Even if you didn't watch the Golden Globes last night, you can appreciate the honesty of one of co-host Tina Fey's opening remarks:
"Tonight, we honor the television shows that have entertained us all year, as well as the films that have only been in theaters for two days."
Tina Fey's statement, like all good humor, contains a bit of truth. Here are the five movies that were nominated for Best Picture (Drama) this year, along with their release dates:
- Argo (October 12)
- Django Unchained (Dec 25)
- Life of Pi (November 21)
- Lincoln (November 16)
- Zero Dark Thirty (December 19, limited release; wide release: January 11)
Judging from this list, it appears that one of two explanations is likely: either movie executives know to release their "Oscar bait" films at the end of the year, or that those in charge of nominating films for awards tend to pick films that were released in the last few months of the year. Either way, movies that opened later in the year are overrepresented. To understand how this happens, we can look at article published in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, "When the best appears to be saved for last: Serial position effects on choice" by researchers Ye Li and Nicholas Epley.
After examining people's preferences and the effect of memory on evaluation, the researchers predicted:
When options in a choice set are presented sequentially over time, both the simple delay of time as well as interference from other cognitively demanding tasks are likely to increase uncertainty in one’s evaluations of more distant options compared to more recent options, and should therefore increase the amount of regression to an overall category mean. If, for instance, a person interviews three equally outstanding job candidates over 3 weeks, he or she is likely to remember that the most recent candidate was highly qualified but be relatively less certain about more distantly interviewed candidates.
In layman's terms: movies that came out at the beginning of 2012 get the short end of the deal because of a quirk in our memories. The memory of our evaluations fades over time: things that we initially found to be great seem less great over time, and things that we initially judged as horrible seem less horrible over time.
To test this, the researchers presented the study participants with three desirable things (paintings, songs, and jelly beans), and three undesirable things. The paintings were chosen as good or bad based on a "pretest of website visitors who collectively evaluated a large pool of paintings," while the bad songs were taken from "The Worst of American Idol Auditions: Seasons 1-4." The good jelly beans were very cherry, raspberry, and blueberry Jelly Belly beans. And, in case you are skeptical that objectively bad candy exists, I present to you Harry Potter Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Jelly Beans. The participants tried three flavors: dirt, earwax, and grass. (Booger, rotten egg and vomit flavors also exist, in case you want to try this experiment at home or at work.)
Indeed, the researchers demonstrated this:
As the details of the earlier experiences are lost and must be reconstructed when making a decision, evaluations of those experiences regress toward more moderate evaluations compared to the more recent experiences. When choosing the best of one’s options presented over time, people should therefore tend to choose a more recent option when selecting among desirable options but choose a more distant option when selecting among undesirable options. We found this pattern across a variety of stimuli, including paintings, songs, jellybeans, and faces.
As I wrote about in Slate, part of this can be explained by the direction-of-comparison effect. When people compare a series of items that have distinguishing characteristics, we're biased towards the ones at the end of the series because they appear to have more positive, unique characteristics. Briefly, we applaud films that come out at the end of the year, like Lincoln, because we can make concrete judgments that they have qualities unique among films in 2012. (Daniel Day-Lewis! Spielberg! Accurate history lesson!) The problem is that we weren't able to make that same judgment about movies that came out in the beginning of 2012, like 21 Jump Street, because we couldn't know for sure that no other movie was going to have an unexpected Johnny Depp cameo.
But perhaps more important in judging movies at the end of the year than the number of specific, positive qualities in each movie is how much we remember having enjoyed the movie. Because our evaluations fade over time--the great become blasé and the horrible become less so—we tend think that we enjoyed the movies that came out in November and December much more than the movies that came out at the beginning of the year.
As the details of the earlier experiences are lost and must be reconstructed when making a decision, evaluations of those experiences regress toward more moderate evaluations compared to the more recent experiences.
Another way to look at this is what I call the "If it was really that good, I'd have remembered it better" effect. We mistakenly think that our memories are flawless, and that the vividness of our memories serves as a proxy for the quality of something. In reality, our memories are not only flawed and prone to decay, but are constantly changing to fit the current narratives we tell ourselves. (Read more memory myths here and here.)
Does this completely explain why movies released at the end of the year tend to get nominated more than movies released at the beginning of the calendar year? Of course not. Just look at the movies that were released in the beginning of 2012. When The Phantom Menace in 3D and Jennifer Aniston movies dominate the list, you know it's time to stay inside and watch TV. My hunch is that some time ago, movie executives started noticing that fall movies were more likely to be nominated, causing them to release their good movies towards the end of the year. Then it turned into a chicken and the egg-style cascade: most of the movies that were nominated came out at the end of the year, and after a while, it became a "sign of confidence" in a movie that a studio releases a film at the end of the year, so those are the only movies people seriously consider nominating.
As a result, all of us cinephiles have to suffer through the likes of Channing Tatum and Battlefield throughout the year, until one day in December, when we wake up and realize that every single movie we've wanted to see in 2012 is out at the same time. In other words, thank you, Harvey Weinstein, for those five pounds of movie popcorn weight that I gain every fall. Nicely done.