The Oscars' "Meta-Film" Bias
For the third time in four years, the Oscar for Best Picture has gone to a film about film – a “meta-film” if you will. In 2011, The Artist examined film and art from behind the scenes and last year, Birdman did the same with a darker edge.
The 2012 best picture went to Argo prompting Stephen Colbert to incisively comment, “Big surprise, Hollywood honors the film where Hollywood is the hero.” Notably, the only recent year without a meta-film winner, 2013, was also the only year without a meta-film in the Best Picture category.
If we wanted to, we could take this observation and ask the question: What does this say about the Academy? Then we could use this question as an excuse to gleefully criticize the Oscars for the duration of a news cycle.
But instead, why don’t we take this Academy bias and ask a harder question: Are we not all as biased as the Oscars?
The Oscars have always been a huge self-congratulating event. The event allows artistic elites to indirectly praise themselves by praising others and the magic of art. What’s important to remember, however, is that this self-congratulatory behavior is not confined to the Oscars; it is a fundamental human tendency.
Hollywood’s bias to praise films that embody Hollywood values and issues is just another example of how people in general excessively praise politicians, professionals, and pastors who uphold their own personal values.
The Oscars, punk rock concerts, and Sunday-morning church services all often reiterate this wonderful self-congratulation. “Movies are magic.” “Punks are awesome and the Man is terrible.” “We are the people of God and we alone follow the truth.” These experiences make us feel good because they affirm the core of our identity and the rightness of our groups, in a socially acceptable way.
Psychological research shows that people derive their self-worth from their groups and beliefs. Accordingly, people are motivated to uplift their own groups and beliefs while derogating outsiders and rival beliefs. This can provide immediate joy, but here’s where the warning comes in.
The desire to see our own beliefs and groups as wonderful may weaken our ability to perceive the actual truth. Furthermore, it may weaken our ability to understand how others who do not hold our biases will perceive the world.
The Oscars picking The Artist (in my opinion a delightful film), Argo (in my opinion a great film), and Birdman (in my opinion a stylish thoughtful film) is no immediate cause for alarm. However, these Oscar selections offer insight into a fundamental tendency of human nature, and that tendency is causes for constant alarm. It is the tendency that leads to social bias and societal problems.
In a culture where winners are often selected by like-minded individuals, we must watch out for this tendency in ourselves, others, and society at large. We all, the Academy very much included, should try and genuinely celebrate people other than themselves.
By Troy Campbell
@TroyHCampbell studies marketing as it relates to identity, beliefs, and enjoyment here at the Center for Advanced Hindsight and the Duke University Fuqua School of Business. In Fall 2015 he will begin as an assistant professor at the University of Oregon Lundquist College of Business.
You may also enjoy his other posts mixing psychology and movies:
Why we love to hate Michael Bay
Transformers 4 grossed $1 billion dollars worldwide. Now, it’s out on Blu-Ray to add to that total. This has left many wondering what South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone once famously pondered: “Why does Michael Bay get to keep on making movies” when his movies seem so terrible?
Well, modern consumer scientific research finally has an answer to this puzzle, and the answer isn’t just our poor taste in movies. We love seeing Michael Bay movies, because even if we don’t like the movies, we get to feel the “joy of judging.” This joy explains a lot of the modern entertainment economy, from watching reality TV to live tweeting the MTV Music Video Awards—two other examples where people tune into content they somewhat hate but love to somewhat hate.
With Bay’s movies, we enjoy the process of making snarky comments as we watch, searching for plot holes, and talking about how he is doing wrong by the source material. The movie could be bad, but the time we spend in the theater with the movie is fun.
From Hollywood movies to Harvard research, the idea that consumers crave engagement not just quality in their entertainment is becoming apparent.
The joy of judging and engagement gears into overdrive with Bay movies, as these pleasures are maximized when we feel some mastery and identity in the area. This is what makes Michael Bay’s movies so magnetic even if they also seem sort of repulsive; he consistently chooses topics that we have lots of knowledge of and that relate to our childhood identities (i.e., Transformers, Ninja Turtles).
We want to be a part of the community discussing these movies. So it does not matter whether Transformers 4 is good or not. We have to see it if we want to talk about the topic of Transformers.
Or consider The Amazing Spider-Man 2, a film that borrows heavily from the Michael Bay playbook of huge glossy visual imagery. That movie was not so good, was it? And comic fans knew that ahead of time. But did many of them still go? Absolutely. Why? Because the Spider-Man fans had to know whether the director got Spider-Man’s personality or the classic Gwen Stacy’s “arc” right.
Movies and television do not need to be good. The right type of movies and television are just a springboard for “second-level” enjoyment through Twitter, blogs and conversations.
So why does Michael Bay get to keep on making movies? Because bashing Bay is fun. While it might be tempting to feel bad for Bay, it’s worth remembering that all this Bay bashing means over $5 billion in box office total alone for the director. So good or bad, the movies are profitable and that’s what the movie business is all about.
Troy Campbell is an experimental researcher of consumer enjoyment and identity at Duke University and the Center for Advanced Hindsight.
You may also like “Why Who Plays Batman Matters” and “The Power of Modern Stand Up Comedy” by Troy Campbell.
Enjoy Summer Movies with a Childlike Wonder Again
With the summer movie season officially starting with The Amazing Spiderman 2 (Though arguably it started this year early with Captain America), it’s time once again to enjoy big budget spectacle movies. But as adults sometimes it can be hard to feel the movie magic we felt as children. Don’t fret! Here are a few tips (inspired by research in consumer psychology) on how to enjoy movies with a childlike wonder.
#1 As a kid you had more time for movies. So as an adult, you need to make a little extra time.
When adults see movies, they might talk about the movie for a few minutes afterwards. If they are true nerds, maybe they read a blog or two. But that’s about it. The movie experience starts the night they see it and ends that very same night.
For a kid, the experience doesn’t end when the movie ends. Instead, the movie is an invitation into years of immersion into a fictional world. Kids talk nonstop about movies, force their parents to take them to Toys R Us to buy the action figures, and then expand on those stories through play, reading, fan websites, and video games.
You should make the time to get more involved with a movie world. How “good” you find a movie, can be affected by how much effort you put into it. This means reading blogs about movies and watching the behind the scenes features on the DVDs.
#2 Kids are encouraged to be excited about movies. So, as an adult you need to find friends that encourage that same excitement.
Not only do kids feel a sense of wonder with movies, but they are also encouraged to embrace that sense of wonder. Parents encourage their children to tell them about the things they love. No one encourages adults to talk about movies. The guy in the office next to me has explicitly made it clear that he doesn’t want to hear any more about the awesomeness of The Empire Strikes Back.
This is unfortunate, because the suppression of expression is terrible for enjoyment. Professor Sarah Moore of the Alberta School of Business finds when people explain exciting things in a boring way, they end up finding the content boring. But if they explain it in an exciting way, they magnify their enjoyment. The conclusion: if people do not express their passion with strong emotion, they may lose out on some of the passion.
If you want to enjoy movies more, put on a costume and attend a convention where nerd passion is socially encouraged. Or have a Katherine Heigl movie night if that’s more your thing. Or at the very least just post about a movie on Facebook and start a discussion. The point is, if you share your passion with others you can maintain and grow your passion.
#3 As a kid, everything was magical and new. So, as an adult, you need to find new things.
Remember how impressed you were as a kid by that quarter behind the ear trick? Today you find that completely unimpressive — at least hopefully you do.
The next time you are even slightly impressed by an action movie, think how impressed a kid would be. Kids love things so easily that they probably even thought X-Men Origins: Wolverine was cool.
Scientists find that when people become overexposed to content (e.g., a type of fight scene), our brains stop paying as much attention. Once something is no longer new, our brains tell us to check out, so the joy starts to fade away.
Adults should branch out and start watching slightly “odder” content – I suggest the indie monster film Monsters or a Wes Anderson film. Adults won’t be desensitized to the new type of content, so they’ll likely find more magic and wonder in it. Or, try a more intense movie experience like The Wolf of Wall Street.
#4 Nostalgia is why we love our childhood movies. So as adults we need to create more instantaneous nostalgia.
Nostalgia gets a bad rap publicly. However, nostalgia is a very powerful feeling, and there are many positive reasons to spend some quality time indulging in nostalgia.
The great thing about nostalgia is that nostalgic memories tend to be linked to memories of social connections. For instance people’s memories of Star Wars are wrapped up in memories of their parents showing it to them for the first time or playing “Rebels vs. Empire” with their friends. These connected memories bring about the feelings of warmth, support, and love that fulfill humans’ greatest needs.
You might even think that movies from your childhood were terrible, but love those movies nonetheless. You love those movies because they have meaning to you. The emotional connections and meanings are sometimes more important to you than the quality of the film.
If you want to enjoy modern movies more, you need to make movie-going become more instantaneously nostalgic. So go see the films in big groups. Start a Sunday afternoon movie crew or go to a midnight showing. Again, if you want to enjoy something, you need to change the process by which you enjoy it to make it bigger, more memorable, and more full of social interactions with other fans.
So, next time you go to the movies, see if you can bring back some of the magic from your childhood. Try a new genre of movie, talk about it with your friends after, or just put a little more effort into really enjoying the experience. You may not be a child any more, but with these tips in mind, you just might be able to enjoy the movies like one.
~ Troy Campbell ~
Audience with a Dragon Tattoo
I’ve explored the power of free in the context of tattoos before, and anyone who saw last years’ comedy Bridesmaids no doubt laughed at this particularly memorable scene. But this story out of the Netherlands caught me a little off guard just the same. First, consider what you would do for a year’s worth of free movie tickets. Or if you like live music, tickets to your favorite venue. Would you pay $200? Would you eat a bag of (nonpoisonous) insects?
Well, the Unlimited Movies Cinema in the Netherlands has offered moviegoers the opportunity to see free movies for an entire year—all they have to do is get the theater’s logo (a dog-like creature flying under a banner of unfurled film reel) tattooed on their body (for pictures, check this page out). The offer is part of a promotion for the latest movie in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series.
I developed an appreciation for the surprising power of FREE! from the experiments my colleagues and I conducted on how people respond to things when their cost is zero (included in Predictably Irrational). For instance, when we set up a temporary candy stand and sold mouthwatering Lindt truffles (which usually cost around 50 cents) for 15 cents and ho-hum Hershey Kisses for 1 cent, 73% of the chocolate-lovers who stopped by made the rational decision and chose the superior and highly discounted Lindt truffles. But when we lowered the price by 1 cent for each item—resulting in a cost of 14 cents and 0 cents respectively—suddenly demand reversed and 69% of consumers chose the free Kisses.
The power zero exercises over people’s choice in chocolate nicely demonstrates the irrational draw of free things, but it’s still difficult to know what to make of people getting a cinema logo (and not the most aesthetically pleasing one at that) permanently inked on their body for a single year of free movies. While according to the story, only 18 people have elected to exchange skin space for free movies, one has to ask whether the wonders of free will ever cease…