DUBOIS – Tales of post-apocalyptic landscapes in which few survivors emerge into a new and much different world have long been popular tales woven by screen writers and authors.
While many enjoy these stories, thinking of them as nothing but a guilty pleasure, they may not realize that immersing themselves in fiction has prepared them for the reality of 2020.
Penn State Professor Emeritus of Psychology John Johnson recently conducted research with several colleagues revealing that an individual’s enjoyment of horror films could have better prepared them for the COVID pandemic as opposed to others who do not enjoy frightening entertainment.
Their findings are documented in an article that is the second most downloaded at the online resource, “Personality and Individual Differences” found here.
“My latest research collaboration was unique in that my colleagues wanted to identify factors beyond personality that contributed to people’s psychological preparedness and resilience in the face of the pandemic,” Johnson explained.
“After factoring out personality influences, which were actually quite strong, we found that the more movies about zombies, alien invasions, and apocalyptic pandemics people had seen prior to COVID-19, the better they dealt with the actual, current pandemic.
“These kinds of movies apparently serve as mental rehearsal for actual events. To me, this implicates an even more important message about stories in general—whether in books, movies or plays.
“Stories are not just entertainment, but preparation for life. I think we should all be encouraged to engage in creating and consuming stories because this makes us better people.”
Johnson explained that in what might be considered retirement, his emeritus status has allowed him to continue research in ways that, really, defy retirement entirely.
He said, “I am now in a unique position as professor emeritus. As much as I enjoyed teaching students over the years, I had to be opportunistic in the research I chose to conduct, making sure that I chose safe projects that would lead to the refereed publications that the university likes to see.
“But now that I am retired, I have all the time in the world and the freedom to choose any kind of research project that I find truly interesting.
“Many of my most recent projects began at the invitation of other researchers who hoped that I could lend my expertise to these projects.
“Most of these researchers are just beginning their careers, so in a way, I am teaching and mentoring them as well as helping them conduct their research.”
This project was no different in being born from a young researcher who reached out to Johnson to lean on his expertise.
Johnson has published on personality, moral and educational development, career choice, and work performance. He is a recognized expert on computerized psychological measurement.
Over a million people have completed his on-line personality test. Johnson co-edited a book published by the American Psychological Association, “Advanced Methods for Conducting Online Behavioral Research”.
He has helped to manage the International Personality Item Pool website. He has taught more than 20 different courses and is the recipient of a number of awards for teaching excellence.
Johnson taught at Penn State DuBois beginning in 1981, earning his full professorship in 1995. He completed a research fellowship at the University of Bielefeld, Germany. He was previously an instructor at Johns Hopkins Evening College, and Towson State University.
He is a member of several professional organizations, such as the Association for Research in Personality and the European Association of Personality Psychology, and a former active member of the American Psychological Association.
He has published numerous papers in academic journals. Johnson completed his undergraduate work at Penn State, and earned his masters and Ph.D. in psychology at John Hopkins University.
He retired in 2014 following 32 years of teaching and research at Penn State DuBois.
And with a history as storied as that of John Johnson’s, the next generation continues to seek his support and knowledge in furthering the science of psychology.
He explained his involvement in this latest project, saying, “This study was conceived by a graduate student in human development and biology at the University of Chicago, Coltan Scrivner.
“I had recently reviewed a terrific paper he wrote on morbid curiosity, so I knew who he was. Coltan conducts research on the psychology of horror, and therefore contacted two Danish researchers who were experts on horror, Mathias Clausen and Jens Kjeldgaard-Christiansen, to see if they would collaborate with him.
“I had previously conducted and published research with Mathias and Jens on what attracts people to horror and villains, so they invited me to the project.
“We all had input; mine was primarily on how to measure personality, preparedness, and resilience, and how to conduct the statistics.
“Coltan collected the data online, and we quickly wrote up the results and submitted to a journal that was looking for studies on COVID-19. It has been an absolute joy to work with the Danish research team and their colleagues.”
And the results of their collaborated effort may be enough to make many feel justified in staying up late to watch horror films, in spite of what their mother’s told them.
Johnson recalled, “What we found was that people who watched certain kinds of movies before the pandemic seemed to be helped by them during the pandemic.”
Though, for those ready to fire up Netflix and get their horror fix now, they may be late to the party in preparing for the COVID pandemic. But as Johnson explained, it’s never too late to make ready for the next hurdle in life.
He said, “I’m not sure that watching such movies now would be helpful for our current situation. However, my understanding of pandemics and other life-challenging events is that similar future challenges are absolutely inevitable.
“The past is often forgotten too easily. Who remembered the Spanish flu epidemic until scientists brought up that piece of history during COVID-19?
“This reinforces my belief that consuming stories from books, films, and maybe even video games is not just an idle pastime, but a way for us to imagine simulated realities that help prepare us for future challenges.”
Idle pastimes are not something easily understood by an individual with Johnson’s passion, and his continued efforts beyond his teaching days highlight that.
“I think that a lot of people assume that when professors retire with emeritus rank, they spend all of their time travelling, pursuing hobbies, or just relaxing at home.
“Although I have certainly done those things since I retired, I have also continued to conduct research and publish articles, often collaborating with younger researchers who need my expertise in personality measurement.”
Johnson said that when he is able to be vaccinated and COVID fades, he hopes to visit his Danish colleagues at Aarhus University to offer guest lectures, and to further collaborate on research projects in psychology.