The Saddest Movie in the World

How do you make someone cry for the sake of science? The answer lies in a young Ricky Schroder

The Champ has been used in experiments to see if depressed people are more likely to cry than non-depressed people. (MGM / The Kobal Collection)

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In 1995, Gross and Levenson published the results of their test screenings. They came up with a list of 16 short film clips able to elicit a single emotion, such as anger, fear or surprise. Their recommendation for inducing disgust was a short film showing an amputation. Their top-rated film clip for amusement was the fake orgasm scene from When Harry Met Sally. And then there’s the two-minute, 51-second clip of Schroder weeping over his father’s dead body in The Champ, which Levenson and Gross found produced more sadness in laboratory subjects than the death of Bambi’s mom.

“I still feel sad when I see that boy crying his heart out,” Gross says.

“It’s wonderful for our purposes,” Levenson says. “The theme of irrevocable loss, it’s all compressed into that two or three minutes.”

Researchers are using the tool to study not just what sadness is, but how it makes us behave. Do we cry more, do we eat more, do we smoke more, do we spend more when we’re sad? Since Gross and Levenson gave The Champ two thumbs-up as the saddest movie scene they could find, their research has been cited in more than 300 scientific articles. The movie has been used to test the ability of computers to recognize emotions by analyzing people’s heart rate, temperature and other physiological measures. It has helped show that depressed smokers take more puffs when they are sad.

In a recent study, neuroscientist Noam Sobel at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel showed the film clip to women to collect tears for a study to test the sexual arousal of men exposed to weepy women. They found that when men sniffed tear-filled vials or tear-soaked cotton pads, their testosterone levels fell, they were less likely to rate pictures of women’s faces as attractive, and the part of their brains that normally light up in MRI scans during sexual arousal were less active.

Other researchers kept test subjects up all night and then showed them clips from The Champ and When Harry Met Sally. Sleep deprivation made people look about as expressive, the team found, as a zombie.

“I found it very sad. I find most people do,” says Jared Minkel of Duke University, who ran the sleep-deprivation study. “The Champ seems to be very effective in eliciting fairly pure feeling states of sadness and associated cognitive and behavioral changes.”

Other films have been used to produce sadness in the lab. When he needed to collect tears from test subjects in the early 1980s, Frey says he relied on a film called All Mine to Give, about a pioneer family in which the father and mother die and the children are divided up and sent to the homes of strangers.

“Just the sound of the music and I would start crying,” Frey says.

But Levenson says he believes the list of films he developed with Gross is the most widely used by emotion researchers. And of the 16 movies clips they identified, The Champ may be the one that has been used the most by researchers.

“I think sadness is a particularly attractive emotion for people to try to understand,” Gross says.

Richard Chin is a journalist from St. Paul, Minnesota.


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