Saturday, August 2, 2008

A Cohort Effect to The Dark Knight Experience?

I just returned from my second viewing of The Dark Knight, which I saw in an IMAX theatre. Let's get the IMAX part out of the way---Wow! The aerial scenes were breathtaking, literally. As a viewer, I felt that I was in the helicopter that housed the camera, flying above the city. And close-ups of the Joker were terrifying—it felt as if he had me in a stranglehold and was forcing me to look at him, as he did with Rachel Dawes.

I quickly habituated to the IMAX features of the movie (except for the aerial shots), and focused on the movie itself—plot, story, visual aspects, message. During my first viewing, I must confess that during the last third of the film, I was expending a lot of energy trying to keep up with the fast-paced twists and turns of the plot, and the cuts between different characters and storylines. The first time, I didn't quite get some of the quietly spoken words, and didn't understand some of the quick visuals. I was still be processing the implications of one scene—in terms of the plot, the character development, the emotional consequences—when I was ripped from that scene to the next complex scene.

There were times when I wished that I could press a pause button so that I could fully digest a scene before moving on to the next one. It was frustrating. I felt as if I was on a treadmill that would sometimes shift into a faster pace than I was prepared for, and it was all I could do to keep up and not fall off. In the last third of the film, rather than feeling energized, the pace left me fatigued. The younger people that I know who saw the movie did not feel this way, and they seemed to understand most everything that happened. And they didn't feel tired during the film, only afterward, when the adrenaline rush stopped.

In my second go-round with The Dark Knight, I could appreciate the finer details of the story that I missed this first time (such as the extent of Dent's grudge against Jim Gordon and Dent's use of his coin before versus after his kidnapping).

After this second viewing, my adult companion who had not seen the film before commented that he felt overloaded by the last third of the film. As with my first viewing, his cognitive and emotional energy to handle the film diminished with its length and the horror the Joker wrought.

Why the different responses between older viewers (I'm guessing the dividing line is at around 40+ years old) and younger viewers? You could chalk it up to an age difference—that younger people, but virtue of their age, are better able to track fast paced events, and so don't become particularly tired by it. I don’t think that's the answer, though. Rather, I think it's because people who are in their 20s and younger have been exposed to things that my generation wasn't exposed to as children: computer and console games, extreme multitasking with instant messaging and internet surfing, and fast passed television shows and movies. That exposure has influenced how this younger generation processes and responds to information. Had my generation been exposed to these technologies in our formidable years, I think we wouldn't be fatigued by the end of The Dark Knight either.

Psychologists call this a cohort effect: The impact of a common event or experience on a group of people, compared to those who do not share the event or experience. My hypothesis is that there is a cohort effect in how tired people feel after watching The Dark Knight. Younger viewers, by virtue of their technological and media experiences during their formidable years, experience the film differently than do older viewers.

There's an easy way to test my hypothesis about the cohort effect: Assess the reactions of two types of The Dark Knight viewers: Compare young viewers who grew up with significant a amounts of computer, gaming, and media exposure with those young people who did not. I welcome any comments you have about my hypothesis!

[On a related note, younger people in general are "smarter" than their elders: IQs scores have been increasing by, on average, 3 IQ points every 10 years. This finding is called the Flynn Effect, named after the social scientist, James Flynn, whose research revealed the increase. There are various explanations for the Flynn effect, including increasingly better health and nutrition in children, increased familiarity with IQ-type questions, and an increasingly complexity in the environments in which children are growing up. These are discussed in his most recent book, What is Intelligence?: Beyond the Flynn Effect. To read Malcom Gladwell's article about the Flynn effect, click here]


  1. When you said, "The younger people that I know who saw the movie did not feel this way [tired], and they seemed to understand most everything that happened.", did they understand the significance of the events, or did they just record and observe the events? What I find tiring is seeing the film unfold AND trying to make sense of it--analyzing it while absorbing new information. In other words...can they only tell you they heard Batman say he was going after Rachel OR can they also tell you what they think the Joker was trying to accomplish by switching the addresses? If it's both, I'm jealous!!

    And how old are "younger people" ...teens? ...20 something?....thirty something?

    Thanks, ~Ann Marie

  2. Good question about the depth and nuance of their understanding. It would be fun to do a study, asking viewers relevant questions immediately after they saw the film. As to what I meant by "younger"--I think the most dramatic difference would be people in their early 20s and younger compared to people in their 50s. However, it would be interesting to sort viewers by both their age AND the extent and type of their computer and gaming use.

  3. Flynn himself wrote a few months ago an article describing how the mechanisms you mentioned (video games, films etc.) contribute to a rise of IQ. I cited your blog, since it inspired me to write a few things about Flynn Effect, the cohort effect and video games, if you want to check it out at