There is a formula to winning an Oscar and it begins with being an American in an American film portraying American culture.
The formula, which isn’t entirely surprising, has been suggested by Dr Niklas K. Steffens from the School of Psychology at The University of Queensland. With his team of researchers, Steffens carried out a widespread analysis of the Academy Awards for Best Actor and Actress alongside the same categories at the BAFTAs since 1968.
The data covered 908 prizes comprising 97 winners and 383 nominees from the Oscars and 97 winners and 331 nominees from the BAFTAs. Notably, both awards state that they aim to recognise achievement regardless of country of origin. But, as revealed, there was a distinct American slant.
There were also similarities between the winner’s nationality and that of the judges. Nearly 70% of Oscars go to American actors but this drops to 52% for BAFTAs. Conversely, 34% of BAFTA awards go to British actors, but only 18% of Oscars.
Steffens argues that the quality of performance is highly influenced by a judge who shares common ground, and this is most easily identified through shared nationality. Indeed, nationality plays an important role. American actors received 67% of all Oscar nominations and 78% of all awards. A similar balance can be seen at the BAFTAs too.
“These results show that whether we see a given performance as extraordinary is not just a function of the objective quality of that performance. For perceivers are much more likely to recognise a performance as truly brilliant when perceivers and performers share membership in a social group,” said Dr Steffens.
“Shared social group membership becomes even more important when the diagnostic value of a quality indicator increases – that is, when we establish whether something is not just excellent but outstanding. In this case, American actors win two out of three of all Oscar nominations but almost four out of five of all Oscar awards.”
Subject matter is also a determinant, of course. But national sensibilities play a similarly important role. American artists in roles about non-US culture accounted for 26% of Oscar award winners compared to 88% of award wins going to films about American culture.
Dr Steffens suggests “quality” and performers that stand out are influenced by how much they help us make sense of the world we feel part of. “There is a widespread belief that our perception of what makes a creation original and outstanding is given by its objective qualities, but in fact it is heavily influenced by the social groups we are members of, and which provide the basis for making sense of the world.”
These findings and a much more in-depth analysis can be found in “Genius begins at home: Shared social identity enhances the recognition of creative performance”, an academic paper for the British Journal of Psychology (2017).