Some movie quotes are repeated constantly, and most people can recognize these famous lines even without seeing their respective scenes. But what is it exactly that makes a movie quote memorable? A team of Cornell computer scientists found the answer to why some quotes are so-so while others are unforgettable.
Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, grad, computer science; Justin Cheng ’12, Prof. Jon Kleinberg ’93 computer science; and Prof. Lillian Lee ’93, computer science, discovered that a combination of unusual language and common sentence structure is the key to making quotations memorable.
Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil and his team first took 1,000 movie scripts and compared their famous lines with IMDb and Google searches to create a list of memorable quotes. They then presented the memorable quotes, along with not so memorable quotes, to a group of people. The people had to select the more memorable quote out of the pair. Each quote came from movies that the participants had not seen.
“We wanted to see if they could distinguish a memorable quote without knowing the context or anything about the movie. If there was nothing in the language, you would expect people to get about half the quotes correct because they were guessing randomly. Instead, people get about 78 percent correct,” Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil said. Because people get almost 80 percent of the quotations correct, the team figured that some component of the quote’s wording helps make it a memorable quote. Two of the things that make movie quotes memorable are uncommon words and common grammatical structure.
“Think about ‘Hasta la vista, baby.’ This is something that is not commonly said in an English movie,” Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil said, pointing out that it is an example of unusual language usage. Combinations of words that are unusual also make quotes memorable, such as “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” which uses a word of endearment with a swear word – making an unusual phrase.
The structure of the sentence also affects how memorable a quote is. “The phrase ‘You’re going to need a bigger boat,’ has the same structure as ‘You’re going to buy a red laptop.’ It is a very common sentence structure that is used all the time. A more complicated structure would be ‘you are going to need a boat that is bigger’ or ‘a bigger boat is what you are going to need.’ This is less common sentence structure,” Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil said. The first two ways of saying this sentence do not follow the common sentence structures that people use. Only one of the three is a memorable quote.
After analyzing the link between language and what makes a saying memorable, Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil and his colleagues wanted to apply this finding to artificial intelligence. They programmed a computer to recognize phrases that are linguistically uncommon but grammatically common.
They let the computer analyze the quote test. Since the computer does not understand language in the same way that a person does, the scientists designed three parameters to help it decipher which quotes were memorable.
The three parameters were: if the words were usable in other contexts; if the words in quote are surprising; and if the syntax is surprising or not. The computer applied these three parameters to the movie quotes it was given to determine the facets that made a movie quote memorable.
With this knowledge, the computer learned that memorability stemmed from easy use in other contexts, surprising languages, and common sentence structure. At this point, the researchers gave the computer a new set of quotes and had it pick the more memorable one from the new material. Using this knowledge, the computer was able to predict whether movie quotes were memorable or not memorable with 64 percent accuracy — a percentage that comes close to that of what humans can determine.
Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil looks to apply this research in two ways: marketing and education. “In marketing, people are paid to come up with advertising slogans. A computer can help select one that would be more memorable. This can be useful in marketing advertisements or political campaign slogans.” Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil also plans to have his research assist in education. “When you write a textbook, at some point you want people to remember parts of it. You want to write in a type of language that is easier to remember. A computer could assist in that.”
“Computers are not people. There are cultural and other factors that affect memorability of quotes that a computer cannot identify.” Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil said. But these basic linguistic rules for memory, even if they don’t apply to all situations, are still a good indicator of what is more likely to be more recognizable.