Friday, March 1, 2013

Friday Fun: Psych Your Mind at the Oscars

If you follow all the goings-on in Hollywood, you almost certainly watched the 85th Academy Awards last Sunday. If you didn't, I would be surprised if you have paid attention to the news this week without seeing at least one mention of the best and worst dressed, Jennifer Lawrence’s fall, or Seth MacFarlane’s performance as host. While the gowns and all the famous people in one room may have caught your attention the most, if we move beyond all of the glamour and drama surrounding the Academy Awards, this event is actually a great display of a number of psychological phenomena. In today’s post, I’ll take a look at four of them.


Of course we observe lots of gratitude in action at awards shows. Some people just give one giant thank you to the world, while others seem to rattle off as many names as they can during their short time onstage. Thanking others is definitely the socially acceptable route to follow during one’s acceptance speech, but hopefully much of the gratitude expressed is also genuinely experienced. As at least one of Amie’s posts has addressed, feeling grateful for others is associated with greater relationship satisfaction on the part of both the thanker and the receiver. It’s also associated with advantages outside of relationships, like greater happiness and optimism and fewer physical symptoms like stomachaches and headaches. Perhaps we should all have awards shows at our jobs to prompt us to experience gratitude and subsequently reap its benefits!

Contingencies of Self-Worth

Within acceptance speeches, we can gain quite a bit of information about where celebrities base their self-esteem, also known as contingencies of self-worth. People can stake their self-esteem in a variety of domains: appearance, academic competence, or their own virtue, for example. When successes or failures occur for people in those domains, their self-esteem is theorized to rise or fall accordingly.

During acceptance speeches, people often make comments that suggest they stake their self-esteem highly in a certain domain. In Anne Hathaway’s speech, she specifically said she would use her award as a “weapon against self-doubt” (okay, this was at the Golden Globes, not the Oscars). This suggests that she stakes her self-esteem highly in approval from others or success in her career. She would have then experienced a boost in self-esteem that night and according to her speech, she may feel it in the future when she recalls her award!

Terror Management

Every year, the Academy remembers those in the business who have passed away during the previous year. Their pictures and names are presented in a special segment allowing the audience members and viewers at home to remember their contributions to the industry. Might it be that these memorials serve an important role for people in the audience? My guess, based on Terror Management Theory (TMT), is yes.

TMT posits that we are all motivated by an unconscious fear of our mortality. To cope with this fear, we adopt cultural worldviews that give our lives meaning. A cultural worldview that people in Hollywood would adopt might be that they can symbolically live on through their art. In research on TMT, when individuals are reminded of the fact that they will die, they cling to their cultural worldviews more strongly. TMT argues that these worldviews then help calm people and keep them from being crippled by anxiety about death. For people in the audience at the Oscars, remembering their colleagues and acknowledging that their art lives on, may help them better manage their own fear of mortality.


What about you, the viewer, sitting at home and watching these awards? Why do we love to sit there, observing all these rich, good-looking people laughing at jokes and having a wonderful evening with all of their famous friends? We don’t actually know them and they certainly don’t know us. No matter who wins or loses, the vast majority of us aren’t going to be affected personally. So why do we care?

One reason is that the Oscars gives us a chance to escape from our normal lives. We get to live in a different world, where money is not a problem, work seems to be play, and everyone looks happy (even the losers!). For one night, it’s fun to imagine that we might put on an expensive dress or tuxedo, get out of a limousine, walk down the red carpet with our favorite actor or actress, and receive the greatest honor Hollywood can give.

Hopefully this post gave you a slightly different perspective on awards shows in general and something unlike everything else you’ve read about the Oscars this week!

Please let us know in the comments about other psychological phenomena you saw in action this awards season!

Further Reading:

Crocker, J. (2002). Contingencies of Self-Worth: Implications for Self-Regulation and Psychological Vulnerability Self and Identity, 1 (2), 143-149 DOI: 10.1080/152988602317319320

Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., & Pyszczynski, T. (1991). A terror management theory of social behavior: The psychological functions of esteem and cultural worldviews Advances in experimental social psychology, 24 DOI: 10.1016/S0065-2601(08)60328-7

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