Follow the light

A psychological insight into the adventures of the cavepeople.


Photo credit: DreamWorks Animation

Priyanka Giri

“The Croods”, a 2013 DreamWorks animation, is a story about a family who embark on a treacherous yet fascinating journey to safety when their home is destroyed. With a young teenage boy named Guy as their guide, they have fascinating adventures. Needless to say, sheds light on numerous psychological references. Let’s dive right in.

“Follow the light”, “jump on the sun and ride it to tomorrow”- such philosophical dialogues trace the roots of Psychology, making us travel back in time to when Philosophy was considered a parent of this field, with a focus on life, soul, and spirit, rather than scientific explanations. Certain theories put forth by physiologists are also highlighted in some scenes. Franz Joseph Gall’s phrenology - a theory that emphasised the relationship between an individual’s brain structure and intellectual capabilities - can be inferred from a scene where Guy asks his “navigator” Belt (a three-toed sloth) to activate the Emergency Idea Generator, resulting in Guy getting an idea when Belt hits his head with a rock.

Among the several schools of Psychology, Functionalist and Humanistic references can be seen in the movie. After the Croods’ home is destroyed, they are exposed to a “new world” full of colourful flora and fauna, needing them to adapt to their new environment and modify their behaviour. Similarly, Sandy, the youngest Crood, is often restless and on the go, causing her parents to continuously restrain her. This reflects a lack of self-control, an important concept in the Humanistic school of thought.

Turning to the various fields of Psychology, several cognitive aspects are highlighted when the family jumps off a cliff and lands in a forest. Grug, the father, immediately ensures his family’s safety and says, “(we are) down, in a lower place, can’t go back the way we came”. This reflects his presence of mind, thinking, attention, problem-solving, and decision-making. The entire movie is a great example of evolutionary psychology – how the family gradually grows from being primitive cavepeople to a more modern family.

Theories of learning proposed by different psychologists are depicted in various scenes. Phrases like “new is bad”, “family kill circle”, and “breakfast signal” immediately make the family members gather in a huddle, ready to attack to defend themselves and stay safe. This reflects the learning theory known as classical conditioning.

Multiple concepts under operant conditioning are portrayed in scenes where Eep (Grug’s daughter) is grounded by Grug, hence reducing her behaviour of leaving the cave and entering the dangerous outside world - a classic example of negative punishment. When the Croods create havoc while passing through a forest, wild animals are shown covering their ears to block out the noise. This is negative reinforcement, where undesirable noise is removed by covering the ear. In some scenes, feminine puppets are used to trick and trap animals while hunting, which highlights stimulus generalisation, as the animals react similarly to how they would on seeing an actual feminine counterpart.

Along with trial and error, insight learning is depicted through Grug’s ingenious ideas including wooden sunglasses, snap-shots, mobile homes, and lifterators. Though some ideas are unsuccessful, Grug improves the successful snap-shot idea, which eventually develops into a complex mechanism by the end of the movie.

Observational learning is inferred when Thunk (the middle child) teaches his pet dog/crocodile to roll over, Ugga and her mother observe and model a frog-like creature using his flower-like tongue to get past some dangerous plants, and learning to walk on stilts. The concept of attachment is portrayed through Eep and Sandy’s love for their father, Eep and Guy’s friendship, Ugga and her mother’s moral support to the entire family, and eventually, a strong bond with the forest creatures.

Did we ever imagine that a film on a cave family’s adventure would help us understand some of the most important concepts in a field of study? Finally, the audience is left with the greatest psychological transformation yet, from “Never not (being) afraid” to “Never (being) afraid” in life.

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