, will be published in May 2012. Here’s what we learned from our conversation:

The brain makes no fundamental distinction between real life and reel life. “The brain doesn’t seem to process flickering images much differently from any other social stimulus,” Zak says. In other words: No matter how we encounter people, empathy is possible—and it’s created in the brain in the same way. The hypothalamus releases a hormone called oxytocin (that’s ock-see-TOH-sin, or “OT” for short), which activates other regions of the brain, like the amygdala and the cingulated cortex, that help regulate emotions and social behaviors. Even though you realize that it’s just a movie, says Zak, “you can’t stop yourself from crying.”

Not every movie can cause an OT release. Zak’s interest in this topic was inspired by his own tendency to cry during movies: “I’m watching a movie at home, and I’m sad because a character’s dog died.” But it takes a good movie to make tears start flowing, he believes. “You really have to be engaged in the characters—you have to care about them. Some filmmakers and novelists are very good at this.” Like who, we wonder? “I have children now, so I mostly watch Disney movies, and I’m crying all the time. Like when Bambi’s mother dies, I’m crying. It’s so bad. My kids are embarrassed.”

Men as well as women are prone to movie crying. In Zak’s experiments, young men tended to produce the lowest amounts of OT and cried the least. “Young men have the highest level of testosterone, and testosterone actually inhibits oxytocin production,” Zak explains. But all that changes when a young male finds someone special. “The beauty of nature is that when a male is in a committed relationship, his testosterone falls,” Zak says. “And if he has children, his testosterone declines even further.” This means an increased ability to produce OT. Or as Zak puts it: “You go from Alpha Male to Superdad.”

OT does a whole lot more than make you cry at movies
. Zak showed two videos to test groups: a father talking about his son, who was dying from cancer, and scenes of a father and son at the zoo. After the screenings, Zak and his team gave the participants an opportunity to give some of the money they earned from their participation to a stranger, and to donate to the children’s hospital where the cancer-stricken boy was being treated. The response? The people who produced more OT were more likely to give. “There’s a 20-minute window where your brain is essentially high on oxytocin, and you treat strangers like family,” Zak says. “This really gives us a better sense of why humans are altruistic in a biological sense.” Zak, with two young children of his own and an increased ability to produce OT, has certainly found that to be true when he watches emotional movies. “I do feel like I want to hug my kids longer,” he says. “I want to be nicer to others.”

So movies that make us cry can save the world—right? Zak laughs. “I love it! Or at least make the world safer for a little while.”

-Matt Hill

Changing Planet