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The Movie Awards You've Been Waiting For

Cass R. Sunstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “The World According to Star Wars” and a co-author of “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness.”
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The Becons, in just their third year of existence, are already the most coveted of the year-end movie awards. (For those who have been on Mars, the Becons are the Behavioral Economics Oscars.) This year has been a spectacular one for movies with behavioral economics themes, and it has been unusually difficult to pick the winners. But without further ado:

Best documentary: Standard economic theory holds that people are self-interested. They care about their material well-being; they try to maximize profits. Behavioral economists have a different view. They claim that people care about fairness and about being treated fairly, and will respond to kindness with kindness. To promote fairness, they’ll even put their own well-being at risk.

"The Green Prince" tells the improbable but true tale of a son of the founding leader of Hamas, who became a spy for the Israelis. What makes the film so riveting is the close, even intimate relationship between the spy and his Israeli interrogator -- and what each is willing to sacrifice for the other. It’s only fair: A Becon for "The Green Prince."

Best actress: According to behavioral scientists, the human brain can be understood as having two “systems.” System 1 is automatic and intuitive; system 2 is calculating and deliberative. In many contexts, system 2 is more reliable, but its operations are slow and effortful. Fortunately, humans are equipped with a keen intuitive sense, which can sometimes grasp a situation in a way that system 2 cannot.

Jessica Chastain, the heroine of Christopher Nolan’s ambitious space odyssey "Interstellar," triumphs because of her spectacular system 1. She even sees ghosts! Chastain intuits the Becon.

Best actor: In 1986, behavioral scientists Daniel Kahneman and Dale Miller developed "norm theory," which suggests that humans engage in a lot of counterfactual thinking: We evaluate our experiences by asking about what might have happened instead. If you miss a train by two minutes, you’re likely to be more upset than if you miss it by an hour, and if you finish second in some competition, you might well be less happy than if you had come in third.

"Edge of Tomorrow" spends every one of its 113 minutes on norm theory. It’s all about counterfactuals -- how small differences in people's actions produce big changes, at least for those privileged to relive life again (and again, and again). Tom Cruise doesn’t get many awards these days, or a lot of respect, and we’re a bit terrified to say this -- but imagine how terrible we’d feel if we didn’t: The Top Gun wins the Becon.

Best director: Behavioral economists have been keenly interested in the selective nature of attention -- in the human capacity to focus intensely on certain aspects of social situations, while failing even to see others. The most famous demonstration of this is an experiment in which people are shown a short film of basketball players and are asked to count the number of passes exchanged. Afterward, they are asked: “Did you see the gorilla?” Many people respond, “Of course not!” and assume the question is a joke. But remarkably, a gorilla (actually a person in a gorilla suit) does come across the screen, as plain as day -- but focused as they are on counting passes, people often don’t see it.

"Gone Girl" is a case study in how we can miss things right in front of our eyes, even when they involve the true character of the people we most love. I won’t disclose which character in the movie turns out to be the gorilla, but there’s no mystery about the winner of this Becon: director David Fincher.

Best picture: No, it’s not "Interstellar," and it’s not "Gone Girl." And a loud system 1 rejection of "Birdman," "The Theory of Everything," "Into the Woods" and "The Imitation Game." The biggest Becon goes to the movie that has the biggest heart, and the best scene, and the best score, and the best romance of the year (without even a single kiss). It’s a celebration of optimism bias, the value of agency, duration neglect, the illusion of control, the gambler’s fallacy, steps you can’t take back, and the human spirit. Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley, you are ridiculously good. "Begin Again" dances off with the Becon.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Cass R Sunstein at csunstein1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net