Hollywood held its 86th annual glitz extraordinaire—the Oscars. Why do people watch the Oscars? Unlike the Olympics, the Oscars are not a fair measure of excellence. The Oscars are political, subjective and exclusionary. Yet, it is a huge deal to people, all over the world. As far as true entertainment value goes, you can find better bang for you buck on YouTube. So, what is it with this award show?
As usual, it is a brain a thing. Self-perception, in particular, self-esteem, is partially determined by evaluating other’s opinions of us. This is because we are a social species. The crowd’s opinion of us determines our social rank, which affects everything about us. This includes our health, which Sapolsky's brilliant work with baboons proved and The Whitehall Studies in London further substantiated.
This innate need for social approval is why the Oscars, Spectator Sports and Beauty Pageants have their appeal. Mimicking social approval in our brain is known as BIRGing: Basking In Reflected Glory. BIRGing is attaching yourself to someone else’s success and making it your own. With the Oscars, we all dream about winning an academy award. When our favorite actor wins the academy award, or walks down the runway looking fabulous, it makes us feel good. That is because in our brain, based on our association with the actor i.e. “they’re my favorite,” it entitles us to share in their success. This process occurs in the old mammal brain, which is subcortical. This is not the thinking part of the brain. This is where physical responses and emotional reactions occur.
That is why housewives all over the world were able to trick their brains into thinking Oprah’s success was partly their own—they were her cheering section—so she belonged to them. Thus, what belongs to her belongs to them. This is especially true of sporting teams, and why spectator sports are a huge business. They are our team, when they win… we win. The reality is we do not play, so we cannot win or lose. We watch and the team either wins or loses.
Likewise, that is why people all over the world will pick their favorite movie, actor, director and root for them. If they win, then they will win. What do they win? They win dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin. The brain does not care why dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin are released. Its only concern is that it happens. In that regard, the brain is like a shrewd, homely brunette with no cleavage. It does what it needs to do to meet its neurochemical demands.
In addition, we all dream of being the winning Super Bowl Quarterback, or Miss Universe, a Nobel Laureate, etc., because of the social significance attached to it, and the subsequent neurochemical rewards available by participating in the fantasy. Striving to win it all is human nature. Sadly, only a few can win it all. So, human nature devised an alternate strategy—bask in the reflected glory of those that do. The same brain mechanisms involved in delusion overlap the mechanisms involved in BIRGing.
There is no shame in that game. This world is brutal. It under appreciates us all; and the more marginalized a person is the more likely they are to BIRG. The less actual glory you have, the more reflected glory you need. Hence, we have rabid sports fans who will spend their last dime on a NFL logo T-shirt, or papparrazi who stand in the rain for hours to get a glimpse of their favorite movie star. However, people are doing far worse things for neurochemical benefits such as: drugs, alcohol, overeating, and the other various 12-step-program behaviors.
Intellectually, of course, I do not believe in awards for art; so I am opposed to the Oscars in theory. However, when I was a television comedy writer, NBC submitted my first script for an Emmy nomination. (This is not the same as receiving a nomination. It is more like making it past the first cut of a beauty pageant that has a bunch of homely contestants.) Anyway, the day I received that notice I immediately started believing in awards for art—especially this one. The day my agent informed me that I did not receive the nomination I went back to not believing in awards for art. So, I believe in awards for art—as long as they are for me. Enjoy the Oscars, or do not, but no matter what, remain fabulous and phenomenal.