Why Hollywood gets it wrong, part 3

By Gordon Rugg

The first article in this short series examined how conflicting conventions and requirements can lead to a movie being unrealistic. The second article explored the pressures driving movie scripts towards unrealistically high signal to noise ratios, with few of the extraneous details that occur in real conversations.

Today’s article, the third in the series, addresses another way in which movies are different from reality. Movies depict a world which features the word “very” a lot. Sometimes it’s the characters who are very bad, or very good, or very attractive, or whatever; sometimes it’s the situations they encounter which are very exciting or very frightening or very memorable; sometimes it’s the settings which are very beautiful, or very downbeat, or very strange. Whatever the form that it takes, the “very” will almost always be in there somewhere prominent.

Why does this happen? It’s a phenomenon that’s well recognised in the media, well summed up in a quote attributed to Walt Disney, where he allegedly said that his animations could be better than reality.

When you think of it from that perspective, then it makes sense for movies to show something different from reality, since we can see reality easily enough every day without needing to watch a movie. This raises other questions, though, such as in which directions movies tend to be different from reality, and how big those differences tend to be.

That’s the main topic of this article.


There’s a classic quote which goes: “Well, that’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”

I’ve blogged previously about the issue of being above average, in this article about when you can have too much of a good thing. The conclusion was that being about one to two standard deviations above the mean was often a “sweet spot”. For instance, being tall tends to bring more perceived prestige, status, etc, up to a height of between about six foot and six foot two; above that, people tend to be viewed more as a freak than as having status. Protagonists in movies tend to be portrayed as tall; not always, but usually.

Some features of movies don’t follow this principle, and instead go for either a strategy of “bigger than the others” or “as big as possible”. This tends to be the case for explosions, car chases, etc, particularly for special effects. Often, this principle gets pushed so far that it bears limited relation to reality, and instead operates within the principle of schema conformity, where the audience accepts the conventions of e.g. the car chase schema, and then suspends disbelief within those established limits. This is why an audience might happily accept a massively unrealistic car chase scene, but balk at a minor unrealistic detail that isn’t part of the schema in question.

There are various bodies of theory that throw useful light on this area.

One is schema theory; although this overlaps with the concept of genre, it’s not the same, and is more fine-grained, more flexible and more powerful. In brief, a schema is a mental template for something.

Another is game theory, which provides many powerful insights into the outcomes from various types of competition. I’ve blogged about game theory here, and about its application to the mathematics of desire here.

Transactional analysis also provides some useful insights. This approach uses everyday terms to describe identifiable patterns of behaviour. One example is the pattern of “General Motors”. This involves two or more people discussing their preferences between different types of car, or different explosion scenes in movies, or different episodes of a favourite series. So, a memorable scene might be a favourite for games of “General Motors” about that type of scene, often as a result of a twist in the usual schema. A classic example is the knife fight in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, where Butch distracts his opponent by asking what the rules of the fight will be, and then kicking his opponent hard in the groin when his opponent is off guard. This can provide film makers with a low-cost but very effective way of increasing the audience’s liking for a movie.

Another body of work which doesn’t seem to have received much attention in the movie world is psychophysics. This deals with the physics of human perception, and it has found numerous regularities in how we perceive the world. In brief, increasing the intensity of a stimulus typically produces a non-linear (typically logarithmic) increase in perception. Crudely put, producing twice as much of an explosion in physical terms doesn’t mean that you’ve produced twice as much of a perceived on-screen explosion.

This is one reason that the special effects of an entire planet being blown up can look less dramatic than the special effects of a single house being blown up. There are other reasons in addition, several of which also come from physics or closely related fields; for instance, cube-square laws, which mean that doubling the size of a real explosion won’t double the amount of screen space it takes up when filmed from the same distance.

So, in summary, movies are deliberately different from reality in various regular ways, because people prefer things that are exaggerations of the norm.

That raises the question of why people prefer exaggerations of the norm. A likely explanation is that people prefer to minimise conscious cognitive load. It’s a simple concept, but one with very far-reaching implications. We’ll return to this theme in later articles in this series.

Notes and links

Banner image sources:

Image of Lake Wobegon sign: Public Domain, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5673737

Image of normal distribution: By Mwtoews – Own work, based (in concept) on figure by Jeremy Kemp, on 2005-02-09, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1903871

There’s more about the theory behind this article in my latest book:

Blind Spot, by Gordon Rugg with Joseph D’Agnese


You might also find our website useful:


Overviews of the articles on this blog:








2 thoughts on “Why Hollywood gets it wrong, part 3

  1. Pingback: Why Hollywood gets it wrong, part 4 | hyde and rugg

  2. Pingback: Cognitive load, kayaks, cartography and caricatures | hyde and rugg

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