M. Todd Bennett: When Behaviorism Went to the Movies

One World, Big Screen: Hollywood, the Allies, and World War II, by M. Todd BennettWorld War II coincided with cinema’s golden age.  Movies now considered classics were created at a time when all sides in the war were coming to realize the great power of popular films to motivate the masses. Through multinational research, One World, Big Screen: Hollywood, the Allies, and World War II reveals how the Grand Alliance—Britain, China, the Soviet Union, and the United States—tapped Hollywood’s impressive power to shrink the distance and bridge the differences that separated them. The Allies, M. Todd Bennett shows, strategically manipulated cinema in an effort to promote the idea that the United Nations was a family of nations joined by blood and affection.

We welcome a guest post today from M. Todd Bennett about the use of movies to influence the public during World War II.


Can human behavior be modified? If so, should it be? Those questions are endlessly and strangely fascinating, as evidenced by David H. Freedman’s 2012 Atlantic article and the many online comments his piece generated.

Endlessly, because many continue to believe what behavioral scientists have been saying for over a century: that people’s thoughts and actions can be changed, for better or worse, by altering their external environment. Critics identified the culture of violence, video games in particular, as a cause of 1999’s Columbine High School massacre, for example, while Freedman cites studies indicating that such behavioral modification programs as Alcoholics Anonymous or Weight Watchers can improve health. Either way, faith in culture’s ability to influence human activity remains alive and well despite a wealth of scholarship by humanists and social scientists who insist otherwise.

Strangely, because the science of behavior modification, as the Atlantic’s cover points out, strikes most as “creepy.” The prospect of being manipulated by unseen forces, The Hidden Persuaders, as Vance Packard’s 1957 exposé famously called them, gives us the willies because it violates our cherished belief in free will, or human agency, to use the academic term.

That is especially worrisome in democracies, where behavior modification fell into disrepute in the mid-twentieth century after becoming associated with efforts in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and other “totalitarian” states to control the populace through mass propaganda, or “brainwashing,” as it became known. Indeed, it was no accident that such American experts as Packard issued the strongest critiques of the practice, on either moral or methodological grounds, during the post-World War II decades. And yet Freedman observes that the science of behavior modification, once denounced as “fascist,” is making a comeback, revived by new technologies like smartphone apps that make it easier to track, incentivize, and perhaps alter users’ behavior.

Where this leads is anyone’s guess, but it reminds me of another time in American history when an innovative technology promised to serve the public interest by changing the public’s attitudes. It is easy to forget that motion pictures, which from today’s vantage point appear dated in comparison to TV or the Internet, were once a cutting-edge media technology.

Developed at the beginning of the twentieth century, movies quickly arose to become the cultural centerpiece, especially during Hollywood’s “golden era” of the 1930s and ’40s. In 1941, 85 million Americans85 million, more than three-fifths of the overall U.S. population, which totaled 131 million at the time—attended movie theaters each week. Cinema’s remarkable popularity led observers to conclude that movies strongly influenced impressionable theatergoers. And not always for the better: Great Depression-era opponents blamed Hollywood’s violent gangster pictures and sexualized romances for juvenile misbehavior, and such criticism paved the way for the imposition of the Production Code, which regulated movie content for four decades, until the end of the 1960s.

Due to its unique technological qualities, film seemed to exert virtually unlimited powers of persuasion. Unlike radio or photography, movies combined sight and sound—breathtaking scenes, glamorous stars, stirring musical scores, and so on. Seasoned entertainers artfully interwove those elements into a sensuous, emotive, and entertaining product that mimicked real life by moving at the speed of 24 frames-per-second. Projected onto the big screens of darkened theaters, movies appeared larger and better than life to theatergoers, widely believed to have been transfixed by and unable to resist what appeared on screen. Men’s undershirt sales reportedly plummeted after actor Clark Gable appeared bare-chested in the Oscar-winning picture It Happened One Night (1934), for example. Although probably apocryphal, that report helped to cement Hollywood’s reputation as an influential arbiter of social norms, of coolness. In 1939, journalist Margaret Thorp argued that movies had a profound effect on consumers, who behaved, styled their hair, or dressed “in the manner of Claudette Colbert” and other screen stars.

During World War II, Hollywood and the U.S. government collaborated to harness cinema’s presumed might and put it to work on behalf of the national interest. Filmmakers and officials endeavored to win the war not against alcoholism or obesity but against the Axis powers by raising morale, a goal that entailed nothing less than altering the mass cultural environment to modify popular beliefs and, ultimately, behavior. Movies were well suited for that task because, as director Alexander Korda explained, “Propaganda can be a bitter medicine. It needs sugarcoating—and [popular film] is a very thick sugarcoating indeed.” As a result, hundreds of productions—including the good war’s greatest hits, among them Casablanca (1942), John Wayne’s Flying Tigers (1942), and Thirty Seconds over Tokyo (1944)—informed Americans why (for the Four Freedoms), against whom (the Axis), and with whom (the Allies) they were fighting.

Although that historical experience occurred almost seventy years ago, it speaks directly to the ongoing discussion about behavior modification. For one, ample evidence indicates that film, the cutting-edge communication technology of the day, did contribute to a major, and enduring, transformation of the American worldview that, by 1945, prized internationalism at the expense of isolationism. However, movies proved far less able to manipulate viewers than enthusiasts had predicted, an unforeseen outcome that informed those postwar scholars who doubted behavior modification’s feasibility.

In addition, the wartime project to manufacture public opinion sparked intense debate over whether such social engineering on a grand scale was consistent with American democratic principles as well as the war’s stated purpose of advancing the Four Freedoms. At the time it was decided that “democratic propaganda” was necessary to save liberalism from the genuine threat Nazism posed. But that conclusion, as defensible as it may have been, leaves open the question of whether authorities, in democracies especially, should ever resort to mass manipulation, even if it is done for a good cause.

M. Todd Bennett is assistant professor of history at East Carolina University and author of One World, Big Screen: Hollywood, the Allies, and World War II.