The Film Inside Out and The Symbolic Interaction Theory in Movies

About this sample

About this sample


Words: 2268 |

Pages: 5|

12 min read

Published: Aug 6, 2021

Words: 2268|Pages: 5|12 min read

Published: Aug 6, 2021

Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Movie Background
  3. Theory Definition
  4. Author Background
  5. Analysis of Movie using the Theory
  6. Theory Recommendation
  7. Conclusion
  8. References


We are introduced to many significant ideas regarding the Symbolic Interaction Theory (SI) in the movie Inside Out. One being “how we act, founded on the element that we assign imperative meaning to people, things and events.” In the context of this paper I will recapitulate this beautiful movie, I will help my reader understand the Symbolic Interaction Theory and how to examine the different communication theory’s Intrapersonal and Interpersonal concepts. I hope to show some recommendations in this paper from the research I have made regarding the Symbolic Interaction Theory. I will conclude with a few final thoughts concerning what I have grasped from the process of examining this theory.

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Movie Background

Inside out begins showing shots of Riley Anderson as a baby and forward; she is a little girl who is the only child of her parents. They live in Minnesota and have a wonderful life; until Riley’s dad gets a new job. The little family must relocate to San Francisco; their life is very different from the life they lived in Minnesota; the story starts with “Joy” who is an emotion in Riley’s mind. We later meet all the emotions that run headquarters (inside Riley’s mind). As Riley grew up in Minnesota, she knew loving all things Minnesotan; hockey, cold, mittens, outdoors, her family. When she and her family decide to move, Riley is at first excited and then throughout the movie, she gets more and more sad about the move and her memories. The conflict of this movie is how Riley deals with her emotions inside her mind.

Theory Definition

Symbolic Interaction Theory intends to help us recognize that “people are motivated to act based on the meanings they assign to people things and events. . . Language allows people to develop a sense of self and to interact with others in the community”. The Symbolic Interaction Theory was theorized by George Herbert Mead. He said, “Only selves have minds, that is, that cognition only belongs to selves, even in the simplest expression of awareness”. There are three main points to this theory, they are:

  1. We form the meaning in our mind of what comes from and how we act with others. This helps us to form our opinion of our own “selves.”
  2. The perception we think about our “selves” inspires how we act and perform in life as in the language we use with each other every day. These interactions give us the significant symbols and what kind of language we must use within society in order to remain positive within our own minds.
  3. Our “selves” and society have a special connection; we watch and interact with society in specific ways because we have gone through the process of interacting with others and those interactions have produced meaning for our “selves” within other’s minds.

This theory in short, theorizes that the symbols around us are vital to the communication process. Without these “symbols,” we would not have societies or nations, or anything formed as such at all.

The symbolic interaction theory argues that everything we do in life has meaning and that meaning turns to symbols and then to action in our lives. When Mead began studying the symbolic interaction theory, he wanted to understand better the relationships between ourselves and others. “To view communication as symbolic interaction is to recognize humans as proactive beings whose control over themselves and their surroundings stems from their ability to interact with and through symbols. Our experiences, knowledge, and relationships are inevitably mediated through our symbols”. In other words, everything has meaning to everything else; thus, the name, symbolic interaction theory.

This theory introduces us to such things as our looking glass self; how we see ourselves through other’s eyes, Pygmalion effect; living up to what others think we should be or not be, etc. role-taking: empathy for others, Self-fulfilling prophesy: a prediction of something we cause to come true due to our actions and behavior. These effects and prophesy help us understand the way we act shown through this theory.

In the article, Effect of Intentionally Designed Experiences on Friendship Skills of Youth: An Application of Symbolic Interaction Theory we read how an after-school program aimed to test youth and their interactions with each other as it gave the youth a safe place to go after school. They tested many different interaction skills such as; Friendship skills, this was defined as sustaining pleasurable and friendly relationships with others in the program. Cooperation skills; defined as being able to work with another, Confidence skills: defined as being able to know you have the ability to do something, Leadership skills; defined as being able to take charge of different situations, and Feelings of self-worth: synonym = self-esteem.

Their hypothesis was that as a youth, (ages 11-12) if a recreational activity was produced for these children, they would gain developmental skills and could also produce a positive social outcome as well. As they tested their theories, they concluded that when children are near each other, and go toward a common goal of recreational activities, they will gain better confidence and leadership but will also gain better friendship with each other because they are gaining more positive self-concepts.

This theory has both intrapersonal (within one’s own mind) and interpersonal (outside one’s mind with others in society) after-effects. We take the interpersonal relationships we have in life, internally; this is where the theory becomes intrapersonal relationship, because we make the symbols in our life have meaning within our own minds. Therefore, affecting how we interact with society, this takes our minds back outside making the theory become again, an interpersonal concept.

Pete Docter is a wildly impressive person, he was the writer and director of the movie, Inside Out (2015).

Author Background

Pete Docter is a director/writer for Pixar. He has done such movies as Monsters Inc, Up and Inside Out, these movies show the protection of a child in some way or another. Pete Docter is all about protecting children’s rights and helping them to feel important to everyone. No longer is the phrase “children are seen and not heard,” in Docter’s mind, he wants children to feel heard and he shows this devotedly in all the movies he does. Docter is a key collaborator at Pixar entertainment. The SI is found in many of his movies; he is a master storyteller.

Analysis of Movie using the Theory

The Symbolic Interaction theory is all about what happens in our minds; Inside Out is a movie all about minds. Riley is an 11 year-old-girl who must deal with changes that have occurred in her life; leaving her beloved Minnesota and finding her place in the completely different culture found in San Francisco.

Five “emotions” are most evident in this movie:

  1. Joy: Is happy go lucky. She seems to feel responsible for the rest; she tries to make Riley’s mind cohesive with all the different emotions.
  2. Sadness: Is the “Debbie Downer” of the bunch, she tries to find the sad or unpleasant parts of Riley’s life within her mind.
  3. Anger: Is the devil of sorts in her mind. He tends to look for the things which should make Riley mad or angry within her daily actions of life
  4. Disgust: Is the snobby girl in Riley’s head. She wants to make sure Riley does not have to feel exacerbations, annoyances or exasperations in her mind which come from living her life.
  5. Fear: Is the scared part of Riley’s mind. He is apprehensive about pretty much everything.

Each of these emotions humanizing what they are personifying. All together the emotions are what help Riley form thought in her mind.

When looking backward at which memories made connections in Riley’s mind, we see six different islands that are connected to Riley’s headquarters (mind). They are:

  1. Goofball: This is the island that represents Riley’s ability to have fun. She makes this island in her mind because of the silly interactions she has had with people in her life.
  2. Personality: This island is a representation of what aspects in Riley’s personality define who she is. This is the face Riley puts out into society.
  3. Family: This island is a representation of what aspects of Riley’s mind form her basis of family. They are things like the family car, the trampoline, the tree where her family spends much of their time. This is the part of her mind where she interacts with her mom and dad (her family).
  4. Honesty: This island represents her morality. This is how she interacts in life with her scruples not just with her parents but with everyone.
  5. Hockey: This island represents her love of the game hockey. Riley used to play hockey in Minnesota, she cannot find a place where she fits in regarding hockey, this is a big disappointment for her.
  6. Friendship: This island represents Riley’s best friend named Meg. This island was created because of her friend Meg; they met in Minnesota and did everything together, hockey, ice skating, playing in the park, etc.

As we move forward with the story, we see (through Riley’s mind) how Riley copes with the struggles faced by moving to San Francisco. After the move, we see Riley missing her old life. When we see Riley unable to cope with the change, we realize she cannot even be helped by her particular others (parents). The interesting thing about Inside Out is that not only do the scenes show Riley’s headquarters but her parents’ headquarters as well; each of her parents have the same emotions, Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, Disgust. However, they are all depicted differently as Riley’s mom and dad are two different people.

Riley was trying to process what was in her mind as she interacts with her parents at the kitchen table, she perceives everything is their fault, all that is going so badly for her in her life; she does this because this is what she has seen in her life. She has seen her father and mother talk about the move, and she infers that it is their fault she is feeling this way. She does not see how the Pygmalion effect (meeting what her parents expect her to be and do) is happening and she does not even want to please her parents anymore. The Symbolic Interaction theory helps us understand this; because we make our own meaning by the symbols we create, this theory allows Riley to create the new symbols that were swirling in her head with her emotions (these are the unhealthy reactions she made to her parents). These new symbols she created are the reason she interacts differently with her parents; she reacts the only way she could have under these circumstances.

In the end, Riley eventually makes new effective, healthy symbols in her head which allow her to interact with life in a more healthy, cognitive way. She realizes life is meant for all emotions, she does not only need be happy, sad, angry, disgusted, fearful, but all of them intertwined. This gives her a genuinely better attitude about life, and she can take more steps toward the looking glass self she is portraying.

Theory Recommendation

I have watched Inside Out a million times with my children. I knew this movie was special; as it helped many children to understand where their emotions are coming from. As I have delved into Symbolic Interaction theory, I have now grasped how applicable this is also to this movie. I now comprehend how symbols are so important to what we understand in our minds. As all of us comprehend this theory we can understand how what we think of our “selves” can inspire us to be better communicators with each other. As we grasp these meanings in our minds, we can better form positive opinions of our own “selves.” This in turn gives the special connection with society its groundwork; as we go through the process of interacting with others, we can produce meaning in our own lives because of the symbols that are given in our interactions. This is brilliant; simple but quite mind boggling when you think about it.

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The significant ideas regarding the Symbolic Interaction Theory have been evident in the movie Inside Out. We can now understand the fact that as we interact with people, we give that interaction meaning in our own lives; we do this by the way we act toward each other. The theory is both Interpersonal and Intrapersonal; meaning it has our own “selves” and society in its grasp. The most pertinent fact that I have understood as I have examined the Symbolic Interaction Theory, is that without its viewpoints we could not have a society at all. We need each other to be able to interact with the world. It is by these facts we form meaning in our lives.


  • Benarous, Xavier M.D. (2016), Inside Children's Emotions Thoughts on Pixar's Inside Out Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics: July/August 2016 - Volume 37 - Issue 6 - p 522. Retrieved from:
  • Docter, P., Del, C. R., LeFauve, M., Cooley, J., Rivera, J., Poehler, A., Smith, P., (2015) ... Inside Out, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.
  • Docter, P, LaFauve, M., Cooley, J., (2015) …Inside Out Screenplay, Walt Disney Studios, Motion pictures Retrieved from:
  • IMDB, S. (2015). Pete Docter. Retrieved from
  • Lavery, L. (2017). Inside Out: Grown-up Discussions for Little Ones. Screen Education, (87), 8–15. Retrieved from:
  • Redmond, Mark V. (2015), Symbolic Interactionism, English Technical Reports and White Papers 4, Iowa state Repository, Retrieved from
  • Roark, M.F., Gillard, A., Evans, F., Wells, M.S., & Blauer, M.M. (2012). Effect of Intentionally Designed Experiences on Friendship Skills of Youth: An Application of Symbolic Interaction Theory. Journal of Park & Recreation Administration, 30(3), 24-36. Retrieved from:
  • West, R., & Turner, L. H. (2018). Introducing communication theory: analysis and application. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education.
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The Film Inside Out and The Symbolic Interaction Theory in Movies. (2021, August 06). GradesFixer. Retrieved November 30, 2023, from
“The Film Inside Out and The Symbolic Interaction Theory in Movies.” GradesFixer, 06 Aug. 2021,
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