3-D Movies Aren't That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn't have any extra emotional impact.
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(Photo: thepismire/Flickr)

(Photo: thepismire/Flickr)

In theory, three-dimensional video heightens the emotional impact of a movie scene—imagine if that guy from My Bloody Valentine appeared to be swinging his pickaxe straight at you, or if The Polar Express swooped out of the screen and just narrowly avoided running over your popcorn.

Pretty exciting, huh? Perhaps, but psychologists—who are a bit more even-tempered about the latest technology and a bit less interested in your wallet, compared with movie producers—say otherwise in a recent study.

Though movie makers might well take note, Daniel Bride, Sheila Crowell and five others at the University of Utah wanted to find out whether 3-D influences our emotions more than 2-D in large part because it might affect their own research. Film clips, it turns out, are one of academic psychology’s main tools for eliciting emotions. If you want to study the effects of happiness on someone, show them some stand-up comedy. If you want to study fear, show them a horror movie. And if 3-D makes you feel more of those feelings, then psychologists need to know.

As far as the physiological measures go, 2-D and 3-D produced the same emotional results, with one exception. The Polar Express managed to get more people going, at least as far as skin conductance was concerned.

With 408 Utah undergrads as their subjects, the team showed each one five-minute clips from the most easily accessed library of movies that come in 2-D and 3-D versions, namely, feature films, including My Bloody Valentine, Despicable Me, Tangled, and The Polar Express, each of which is available in Blu Ray and Blu Ray 3-D. To measure emotional responses in an unbiased way, the researchers hooked up their subjects to a series of electrodes and measured their heart rates, skin conductance—a test that detects minute changes in perspiration that is often used to measure overall emotional intensity—and other physiological responses to the film scenes.

Fortunately for those whose job it is to manipulate emotions, the extra cost of producing 3-D films doesn’t have much of an impact. As far as the physiological measures go, 2-D and 3-D produced the same emotional results, with one exception. The Polar Express managed to get more people going, at least as far as skin conductance was concerned. That may have been a chance result, though the authors point out that the 3-D effects in that clip were of higher quality, were more varied, and lasted longer overall, essentially filling the entire five minutes.

“The results should be encouraging for researchers who lack the resources to incorporate 3-D technology into their laboratory,” the authors write in PLoS One. While the subject pool—mostly young adults—and The Polar Express results highlight the need to replicate the study, “our results suggest that participants respond to the content and novelty of film more strongly than to the visual technology.” Chin up, Christopher Nolan.

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