Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images
(Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

Ever wonder how social scientists think about award shows like the Golden Globes? And more to the point, ever wonder why acceptance speeches go on so long, despite the fact that pretty much no one watching on TV wants to hear a long list of people — most of whom they’ve never heard of — thanked? Here’s Washington University political scientist John Patty laying out the puzzle at his blog, The Math of Politics:

Why do actors and actresses thank a whole bunch of other people when they are on TV in front of millions of viewers who hate watching actors and actresses thank a whole bunch of other people?  After all, it is arguable that awards shows are clearly and only about the viewers.  Right?

Patty’s answer is that being thanked in an award show is like a “gift”: the gift signifies more to the recipient if he or she knows that the gift giver “put a lot into that gift.” One way you can put a lot into a gift is to put thought into it, and to find something that is specifically tailored to the recipient. Another traditional way is to buy something that is more expensive, because it signals that recipient is so important to you that you are willing to pay higher cost to try to make them happy. In other words, their happiness is that much more important to you. But of course that “cost” doesn’t have to be financial.

So what does this mean for award shows? Patty explains:

The fact that the time is limited and the awardee presumably had to prepare the list of people to thank without knowing for certain that he or she would actually win merely amplifies both the cost of the “gift” of the thanks.

But, here’s the kicker: The fact that we, the audience members, hate listening to “a list of thank you’s to otherwise anonymous industry people” bolsters the value and, accordingly, the incentive for actors and actresses to do this. So, in a nutshell, it’s kind of Alanis-esque: The fact that viewers of award shows hate listening to lists of thank you’s ironically induces actors and actresses to get up on live TV and run through lists of thank you’s.

There you have it: the awards-shows-acceptance-speech-thank-you paradox! We can only hope that some day science will figure out a solution …