Monday, December 14, 2015

Peer 101: Why the new Star Wars film WILL be amazing ...

You're probably starting to read this thinking "this is going to be even more hype for the new Star Wars movie isn't it?", well you couldn't be more wrong.  Once again, we'll start looking at critical thinking and some of the psychological and social factors which will sway us when we watch the upcoming new film.

If your Facebook feed is anything like mine, you've probably been bombarded for the last few months with posts and pictures like the ones below ...

The trailers for The Force Awakens have been going for over a year, with every fan dissecting every frame in minute detail.  There has been a huge rush by many of my friends to buy tickets, clamouring to be the first to see it in midnight screenings.  I too will be going out of my way to watch in the first two weeks.

And there will be a common factor, we'll all go to see it and like the picture above find it emotional, and amazing.  But will it be any good though?  Well ... for that you'll have to wait a few months.

This must have left you a bit bemused - surely if you go to see the film this week, then you'll know pretty soon if the film is any good or not.  Surely?

Good luck with that!  There are actually a couple of psychological factors going on, which mean with a good deal of confidence, I can tell say that you and your friends are going to enjoy the movie.  Not just enjoy, but come out positively evangelical.

And no, it's not Jedi mind tricks ...

Although they are a kind of mind trick ...


I'm not saying the new Star Wars movie will be great.  I'm not saying that it will be awful either.  What I'm saying is most people's initial reaction will be that it's a superb film.  Even if they maybe change their stance afterwards.  [See "People In Glass Houses" for more]

Group Delusion

Social dynamics have an important effect on our judgement.  Imagine this - a couple of your friends are talking to you, they're really excited because they're going to see the new Star Wars film tonight.  One of their friends has already seen it and really enjoyed it, so they can't wait.

There's a lot of people you know who are likewise keen to see the film, when you enquire it seems like you'll have to wait a few days for a showing that you can attend which isn't sold out already.  The day finally comes, you sit there in the theatre.  It seems that everyone you know has really enjoyed it, and said how phenomenal it is!

We're engineered as social animals to want to conform to a social norm.  We don't want to be different or the "odd one out".  Yes, even "that person" you might know who dresses differently to you ... we often know someone who tries to stand out as an individual, but conforming to the norm of a different social group (that they do want to align to) - we all had a Goth phase didn't we?

THAT PERSON - Robert Smith, the legend

If our social group of peers all like something, we're hardwired to really want to like it ourselves, so as not to be the odd one out.  It's really just a kind of peer pressure.


There has been over a year of advertising.  Many fans have said how they've been waiting over 33 years to find out what happens after Return Of The Jedi (from the original trilogy).  Those people who have watched every trailer multiple times, read every article and seen every interview.

That is a huge amount of emotional investment, and instinctively we always try to justify that.  You see this time and again, "the new film has to be good ... because I've waited 33 years to find out what happens next / waited all year watching the trailers".  We don't like to think we've invested either financially or emotionally into something which doesn't pay off.  And so we justify the quality of what's in front of us, by that investment we've put in.  It's not logical, but it does happen - if what's in front of us isn't any good, then we've wasted that investment.  And that's something we're not at all keen on admitting, so we have a haze of denial about it.  [Also see those politicians who think trickle-down economics works, and when challenged just think we need to give more tax breaks to the mega-rich]

So when we are so emotionally committed to something, we tend to judge what's in front of us according to that emotion, and not by it's own merits.

People in glass houses ...

Now, heaven's forbid if you think I'm writing all of this from some moral high ground, "I know psychology, and you don't".  I of course mainly know this because I've been a victim of it myself!

Back in 1989, I won tickets to an advance screening of the new Star Trek movie in London.  Unfortunately we lived over a hundred miles away, but my parents understood my passion, and so we made a day of it.  It took us three hours to drive down, we visited several museums around London, went out for lunch, and finally got to the cinema.

It was an amazing experience, there were several celebrity fans (I remember Caron Keating from Blue Peter), and finally the film!  My brother and I came out telling our parents how superb the film was, and we'd got to see it 2 months before the rest of the country.

That was pretty much 2 months of me saying how superb it was!  Finally it was released, and I took some friends to go to see it at Sheffield University.  I came out feeling a bit embarrassed - it didn't feel like the same film at all.

This was Star Trek V: The Final Frontier - the one directed by William Shatner where "they go to meet God".  It's universally regarded as the worst film in the series ...

How did I get it so wrong?  Well I'd not just gone to see a film - it was the anticipation, the investment, the feeling of being first, and the whole experience of the day.  In the scheme of all that, whether the film was good or not didn't really matter.  You were in a receptive mood to enjoy it, and so you just went with the flow.  [It's no coincidence that film studios also try to wine, dine, entertain critics prior to screening for a similar psychologically coercive effect]

I've seen a similar effect around Star Wars The Phantom Menace - the first of the prequel Star Wars movies.  It was released in the US 3 months before the UK.  Many friends and fans took holidays just to go to America to see it first, and they all said how raved about how great it was.  People who I've known for a while and subsequently rewatched it.  Who now refuse to buy it on DVD and are the ones who say constantly on Facebook how let down / poor the prequels were.

For both myself and those Phantom Menace fans, what happened is we simply watched it a good time "after the hype", when those effects of group delusion and denialism have deteriorated somewhat.  When we rewatch again a few months/years afterward, those phenomenon are not as prevalent, and hence we're viewing for the first time unclouded by those filters!

Rewatch at your peril!  As a ex-Doctor Who producer famously said of how we view (unseen) old films and episodes through rose coloured glasses, "the memory cheats".  Or nostalgia isn't what it used to be ...

Onward to Peer 102 ...

I've introduced a couple of important psychological factors, and how they affect us in everyday life.  Read this blog, and watch and observe those around you over the next few weeks.  It will all be useful experience.

Next time we'll look deeper into how these phenomenon impact us within testing, ways to be mindful, and fight against falling into the relative traps.  Those traps can be far worse than recommending Star Trek V to a group of brand new friends at University (they forgave me).

Further Reading

Your Deceptive Mind, Professor Steven Novella

  • Lecture 12 - Culture and Mass Delusions Lecture
  • Lecture 20 - Denialism


  1. Interesting post, I like it. And yes, I've been guilty as charged as well. What can be even more embarassing than liking a rubbish movie, concert, etc is to be the odd one out in a group saying that they thought it was rubbish.
    Mmmh, maybe that could be an interview question. "Have you ever seen a movie in a group that you didn't like but everyone else did?" Could show critical thinking under (group) pressure so employ that person asap..
    Thanks for making me think,

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