Originally published in The Providence Journal.
“Big surprise. Hollywood honors the film where Hollywood is the hero,” Stephen Colbert joked in his coverage of the Oscars. Now, for two years running, the best picture Oscar has gone to a film that celebrates the film industry (“Argo” and “The Artist”).
The Oscars has always been a huge self-congratulating event. The Oscars allow Hollywood elites to indirectly praise themselves by praising others and the general magic of movie making.
However, this self-congratulatory behavior is not confined to the Oscars; it is a fundamental human tendency. Hollywood-praising films that embody Hollywood values are just another example of how people in general praise politicians, professionals and religious figures who hold their own personal values.
The Oscars, punk rock concerts and Sunday congregations all often come with this wonderful self-congratulatory notion. “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, but in a socially acceptable way.
Possibly nowhere else does this indirect self-congratulatory behavior manifests itself more than in social media, where people constantly post positive stories about their beliefs, political parties, religions, professions and schools, and jump at the opportunity to post something negative about a rival group. This behavior is often motivated not by a desire to “educate” others through New York Times pieces or Bibleverses, but to indirectly affirm one’s superiority.
Psychological research shows people derive their self-worth from their groups and beliefs. Accordingly, people are motivated to uplift their own groups and beliefs and derogate 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.
Finally, there is a potentially dangerous consequence of this self-serving tendency. When people want to see themselves as great, this may lead them to degrade and even poorly treat outside groups. Work by psychologists Steven Fein and Steven Spencer shows that prejudice exists, in part, because prejudicial thoughts help people feel good about themselves.
The Oscars picking “Argo” (in my opinion a great film) and “The Artist” (in my opinion a delightful film) is no immediate cause for alarm. However, these Oscar selections provide insight into a fundamental tendency of human nature, and it is this tendency that’s cause for constant alarm. 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.