4 things science has taught us about the Oscars
Life, death, who wins, and who loses: the science is as dramatic as the event
If last year's numbers are any indicator, about 30 million people around the world will watch the Oscars this weekend. Hopes will be crushed, careers will be made, and female directors will be notably absent. Over the years scientists have picked through this yearly drama searching for insight. And what they have found is arguably more dramatic than anything you will see onscreen.
The science of the Oscars teaches us about the social forces that shape winning, the secret formula to acceptance speeches — and about life and death.
And spoiler alert: Being a screenwriter may be a bad idea.
These are four of the incredible things two decades of Oscar-inspired science have taught us.
1. Cultural forces shape who wins
It is perhaps no surprise that doling out awards is in part a social game.
The structure of society can lead people to choose friends who end up being genetically similar to themselves, social networks influence how we exercise, and engage with healthcare. It also influences how we judge creativity. At the Oscars, that plays into the choices for the Best Actor and Best Actress accolades, according to a 2017 paper.
The paper analyzed 908 nominees and award-winners in the Best Actor and Best Actress categories at the Oscars and the British Academy Film Awards (BAFTAs) between 1968 and 2015. Being part of the in-group — in this case, a national of the country that the awards are hosted in — greatly boosted chances of success.
United States-based actors were more than twice as likely to win an Oscar than a BAFTA. At the same time, British actors were more than twice as likely to win a BAFTA than an Oscar.
This held true for nominations: American actors won a greater proportion of actual Oscars than nominations, and British actors won a greater proportion of BAFTAs than nominations. In short, that suggests that each nomination for an American actor in America and a British actor in the United Kingdom comes with a greater chance of success built in.
The team also looked at the content of the nominated films themselves, the nationalities of the other actors, and how that contributed to the chances of a nominee receiving an award. A US-based actor, in a US-based movie that was about US-based culture was 21 times more likely to win an Oscar compared to an American actor in a US-based movie that was not about US culture, they found.
The findings illustrate the power of being in with the in-crowd — and shows just how important cultural context is for what we deem creative, and thus, award-worthy.
2. The perfect acceptance speech
Acceptance speeches can be memorable, others moving, and some insane. But however they come off, these speeches are all built on similar foundations.
In 2013, scientists analyzed 60 years-worth of Oscar acceptance speeches. The speeches follow a funnel pattern: they start broadly, by thanking the Academy, or other nominees, and then proceed to get more personal, thanking family, colleagues, and friends in increasing levels of obscurity, they found.
The results were published online, but they do not appear in a peer-reviewed journal.
The most striking trend is that tears are becoming an ever-increasing part of acceptance speeches: 71 percent of tears shed at the Oscars have happened since 1995, the analysis finds.
3. Lifetime achievement award
Winning an Oscar is the achievement of a lifetime — and it may also be linked to living longer. A controversial 2001 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine suggested that actors and actresses who win Oscars get an extra bonus in terms of longevity.
The study included 1649 actors and actresses who had won Oscars for their performances. Those who won lived, on average, 3.9 years longer than those who did not win awards, or were never nominated at all.
The study was inspired by a sad truth about public health. Low social status is linked to poor health outcomes. A 2017 paper in The Lancet that analyzed the life expectancy and health of 1.7 million people found that those with low socioeconomic status were some 1.5 times more likely to die before the age of 85 than their more well-off peers.
This study looked to see if the opposite was true — do the most successful among a group live longer even when compared to their equally wealthy counterparts?
"What we suggest in our research is that it's not just extreme levels of deprivation but that there's a socio-economic gradient that might extend throughout the entire spectrum," lead researcher and Sunnybrook Research Institute scientist Donald Redelmeier tells Inverse.
Oscar-winning actors and actresses do tend to live slightly longer. But the data have limitations. The researchers did not collect health histories for the actors, or gather any insight into whether they used alcohol, tobacco, or other potentially life-shortening substances.
The paper has critics. In a subsequent study published in 2006, a separate team of scientists reanalyzed the 2001 data and found that winning was only linked to just one additional year of life.
Revisiting the data is "irresistible," and the debate around the findings is ongoing, Redelmeier says.
"It's much akin to the chicken or the egg," he says. "Is it that winning an Academy Award leads to living a longer life, or is it the other way around?"
"We are so eager to collect more samples and use greater statistical models than were available even 10 years ago to disentangle those two competing theories," he says.
4. Death toll
The same team behind the 2001 study took a slightly different tack in another study analyzing matters of life and death at the Academy Awards. In a 2001 BMJ paper, they concentrate instead on screenwriters, who "labor in anonymity, yet their work is renowned," the authors said at the time.
Screenwriting may suffer from more than anonymity — the job appears to come at a price for longevity. In an analysis of 850 writers over 60 years, the researchers found that winning is inexplicably tied to dying an early death. Winners' life expectancies were 3.6 years shorter than nominees. Every additional win a screenwriter added to their resumé was linked to a further 22 percent increase in death rates.
The finding creates a paradox in their initial theory. For actors, success is linked to greater life expectancy, but for writers, it was linked to the opposite. Given the relative wealth of these screenwriters, Redelmeier says the pattern is a "very exceptional circumstance."
One theory is that the findings may "reflect the unusual lifestyles of writers, where success is not linked to exemplary conduct or control," the researchers argued at the time of the study.
The paper doesn't account for writers' lives in the time between winning their awards and their deaths. And it cannot determine causality. But it does exposes a strange pattern that may serve as fodder for future research.