How Motion Pictures Affect the Attitudes and Emotions of Children? : The Galvanic Technique Applied to the Motion-Picture Situation

Christian A. Ruckmick

The intrinsic nature of the emotions is such that they can be analyzed best by a sort of flank attack. Historically, this has been made feasible through the well-known fact that emotions produce concomitant bodily effects which in turn can be recorded and measured. Since physiological conditions also produce these effects and since in some cases the effects may be voluntarily initiated or modified, psychologists recently have been concerned with more and more refined techniques and controlled situations in the laboratory.

In view of the advances made in electrical circuits, these studies have largely centered about changes in electrical resistance which the body offers to small outside currents under a variety of circumstances. In some of these experiments the small amounts of electrical discharges from the body itself also have been measured. Scientists are not yet certain just how these electrical discharges occur: the mechanism of their production is still not dear. We feel, however, that they are due principally to the electrochemical action of the sweat-glands which in turn are tied up with the sympathetic nervous system. We know, too, that they are under voluntary control and we have learned to distinguish the effects produced by certain physiological changes and those that are clearly designated as emotional. In the latter case, the electrical manifestation occurs only after a latent period of from 7 to 10 seconds and the form of the manifestation is characteristically different in terms of intensity from other kinds of electrical discharge. This has a twofold significance:

(1)The fact that it is not under voluntary control as is breathing, for example, eliminates errors initiated by the observer; i. e., he can have no direct control over the amount

( 211) of deflection manifested by the galvanometer or other electrical registering device.

(2)The distinction between emotional responses and other bodily processes, especially muscular contractions when made under normal conditions, does away with a traditional error that has vitiated much of the previous work done by way of the so-called method of expression. Of course, the technique is not yet free from the defect that it is very likely influenced in part by concurrent or antecedent physiological changes. Even fatigue, diurnal periodicity, digestive changes, and a score of other conditions may be disturbing factors.

We are at present engaged in determining the effect of some of these uncontrolled items in experiments that have been going on for some years in our laboratory. They have not yet been brought to a satisfactory conclusion but fatigue versus euphoria already show significant indications as conditions which ought to be taken into account in connection with the emotions. The past history of the expressive technique, together with the results that have been obtained by more recent investigators, are putting us on our guard in our present work and we feel that the results obtained in the research herein described are relatively free from errors of this sort.[1]

The aim of this particular study was to get some reliable index of emotional disturbances in observers, varying in age from 6 to over 50 years, while viewing motion pictures. All our trained observers and some of the others recorded direct observations describing the type of emotion felt at certain points in the motion picture. But the main emphasis was placed on the amount of galvanometric deflection at various points in the film. We were interested, however, not only in these quantitative results but in psychologizing the whole motion-picture situation. Some

( 212) of our main conclusions have to do with the perceptual changes that occur at the different age levels. We are convinced that children under twelve years of age not only do not care for certain types of performance but rather do not perceive these events in the story. On the other hand, adults add a certain critical judgment almost continuously throughout their enjoyment, an attitude which is practically missing in the adolescent group. In other words, we have the well-known phenomenon of the genetic development of perceptual processes. In the lower age ranges, the perceptions are more largely those of sensory reference. In the adolescent group, perceptions are rich enough and sufficiently colored emotionally by the higher cognitive processes of reflections, and criticisms are scarce and relatively irrelevant.

There is another point in which this study departs from previous experimental work on the emotions. In general, the stimulus used has been what might be called a stable one. Each type of situation has been discrete and definite or else a fairly simple stimulus, such as an electric shock or attractive color, was applied. In this case we were compelled to use stimuli that were continuously changing. For this reason definite "reading points" were established; i. e., points at which a major episode, likely to arouse an emotion, began. Accordingly, a detailed analysis, taken in part from the accompanying script and in part from steno-graphic recording of the conversation when no script was available in the theater, was made in advance of the actual showing of the film. These reading points were consecutively numbered and furnished, as it were, the focal places for the comparison of results, both from observer to observer and from content to content. By a simple signal system they were recorded for later identification on the record obtained from the observer.

Centering our attention then on this particular technique, known as the galvanic reflex, and adding records also from changes of heart rate, we experimented for the

( 213) first year and a half under the controlled conditions of the laboratory. For some time before this we had developed satisfactory electrical connections to the observer. The first and third finger of the left hand were taped at the first joint with one-half inch adhesive tape and immersed in a normal NaCl solution in an electrode which has non-polarizable qualities, preventing eddy currents which would interfere with the proper reading of the deflection.[2] Leads from this type of electrode were carried to the Wechsler photographically recording galvanometer[3] which was some-what modified for our needs. This galvanometer also contained a registering device for the heart rate which was obtained through a special very simple apparatus attached to the arm of the observer.[4] This device was easily and comfortably worn, adjusted so that it did not offer distracting elements during the performance, and the whole situation was taken for granted by the observer. Again, under the conditions of the theater itself we were not able to follow out the research on the heart rate as thoroughly as we should have liked. In the technique of reading the actual pulse rate, there was also some difficulty in deter-mining just where the crest of each successive wave was to be located. But we made two independent readings of those records that were fairly clear and discovered that one observer ran as high as 166 pulsations per minute, several as high as 150, and a large number around 140, the normal rate ranging about 75 to 80. Another point to be considered here is that we did not dare to expose school children to extremely violent or objectionable films which might have given us much higher rates and many more of them. It must be recalled that school children do very often attend pictures of this extreme sort.

All of our records were taken on Eastman photographic

( 214) film (No. 122), which was mounted inside the Wechsler apparatus and which moved continuously past the recording instrument. When developed it showed a time line in half-seconds, a signal line operated by the experimenter, a galvanometer line giving deflections, and in some of our experiments a record of the heartbeat and breathing. While in many instances the breathing record was photographed, it was not reliable enough for accurate reading. Altogether, some 755 records were made, f which 180 represented results obtained under actual theater conditions.

The laboratory experiments gave us an opportunity also to perfect our technique so that when arrangements were finally made with representative theaters no time would be lost and no disruption would occur. Both in the laboratory and in the theater we were careful to establish normal conditions by getting into rapport with the observers. In most cases the experimental conditions were overlooked by the observer and the picture film was as genuinely enjoyed as under everyday conditions. At the end f the performance the observers were asked such questions as, "What were the exciting parts?" and "How did you like the love scenes?"

Two fifteen-minute exposures were shown to each observer on a single day. Where the picture has two parts these were consecutively shown. The titles of the laboratory picture on 16 mm. film were Hop to It, Bell Hop, The Iron Mule, and The Feast of Ishtar (taken from The Wanderer). The first is a slapstick comedy with many pseudo-tragic incidents and violent points of physical conflict between the characters. The second depicts humorous events in early railroading, grossly exaggerated with plenty of amusing scenes regarding the train equipment and exciting scenes during an Indian attack. The last features extravagant scenes of oriental luxury, some debauchery, and occasional love-making. Female figures scantily clad, kissing scenes, and Oriental dancing occur throughout.

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Four commercial films were selected in the theaters. Charlie Chan's Chance is a Scotland Yard detective story featuring police activities, in connection with Oriental characters, and dancing scenes. The Yellow Ticket is an ex-citing series of episodes with scenes laid in Russia and with an attractive Jewish girl as its principal character. Her experiences in obtaining the yellow ticket, a license for prostituting, and her wanderings to a prison, combined with approaches made by men in high authority, constitute a series of thrilling adventures. The Road to Singapore contains a number of romantic episodes and dramatic incidents centering around love affairs and intriguing situations which lead to considerable excitement. Some of the scenes are highly suggestive. His Woman is laid on shipboard largely, with brawling episodes and flirtations. The main theme centers about a baby who is found in a rowboat, and Sally, on board with a crew of men, who becomes nurse for the baby. After a number of scenes the captain finally marries Sally.

The records taken in the laboratory were from observers obtained in Iowa City largely through the schools, members of the faculty, and friends. Because the patience of the local theatrical managers was exhausted by other re-searches done here, we had to go to Davenport, Cedar Rapids, and Clinton, Iowa, for new material. In these cities school superintendents, principals, and parents coöperated whole-heartedly with us and managers of large theaters were very generous in their arrangements. In these theaters a seat was prepared, usually in the balcony, but in one case on the ground floor, and the observer saw the pictures at the regularly scheduled performance. A re-mote position was taken so as not to disturb the remaining spectators. The experimenter sat near the observer and communicated through a signal system to his assistant who was in control of the recording apparatus set up some distance away. No systematic attempt was made to secure direct reports of experiences from the observers in the the-

( 216) -ater because the physical conditions surrounding the performance would not permit this kind of disturbance.

From the point of view of methodology, this will afford a concise description of the application of well-known laboratory techniques to the concrete situation of a theatrical performance. Since the purpose of these articles is not to give results but only aims and methods, we have withheld for the most part, the definite conclusions which were reached. They show, however, that our methods of approach were quite adequate and, with all due conservative considerations, came out with very tangible results which have already been cited.[5]


  1. C. A. Ruckmick. "Why We Have Emotions," Scientific Monthly, 28, 1929, 252-262. (See especially p. 256.)
    See also C. A Ruckmick. "Emotions in Terms of the Galvanometric Technique," British Journal of Psychology, 21, 1930, 149-159. Some of the preliminary results concerning extraneous bodily effects, like fatigue, are herein reported. (See p. 154, 159)
  2. C. A. Ruckmick and E. Patterson, "A Simple Non-polarizing Electrode," American Journal of Psychology, 41, 1929, 120-121.
  3. Listed and illustrated in the general catalogue of the C. H. Stoelting Co. under No. 24201.
  4. W. H. Grubbs and C. A. Ruckmick, "An Electrical Pneumograph," American Journal of Psychology, 44, 1932, 180-181. Since this article was prepared a more compact and efficient form has been developed.
  5. McCalls Magazine, September and October, 1932.

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