16 February 2008

Confirmation Bias at the Movies

It occurred to me earlier that I rarely write an entirely negative review of a film I have seen at the cinema. It's certainly not true that I have never seen a film I truly hated but given that I go to the cinema quite often, it might be surprising that over the past five years, say, the only films I can think of that I saw at the cinema and really disliked are Punch-Drunk Love, Elephant, Legally Blonde II ('nuff said) and the Star Wars one about the clones (to be fair, I only know that I dislike it because I fell asleep after ten minutes and I never sleep through films). 

Of course, there are plenty more films about which I have been ambivalent or which I quite liked but wouldn't be fussed about seeing a second time (Cold Mountain, The Break-Up and Cursed, for example) but there are very few films that seem to be without redeeming qualities, in my mind, and what the films in both of the lists above have in common is that I didn't choose to go to see any of them. I enjoy going to the cinema for the sake of going to the cinema and if someone invites me to go with them, I generally will, regardless of whether I want to see the film (so long as there isn't something I'd rather watch showing). 

Does this mean that I can just tell by watching the trailer or reading a review or even by hearing the synopsis of a film whether or not I will enjoy it? Maybe so when it comes to films that I give six or seven out of 10: most thrillers (regardless of actors, setting or plot), for example. Other films should be harder to predict because my tastes are so diverse - The Last Picture Show, Mulholland Drive, The Dreamers, Speed, The Matrix, Before Sunset, Reservoir Dogs and American History X are quite hard to lump into a single category other than that of 'Bex's favourite films'. They're all quite gritty, I suppose (except Speed but the two Keanu films differ from the others in a number of ways) and aren't terribly happy. Apart from Speed and The Matrix, they focus on the relationships between people, but then most films do. 

Perhaps instead I am just falling victim of the confirmation bias. "I have heard that this is a good film and I have liked these other similar films in the past therefore I will like this one too," sez I. I know that the opposite is true - I decided that I wouldn't like Punch-Drunk Love or Elephant, mainly because my friend Monsieur E was extolling their pretentious virtues and indeed, I hated both of them. I'm sure my stubbornness and my desire to annoy Monsieur E may have played a bigger role in my dislike of both films than I cared to admit at the time. 

The same thing happened at the opera - Monsieur E dragged me down to Covent Garden to see The Magic Flute and I said that I would hate it and it would be awful and boring - and I did and it was. If this confirmation bias is the cause of my positive opinions of movies, I'm not sure what I can do to remedy it. My taste in film is already pretty diverse so other than going to see films I actually dislike the sound of, or encouraging people with generally good taste in films to take me to see a film I wouldn't necessarily have chosen myself (but that is unlikely to be objectively crap). I'm not sure it matters a great deal; I moan about enough things to have to worry that I am being too positive for once.

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