In the Disney movie The Little Mermaid we see several interactions between the main character Ariel and her father King Triton. Most of these scenes depict the struggle that these two characters have between each other. Once scene in particular is a good example of this.
We find Ariel in an underwater cave surrounded by her collection of human items. She has just been presented with a very large statue of the human Prince Eric that she has been enamored with when King Triton enters the scene. King Triton tells her that he considers himself a reasonable merman. That he sets certain rules and expects them to be obeyed. Ariel tries to respond with “But Daddy!-” but is cut off as he continues. “Is it true you rescued a human from drowning?” Ariel tries again to respond, “Daddy, I had to-” but is interrupted again. “Contact between the human world and the mer-world is strictly forbidden. Ariel, you know that! Everyone knows that!” She tells him “ He would have died-” but she is interrupted again. “One less human to worry about!” Ariel counters her father’s stance with “You don’t even know him.” To which King Triton responds “Know him? I don’t have to know him. They’re all the same. Spineless, savage, harpooning, fish-eaters, incapable of any feeling-” Ariel cuts him off by saying “Daddy, I love him!” King Triton is visibly upset with his daughter’s outburst and counters with “No… Have you lost your senses completely? He’s a human, you’re a mermaid!” “I don’t care.” King Triton is even more upset now. “So help me Ariel, I am going to get through to you. And if this is the only way, so be it.” He raises his trident and begins to take aim at the artifacts covering the cave walls. Destroying all that he sees with blasts from the trident only to finish with Ariel’s prized Prince Eric statue. Seeing all of this leaves Ariel in tears and King Triton exits the cave with his head down. Ariel then proceeds to go to the sea witch to become human so that she can be with her prized Prince Eric.
Several examples of different psychological theories can be observed from this scene. The first of which would be Sigmund Freud’s theories on personality. Freud’s theory is that our personalities are made of different levels of consciousness. The three levels consist of the conscious, the preconscious, and the unconscious. The conscious level is what we are actively aware of at any given moment. The preconscious deals with what we are not currently thinking of but can recall if desired. And finally the unconscious contains memories that we do not remember specifically but the experience has still shaped our personalities.
Within Freud’s theory is the idea that our personalities are also made of what he called the id, the ego, and the superego. The id is with us from birth to death and is responsible for attaining the basic human needs and desires. It knows nothing about practicality or finesse but focuses on instant gratification. In the scene from The Little Mermaid the id is shown in Ariel’s interactions with the human Prince Eric. She wants nothing more than to be with him and ignores all that has been taught to her about the dangers of the humans and what is expected of her from her father. She doesn’t take any of that into consideration. All she knows is that she wants to be with him.
The ego starts to emerge as we experience things in life. The ego starts out only being concerned with making the id happy. However the ego is the part of our personality that contains our practicality. The example of this in The Little Mermaid is when Ariel tells her father that she loves the prince. Her id wants to be with the prince and the ego sees that King Triton is not going to let this happen so it steps in with trying to manipulate the King either by shocking him with the outburst of love or by trying to get him to consider his daughter’s happiness by using it and ultimately attaining what the id wants.
The final part of Freud’s theory is the superego. The superego develops later in childhood and is only concerned with what is “right” and “wrong”. In our example the superego steps into the interaction when Ariel is trying to justify her actions with the human by saying that he would have died if she had not saved him. Thus showing that she was saving a life, the right thing to do, even though it was ultimately a selfish move since the only reason she saved him was to be with him. But the superego only cares that it was the “right” thing to do. If it were any other human the argument would not have been valid because of the rules that have been set forth about the interactions between mer-people and humans.
Part of Freud’s personality theory is the five psychosexual stages. The term sexual is not referring to “adult sexual behavior until the last stage. Rather, sexual refers to any physical pleasure the child feels in its body.” (class lecture notes, Cutolo-Ring) These are the parts of the personality that develop based on what part of the body the child feels pleasure from at the time. One of these is known as the anal stage. It is cultivated approximately from ages one to three and coincides with the child’s ability to control, or not control, his bowels. The control of the bowels parallels the control a child can have over his environment. Anally fixated adults can exhibit the need to have tight control over all parts of their environments or in the other extreme they can exert very little control over what happens. An example of this within the scene described in the movie is King Triton’s need to control his daughter in every way. She has disobeyed his rules in regards to interactions with humans. To further exude control he destroys all of her human trinkets.
Learning theories can also be observed in The Little Mermaid scene. One of which is B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning theory. Skinner based all of his studies on what is outwardly observed and can be measured. It is because of his way of measuring that Skinner could not take into account the basis of the actions seen and therefore could only adjust the environment, by using reinforcements and punishments, in order to observe different results in behavior. Reinforcements can be either positive or negative but both maintain or increase the behavior itself. “Positive reinforcement is a stimulus that follows a behavior that maintains or increases the behavior. Negative reinforcement is a stimulus that is removed after a behavior that maintains or increases that behavior.” (class lecture notes, Cutolo-Ring) Our example shows that the behavior of Ariel interacting with the humans is increased because after her father destroys her collection, showing positive reinforcement, she goes to the witch to become a human herself.
Skinner not only used reinforcements to measure events he also used punishments in order to measure the decrease of a behavior. “Punishment is a stimulus that follows a behavior that decreases the behavior. [It is also] a stimulus that is removed after a behavior that decreases the behavior.” (class lecture notes, Cutolo-Ring) In the movie the punishment would appear to be the destruction of Ariel’s collection by her father. However, since the definition clearly states the result of punishment is a decrease in behavior there is no punishment in this scene. Only positive reinforcement is shown because the behavior increased.
In addition to Skinner’s theory there is also Albert Bandura’s learning theory called social cognitive theory. Bandura developed the theory of observational learning, sometimes referred to as modeling, to add to Skinner’s operant conditioning theory. In its simplest form social cognitive theory is learning by watching others. Bandura posed that modeling takes the basic definition of social cognitive theory one step further by saying that we learn my imitating what we see. There are several factors involved with modeling. The first is attention. To learn a new behavior you must be paying attention to who you are taking cues from. The next factor is retention of what is being observed. Reproduction of the observed actions is the third factor. The fourth and final factor is motivation. A person has to be motivated to duplicate the observed behavior. The movie shows us that Ariel has a deep desire to become human so that she may be with Prince Eric. She shows all of the signs that she is modeling humans in order to achieve her desired outcome. She is paying attention obviously by spending time on the surface observing the daily behaviors of the prince and the other humans around him. She retains knowledge of her observations since she still wants to try to become a human. Thirdly, she gets her chance to reproduce human behavior once she gets turned into one by the sea witch later in the movie. And lastly, she is motivated to behave like a human so that she can ultimately attain and keep the prince.
In addition to the personality and learning theories shown in our sample scene we also observe a cognitive developmental theory in practice. Jean Piaget founded the cognitive developmental perspective to attempt to observe how children learn as they grow. This theory encompasses the idea that despite where a child lives he will go through the same stages in a set order at approximately the same ages as other children all over the world. One of the basis of his theory is accommodation. This concept states that as you go through life you observe things that won’t fit into your current conception of what is true so you adapt what your thoughts of what is true to encompass the new information. One of the stages within Piaget’s theory is the preoperational stage. This stage is primarily focusing on symbolic thought or conceptual understanding about an object. Our example shows this by Ariel’s collection of human objects she keeps in the cave. As a mermaid she doesn’t use the same objects that humans to but she understands the concepts behind them. For example, she knows that the statue is decorative and not used for brushing her hair.
The final theory that The Little Mermaid scene will show us is the information processing theory. These theories are considered continuous because we are always working on them to make them better unlike the other theories that have stages we progress through. Information processing theories hold that there are three continuous processes taking place within us. The first process is input. This is simply gathering sensory information. The next process is processing. Processing is just that, processing the information gathered into concepts that make sense. The last process is output. Taking the processed information and acting upon it. Ariel observes that her father’s body language, tone of voice, and actual words he is saying to her (“Contact between the human world and the mer-world is strictly forbidden. Ariel you know that! Everyone knows that!”). She then she processes that information to conclude that he is upset with her. She responds to this by telling him that he would have died if she hadn’t saved him.
I never would have thought that a Disney movie made in 1989 would have encompassed so many different psychological theories. The movie has shown us that Freud’s theories on personality have a solid base with the id, ego, and superego. It shows us that sometimes positive reinforcement can appear as negative. As well as how a mermaid can model human behavior to ultimately become human.