Record #279

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Correspondence & report
Reel 2
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Influence of screen - psychological research
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Chicago National Motion Picture Conference, hostile to the industry, voted to underwrite a psychological study of motion pictures. Joy: "Such study coming from a group inspired by malice will undoubtedly be of great harm to us and the most practical way of countering it was to initiate a piece of experimental research to be carried out by the foremost psychologists of the country." As a result, the MPPDA ran a project with Columbia University. Correspondence and a preliminary report included here. Incomplete early audience research.


Audience research (13), Children (43), Payne Fund Studies (1) Show all keywords…



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Documents on the Columbia University psychology experiments conducted during the summer of 1926 by R.S. Woodworth, Harold E. Jones and Mark A. May - the connection established through Arthur DeBra, former student of Woodworth's - who is interested in a scientific study of audience. Jones undertook research in small rural Vermont and Massachusetts communities, May in NY. Jones was, by the look of it, using fairly antiquated material, and complains to DeBra about his 1915 Wallace Reid picture when recent stuff is shown in the villages.Letter from Joy to Paul Gulick of Universal explains the MPPDA purpose, in relation to the hearings on the Swope and Upshaw bills: "At the Chicago National Motion Picture Conference which was planned by the anti-crowd as a "booster" for the Committee hearings ... it was voted to underwrite a psychological study of motion pictures. {eventually the Payne Fund Studies, presumably} Such a study coming from a group inspired by malice will undoubtedly be of great harm to us and the most practical way of countering it was to initiate a piece of experimental research to be carried out by the foremost psychologists of the country. ... we want to know pretty definitely what the results will be before it receives any general publicity and, besides, we think it will get more attention and more effectively accomplish what we want, if we can release some startling results this fall just about the time our legislative difficulties present themselves. "The preliminary report on results by Woodworth are dated 01-07-1927. Conclusions are quite impressive. On attendance, in one public school, where it was estimated that all children went every day, attendance was 1.15 times per week - less frequent than in a school in a better neighbourhood, where it was 1.85 times. - "The children of professional and business men attended a little oftener than the children of skilled or of unskilled laborers." - No differences established around intellectual ability. This is the source of figures which the MPPDA used regularly about the scale of child (under 17) attendance, at approx. 8.0% in residential urban districts - these figures much less than for rural Vermont, where 38% of audiences were under 17. "Frequency of attendance seems to increase with age up to 20 or thereabouts, and the great majority of audience consists of adults and near-adults."Using "Testimony Experiments", they established relatively low scores among children in correctly answering questions on plot events, suggesting "that children under about 12 years of age certainly fail to get a large share of the events of a picture which appear essential to the story form the adult point of view. With still younger children, this fact often comes out very amusingly when inquiries are made as to what a child liked in a given picture. Often the absorbing part of the story is missed altogether." In composition tests the children clearly understood the picture "to be but a 'story'". The Vermont study revealed high levels of comprehension of a Western among adults, but more particularly noted that the same level of scores was obtained when questions were asked a week after the screening - by comparison to a 57% score on the content of a college lecture. "The 'curve of forgetting' proceeds much more slowly after a motion picture than after a lecture. This would not be possible except for an extremely alert attitude on the part of the audience during the exhibition. Though the audience is looking for entertainment, we cannot think of them as mentally passive during the show; they are probably more alive, intellectually, than during a lecture." So this argument, which has become so central to our thinking about the movies, is actually being articulated by Harold Jones in 1926, but isn't for instance, registered by Lord in his writings and sets of assumptions about movies. Scores in the tests were comparable to scores in intelligence tests and they could be modified to work as intelligence tests. "Intelligence certainly is in play during the watching of a motion picture. "On preferences, rural audiences like Westerns and action films best, society dramas least. "There can be no doubt that the taste of these communities runs to 'Westerns' and other action films, much more than to the society or psychological drama; and yet the latter type of film might draw almost as good a crowd, because the people would rather see them than no movie at all, and have no choice in the matter."

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