The Year's Best Films (to a Behavioral Economist)
In just four years, the Behavioral Economics Oscars, widely known as the Becons, have become the most eagerly awaited of the year-end movie awards (even if the highly influential awards committee consists of just one person). Finally, the wait is over. A standing (and fully rational) ovation for the Becon winners of 2015:
-- Best actress: Human beings show “status quo bias”: They tend to favor the situation in which they find themselves, and they’ll usually demand a lot to give it up. Even Jedi aren't immune. As Luke Skywalker told Obi-Wan Kenobi, in a galaxy far, far away: “Look, I can't get involved. I've got work to do. It's not that I like the Empire; I hate it, but there's nothing I can do about it right now.”
Daisy Ridley, the star of "Episode VII: The Force Awakens," initially says no to Luke’s lightsaber. But by the end, she says yes, and she kicks some Dark Side butt. Sure, Cate Blanchett is a better actress, and we don’t yet know whether Ridley's Rey is really a Skywalker. But the force is strong with that one. Win the Becon, she does.
-- Best actor: No, it’s not Mark Hamill; go home, Leonardo DiCaprio. Boxers from Philadelphia don’t usually win the big awards, and when they’re all beat up, and no longer young, it’s usually time to hang up the gloves. But behavioral economists have emphasized that human beings often display “optimistic bias”: Young or old, they tend to have an inflated sense that things will work out for them.
In "Creed," Sylvester Stallone delivers the performance of his life. Playing a washed-up Rocky, training an improbable contender for the world title, Stallone is a knockout. His optimism is rewarded: Yet again, he runs up the 72 stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and this time, he’s carrying the Becon.
-- Best documentary: One way to influence people is to get them to make some kind of initial commitment. It might be large or small, but once people have said they'll do something (donate to charity, quit smoking, vote for a political candidate), they are far more likely to follow through. They might even be hooked for a long time.
"Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief" offers a case study in the dynamics of commitment -- in this case, to a religion (or might it be a cult?). It shows how social influences work, and it reveals that some of the most effective jails are in our own minds. It’s disturbing, it’s riveting, and it’s the clear winner of the Becon.
-- Best director: Behavioral economists have helped give rise to the field of neuroeconomics, which tries to explain people’s behavior through an understanding of the human brain. We know that different sectors of the brain are associated with different tasks; for example, the amygdala plays a particular role in processing fear.
"Inside Out" isn’t exactly neuroeconomics, but it is all about the brain, and brilliantly, it personalizes different neural functions. Separate characters play Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear and Anger. Different emotions sometimes do feel like different people, warring inside us; the film captures their competition and mutual dependence. To get it right, director Pete Docter did plenty of neuroscience homework, and it shows. With joy, he grabs the Becon.
-- Best picture: Behavioral economists are keenly interested in the idea of “motivated reasoning,” which means that our desires affect what we believe and what we don't. If you don’t want to think that the minimum wage increases unemployment, you will probably refuse to accept empirical research suggesting it does just that.
"Phoenix" is a stunning examination of motivated reasoning, with a tale that brings Hitchcock to postwar Berlin. Its spectacular star, Nina Hoss, plays a Holocaust survivor whose face was reconstructed after a bullet wound. She returns to her husband, who may have betrayed her, and who doesn’t recognize her -- and doesn’t want to.
The film is about Nazism and its aftermath, but even more it’s about the lies we tell ourselves, and about how we can fail to see other people, including those we love. Full of twists, at once heartbreaking and exhilarating, "Phoenix" is the best film of 2015. It soars above the rest -- with the biggest of the Becons.
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