Step Aside, Oscars, Here Are the Becon Winners

Feb. 22 (Bloomberg) -- Behavioral economists explore human errors. They focus on how people depart from perfect rationality. Many of the best movies do the same thing. They investigate how our all-too-human foibles create trouble, wealth, violence, heroism, love and war. It is past time, then, to award the Behavioral Economics Oscars, otherwise known as the Becons.

Best Documentary: Behavioral economists have long been fascinated by social influences on behavior -- by the extent to which our choices are affected by the choices of other people. Why do some products succeed and others fail?

A major reason is that early adopters can create a bandwagon effect or a cascade. Politicians, entrepreneurs and novelists often benefit from such processes, and some of them fail because they don’t get that early boost.

“Searching for Sugar Man” is a terrific exploration of the power of social influences. The singer Sixto Rodriguez was a dismal failure in the U.S. but an icon in South Africa, and early word of mouth played a big role in his success there in the 1970s. For best documentary, the Sugar Man brings home the Becon.

Best Director: Psychologists and behavioral economists contend that human beings have two cognitive systems. System 1 is our automatic system. It is intuitive, rapid and effortless. System 2 is our deliberative system. It is calculative, thoughtful, reflective and slow.

“Silver Linings Playbook,” directed by David O. Russell, is a funny and moving case study in the tension between System 1 and System 2. With his out-of-control System 1, actor Bradley Cooper is always on the verge of exploding into violent rage. His befuddled System 2 thinks, for a while, that he still loves his ex-wife, and needs her back. But his System 1 has fallen for the character played by Jennifer Lawrence, and she has fallen for him, too. That’s quite a silver lining. In a cakewalk, Russell gets the Becon for best director.

Best Actor: Human beings tend to display unrealistic optimism. Studies have found that the vast majority of people believe that they are safer than the average driver; more generally, people often think that they are less likely than others to face serious hardship. We can get into a lot of trouble if we underestimate the likelihood of a bad outcome, but optimism can also be energizing and increase the prospects for success.

For best actor, the Becon goes to Daniel Day-Lewis, portraying America’s melancholy optimist. As Day-Lewis shows brilliantly, Abraham Lincoln repeatedly bucked the odds. Through skill and sheer force of will, operating in concert with what his critics not unreasonably took to be unrealistic optimism, he succeeded in abolishing slavery and saving the badly imperiled union. (Honorable mention to Ben Affleck for his Becon-worthy performance in “Argo,” which also explores what seems to be unrealistic optimism.)

Best Actress: What do people notice? What do they fail to see? Behavioral economists have long been interested in the limits of human attention and the power of salience. Some important aspects of products, activities and situations just aren’t salient to us, and so we ignore them, often to our detriment. In “Side Effects,” Rooney Mara is a brilliant manipulator of the attention of others (especially Jude Law), and she is a champion at distraction. She won’t be eligible for an Oscar until next year, but she has our attention right now, and for best actress, she wins the Becon.

Best Picture: We have a major upset. A lot of social-science research shows that people are both spiteful and altruistic. We will sacrifice our material self-interest to punish what we see as unfairness. At the same time, we may well give up a lot in order to help others. Bane, the punishing villain of “The Dark Knight Rises,” is spite incarnate, and in the end Batman is the spirit of sacrifice, and hence Bane’s worst nightmare. Consider this exchange. Selina Kyle: “You don’t owe these people anymore. You’ve given them everything.” Batman: “Not everything. Not yet.”

For best picture, the winner of the Becon is rising, and he is called the Dark Knight.

(Cass R. Sunstein, the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard Law School, is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the former administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, the co-author of “Nudge” and author of “Simpler: The Future of Government,” to be published in April. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Cass R. Sunstein at

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Katy Roberts at