Don’t Judge a Film by its Rating

Jillian Harrington
NYU Professor of Psychology Pascal, who conducted a study on movie reviews, at a TedxNYU talk.

We’ve all been guilty of letting movie reviews cloud our judgement of a film, or at least that’s what we think. In a new study, NYU Professor of Psychology Pascal Wallisch determined that the film critics’ ratings actually have no bearing on how much an individual likes a particular movie.

In the early 2000s, Wallisch became curious about the effects of a film critic’s rating on the popularity of a film among the general public. A movie buff himself and long-time fan of renowned film critic Roger Ebert, Wallisch looked to see if anyone had already conducted this research. Finding no evidence of any previous studies, he decided to investigate it himself. He chose 209 movies based on popularity ratings in the Internet Movie Database. He asked 3,204 participants were asked to rate the movies they had seen using a star scale.

Most participants had seen around half of the movies in the sample, and each rated around 50 movies which were then used to test for a relationship between critics’ reviews and viewers’ ratings. Wallisch discovered that not only do film critics disagree with the average individual, but individuals do not agree with each other. Previous studies have proven that eye movements are nearly identical among individuals in a film, which indicates that although people are seeing the same thing, individuals’ preferences vary greatly.

“The big conclusion is that individuals are highly idiosyncratic and do not live in the same subjective reality,” Wallisch said in an interview with WSN. “Even though we see the same things, we disagree in how we evaluate and appraise them. What makes you laugh might make me cry. What I might love, you might hate.”

Interestingly, there are a rare few so-called hyper-average people who can predict the preferences of other people — if they enjoy a movie, it is indicative that most people will enjoy it as well. Wallisch believes that in addressing the current crisis of creativity in Hollywood — the idea that Hollywood is relying on superhero and franchise films to make money — filmmakers could identify these people and use their input to make more mainstream yet creative movies.

From a psychological standpoint, the conclusions from this research are also significant.

“A big finding for psychology is that we can use movies to characterize an individual’s personality,” Wallisch said. “[Taste in movies] is very consistent over time and says a lot about who you are as a person, your worldview, your desires.”

Wallisch noted that film critics tend to agree with each other, which is indicative of a trained appreciation of film aesthetics that is more nuanced than that of an average person. Though he knows the research may upset film critics who believe their reviews are educational, he counters that they should instead focus less on ratings and more on informing their readers about film as an artform through their reviews.

Wallisch was surprised by his findings, especially having idolized Roger Ebert and his writing. 

“If they like a movie, it is as good as if you saw it yourself, so you will also likely like it,” he said. “You can even find your ‘evil movie twin’ — if they hated it, you will like it, although that is more rare.”

“If it is true that one’s movie taste characterizes one’s individuality — outlook on life, et cetera — it is not unreasonable to assume that this would predict relationship success,” Wallisch said. “Anecdotally, my wife and I have been married for over 12 years and she is one of my highest correlations.”

A previous version of this article said that Ebert said the following quote: ‘If they like a movie, it is as good as if you saw it yourself, so you will also likely like it.’ In fact, Wallisch said this quote.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Nov. 6 print edition. Email Jillian Harrington at [email protected]

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