For the third time in four years, the Oscar for Best Picture has gone to a film about film -- a "meta-film" if you will. In 2011, The Artist examined film and art from behind the scenes and last year, Birdman did the same with a darker edge.
The 2012 best picture went to Argo prompting Stephen Colbert to incisively comment, "Big surprise, Hollywood honors the film where Hollywood is the hero." Notably, the only recent year without a meta-film winner, 2013, was also the only year without a meta-film in the Best Picture category.
If we wanted to, we could take this observation and ask the question: What does this say about the Academy? Then we could use this question as an excuse to gleefully criticize the Oscars for the duration of a news cycle.
But instead, why don't we take this Academy bias and ask a harder question: Are we not all as biased as the Oscars?
The Oscars have always been a huge self-congratulating event. The event allows artistic elites to indirectly praise themselves by praising others and the magic of art. What's important to remember, however, is that this self-congratulatory behavior is not confined to the Oscars; it is a fundamental human tendency.
Hollywood's bias to praise films that embody Hollywood values and issues is just another example of how people in general excessively praise politicians, professionals, and pastors who uphold their own personal values.
The Oscars, punk rock concerts, and Sunday-morning church services all often reiterate this wonderful self-congratulation. "Movies are magic." "Punks are awesome and the Man is terrible." "We are the people of God and we alone follow the truth." These experiences make us feel good because they affirm the core of our identity and the rightness of our groups, in a socially acceptable way.
Psychological research shows that people derive their self-worth from their groups and beliefs. Accordingly, people are motivated to uplift their own groups and beliefs while derogating outsiders and rival beliefs. This can provide immediate joy, but here's where the warning comes in.
The desire to see our own beliefs and groups as wonderful may weaken our ability to perceive the actual truth. Furthermore, it may weaken our ability to understand how others who do not hold our biases will perceive the world.
The Oscars picking The Artist (in my opinion a delightful film), Argo (in my opinion a great film), and Birdman (in my opinion a stylish thoughtful film) is no immediate cause for alarm. However, these Oscar selections offer insight into a fundamental tendency of human nature, and that tendency is cause for constant alarm. It is the tendency that leads to social bias and societal problems.
In a culture where winners are often selected by like-minded individuals, we must watch out for this tendency in ourselves, others, and society at large. We all, the Academy very much included, should try and genuinely celebrate people other than ourselves.
Troy Campbell is a researcher at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business and Center for Advanced Hindsight.
You may also enjoy his other articles mixing movies and psychology such as:
Do Big Movies have Big Messages?
Hunger Games and Fantasy
The Joy of Hating Michael Bay
The Alternative Title of The Fault in Our Stars
How Star Wars can be Good Again