Oscar Psychology: Why We Love Watching The Academy Awards

Why We Love Watching The Oscars
Oscar statues are viewed in preparation one day before the 85th Academy Awards on February 23, 2013 in Hollywood, California . AFP PHOTO/ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
Oscar statues are viewed in preparation one day before the 85th Academy Awards on February 23, 2013 in Hollywood, California . AFP PHOTO/ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

This Sunday, tens of millions of Americans will tune in for the finale of this year's awards season: The Academy Awards. No matter how much we complain about the show, the truth is that many of us will still be glued to the television screen: from the red carpet to host Seth MacFarlane's opening act to the final "And the Oscar goes to..." to the morning-after fashion analysis. But why exactly are we so drawn to the Oscars? And, especially for those of us who don't identify as movie buffs, what is it about these shows that pull us in, year after year?

The answer, in part, is that we're social animals, explains Stuart Fischoff, Ph.D., professor emeritus of psychology at California State University and senior editor of the Journal of Media Psychology. And, as such, we're more likely to focus our attention on the "alpha" males and females in the pack, whether they be royalty, heroes or, in this case, celebrities. "These are people who we pay attention to because, in one way or another, they influence our lives," he says. "How they dress, how they speak, what they like, what roles they play -- they are profoundly influential ... These people are really so much a part of our cultural layers of who is important and who is less important."

It also doesn't hurt that celebrities tend to be easy on the eyes. "They're sexy, beautiful people. And we like to watch sexy, beautiful people," says Fischoff, who also writes "The Media Zone" blog. "It's kind of like a legitimate voyeurism."

What's more, through the magic of movies, the audience can start to believe the actors are the roles they play, and both fantasize about what it would be like to know them and identify with their struggles. "We borrow the director's eye or the camera's eye and we see Anne Hathaway [as Fantine in Les Misérables] getting her hair cut. We see the tears, the quiver in her jaw. We see the pain in her eyes. That's an incredibly intimate moment," says Robert Simmermon, Ph.D., a psychologist in Atlanta Ga., specializing in media psychology. "We're going through it with her in real time in that sense ... Obviously it's a character, but the experience becomes very real."

As we get wrapped up in a film, we can start to forget entirely that it's not real -- we no longer distinguish the script, the scene, the director, the camera. It's all about the character. And movies have what Fischoff calls "autobiographic resonance." "The movies I see and the people I see talk to me, they talk to my life, how I feel about things," he tells HuffPost. "We identify with these people and therefore they have relevance to how we do our lives."

Through that identification, we may begin to feel like we know these characters and, by extension, the actors who play them. "It's like unrequited love, except it's unrequited intimacy and friendship," he says.

A world of DVDs and streaming online video only amplifies that connection. "[Actors are] in the privacy of our own homes -- in our living rooms, in our bedrooms. They've seen us naked. They've been in our bathrooms. They're in every part of our private space," Simmermon says. "That's how we identify with them."

It only makes sense, then, that we'd want to follow them to the Academy Awards, to see who they're dating, what they're wearing, what they say. "There's a huge part of us that never gets out of middle school," Simmermon says. "Hollywood is the biggest middle school in the world. It's about the popular kids, who can go to which party, who's the favorite couple ... We can all get sucked into it."

We watch for gaffes (the classic wardrobe malfunction), root for our favorites, shake our heads at our least favorites and, perhaps above all, look for a rare glimpse of humanity behind the glamor (both Fischoff and Simmermon pointed to Sally Field's now-famous acceptance speech line, "You like me you, really like me," as one of those moments of true authenticity).

The awards also underscore the universal appeal of the underdog -- it's no coincidence, for instance, that so many are pulling for Ben Affleck's Argo to win Best Picture after a widely perceived slight from the Academy for a Best Director nomination. We like the underdog because we are the underdogs, Simmermon says. "Most of us live pretty regular lives, but we've all had struggles ... It's about that tenacity to keep trying," he tells HuffPost. "I guess it all comes down to, we personalize with these dreams. They're bigger than life dreams. It's rejuvenating, it's exciting. It's like our team winning the Super Bowl when we are cheering at home."

While most of us won't score an Oscar in our lifetimes, we can appreciate the pleasure of winning vicariously. "If I'm rooting for a movie or I'm rooting for an actor and they win, I win," Fischoff says. "My taste is right on. And people like to have their taste validated or their hero validated."

Win or lose, the Academy Awards, at the most basic level, is a yearly tradition that gives us all a chance to gossip harmlessly with friends and connect with those around us. "It allows us to participate in a large-scale communal event. Many people discuss the nominations for actors or movies with their family and friends. They have opinions on whether the awardees were deserving afterwards," Steven Meyers, professor of psychology at Roosevelt University in Chicago, Ill., tells HuffPost in an email. "The Academy Awards allows us to participate in these conversations and connect with others."

It's also a chance to escape, even if just for a few hours on Sunday evening. "These people are fantasy feeders," Fischoff says. "That's what celebrities do, they really add some spice to our life ... It gets us out of the mundane and our ordinary lives."

Before You Go

Best Picture

Oscar Nominees 2013

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