Maybe I misunderstand the plot of Inside Out but during the course of events, Joy and Sadness are separated from HQ and Anger/Disgust/Fear are left to manage her. However, during this time, Riley's dominant emotion is Sadness. She becomes depressed, which is a form of sadness that is persistent and inconsolable.

I understand that the two courses of events - upheaval in Riley's life and conflict between Joy and Sadness, have different explanations, but the events occurring to the emotions are supposed to be a metaphor of what is happening in Riley's mind. But while Joy and Sadness are missing, she gets progressively more sad and depressed (dominated by sadness.) Why is this the case?

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    I don't think that Riley was sad at all during Joy's and Sadness' absence from the HQ, at least not primarily. She was basically just angry, disgusted and fearful all the time. She was suppressing her sadness and thus only dealing in "lower" emotions, like anger or fear. And that was the point of the film.
    – Napoleon Wilson
    Commented Feb 27, 2017 at 19:34
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    "She becomes depressed, which is a form of sadness". Of the diagnostic criteria for depression, sadness is one of the possible emotions reported by a patient as one of the criterion, with emptiness and hopelessness being other possibilities. Guidelines often specifically call out the importance of not mistaking sadness for depression, along with the possibility of it being coexistant with depression (e.g. someone could be intensely sad due to bereavement and also depressed). Depression is not a form of sadness.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Feb 28, 2017 at 12:59
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    Sadness is, critically, a coping mechanism, when things are going badly. That's what she loses.
    – AJFaraday
    Commented Feb 28, 2017 at 14:57

2 Answers 2


Riley isn't sad, she's numb. This is shown by her personality islands shutting down and breaking apart. This isn't just sadness; it's an absence of any emotion at all. Her core memories are gone, and Anger, Disgust, and Fear stop trying to control Riley's emotions after their disastrous stint at trying to react the way Joy would.

Everything that makes Riley who she is gets lost, and her real-world response is to just shut everything out.

(Incidentally, this is -- to some -- an accurate depiction of depression: you lose the ability to feel either joy or sadness, you're prone to fits of anger or despair, and eventually you just stop feeling anything at all.)

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    The characterization comes from experience. As someone with clinical depression, I wholeheartedly disagree that depression is "sadness run rampant".
    – Roger
    Commented Feb 27, 2017 at 19:52
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    We aren't a psychology site... but we have one... perhaps that would be a better place for this debate?
    – Catija
    Commented Feb 27, 2017 at 20:43
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    I feel the comments here are detracting from the actual matter at hand, which is the explanation of what was going on in the film and with Riley's feelings. We are not really here to debate whether the answer gives a compelling definition of what depression is. As Catija already noted, this isn't a site for psychology, it's about movies. And the question to debate here is whether the answer properly explains what the movie thought how things work. To me it does. If it doesn't to you, that's totally fine, but let's not get hung up in a debate that's really marginal to the question at hand.
    – Napoleon Wilson
    Commented Feb 27, 2017 at 21:24
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    @JDoe You acknowledged in your question that maybe there was something you didn't understand in the film, and I think this answer agrees with that - you mistook lack of emotion for sadness. Riley has flat affect in the film, which is exactly a lack of joy or sadness. As in with real people, her emotionlessness seems sad even though it's partly about not feeling sad. Many times when people feel genuinely sad they feel better afterwards. This is a common literary device called "catharsis", which is such an old concept it has the same name the ancient Greeks gave it. Commented Feb 28, 2017 at 13:22
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    @JDoe Ignoring real world psychology for a moment, the film could be seen as an explicit study of catharsis, where being able to feel sadness is essential for the emotional health of a character. While Riley may have seemed sad, the intention of the script is that she is going through an emotional crisis partly because she can't feel genuine sadness. It straddles the line between the essential conflicts of "man versus himself" and "man versus nature". Perhaps we would call it, "man versus his own nature". Again, these are famous literary concepts, not psychological ones. Commented Feb 28, 2017 at 13:24

I completely agree with Roger's answer, but I'd like to add something. He used the word "numb"; I'd like to add one more word, "apathetic", that is, she feels nothing. Not sadness: nothing. She doesn't care about anything anymore. Showing the difference between having no feelings and being sad isn't simple, but the movie found a way: at a certain point, when Anger, Disgust and Fear have failed to behave appropriately, Riley simply doesn't react to their commands. No matter what they do, it doesn't affect her. It looks like their console is broken. This is apathy. But when Sadness comes back and can act, Riley feels something at last, and bursts into tears. This is the clear difference: before that moment, she couldn't even cry, because you need to feel sad to cry, and she didn't.

And this is the message of the movie: while both states (apathy and sadness) are bad, sadness isn't entirely bad, it is something that is actually useful in life, something that can help you. Joy understands it when she sees the memory in which Riley was very happy, surrounded by all her team mates, and realizes that this happened because some moments earlier she was clearly, visibly, evidently sad (not apathetic!). Her sadness is what made it clear to the others that she needed some comfort, and it happened. And, on the bus, her sadness is what caused her to get off and go back to her parents, which was obviously the right choice: so, again, sadness helped her.

At the beginning of the movie, everybody does their best to prevent Sadness from doing anything, because they genuinely think it's the best course of action. At the end of the movie, they have all understood that sadness isn't completely negative or useless: while unpleasant, it is necessary. Growing up isn't always pleasant, and trying to exclude sadness from one's life simply can't work. Instead it must be accepted and faced. When you learn to do it, you are stronger and you can start to enjoy your life again. But if you don't go through this process, and you simply remove sadness from your life, then you'll end up being apathetic, which is worse.

So, without getting into the discussion about depression (I am no psychologist, I can't help there), I'd say that Riley doesn't get sad. She is not happy either, true, and that's why her state can be confusing; but her problem is that she is not sad, and therefore she can't experience the positive effect of sadness.

  • "ostensibly" means, "apparently or purportedly, but perhaps not actually." That doesn't seem very well in line with the preceding, "clearly, visibly." Perhaps you meant another word?
    – jpmc26
    Commented Mar 1, 2017 at 0:03
  • @jpmc26 You are right, I thought it was a synonym for the other 2 words. Thank you, I've just learnt something! And I've edited my answer, now it should be better! Commented Mar 1, 2017 at 1:13
  • Fabio turati can u plz tell me How emotions effect our behavior? State specific examples from movie.and can emotions be controlled explain with reasoning Commented Apr 18, 2019 at 8:56

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