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What are these movie characters thinking? Directors are increasingly expecting you to wonder

An image of the actress Jennifer Garner’s face from this year’s Academy Awards ceremony became the reaction shot seen round the world, as people wondered what was behind her semihorrified expression. Similarly, people enjoy looking to characters’ silent reaction shots in movies as a way to decode what these individuals are thinking. And directors may be taking more advantage of such mind-reading tendencies, new research suggests.

Psychologists analyzed 24 popular movies from 1940 to 2010 and found three patterns. First, shots of characters have become closer on average, going from directors framing them from the knees up to framing them from the waist or chest up. (The researchers don’t think the trend is purely the result of leaps in camera technology because it’s gradual.) Second, the proportion of conversations ending in a reaction shot—a silent response to a person or event—tripled, from about one in five to three in five. (1998’s Meet Joe Black, which was not among the sampled movies, ends one conversation with 12 back-to-back reaction shots.) Third, viewers rated the expressions in the conversation-ending reaction shots as slightly negative and slightly aroused (although the study didn’t find a trend over time). The characters appear to be suppressing the urge to speak, leaving audiences to wonder what’s left unsaid.

Psychologists describe interest in another’s mental states, or thinking about thinking, as “theory of mind.” In this paper, to be published in Cognitive Science, the authors have a theory of theory of theory of mind (a theory cubed, if you will): They theorize that filmmakers are increasingly thinking about the audience’s theory of mind. And so movies offer viewers more chances to peer into those cryptic expressions and wonder what it means for the story. Encouraging mind-reading in fictional narratives does more than entertain us; some scholars believe it has advanced human rights by encouraging audiences to take on the perspectives of women and minorities.

*14 May, 5:34 p.m.: This story originally contained stills from several movies, but they have been removed due to permission issues.