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Psychology in the “50/50” Hollywood Film Essay


Relating findings from psychological research to the movie

The purpose of this assignment is to identify theoretical psychology concepts in realistic scenarios presented in a movie and draw relevant conclusions to more competently comprehend human behavior based on these depictions. The film 50/50 tells the story of a young man named Adam who is diagnosed with cancer. He has a close relationship with his best friend Kyle and a troubled interaction with his girlfriend Rachael. Their romantic relationship lacks intimacy and Rachael who at first volunteered to take care of Adam becomes distant and fails at her duties as a caretaker. Eventually, after Kyle catches Rachael being unfaithful and Adam ends the relationship. Afterward, Adam begins to see an inexperienced therapist named Katherine and they form a personal connection. As Adam undergoes treatment, Kyle and Katherine show their unconditional care for him. When Adam successfully undergoes surgery and is now free of cancer, he begins a romantic relationship with Katherine (Levine, 2011).

The terror management theory (TMT) is a psychological concept to describe the instinct of self-preservation present in all humans which drives motivation and behavior under the threat of mortality. Therefore, humans seek to protect themselves from the resulting anxiety through a cultural buffer that consists of faith in a specific worldview and self-esteem. Strachman and Schimel (2006) examined the mortality salience hypothesis of whether feelings of commitment depended on compatibility of worldviews based on a controlled topic (dental pain) that served as a reminder of mortality.

The study invited 266 individuals, all of which were in a romantic relationship. The subjects were randomly distributed to a 2×2 factorial design. The participants completed a self-evaluation, a test, and answered questions on worldviews. In the final part of the study, participants had to fill out a 7-item evaluation of commitment. The results showed that exposing partners to mortality salience had an impact when asked to think about worldview differences. This is consistent with TMT which shows that when social identities fail to provide adequate protection from an existential threat, people tend to reduce affiliation. Thus, those with worldview differences were negatively affected by mortality salience and vice versa.

In the film, the TMT theory can be distinctly observed in the two romantic relationships that Adam experiences. The scene when Kyle presents Adam with evidence of Rachael’s infidelity, she breaks down and opens up to Adam about her feelings of helplessness and despair in their relationship. Before Adam’s diagnosis, their relationship was seemingly going well as they wanted to move in together. However, afterward, their relationship began to suffer due to the seriousness of Adam’s condition. It was the ultimate example of mortality salience. Despite volunteering to take care of Adam, Rachael draws away, distancing herself from his hospital visit. Her failure as a caretaker is connected to their relationship degrading with mortality salience. Both of them show distinctly different worldviews and moral compasses. While Rachael thought it was appropriate to seek comfort outside the relationship; therefore, decreasing commitment. Adam was confused about why she lied to him and refused to forgive her actions.

Another important scene in the movie is when Katherine is driving Adam to an appointment, he opens up about the pain of being abandoned by Rachael. His emotional pain is deflected upon Katherine through criticism of trash in her car. Meanwhile, Katherine shows compassion and attempts to emphasize with Adam by telling her own story of heartbreak. As the two are driving to the hospital which serves as mortality salience and Adam realizes his helplessness of being unable to attend appointments independently, their worldviews seem to connect. They both receive the support and care from each other that they need which leads to a committed romantic relationship by the end of the film.

Psychological coping process in research articles

After the diagnosis, Adam is forced to cope with an idea of potential death which dramatically impacts his emotional state throughout the movie. Coping is a dynamic process which consists of a broad set of responses (behavioral and mental) that are used to manage demands of stressful situations. Coping most often includes a set of emotional reactions. Each person has different coping styles. An emotion-focused coping style attempt to regulate emotions which may arise due to stressors.

Webber et al. (2015) wanted to investigate a concept of the TMT theory, examining the role of emotion in the hypothesized connection between threats to worldview beliefs and death thought accessibility (DTA). Participants were exposed to existentially threatening stimuli in which induced emotion (arousal or disgust) was present or absent. High levels of DTA and worldview defense were noticed when emotion was unchanged after threat exposure. However, with misattributed emotion to a neutral source, no changes in DTA were noticed (Webber et al., 2015).

Maxfield, John, and Pyszczynski (2014) sought to explore the concept of TMT that suggests that anxiety created by mortality awareness can be managed by a buffering system which consists of worldview, self-esteem, and interpersonal attachments. Much of value and purpose of human behavior is based on the need to control the anxiety of death. However specific events or psychological dysfunctions can lead to changes in the anxiety-buffer thus leading to irrational and detrimental behavior. The article is a literature review of various psychological causes that may cause a person to become exposed to death-related anxiety due to poor management of the buffer system as according to the TMT theory.

Brandão, Tavaresa, Schulz, and Matos (2016) sought to investigate the role of emotional regulation and expression in adaptation to breast cancer amongst patients. The article is a meta-analysis conducted by PRISMA guidelines to systematically review strategies used by women to regulate emotions. Researchers used nine independent databases, collecting 679 studies out of which 59 were eligible. The research found that dimensions of emotional regulation exist ranging from suppression to self-efficacy. Overall, positive emotional expression driven by strategies such as group intervention led to a reduction of cancer-related anxiety.

Based on the conclusions of the studies, it is evident that Adam was experiencing a significant emotional change in the process of coping with potential death. A threatening stimulus in the form of cancer led to increased DTA and protection of worldviews. The threat led to the arousal of emotion that heightened DTA. In the overall concept of TMT, emotion plays a role in the specific reactions to threats of mortality (Webber et al., 2015). This inherently changed Adam’s relationship with people as his heightened protection of worldview began conflicting with Rachael’s as the seriousness of the illness became apparent.

Based on Maxfield et al. (2014), it is likely that the traumatic experience of receiving the diagnosis in addition to estranged relationships with Rachael and his mother essentially created a psychological dysfunction in Adam. As the film progresses, he becomes more aggressive and lashes out, with his anxiety-buffer unable to manage the storm of emotions. It begins to affect his self-esteem and interpersonal relationships, leaving facing with an existential conflict. This leads to the conclusions of Brandão et al. (2015) that emotional regulation in cancer patients is strongly dependent on the strategies and moderation factors utilized by the patient. Counseling led to self-efficacy that decreased emotional control while supportive group intervention helped. Adam was able to overcome his anxiety and maintain emotional control through close and intimate friendships with Kyle and Katherine that provided a reliable support system for his recovery.


Brandão, T., Tavares, R., Schulz, M. S., & Matos, P. M. (2016). Measuring emotion regulation and emotional expression in breast cancer patients: A systematic review. Clinical Psychology Review, 43, 114-127. Web.

Levine, J. (Director). (2011). 50/50 [Motion picture]. United States: Summit Entertainment.

Maxfield, M., John, S., & Pyszczynski, T. (2014). A terror management perspective on the role of death-related anxiety in psychological dysfunction. The Humanistic Psychologist, 42(1), 35-53. Web.

Strachman, A., & Schimel, J. (2006). Terror management and close relationships: Evidence that mortality salience reduces commitment among partners with different worldviews. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 23(6), 965-978.

Webber, D., Schimel, J., Faucher, E. H., Hayes, J., Zhang, R., & Martens, A. (2015). Emotion as a necessary component of threat-induced death thought accessibility and defensive compensation. Motivation and Emotion, 39(1), 142-155. Web.

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