Mediating Emotion: Technology, Social Science, and Emotion in the Payne Fund Motion-Picture Studies
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Mediating Emotion
Technology, Social Science, and Emotion in the Payne Fund Motion-Picture Studies

In a 1936 letter to polygraph innovator John Larson, William Marston, himself a polygraph pioneer, celebrated the possibilities of their young technology. “I am in touch with several different fields here where this type of emotion-measurement can be used—and paid for highly—commercially,” Marston begins. He continues:

Am also in touch with some big backers of a gorgeous and complicated idea I have for doing this work in many lines on a big scale— I call it THE TRUTH FOUNDATION. My thought is to emphasize the sociological importance of this work—it is far bigger from this angle than anything else ever attempted in psychology. You see, we are attacking the key to moral evil in the world—deception.1

While Marston’s enthusiasm may seem extreme, it resonates with a series of social-scientific attitudes about technology that came to dominance during the 1920s and 1930s. With researchers bringing the powers of electricity to bear on a variety of subjects, many social scientists, like the population more generally, fell prey to the unbridled passion that often accompanies new technologies. Harnessing the powers of electricity, the polygraph [End Page 366] promised to uncover the truth of human emotions and in so doing attack the roots of immorality.

That Marston’s comments focus on emotion in particular illustrates a further attitude dominating the social-scientific and larger culture of the 1920s and 1930s. The rise of radio, the coming of the talkies, and other technological and popular cultural developments of the period made clergy, business professionals, and academics especially interested in the emotions of the American public. While ministers worried about the corruption of morals through the base sentiments of entertainment media, public-relations specialists sought new ways to shape public sentiments for the benefit of political and economic causes. At the same time, psychologists obsessed over ways to measure and manipulate human emotions in the laboratory and elsewhere. As with Marston, these thinkers saw the moral, sociological, psychological, and commercial possibilities of tapping into individuals’ emotions.

In the burgeoning area of media research, the motion-picture studies of the Payne Fund brought these technological and emotional questions together. This set of thirteen studies published in 1933 attempted to detail the effects of movies on viewers, especially children. In Our Movie-Made Children, a summary of the Payne Fund’s scientific studies meant for a more popular audience, Henry James Foreman found evidence for “the influence of motion pictures and their impersonations upon the character, conduct and behaviour of vast numbers of our nation and especially upon the more malleable and younger people.”2 Foreman, like many of his contemporaries, saw both promise and problems in the powerful technology of the motion picture, “second in importance—if second it is—only to the art of printing.”3 The Payne Fund studies sought to measure what had become a commonplace idea by using quantitative and qualitative methods to demonstrate the influence of the cinematic apparatus on the attitudes and emotions of its audiences.

This essay explores the confluence of media, emotion, and technology in one particular Payne Fund study monograph: Wendell Dysinger and Christian Ruckmick’s The Emotional Responses of Children to the Motion Picture Situation.4 Like Foreman, Dysinger and Ruckmick showed special concern for the influence of the talking picture, whose “illusion of reality in the theater is so great that to most of the spectators and auditors the presentations carry with them a deep emotional tone, especially in the case of children.”5 Their study utilized equipment developed in the University of Iowa’s Department of Psychology, where Ruckmick was a professor and Dysinger a [End Page 367] graduate student. Hooking up subjects to psycho-galvanometers and pneumo-cardiographs that monitored perspiration, respiration, and heart rate, Ruckmick and Dysinger used their laboratory machinery to monitor audience members’ emotions. For Ruckmick, Dysinger, and many of their contemporaries, the technological power of such equipment promised a fitting adversary to the power of cinema; in fact, their faith in the readings of the psycho-galvanometer rested on the same belief in the...