Meet The Emotions Behind Teenage Angst In ‘Inside Out 2’

17:18 minutes

Colorful cartoon characters inside an animated control room.
Emotions from “Inside Out 2.” Left to right: Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Envy, Anxiety, and Embarassment. ©Disney

an orange background, with faded images with a science-fiction theme such as zombies and astronauts, and the words "science goes to the movies"In the 2015 film “Inside Out,” audiences met 11-year-old Riley and her team of emotions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger, each represented by a different character. They lived inside Riley’s mind to help guide her feelings and actions, and towards the end of the film, their emotional control center gets an upgrade with a puberty button.

That’s where the new film “Inside Out 2” picks up. Riley is now 13 years old and dealing with the slew of emotions that come with puberty. In the new film, moviegoers meet a new crew of characters: Anxiety, Envy, Embarrassment, and Ennui, who is always bored.

But what’s the science behind Riley’s newfound teenage angst? Guest host Annie Minoff talks with psychologist Dr. Lisa Damour, who served as a science advisor to the film.

“Inside Out 2” is now playing in theaters.

Segment Guests

Lisa Damour

Dr. Lisa Damour is a psychologist and the science advisor to Inside Out 2. She’s based in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

Segment Transcript

ANNIE MINOFF: This is Science Friday. I’m Annie Minoff. And now, science goes to the movies.


SPEAKER: The most spectacular science shocker ever filmed. Too real to be science fiction, now science fact.

ANNIE MINOFF: Remember the 2015 Pixar film, Inside Out? In it, we met 11-year-old Riley Andersen and her team of emotions, Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger, each represented by a different character. Riley’s emotions live in her mind, known as Headquarters in the film, where they help direct her emotional responses and actions. And towards the end of that movie, you might remember that Headquarters was undergoing a little light renovation.

WORKER FRITZ: All right, there you go! Your new, expanded console is up and running.


DISGUST: Cool! Upgrade!

WORKER FRITZ: Yay. Oh, ho. Whoops. Wait, did I just do that?

DISGUST: Hey, guys. What’s “pub-er-ty?”

JOY: I don’t know.

ANNIE MINOFF: That’s right. Riley’s brain was gearing up for puberty. And that is where Inside Out 2 picks up.

The movie is out today. Riley is now 13 and dealing with a slew of new and extremely intense emotions that come with puberty. For example, we meet–

ANXIETY: Hello. Ah! I’m Anxiety. I’m one of Riley’s new emotions. And we are just super jazzed to be here. Where can I put my stuff.

JOY: Ah, ah, ah, what do you mean, we?

ANNIE MINOFF: Alongside Anxiety, we meet Envy, Embarrassment, and Ennui, who is just so over it. But what’s the science behind Riley’s teenage angst?

Joining me now is one of the science advisors on the film. Dr. Lisa Damour is a psychologist who has written several books about teenage emotions. She’s based in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Lisa, welcome to Science Friday.

LISA DAMOUR: Thank you so much for having me.

ANNIE MINOFF: So as a science advisor on this movie, what is your role? What did Pixar want from you?

LISA DAMOUR: What Pixar wanted was to get the details right about adolescent development and the emotional landscape of teenagers. And it was so much fun to work with them because they were so serious about making sure that they were telling a true story about what we know about teenagers and their development.

ANNIE MINOFF: For people who write a lot of jokes, very serious people.

LISA DAMOUR: Yes, very serious people, exactly.

ANNIE MINOFF: So I mentioned that this new film introduces four new emotions. We meet Anxiety, Envy, Embarrassment and Ennui. Why those four, do you think?

LISA DAMOUR: One of the things that happens when you become a teenager is that the brain develops and becomes more sophisticated. And at the technical level, what we say is you move towards abstraction, the ability to think about thoughts, to see yourself from a perspective that is not your own. And so with that comes the arrival of self-conscious emotions.

So embarrassment, what does that person think of me? Envy, why does that person have something I want? And, of course, anxiety, which is anticipating the future and trying to imagine what could happen or what could go wrong. And then, of course, ennui, who is just willing to show all of the things that are beneath her consideration.

ANNIE MINOFF: I guess the child mind is not up for existential dread. But maybe by 13, 14, these big, weighty concepts are starting to impinge on the consciousness?

LISA DAMOUR: Absolutely. And then that capacity kicks in and suddenly young people think very differently. And it’s quite dramatic, actually. And it’s not driven by intelligence. Being a bright kid doesn’t get you there faster. It is very much a neurological achievement. It requires the renovations to the brain that are brought on by puberty.

ANNIE MINOFF: And are those the four that you would have chosen if it was Dr. Lisa Damour making this film?

LISA DAMOUR: I think so. I also know the other science advisor– and I agree with him– would have loved to see Compassion on the scene. But, at some point, you got to make some choices.

ANNIE MINOFF: It’s true that all of these emotions– I mean, they have a negative valence. Is that puberty in a nutshell? It’s just all these icky, hard emotions crashing into you all at once?

LISA DAMOUR: Actually, yes and no. So, yes, they become much more amplified. And they arrive. And they weren’t there before. But, in fact, adolescents are also incredibly earnest, incredibly broadminded, suddenly quite philosophical.

So I think you could easily have a whole host of more positive emotions that come on the scene. But I think there’s real value in focusing on the uncomfortable emotions, because one of the things that this movie does is that it reminds us– which, we really need this reminder– that uncomfortable emotions are important. They are normal. They are natural. They are growth giving. They are protective.

And, Annie, we find ourselves in a moment, in the culture, where we are so worried about teenagers, so worried about the adolescent mental health crisis, as we should be, that I’m actually also seeing teenagers and adults becoming unduly concerned about what are typical and expectable?

ANNIE MINOFF: Right. Am I normal?

LISA DAMOUR: Am I normal? So I actually– if it were up to me, I’d probably would put the weight on these more unwanted emotions, because I am so behind the message that they are part of life, that they are not on their own, grounds for concern.

ANNIE MINOFF: And I know we’re going to talk about more of that. But I have to pause for a moment over ennui, because I think of all the new emotions in this film, this one had me raising my eyebrows, like, ah, ennui? Why is that such a central emotion for Riley?

LISA DAMOUR: Well, it’s very funny. The character is very, very funny.

ANNIE MINOFF: She’s French.

LISA DAMOUR: She’s French. She’s very French.

And, when I saw her, what it brought to mind is this really interesting line of research about anger in girls. We see in the research that in the course of development, little boys express more anger at home than little girls do. And that that flips in adolescence, that teenage girls express more anger at home than teenage boys do. But there’s one form of anger where girls outpace boys through the entire course of development, and it’s disdain.

ANNIE MINOFF: Oh, my gosh. You’re bringing up a lot of memories, Lisa.

LISA DAMOUR: Well, I mean, it was actually– it was one of those things. I was reading the research paper. And I actually guffawed. I have two teenage girls myself. And I was like, OK, this tracks. And I’m guessing these researchers had teenage daughters, too.

ANNIE MINOFF: And truly, no one does disdain better.

LISA DAMOUR: They really are great.

ANNIE MINOFF: So what exactly– we talked a little bit about this. But what is going on in the brain during puberty?

LISA DAMOUR: So it’s really a grand renovation project. And it’s so apt in the film, the way in which a wrecking ball comes in and updates Headquarters. And it happens in this overnight quality, which I think a lot of families feel like that’s what it looks like in their house.

And what’s happening is that the brain is becoming faster, more powerful, more efficient. This involves adding neurons. This involves pruning neurons. And one of the things that is true, is that, in perhaps a design flaw, the brain remodels in the order in which it developed initially, which is from the more– the ancient part of the brain, which is above the back of the neck, up to the more sophisticated, more recent part of the brain, which is behind the forehead.

Now, the design flaw here may be that the emotions are located in the more ancient part of the brain. So those get upgraded first. They become faster and more powerful. And the perspective-maintaining systems, which live behind our foreheads, don’t get upgraded until later.

And so one of the ways we talk about this as scientists is that teenagers have gawky brains. And this is especially true– 13, 14, the renovation project’s underway. The emotions are now on steroids. And it’s very easy for them to dysregulate. It is very easy for them to lose all perspective, not because they’re being dramatic, not because they’re overreacting, but because they have a brain that is midway through renovation.

ANNIE MINOFF: Is there a moment in the movie where you think you see that, the kind of gawky teenage brain happening?

LISA DAMOUR: So beautifully, so beautifully. So, as you mentioned, the puberty button is installed at the end of Inside Out, the original. And then, in this movie, the alarm goes off.

And there is such– it’s actually– I mean, it’s genius how they capture this shift towards an intense reaction. So then all of the old emotions are at the controls. And Riley’s mom says something to her. And Riley becomes inexplicably angry. It just has this– sort of lashes out at her mother.

And then you’re back in the mind. And all of the emotions turn on Anger. And he’s like, I barely touched it. I barely touched it. And then Sadness does the same. And then, this thing’s broken.

And it’s funny. It is apt. And it is really a very honest and clear depiction of the science, that feelings that were there before are suddenly just so much more potent than they were. And it’s as destabilizing to the kid as it is to the family. And I think that’s something that we don’t talk about enough.

ANNIE MINOFF: Right. Reilly doesn’t really know where it’s coming from either.

LISA DAMOUR: No, I mean, she’s freaked out, too. And I think we can be so hard on teenagers in our culture. And we can be so critical of them. And I think it’s so easy for adults to underestimate how strange it all feels to the kid, too.

They know they did not used to get this upset about things. And it’s fascinating. I get to work with 13-year-olds. And they will say to me, I am so upset. And I also– I can’t figure out what’s going on. I know this is not a big deal. And having that kind of split experience of a powerful emotional reaction, that they can observe, but not control, that’s a lot of what it is to be 13.

ANNIE MINOFF: Was there a conversation that you had with the filmmakers, that, then you’re watching the movie or looking at a part of the script, and thought, oh, they did that. That made it in.

LISA DAMOUR: There were a few times. I mean, one piece of it was that, in my work and in our conversations, I really make the argument, which psychologists are in agreement about, that anxiety is not an all bad thing.


LISA DAMOUR: So it’s a protective emotion when it’s within bounds. Anxiety is the experience we have when we anticipate a threat, when we can imagine something that goes wrong. And it can help us course correct. It can help us do the right thing. And it can help us start studying for a test that we forgot about.

So it has value. It only becomes pathological if we’re imagining threats that can’t possibly be real– something that’s not going to really happen– or if our response is out of proportion to the threat. So if a kid hasn’t studied for a test, we’d like for them to be a little bit anxious. If that test is coming fast, a panic attack is not going to help them.

So we– psychologists– are way more at ease with anxiety than everybody else. We also have not helped the situation by using the term “anxiety” to describe both typical and expectable nerves, and also disorders. We’ve made it murky.

But one of the things that I saw evolve in the film was Anxiety becoming also adorable, that the character is likable. And this is really important because she belongs on the team.

ANNIE MINOFF: Right. She cares about Riley. Just, sometimes she overdoes it a little bit.

LISA DAMOUR: She gets out of hand. And so in making her cute, it’s not only visually appealing, it also reminds us that she has a place and that we don’t want to get rid of her.

ANNIE MINOFF: And this was very much the message of the first film, as I remember it. You saw Joy really trying to keep a lid on some of Riley’s more, quote unquote “negative emotions,” telling Sadness to be less mopey, telling Anger, to be less fiery.

And the message of that film was very much, no, all of these emotions play a role in Riley’s life. But why do we need embarrassment or why do we need ennui? Because I think a lot of people would say, I could do without that.

LISA DAMOUR: Well, so we need embarrassment, actually, so we don’t make the same mistakes twice. Often we feel embarrassed because we violated a social code. And the value of the discomfort of embarrassment is that it helps us learn, like, I don’t want to do that again. So it’s incredibly important.

I mean, if people have no embarrassment, no shame, they don’t always act their best. It helps keep us on track. And then, ennui– I mean, I think that it’s really important to naturalize that sometimes we’re bored, that we’re not engaged in things. And that it’s actually in spaces, where we’re bored or disengaged, often the creativity occurs. So there’s value there.

And then another new arrival in this film is envy. And what we recognize as psychologists is that envy can have two sides. It can have– benign envy is what we call it, which is where you see somebody who has something, a capacity or an object. And you want it for yourself. And it inspires you to be better.

ANNIE MINOFF: It’s motivating. That could be me. I want that thing.

LISA DAMOUR: Exactly. I want to be better. I want to work harder, so I can have that same thing. Or it can be malicious, which is, I want to take that person down, as a way to level set here. And so there’s no question that these emotions, again, while often unwanted, often experienced in a way that is uncomfortable, are as critical to our overall healthy functioning as the emotions we like having.

ANNIE MINOFF: So Riley, of course, is a young girl. If Riley was a boy, would we see a different movie, maybe like a different cast of emotions?

LISA DAMOUR: I’ve thought about this a lot. So, fundamentally, no. I mean, all people have feelings. And all people have many of the same feelings. And we identify a range of feelings that we can study in a lab.

And I think if Riley were a boy character, you should expect to see the same cast of characters. I also, though, think you might see another layer, because one thing that is true is that we do not actually allow boys the same wide emotional highway in our culture that we allow girls.

Girls are given a great deal of latitude in terms of expressing both vulnerable emotions and also feelings like anger. Whereas, boys in our culture– and I hope this is improving a little bit– when we look at the science, what the science says is, there are two emotions boys are freely allowed to express in our culture, anger and pleasure at someone else’s expense.


LISA DAMOUR: I know, not great. I don’t know that I entirely agree with the way we’ve characterized that, because I think there are domains where you watch boys express a much wider range of emotions. Take sports, for example. Around sports, either as participants or viewers, boys will get excited. Boys will cry. Boys will be thrilled for one another.

So I think the way I would characterize it is that boys are hemmed in. There are domains where they have more latitude. And one of the things I think we should be studying is what is it that we can do that would allow boys to express the feelings that they have, that they express in some settings, across a wider range of settings?

ANNIE MINOFF: I’m holding out for the Kelce brothers, and all of their crying, to help us move the needle on this.


LISA DAMOUR: It’s OK, now. Tears are fine.

ANNIE MINOFF: So you’ve been working with teenagers for about 30 years.

LISA DAMOUR: It’s true.

ANNIE MINOFF: What are you most excited to see represented in this film?

LISA DAMOUR: I am so excited to see represented the experience the kid and the family often has, which is they put a child to bed one night. And then the next day, what wakes up is a teenager, with these emotions that feel very out of control, very unexpected, much more powerful than they’re used to. I want young people to see that for themselves, so that they don’t have to feel like there’s something wrong with them.

And I also am so excited for families to see this, because one of the things that is very true about raising teenagers is that it can feel quite isolating. When your kid is changing on you, when your relationship with them is changing, when things are getting bumpy in a new way–

ANNIE MINOFF: Yeah. Why is this just happening to me?

LISA DAMOUR: A lot of families think, what’s wrong with my kid? What’s wrong with our relationship? How do we get it back where it was? And so for this film to put up on the big screen, the story that this is normal, this is actually the typical and expectable unfolding of events, I think will be so reassuring to teenagers, so reassuring to their parents, and go so far to help people feel less worried about what we have long known as psychologists to be the totally uncomfortable, but expectable, bumps that come with being a teenager or raising one.

ANNIE MINOFF: Lisa, thank you so much for joining me.

LISA DAMOUR: Thank you for having me.

ANNIE MINOFF: Dr. Lisa Damour is a psychologist and science advisor on Inside Out 2.

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