Social Science

What developmental psychologists think about Inside Out’s picture of puberty

Anxiety, envy, embarrassment and boredom are the emotions of puberty in Inside Out 2. Here’s what psychologists have to say about them

March 20, 2024
Illustration showing characters from the movie Inside Out 2
Inside Out is returning to theaters next summer, and with it the emotional challenges of puberty. [Credit: Gayoung Lee]

Inside Out received mostly rave reviews when it was released in 2015, for its creative approach to illustrating the emotions of its 11-year-old protagonist, a blonde American girl named Riley. Still, there was plenty of debate over the adequacy of the five “main” emotions selected for the film — joy, sadness, anger, fear and disgust. It’s a debate that continued long after it finished screening in theaters.

That debate may resume this summer, when Pixar releases “Inside Out 2,” which is about the emotions of a “newly minted teenager Riley.” Early reports indicate that 13-year-old Riley, having entered puberty, will be dealing with a new set of emotions: anxiety, envy, embarrassment and ennui (boredom), represented by colorful animated characters. 

So, are those emotions accurate to puberty? Though the movie is fiction, what we learn about emotions from it doesn’t have to be. 

“I think that representing emotions as being very narrow — each [character] is one emotion — is not representative of real life,” said Adriana Galván, director of the Developmental Neuroscience Laboratory at UCLA. “Emotions kind of blend together. For example, you can feel pure anger, but that anger is probably also associated with disappointment or sadness.”

Starting to experience and manage complex emotions is a key feature of growing up, she added. Puberty, which typically starts between ages 11 to 14, marks the beginning of a much longer period in life up to the mid-20s, called adolescence. This is when the brain is the most plastic and open to learning new things, according to Galván. It is also a time when teens go through a wide range of emotional changes. 

The way Inside Out 2 will address these emotions remains to be seen, but anxiety, envy, embarrassment and boredom are indeed a very narrow scope of emotions, experts said. 

“I was also disappointed that they don’t have representations of positive emotions that happen during adolescence,” Galván said. “Exploration is a really positive emotion that’s associated with motivation that happens during adolescence. There’s a lot of bravery and love, which is a very strong emotion.”

The sequel’s emphasis on “what we would think of as negative emotions” also troubled Jess P. Shatkin, lead psychiatrist at the Child Study Center, NYU Langone. Adolescence is not all darkness, he said. “At that age, you’re so driven by trying to recognize your emotions and know what you’re dealing with, to be able to process it in ways that are more healthy.” 

“Self-efficacy is knowing that you can act in an … effective way, meaning you can set goals for yourself,” Shatkin said. “Can I get good grades? Can I get into college? Can I get on the basketball team? If I don’t get on the team, how do I handle that? That’s what the individual is working on.”

Not being able to “deliver and impress” one’s peers might make a teen embarrassed or induce anxiety of social exclusion, Shatkin said. But the same competitive urge, he said, can propel adolescents to better manage their emotions and more self-efficacy and emotional management. 

Scientific evidence supports the four main emotions the Pixar creators seem to have chosen to highlight in teenage Riley. For example, increased risk-taking, which Galván and Shatkin both identified as a distinct characteristic of adolescence, could give rise to anxiety, envy or embarrassment in teens. 

During adolescence, the brain operates “like a race car on steroids” to comprehend and assimilate to its surroundings, Shatkin said. Those surroundings are likely to change rapidly, as a child moves from a mostly family-centered environment to a peer-centered environment. 

Thus, a primary goal for adolescents is to formulate a sense of belonging by identifying their peer clique and the academics and activities they thrive in. The hormones dopamine and oxytocin, released in excess during early adolescence, help drive this process.

“Most people think of dopamine as a pleasure neurochemical, but the way a scientist thinks about dopamine is as a learning neurochemical, as something to teach you,” Shatkin said. “If we didn’t have dopamine, we would never do that act if it didn’t feel good.”

Coupled with oxytocin, the so-called bonding hormone, adolescence becomes characterized by heavy competition, where teens compete to “bond” and find the right social nesting ground. During this time, the prefrontal cortex undergoes rapid growth. That area of the brain is “really critical in helping you acknowledge that people are different from you,” Galván says. 

As teens become more aware of people around them, that leads to increased self-consciousness, according to Cindy Huang, a developmental psychologist at Teachers College, Columbia University. This easily leads to envy, embarrassment and increased anxiety, Huang says.

“All these emotions are experienced all the time, at any stage,” Huang said. “But the understanding of what you’re experiencing and how these feelings are expressed is what changes over time.” 

The psychologists were more divided on the selection of boredom as one puberty emotion. Because boredom can be a sign of many things, including depression, a psychological rationale for its connection to puberty may be tricky without seeing the actual movie, Huang said.

“Developmentally, when you’re younger, there are more things that are newer, and toys might be interesting. And that as you get older, things are less new,” Huang explained.

While “Inside Out 2” may simplify human emotions to make more compelling characters, the psychologists say what the movie could teach about puberty can still hold value, for teens and others alike. 

“I mean, they’re obviously going to truncate things because it’s a movie,” Shatkin said. “But it [can help] people to think about accepting complex emotions, which is a lot of what growing up is about.”

“I am all for it!” Huang said about the sequel. “It’s been simplified, but it’s more like an emphasis on what the movie is trying to say: to highlight the rocky years of adolescence, which can be really rocky — but also really great.”

Inside Out 2 is set to be released in theaters on June 14, 2024. You can watch the latest trailer here.

About the Author

Gayoung Lee

Gayoung Lee is a science writer and illustrator from South Korea. A philosopher by training, her interests lie in uncovering and writing about the unexpected connections between the world and various scientific phenomena, particularly in theoretical physics and chemistry. Her latest hyperfixation concerns the mathematical roundness of the game character Kirby.


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