Monday, November 25, 2013
Welcome to Part 3, the final step in our science-tastic trip to the movie theater. I’d suggest checking out Part 1 and Part 2 as so far, you've purchased your expensive ticket, wondered at high concession prices, agonized over which size popcorn to buy, and learned how that choice will ultimately determine how much you will eat. Now you are ready to go find a seat for the show! You pick up your concessions from the counter, figure out how to carry them in such a way as to not spill anything and yet still be able to hand your ticket to be torn, walk down the hallway to find your theater number, go down the dark felt-covered tunnel, and then stand at the bottom of the stairs contemplating which row to sit in.
Let’s start by asking if where you sit will really affect what you see? There is an older, interesting piece written by James Cutting in 1986 that looks at the shape and psychophysics of cinematic spaces. Probably haven’t heard the term psychophysics, right? I know I hadn't. Well, it is a branch of psychology that’s concerned with how physical processes (the intensity of stimulants like vision and sound) affect your sensations, perceptions, and mental processes. Basically, a mind-body problem. Movies have the capacity to draw us in such that we get “lost” in them; we project ourselves into a new space and time, one that the filmmakers have created for us. The high picture quality and larger screens have been shown to help give us viewers the impression of “being there.” Dimming the lights dims out the real world, the large screen fills our optic array, the smoothness of the frame rate (flicker threshold) allows the images we see to become lifelike, and the pacing of scenes and cuts can enhance our emotions. However, a movie is ultimately an optical projection and it would be logical to think that where you sit may matter in how you see the movie (geometry, distortions, etc.). But in his paper, Cutting describes why this isn't so. He uses static art as an example, asking you to look at a picture from different angles. Then he explains that affine and perspective transformations affecting the look of rigidity of objects on the screen is actually very difficult for people to discern (what he terms La Gournerie’s paradox). In search of why this is so, he goes through a lot of history, and geometry, and equations, and well, I’m not even gonna touch those. But essentially, he comes down to two possibilities: (1) our brains compensate for and rectify any distortions we see by using information about screen slant, and (2) we preserve information about the transformations we see to ensure our perception remains unperturbed. So when you’re standing at the bottom of those stairs looking around for a seat, know that where you sit doesn't really matter in how you view the movie. Your brain’s got it covered.
Choosing a seat, however, is a conscious choice. Like any other choice it is influenced by the characteristics of the item, particularly (and especially in this case), the location. Let’s start simple and consider our lateralized tendencies, a.k.a. which side of the theater you like to sit on, right or left. A study published in Cortex in 2000 looked at handedness as a predictor of behavioral asymmetries. Previous studies of cerebral organization show that the brain’s right hemisphere shows a considerable advantage for face recognition, spatial stimuli, and emotions. With this knowledge, this study asked if these directional biases are reflected in the seat choices we make at the cinema. The researchers screened and interviewed participants for handedness (right, left, mixed). Then they gave them maps of five theaters, each differing in the location of the entries/exits and aisles, and dividing seats into equal parts with the middle seats marked as sold out. They found a preference for right positions when watching movies in the three handedness classes underlying a left-directed perceptual bias, which they found to be most evident in right handers and decreased progressively from them to the left handers. The author postulates that this is because the leftward orientation of attention fosters the activation of the right hemisphere cultivated through the learned reflexes of previous biases. A study published in Laterality in 2006 also looked at this seat-side preference, also by asking participants to look at various maps of theater seating, this time altering screen location. This study confirmed the overall right side seat preference, with a stronger preference if the screen were at the top or right of the map, and additional preference for seats at the back of the cinema. However, they found that the turn at the entrance to the theater to perfectly correlate with the chosen seat-side. A result that could reflect general turning habits (I really hope that someone has termed this the Zoolander Hypothesis).
I think we can all agree that handedness is a rather simple way to look at something. There is obviously more going on here. A paper, this time in Applied Cognitive Psychology in 2010, added the role of motivation to their study. They wanted to know if people highly motivated to see a movie would choose the right side of the theater, since these seats are better suited to processing information from the left visual field and therefore direct access to the visual and emotional side of the brain (right hemisphere). In their first experiment they told all of the participants that a movie was highly recommended and half of them were further advised that they would rather avoid watching the movie because the story was sad and depressing (thereby negating the positive motivation of the recommendation while also giving negative motivation). Then they asked the participants to choose a seat from a seating chart. Knowing that some dark or depressing stories often achieve immense commercial success (e.g. The Dark Knight), they also conducted an experiment where they reversed the status of the negative emotional content. They found that when right-handers were positively motivated they chose seats on the right side. This bias disappeared when they were negatively motivated. This held true even when a depressing movie was spun a positive. Non-right-handers did not exhibit such lateral biases regardless of experimental condition.
Personally, I’m a middle theater, middle seat kind of person. That particular bias hasn't really been addressed by the studies above, in fact they grey-out the middle seats to force people to choose a side. This is what Rodway et al. considered when they conducted their study in 2012. They decided to compare the right-side preference to the center-stage effect. The latter suggests that people’s choice decisions are guided by the perception that good, important people occupy the middle. They examined this closer in a first experiment where they presented people with five identical pictures (of random regular things like butterflies or waterfalls) arranged in a line and asked them to pick their most and least preferred items. The results showed a significant trend for people to select their most preferred item in the middle position, a result not seen when choosing the least preferred item. A second experiment looked at the array format to see if the center tendency extended to vertically arranged items, knowing that top positions are generally associated with positive attributes and vice versa. As with the first experiment, participants chose items in the center rather than the top or bottom, adding robustness to this center-stage theory. A final experiment wanted to see if these preferences are associated with real items rather than just pictures. As with the other two, this experiment showed a preference for center items, although there was also a significant reduction for the items at the lowest two locations. Did they actually go into a theater and ask people about seats? Well no. But I included this study because I have yet to come across a paper that has asked this, and being a center-seater, I thought it was a rather important aspect to the whole seat-choice dilemma.
These studies all look at a simple choice aspects, which, admittedly, is a good place to start. However, I think I would like to read about how group size matters. You know you ask your friends where they want to sit, right? Or what about how people don’t like to sit next to each other? What about choosing a seat in a theater where many of the seats are already taken? If your preferred seats are gone, where do you sit?
Well, that’s all for our trip to the cinema. Now that you've found your seat, enjoy the show!
James E. Cutting (1986). The shape and psychophysics of cinematic space Behavior Research Methods,, Instruments, & Computers, 18 (6), 551-558 DOI: 10.3758/BF03201428
George B. Karev (2000). Cinema Seating in Right, Mixed and Left Handers Cortex, 36, 747-752 DOI: 10.1016/S0010-9452(08)70550-1
Matia Okubo (2010). Right Movies on the Right Seat: Laterality and Seat Choice Applied Cognitive Psychology, 24, 90-99 DOI: 10.1002/acp.1556
Paul Rodway, Astrid Schepman, and Jordana Lambert (2012). Preferring the One in the Middle: Further Evidence for the Centre‐stage Effect Applied Cognitive Psychology, 26, 215-222 DOI: 10.1002/acp.1812
Peter Weyers, Annette Milnik, Clarissa Muller, & Paul Pauli (2006). How to choose a seat in theatres: Always sit on the right side? Laterality, 11 (2), 181-193 DOI: 10.1080/13576500500430711
(image via The Expert Institute)