The Oscar Winners Study

03.11.2018 |

Episode #7 of the course Most brilliant social psychology experiments by John Robin


I hope you’re having another great day and are still reflecting on the importance of love and close relationships from yesterday’s lesson.

Today, we’re still going to focus on the source of true happiness in life, but this time, on the factor of interest: fame.


Oscar Winners Live Long: Truth or Myth?

Katherine Hepburn lived to 94. She also won four Oscars over her movie career. Jack Nicholson is 81 and still living, and he’s won the Oscar twice. Walter Brennan, who won three Academy Awards, lived to 80—and in 1974 when he died, living to 80 was much rarer than today!

On the flip side, Richard Burton, who died in 1984 at the age of 58, was nominated several times but never won.

The list goes on, and it was curiosity in this trend that led to a famous study to determine whether the increase in status seen among actors and actresses winning or not winning an Academy Award might have some association with longevity.

Launched by researchers Donald A. Redelmeier and Sheldon M. Singh, this 2001 study surveyed 1,649 performers in the US over the (at the time) 72-year history of the Academy Awards, grouped by if they won an Oscar, were nominated and didn’t win, or were never nominated.

The results were interesting:

• Those who won lived an average of 79.7 years.

• Those who didn’t win lived 3.9 years less (close to the average US life expectancy of 75).

Even more interesting, those who won multiple Oscars lived an average of three years longer than those who won just one! And those who appeared in the same films as winners but didn’t get a nomination lived, on average, six years less.

However, Dr Redelmeier cautions us against drawing false conclusions. The focus of the study was social factors like fame and accomplishment exemplified by winning multiple Oscars, relative to those in the same field (i.e., all actors and actresses) and how these might correlate to longer life. To assume living long requires taking up acting lessons and shooting for an Oscar is missing the point. The study also showed a correlation of lower cancer rates among winners vs. non-winners, so you can see why it’s misleading to draw conclusions without thinking broader—cancer is a health issue that can strike anyone, in any walk of life, no matter how healthy and happy they are.

It’s worth thinking, though, about what these results might mean, and that’s exactly what Redelmeier and Singh did in their analysis.

Some of the reason for longevity and better health might have to do with how those who win Oscars often look after themselves. High status and lower mortality is a phenomenon that has prevailed throughout history and in many contexts. It’s not winning the Oscar that causes longer life, but the other way around: Those who look after their health and lifestyle and excel at networking and excellence to the extent that they win an outstanding award are going to be healthier and live longer. It’s important to also realize that the study found “on average” longer life among winners and “on average” lower cancer rates. This doesn’t mean there weren’t Oscar winners in the sample who died lower than the average or had their life cut short by the tragic onset of cancer despite excellent health and self-care.

One thing we can safely conclude from the Oscar winner study is that, like yesterday’s lesson on the power of close relationships, a strong sense of internal self-esteem and feeling highly valued as a member of your community of colleagues is also a key factor in increasing life satisfaction. This likely reduces chronic stress seen in people who are generally dissatisfied with life—and chronic stress is known to exacerbate health issues. On average, people who build and cultivate strong self-esteem and a feeling of belonging and value, when compared to those who don’t, will die less early, of fewer health complications.

That’s it for today! If you enjoyed exploring how outlook can impact quality of life, you’ll enjoy tomorrow’s next study, where we’ll explore why we prefer to do the easy thing even when knowing the hard thing will earn us more.


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Recommended resources

Read the actual article published by Redelmeier and Singh in the Annals of Internal Medicine.


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