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Psychology Behind the Movie “Trading Places” by Landis


The psychological trends of society are usually described with the help of various concepts and theories. However, other sources reflect the situation, and they are related to literary works and movies. From this perspective, any work created to demonstrate the societal life correlates with psychological theories, and the movie «Trading Places» is no exception to the rule. It can serve as a source allowing to analyze the behavior of people. Therefore, this paper aims at considering the work of John Landis from the perspective of personality issues, psychological theories and concepts, and the perception of people as a product of their environment.

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Brief Summary

The movie «Trading Places» is a comedy that presents the story of the brothers Randolph and Mortimer Duke, the owners of a commodities brokerage firm. They decided to make a bet about the possible consequences of switching people’s lives (Landis, 1983). Their opinions differed in terms of personality formation, and they could not agree on the predominant impact of either environmental or hereditary factors on people (Landis, 1983). This experiment’s victims were the company’s executive director Louis Winthorpe and a homeless man Billy Ray Valentine. The former lost his job when the brothers planted drugs for him, and the latter was given a house and started to run the company. In the end, they took revenge for the brothers and bankrupted the business.

Personality Issues Raised in the Movie

The movie raised several personality issues that are primarily related to the social environment’s impact on people and their actions. In this situation, the behavior of Valentine and Winthorpe fully corresponded to the social learning theory (McAdams, 2009). Indeed, the former learned from observing and imitating the brothers to successfully run the company, whereas the latter learned from Ophelia he befriended after losing everything. In both cases, the characters adjusted to the new environment and survived under the emerging circumstances.

However, this change is not permanent since they return to their old ways by the end of the movie. This outcome was significantly conditional upon the set of beliefs and values typical for the lower class (Graves, 1974). Therefore, the principal psychological issues portrayed in the movie are the impact of the culture of poverty and the ability of people to adjust to a new environment.

Major Debate of the Brokers Mortimer and Randolph

The major debate in psychology the brokers Mortimer and Randolph engaged in relates to the need to define what influences a personality most. This issue is conditional upon scholars’ uncertainty on whether the environment or genes have a predominant impact on one’s actions and attitudes. From this perspective, making a bet was an attempt to gain a better understanding of the underlying principles of psychology. In this case, the manipulation of Valentine and Winthorpe by brothers is an example of the cultivation of an alien identity when people are taught to act as if they are somebody they are not (Akbar, 1999). As a result, the experiment led to a gruesome outcome for Mortimer and Randolph due to the victims’ unwillingness to keep playing their roles.

Psychology Behind the Movie

The movie’s psychological aspect addresses such issues as the culture of poverty, the cultivation of an alien identity, and the principles of the social learning theory. The combination of these considerations corresponds to the ideas of behaviorists related to the sole explanation of an individual’s actions by responding to external stimuli (McAdams, 2009). However, according to the outcome of the movie, this stance is not entirely accurate. The victims of the brothers’ experiment finally spiraled out of control and bankrupted the company. These results do not correlate with the assumption of John Watson, according to which any person can be raised in a specific way (McAdams, 2009). It allows concluding that the reason for this deviation is the impact of a variety of factors rather than a solid environment.

People as a Product of Environment

The application of the theoretical knowledge in psychology to the movie’s events revealed the environment’s role in one’s personality formation. It demonstrated its apparent impact but emphasized the instability of a new mindset instilled in Valentine and Winthorpe. The brothers’ actions seemed to be efficient but only until the moment when their new situation clashed with the values and beliefs that appeared before the experiment. In this way, it can be concluded that a person can be considered a product of the environment but only in the lack of conflicts between inner motivations and emerging circumstances.

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The conducted analysis of the movie «Trading Places» provides extensive information on how the specified psychological principles and theories work. This knowledge is extremely beneficial for future psychologists since they should not address only one side of the matter, the environment while neglecting personal values and beliefs. Therefore, it can be used to address negative belief systems and structural problems by defining whether these ideas are derived from the environment or represent a part of one’s personality before entering this environment. In this way, the realization of an individual’s full potential in life will be possible.


Akbar, N. (1999). Education: Vehicle for transmission of self-knowledge. In Know thy self (pp. 1-15). Tallahassee, Florida. Mind Productions.

Graves, T. D. (1974). Urban Indian personality and the “culture of poverty.” American Ethnologist, 1(1), 65-86.

Landis, J. (1983). Trading places [Film]. Paramount Pictures.

McAdams, D. P. (2009). The person: An introduction to the science of personality psychology (5th ed.). Jay O’Callaghan.

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StudyCorgi. (2022, January 12). Psychology Behind the Movie “Trading Places” by Landis.

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