The Oscars and the ‘curse’ of winning

What impact does winning an Oscar have on an individual’s social status and their response to a suddenly elevated profile?

The glamour and red carpet smiles of the Hollywood awards season is what most of us see splashed across our screens and magazines. But there are also long-running rumours of a darker side – an “Oscar curse” – that winning a golden statue can bring unintended negative consequences such as divorce and a dip in one’s career.

A new research paper co-authored by Dr Heeyon Kim of NUS Business School takes a scientific look at the reality behind these rumours and raises some interesting insights for more everyday workplaces, far from the glitz of Hollywood.

The Real Oscar Curse: The Negative Consequences of Positive Status Shifts looks at the status change that occurs when actors win or receive nominations for an Academy Award.

Its findings suggest there can be a negative impact as a result of sudden positive shifts of status, with implications for a range of workplace situations.

The ‘Oscar curse
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Talk of the so-called Oscar curse goes back to the 1930s, seen by many as Hollywood’s golden era.

Luise Rainer, above, the first actor to win multiple Oscars, blamed her consecutive wins for The Great Ziegfeld in 1936 and The Good Earth in 1937 (in which she was cast, bizarrely, as a Chinese peasant) for the rapid decline of her career.

“The curse is that once you have an Oscar, they think you can do anything. They give you bad scripts that are hard to act,” she was once quoted as saying.

Dr Kim, an assistant professor of strategy and policy who co-authored the study with Dr Michael Jensen at University Of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, says these negative consequences can come about when individuals are suddenly elevated to high-ranking posts or go through a series of rapid promotions.

“The individual might not be ready to cope with the new-found status, or people around that person would feel he or she is not ready for the new role,” she says.

Focusing their study on Oscar winners and nominees, Dr Kim and Dr Jensen researched data on more than 800 actors and actresses from 1930 and 2005.

They found out that there is indeed some statistical evidence of a “curse” on the personal lives of actors who win an Oscar. For instance, research indicates that the divorce rate for male Oscar winners is 205 percent higher compared to their non-nominees in the first year after their award wins.

As the Academy Awards is a social event, winners find themselves elevated quickly to a higher status, leading to more opportunities, including spousal alternatives, and subsequently to divorces, the paper’s authors say.

However, while divorce rates were statistically higher for men, the study showed that the divorce rate for female Oscar winners was 85 per cent lower than that for female non-nominees.

According to the authors, the finding debunks a common myth that female stars are more likely to file for divorce after clinching an award.

Impact of disappointment

Another finding from the research is that the divorce rate for male award nominees who do not go on to receive an award is 96 percent higher than those who do not receive an Oscar nomination at all.

The study’s authors suggest that the disappointment of losing out on an Oscar win increases the likelihood of a divorce.

Similarly in the corporate world, says Dr Kim, negative consequences await executives who are expecting to move up the hierarchy but failed to do so.

They could be end up being discouraged and withdrawn, both personally and professionally, she says, adding that business leaders should be mindful of the psychological impact experienced by employees in such situations.

On the flipside CEOs who attain superstar status due to award wins might gain access to activities such as greater media exposure, but this can result in them becoming distracted from effectively running their organisations.

“Instead of individual publicity, they need to take a long-term approach of using the overall exposure for the good of the company,” suggested Dr Kim.

For example, the recent high-profile case dubbed ‘nut rage’ at Korean Air could be seen as an incident of an individual’s inability to deal with their elevated status.

A senior female executive of Korean Air, the daughter of the organisation’s CEO, was jailed for obstructing aviation safety after reprimanding crew and demanding a jet return to the gate over the way she had been served a packet of nuts.

ThinkAloud4The incident cast a spotlight on perceived high-handedness by members of South Korea’s powerful business families known as chaebol.

The Oscar curse study also proved that another common Oscar myth of actors’ careers going downhill after winning their awards is false.

The data showed that male Oscar winners do an average of 6.05 movies in the five years after winning compared to 5.45 for male non-nominees.

For the actresses, the winners do 4.26 movies after winning and the female non-nominees do 3.52.

“The Oscars actually improved their acting careers” says Dr Kim.

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