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July 19, 2015
by Carol Campbell, M.A

Disney's Annimated Film "Inside Out" Brings Psychology to the People

July 19, 2015 09:00 by Carol Campbell, M.A  [About the Author]

Moviegoers of all ages can thank Disney’s Pixar Studios for brightening the summer of 2015 with a remarkable film, “Inside Out”.  This PG-rated movie not only entertains and inspires, but also offers a fantastical but profoundly useful animation of how our feelings call the shots as our minds make meaning of our lives. Who knew that basic psychological principles could be taught by animating five major emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear?

Motivated by observations of his own daughter, director and co-story writer Pete Docter set out to create a movie that could show how the mind of 11-year old “Riley” works. (Gaughan) He and the production team took five years from his first inspiration to the film’s debut, gathering information from neurologists, psychotherapists, and various other specialists. His goal was to create images and a story line that capture the dynamics of the human mind in a way that people of all ages could grasp and identify with.

For this to happen, the movie needs two things happening simultaneously: (1) a narrative about the people who are the subjects of the movie, and (2) a way to personify the different parts of the brain of the main character.

Imagining Emotions As Personified Creatures

The movie opens with the newborn infant Riley peering through her confused and blinking eyes to see her parents smiling back at her as they welcome her into the world. Soon a very different perspective on things emerges as the scene shifts to the brilliantly imagined inner workings of Riley’s mind. Whenever Riley is having a significant experience, there is work to be done by Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear, because they are charged with determining how Riley will register what has happened in terms of the emotions she feels at the time.

Each of these five emotions is lobbying for its own influence at the console panel in the brain’s control tower. (For simplicity’s sake, the number of emotions is limited to five.) The five emotions argue about what influence needs to be imparted to Riley when something happens to her. For example, star-shaped Joy is endlessly cheerful and optimistic, and wants Riley to have one happy moment after another. Joyful experiences for Riley cause the creation of happy memories, which are visually retained in glowing yellow balls that are then sent off to one of the memory storage areas on long tracks representing neural pathways.

Sadness is a despondent, self-critical blue blob filled with guilt and shame. Joy tries to keep Sadness from touching the memory balls, for fear of trouble if positive emotions are not privileged. Sad experiences for Riley cause painful memories to be located in glowing blue bowling balls headed for storage.

Anger is like a red fireplug who is on the alert for anything that could be used to set off his explosions of rage. He is watching for experiences that he thinks require Riley to get mad, in which case a red bowling ball is designated to hold the memory.

Disgust, who looks a lot like a piece of broccoli, has a lesser role, generally one of finding fault, disappointment, and revulsion. Finally, Fear is shaped like a giant white question mark, wiggling his way around in a constant effort to find something worth worrying about.

Truly key memories/glowing balls can become core memories, which are used to build Personality Islands for Riley, which resemble amusement parks in the landscape of her mind. The Personality Islands for Riley represent collections of strong memories over the years in her five most important themes: family, friendship, honesty, being a goofball, and hockey.

Change Brings Conflict

Riley’s life is thrown for a giant loop when her father accepts a position at a start-up company in San Francisco, necessitating a move for the family from their settled existence in Minnesota. The adjustment to an urban world with no friends causes major trouble for Riley and for the team of emotions arguing over the console in the mental control tower. Her parents are beside themselves with worry when their normal strategy of just looking on the bright side utterly fails them.

Much of the action in the film covers the desperate efforts of Joy and Sadness to prevent letting some important joyful memories be tossed into the Abyss, now that Riley was experiencing sadness at missing her friends from Minnesota. Their harrowing adventures in the realms of Abstract Thought, Imagination Land, crumbling Personality islands, and Long Term Memory bring them to the brink of disaster time after time. But with the help of Riley’s long forgotten imaginary friend Bing Bong, Joy and Sadness come to the realization that in fact all the emotions are essential for making meaning of Riley’s life.

Mark Mohan, who writes for the Oregonian, put it well:  “A big part of the emotional impact of “Inside Out” come from its recognition that growing up means losing access to some of our best and perfect memories, and learning the meaning of bittersweet.”(Mohan)

Riley’s family gets in trouble when they fail to realize that all their emotions are essential for responding to the challenges of their move to California. It just doesn’t work to simply try to keep your chin up when the moving van has gotten lost, Dad’s job is not a sure thing, the new house pales in comparison to the one left behind in Minnesota, and you are the new kid in school and don’t know where to sit for lunch.

Powerful Psychological Message

Anyone who sees this film will have an increased appreciation for the value of noticing and appreciating one’s own conflicting emotions. Psychologists might say that this is the measure of good mental health: to place value on all of one’s feelings, and to manage them as a complex team. Joy is the leader of the emotions in Inside Out, but she learns that to truly help Riley negotiate life, she needs to be influenced as well by Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear. One of the most powerful moments in the movie is when a very frustrated Riley yells at her parents, “Stop saying everything will be alright!”

As the movie ends and the credits role, the viewer is treated to a quick view inside the minds of all the characters in the movie. They each have their own versions of Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear at the consoles in their own control towers of the mind. And so do we all.


Gaughan, K. “Inside Out With Director Pete Docter and Producer Jonas Rivera”, retrieved from, 2015

Mohan, M., special to The Oregonian, June 17, 2015.

About the Author

Carol Campbell Carol Campbell, M.A.

I am a graduate of Brown University and Santa Clara University. I received the Outstanding Alumni of the Year Award from the Division of Counseling Psychology and Education at Santa Clara University. I completed the Palo Alto Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Training Program offered by the San Francisco Center for Psychoanalysis. I am a clinical member of the Northern California Society for Psychoanalytic Psychology and of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists.

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