Best Films — Behavioral Science Edition

The list of movies and TV-shows you didn’t know you needed

Who said binge-watching couldn’t be enlightening? Here’s your unofficial selection of the best films and TV-series helping us better understand human behavior, without leaving our armchairs (or couches).

You are probably thinking that this whole thing sounds like an elaborate charade of motivated reasoning to justify streaming something new on Netflix. However, that is simply not true. All of these films and shows have been carefully selected by a group of leading behavioral science researchers and neuroscientists who have spent thousands of hours analyzing Dumb & Dumber, among other films. There was also crowdsourcing of ideas via LinkedIn.

Was it worth spending a gazillion dollars to make this list? Yes. Because if we want to change the world, we must start with understanding and changing behavior. Also, film critics have way too many biases to be trusted for reliable recommendations. So don’t worry, you can now switch off your system two and let your automatic thinking to do the rest from here.

This list should not be taken seriously as it’s inherently a silly thing. Still, I hope that you’ll find something interesting and enjoyable to watch and that you leave a comment here if I missed something. Happy streaming 📺

— Samuel Salzer

CONTENTS
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1. Drama
2. Action / Adventure / Thriller
3. Comedy
4. Science Fiction
5. Documentary / reality

1. Drama

The Big Short

Synopsis: The Big Short is the true story of a handful of investors who bet against the US mortgage market in 2006–2007. Through their own research, they discovered that the US mortgage-backed securities market was a bubble about to burst, and they invested accordingly. What they didn’t initially know was how structurally flawed the mortgage-backed securities system was, the level of corruption in the market, and the impact on the average person when the bubble burst.

Behavioral insights: There are a lot of good drama films covering concepts from behavioral science, but it was hard not to highlight the only movie featuring a Behavioral Economist and Nobel laureate in Richard Thaler. Beyond Thaler’s insights on the Hot Hand Fallacy (which has become a hot topic lately), the movie also masterfully explains some of the main reasons why the GFC happened. While we might think the financial system is held together only by elaborate financial models and data systems, this movie shows that in the end it’s maintained and dictated by people’s behaviors and attitudes.

Other noteworthy films in drama

Please clap 👏👏 if you find this list helpful. Thanks!

2. Action / Adventure / Thriller

The Lord of The Rings

Synopsis: The future of civilization rests in the fate of the One Ring, which has been lost for centuries. Powerful forces are unrelenting in their search for it. But fate has placed it in the hands of a young Hobbit named Frodo Baggins, who inherits the Ring and steps into legend. A daunting task lies ahead for Frodo when he becomes the Ringbearer, to destroy the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom where it was forged.

Behavioral insights: If there ever were a good metaphor for the Endowment Effect, then it would be the one portrayed in this Oscar-winning masterpiece. What happened to Gollum in finding it hard to let go of a good thing should be relatable to anyone. While we might not creepily whisper to a ring, there is a Gollum in all of us, treating the precious things we own sometimes with irrational levels of importance.

Other noteworthy films in action / adventure / thriller

  • The Dark Knight (game theory — the pirate’s game and the prisoner’s dilemma)
  • You (misinterpreting social cues)
  • Shutter Island (self-concept, representation of reality, self-control)

3. Comedy

Brittany Runs a Marathon

Synopsis: A hard-partying woman receives a startling wake-up call when a visit to the doctor reveals how unhealthy she is. Motivated to lose weight, she soon takes up running to help her prepare for her ultimate goal of competing in the New York City Marathon.

Behavioral insights: This is a hilarious and touching comedy with a great cast, but it also manages to get the behavioral science behind personal improvement and habits spot on (the most important thing in a good film). The movie covers the role of identity in behavior change, why we can’t rush progress and must find ways to take small incremental steps towards our goal.

Other noteworthy films in comedy

Please clap 👏👏 if you find this list helpful. Thanks!

4. Sci-Fi

Black Mirror

Synopsis: Set in a world only minutes from our own, “Black Mirror” unveils how modern technologies can backfire and be used against their makers, every episode set in a slightly different reality with different characters combating different types of technologies. Also, it can get pretty dark.

Behavioral insights: So. Many. Behavioral insights. It’s honestly difficult to pick out one episode that doesn’t help us better understand human nature in some new way. Still, highlights are Nosedive (social signaling), Men Against Fire (pseudospeciation, dehumanization), and Be Right Back (personality, uncanny valley). This sometimes dark, bit always thought-provoking show takes a deep dive in every episode of the present and future of what it means to be human in the age of modern technology.

Other noteworthy films in sci-fi

5. Reality / Documentary

The Push

Synopsis: Derren Brown investigates the power of compliance by engineering an audacious social experiment demonstrating how manipulation can lead an ordinary person to commit an appalling act.

Behavioral insights: In the spirit of all unethical behavioral science experiments in history (think Stanford Prison or Robbers Cave Experiments), this Netflix special is a social experiment that tries to ask a terrible question about human nature. It showcases how sensitive we are to social pressures and the potentially terrible consequences coming from an escalation of commitments (similar to Cialdini’s discussion on the foot in the door technique).

Other noteworthy films in reality / documentary

Please clap 👏👏 if you find this list helpful. Thanks!

Samuel Salzer is a behavioral strategist, author & keynote speaker helping value-driven organizations around the world to create habit-forming products and services using insights from behavioral economics and applied behavioral science.

For questions or queries, get in touch here.

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Samuel Salzer

Samuel Salzer

Behavioral designer, author and keynote speaker. Helping organizations create habit forming products. Curator for the popular newsletter www.HabitWeekly.com