Psychology Explains How to Win an Oscar

Getty Images / Christopher Polk

Diversity is our strength. This familiar phrase encompasses the recognition that people’s unique backgrounds, traditions, and cultures enrich our shared experience and make our society more resilient. This may be true in many arenas, but according to Niklas K. Steffens from the School of Psychology at The University of Queensland and his colleagues, diversity could be a weakness if you’re hoping to win an Academy Award.

In a study published Sunday in the British Journal of Psychology, Steffens and his colleagues found evidence suggesting that, despite the Oscars being awards that recognize film all over the world, American actors portraying American experiences are significantly more likely to win Oscars. The researchers got this result by analyzing the winners — and losers — for best actor and best actress in a leading role, comprising 97 winners and 383 non-winning nominees. They found that American actors won 69 percent of these Oscars. They concluded that an actor is more likely to win an Oscar if they share a social identity with the people who are judging them.

This may not sound surprising: Since the Oscars is an American awards show, it tends to favor Americans more. And in the past few years, the awards show has become the subject of significant debate over its lack of ethnic diversity. This issue is already cause for concern, but in the United States’s current political climate, with heated debates over immigration and racism, it feels more important than ever. After all, many of the non-American actors in American films live in the United States, and as such could be considered immigrants or refugees.

The researchers also found that, in addition to the nationality of the actor in a role, the subject matter of a film influenced whether an actor would win an award. “Performances of in-group actors in movies portraying in-group culture” write the authors, “are more likely to be recognized than the performances of in-group actors in movies portraying the culture of other (out-)groups.” In other words, Oscar judges not only vote for people who are like them, both in terms of nationality and social group, but they also vote for actors in movies that depict their own culture. And with seven out of the ten nominees for best leading actor/actress hailing from the United States (six of them white Americans), it doesn’t look like this year is likely to buck the trend.

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