Psychology explains how to win an Oscar

6 Feb 2017
Academy Award
The recognition of a quality creative performance is influenced by a ‘one of us’ mentality.

If you want to win an Oscar it is best to be an American actor in a film that portrays American culture.

A study led by The University of Queensland School of Psychology researcher Dr Nik Steffens has found the recognition of a quality creative performance is influenced by a ‘one of us’ mentality.

“We examined what makes a creative performance likely to be seen as exceptional, and found that shared social group made an enormous difference,” Dr Steffens said.

“The findings from our study have implications for the appreciation of creativity more generally – we like to think that our evaluation is objective and value-free, but in fact it is heavily structured by our group memberships.”

Dr Steffens and his team undertook a large-scale archival analysis of all nominations and winners for ‘best performance by an actor/actress in a leading role’ in the US-based Oscars and the British-based BAFTAs (EE British Academy Film Awards) since 1968.

This covered a total of 908 merit prize winners, comprising 97 winners and 383 nominees for the Oscars and 97 winners and 331 nominees for the BAFTAs.

The results showed that US actors dominated the awards overall, winning more than 50 per cent of all prizes across Oscars and BAFTAs, and actors were more likely to win if they shared social group membership with the judges.

This meant that American actors won 52 per cent of all BAFTAs but 69 per cent of all Oscars, while British actors won 18 per cent of all Oscars but 34 per cent of all BAFTAs.

“These results show that whether we see a given performance as extraordinary is not just a function of the objective quality of that performance, but that perceivers are much more likely to recognise a performance as truly brilliant when perceivers and performers share membership in a social group,” Dr Steffens said.

“In this case, American actors won two out of three of all Oscar nominations but almost four out of five of all Oscar awards.”

Another important determinant of success was the subject matter of the film.

In the Oscars, American artists accounted for 26 per cent of award winners whose performance was in films about non-US culture but for 88 per cent of award winners whose performance was in films about American culture.

Similarly, a British actor in a movie about British culture was 20 times more likely to win a BAFTA nomination or award than a British actor in a movie about non-British culture.

“The culture that a movie represents makes a difference to the likelihood of it winning awards, and we are more likely to recognise actors from our in-group when their performance is in movies that portray ‘our’ in-group culture,” Dr Steffens said.

Dr Steffens research was conducted in collaboration with Professor Alex Haslam of UQ, Professor Michelle Ryan of the University of Exeter, and Professor Kathryn Millard of Macquarie University.

The study is published in the British Journal of Psychology.

Media: Dr Niklas Steffens, +61 7 3346 9555, Twitter @NikSteffens; Dani Nash, UQ Communications,, +61 7 3346 3035, Twitter @UQhealth.