‘I should like to thank the Academy’ – The Psychology of acceptance speeches at The Oscars
Raj Persaud and Peter Bruggen
A recent study by Cheryl Morrier at Adelphi University, USA, investigated student and semi-professional female and male actors. Actors emerged as significantly more narcissistic than the general population. Entitled ‘Success in acting: The roles of narcissism, depression and attractiveness’, the research found the more narcissistic actors were also more physically attractive.
So those most in love with themselves maybe had partly an objective reason to be so?
Narcissism consists of feeling superior to everyone else, accompanied by a sense of entitlement to success and accolades.
Possibly the highest concentration of narcissism in the world each year assembles on the red carpet at the Oscars ceremony, because narcissists believe they are special people deserving of fame and recognition. As a result they tend to pursue careers where they are the centre of attention. Narcissists suffer an unrequited need for admiration, so their choice of work usually serves these ends. But after a while, they become difficult to bear because they are so grandiose, self-centred and demanding.
Narcissists are great on a first date but terrible at marriage.
It is precisely because they tend to score low on being team-players that they become eventually unpopular with those close to them. This might also partly explain the notoriously high divorce and relationship breakdown rate in Hollywood.
So a hidden pressure of Oscar night is the psychological tightrope narcissists tread on the red carpet. Convention requires they give an acceptance speech which thanks others and indicates humility – acknowledging the contribution of colleagues to their own success.
But deep down do narcissists really believe this?
Yet they must give an acceptance speech which makes them look good. So they should appear surprised at winning when the cameras turn to them, and they mustn’t seem bitter at losing. Acting humble serves the inevitable narcissistic project of seeking admiration.
They mustn’t in their acceptance speech, at all costs, inadvertently go over to the ‘dark side’. Psychologists refer to the ‘dark triad’ of personality features likely to be found in this group as being manipulative (acting humble), psychopathic (no remorse over back-stabbing) and narcissistic (self-obsession).
A clue as to how difficult is the paradox narcissists must confront in the acceptance speech comes from a recent study entitled ‘Are Narcissists Sexy? Zeroing in on the Effect of Narcissism on Short-Term Mate Appeal’. 61 single hetero-sexual men were asked to approach on the street 25 women whom they would genuinely like to get to know better.
The men had the aim to gather personal contact information from the women. In the experiment, published in the journal, ‘Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin’, research assistants debriefed the women after the study, collecting ratings about the man and the interaction. The higher the approaching man scored on narcissism, the more personal contacts they received from unacquainted women, and the more appealing they were rated by these women.
The authors of the study, Michael Dufner , John Rauthmann, Anna Czarna and Jaap Denissen found that it was the social boldness and their tendency to ‘self-enhance’ while in conversation that explained their greater appeal for a romantic relationship. So ‘bigging yourself up’ in fact does seem to make you more attractive – at least in the shorter term.
Psychologists Robert Raskin and Robert Shaw, then at the University of California at Berkeley, found those who score higher on narcissism tend to use more 1st-person-singular pronouns (words like ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘myself’) compared to other pronouns. So this study entitled ‘Narcissism and the use of personal pronouns’, published in the ‘Journal of Personality’, suggests that how narcissistic the actor giving the acceptance speech really is, despite their best efforts to manipulatively hide it, may be revealed by how often they use first person singular pronouns.
Perhaps a new psychology game on Oscar night is for the audience to count the number of references to ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘myself’, as the acceptance speaker apparently eats humble pie.
A study entitled, ‘I’d Like to Thank the Academy, Team Spillovers, and Network Centrality’, analysed films released between 1936 and 2005, used Academy Award nominations for acting, to investigate how much an actor really owes their success in the Oscars to colleagues and collaborations.
The authors of the study, Gabriel Rossman, Nicole Esparza and Phillip Bonacich, argue that narcissists might be right – it could be their ‘star power’ which determines whether they get an Oscar or not. Star power might be measured by prominence in credits and billing on Film Posters for example.
The study published in ‘American Sociological Review’ found actors’ billing could be vital. For example, Judi Dench had only eight minutes of screen time in the film ‘Shakespeare in Love’ (1998), but nonetheless was one of only five names on the film’s poster, and she won an Oscar for her performance as Queen Elizabeth I.
The rank order in credits, the authors of the study argue, represents a casting director’s estimate of an actor’s star power and bargaining clout in negotiating rank. It’s therefore a good measure of status.
However, there is competing theory which is that it’s working with the right people which helps you get the Oscar.
The authors of the study, based at the University of California – Los Angeles and the University of Southern California, consider the actor Robert Forster, who had a long but mostly obscure career as a character actor. Yet in 1998 he was nominated for the best supporting actor Oscar for the role of bail bondsman Max Cherry in the movie ‘Jackie Brown’ (1997). The film was written and directed by Quentin Tarantino who had previously been nominated for best director and best original screenplay (winning the latter) for Pulp Fiction (1994).
Forster’s co-stars included prior nominees Samuel L. Jackson and Robert DeNiro. Forster’s career apparently immediately returned to relative obscurity after Jackie Brown, demonstrating how much his nomination for that film benefited from Tarantino, Jackson, and DeNiro.
However, even actors who are themselves major stars may benefit from working with
strong teams, argue the authors of the study.
Leonardo DiCaprio might be an A-list actor, but his first nomination came from collaboration with an Academy-nominated director (Lasse Hallstrom) and his second from collaboration with Hollywood’s top director (Martin Scorsese) and an Academy-nominated writer (John Logan).
The study found star power did have an effect on Academy Award success, but that the prestige and merits of a film actor’s collaborators, particularly the writer and director, greatly increased chances for Academy recognition.
The authors of the study conclude that there is a very good reason that Academy Award acceptance speeches are so long—they should be – an actor’s collaborators might be largely responsible for the achievement.
On the other hand, maybe the narcissists have the last laugh – you earn good team-mates by being seen as worthy of them.
But before we look down on narcissists and their mind games, perhaps due humility would suggest we all acknowledged the role of others in any success of ours.
Yet how often do we do that?