And the Winner Is... Wall Street

Which actresses do we prefer in gloomy times?

By Annie Murphy Paul, published on March 1, 1998 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

When the judges for the Academy Awards make their picks this month, actingskill, ticket sales, and movie-industry politics will all play their parts. But which actresses are most popular among the viewers at home may depend more on the stock market than on the box office.

That's according to a new study by psychologist Abraham Tesser, Ph.D., and student Terry Pettijohn 11, both of the University of Georgia. They compared the results of an annual poll of the public's favorite actresses with measures of social and economic health (unemployment rate, marriage rate, etc.) for the years 1932 to 1995.

When conditions were gloomy, they found, the film-watching public preferred actresses with mature facial features: small eyes, thin cheeks, large chin. In the depths of the Great Depression, for example, moviegoers gravitated toward the the mature-looking Marie Dressler and Janet Gaynor.

When the nation's mood was upbeat and optimistic, however, people preferred actresses with babyish features, such as large, round eyes, full cheeks, and a small chin. So, during the postwar boom. audiences clamored to see baby-faced actresses Anne Sheridan, Judy Garland, and Rita Hayworth.

When times are good, the researchers conjecture, people are attracted to someone they can have fun with, someone lighthearted and playful--all qualities associated with the open, eager face of a child. When hard times hit, on the other hand, moviegoers look for stars who are steady and reassuring, who can steer them safely through the trouble they're in.

Isn't that a lot to ask of movies that are for the most part mere escapism, a distraction from daily life? "People go to the movies to be entertained, but they also go to satisfy certain emotional needs," says Tesser. "When the world seems like a scary place, you want someone who will take care of you."

Such preferences may not be limited to the silver screen, adds "We might like mates, friends, and people in general based on whether they have facial features that are appropriate for the social and economic moment." His next experiment will bring people into the lab to see how preferences change when researchers manipulate their sense of security about the future--for example, by asking them to imagine they've just lost their job.

So, which actresses do we like in 1998, the seventh year of a booming economy? Data from the last few years have been inconclusive, Teaser reports, so we'll have to wait to see whether this bull market yields a baby-faced star.


PHOTOS (BLACK & WHITE): ABOVE: Rita Hayworth (top) has the big eyes and round cheeks of a neonate, while Marlene Dietrich has the mature features of a fully grown adult. LEFT: Marilyn Monroe, popular during the prosperous and stab,e has since proved to be a woman for all seasons.