Best Supporting? Maybe Not.

By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, February 26, 2007

Let's say someone stuck a microphone in your face and gave you 45 seconds to say something meaningful to a billion people. Let's say, moreover, that this is the only chance you will ever have to directly address the entire world.

What would you say?

As countless nights at the Oscars have shown, the combination of time pressure and high stakes leaves most people blathering. Oh sure, you can think of wise and witty things to say right now, but that is because we are playing make-believe. When people actually walk on stage to accept an Academy Award, even show-business professionals seem to develop a form of stage fright.

They turn earnest and gooey, and fall back on formulaic lists of thank yous. The Oscar for Most Egregious Offender in this category may go to Jon Landau, co-producer of "Titanic." When he went on stage to accept his award for Best Picture, his thank-you list went on so long that you began to envy the people on the ship that went down.

Here's what Landau said when offered the undivided attention of the planet: He thanked his family and then (let's just do first names) Rae, Josh, Mali, Gig, Simon, Jimmy, John, Lloyd, Charles, Martin, Roger, Charlie, Steve, Kevin, Lance, Roger, Tommy, Les, Tony, Doug, Harry, Randy, Grant, Sharon, Anna, Peter, Bill, Tom -- hold on, we're barely halfway through -- Jim, Tom, Sanford, Vicki, Ted, Mike, Jim, Hilary, Jon, Sherry, Rob, John, Arthur, Wayne, Nancy, Blaise, Greg, John, Allison, Maren and Steve.

He also thanked all the nominees and the people they had already thanked.

What explains the fact that on Oscars night, so many show-business professionals seem to forget the first rule of show business, which is to be interesting?

One series of psychological experiments offers insight into why the stars regularly underperform at the Academy Awards -- and what can be done about it. Contrary to the widely held belief that a supportive audience improves the performance of people under pressure, these experiments show exactly the opposite is true. All those fans, friends and family in the auditorium may make the stars feel good about what they are doing on stage, but it is probably making the show more boring for the rest of us.

Social psychologists Jennifer Butler and Ray Baumeister brought volunteers into a laboratory and asked them to count backward from 1,470 in decrements of 13 -- a rather difficult task. The volunteers were asked to bring a friend along. The volunteers were seated in a room before a one-way mirror. Some were told their friend was on the other side, and others were told a stranger was there.

The psychologists found that when people believed they had a supportive friend on the other side of the mirror, they were considerably slower in counting backward compared with when they believed a stranger was watching.

The psychologists next had volunteers play a video game before a stranger and were told that both they and their audience would get some money if they did well. The volunteers, in other words, had an audience invested in their success. Other volunteers were told they would get money if they did well but that their audience would neither gain nor lose.

The volunteers did worse when they believed the audience was invested in their success, compared with when the audience was not interested.

In the final twist of the experiment, the researchers told the volunteers they had an audience rooting for them to fail. The volunteers could make some money if they did well at the game, but if they did poorly the audience would get the money. Other volunteers were provided with a supportive audience. When the game was challenging, volunteers with a hostile audience did better than volunteers with a supportive one.

Paradoxically, people invariably felt they did better than they had when they had a supportive audience -- even though they did worse -- and felt they had done worse when the audience was hostile -- even though they had done better. The support of a friendly audience made people feel good about themselves, and that feeling tricked them into believing they had actually performed well.

Academy Award winners are human, too. They try to pack the audience with friends and family because they trust their intuitions, which tell them they are doing great when they see those cheering, tear-stained faces.

So here's a suggestion for the Oscars next year. Tell friends and families of the stars to watch the show on TV. Sit that high school gym teacher who used to make life hell for the Best Actor in the front row. Bring in all the ex-husbands and ex-wives, too.

The stars will probably not enjoy the show very much. But it will be far more entertaining for the rest of us.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company