Best Movies and TV of 2020 If You Love Behavioral Economics

It has been a singularly challenging year for the motion picture industry, which makes the annual Behavioral Economics Oscars even more meaningful than they have been in the past (hard as that may be to believe).

This year, the awards committee for the Becons, as they are known for short, has decided to expand the set of eligible winners, including not only feature-length films released in theaters in 2020, but all films and television series that have provided delight, consolation and joy as well as valuable lessons amid the pandemic.

Best actor: Behavioral economists have devoted a lot of attention to “reactance,” which means that people dislike being ordered around, and will sometimes rebel against a mandate or a prohibition simply because they want to assert their own agency. If an employer or a public official tells you that you can’t do something, you might want to do it just for that reason.

The movie “Mank” is about two mysteries: Who really wrote “Citizen Kane,” often said to be the greatest film ever made --  Orson Welles, the Boy Genius, or Herman Mankiewicz, the grizzled, alcoholic screenwriter? And what were the origins of that epic tale?

Propelled by Gary Oldman in the title role as Mankiewicz, “Mank” gives intriguing answers to both questions. But more than that, Oldman offers a brilliant (and timely) portrayal of reactance against injustice and mandates, both in politics and in personal life.

In 1941, Mank shared the Oscar for “Citizen Kane” with Welles, but in 2020 Oldman gets the Becon, and he doesn’t have to share it.

Best actress One of the most robust findings in behavioral science is called “anchoring,” which occurs when an initial number sticks in people’s minds and has an outsized influence on their ultimate judgments. Smart negotiators are well aware of the power of anchors; if they can start with a high number or low number, depending on their goals, they can get a bargaining advantage.

“Younger” is a television series about Liza Miller, a divorced woman in her 40s who faces job discrimination when she tries to re-enter the job market.  Her best friend has a solution. Liza should get a new haircut, act like a kid and pretend to be in her 20s. She does. As usual, the anchor works: Because people are told that she’s in her 20s, they tend to believe it.

Sutton Foster, the star of the show, is convincing as a forty-something, a twenty-something and as a forty-something playing a twenty-something. She’s both hilarious and moving -- not least when she falls in love (twice). The Becon isn’t an anchor, but it’s awfully heavy, and Foster gets to take it home.

Best director: In recent years, behavioral economists have focused on the question of “noise”: variability in judgments that are not supposed to vary. One judge might sentence a criminal defendant to a year in prison, whereas another judge, seeing an identical defendant, might decide in favor of probation. That’s noise.

Some of the most interesting work on noise explores unique decisions. If a company is deciding whether to open an office in another city, or if a nation is deciding whether to go to war, small variations in circumstances can make all the difference: whether it is a sunny day, for example, or whether a particular adviser decided to speak up at a crucial moment. 

“Tenet,” a science-fiction thriller, is a dazzling exploration of noise – of how history’s arc can be a product of seemingly small interventions and variations. Christopher Nolan, the brilliant director, juggles a thousand balls, dropping not a single one. For that he deserves the Becon.

Best screenwriter  Some behavioral research explores “remembered utility”: the pleasure we get from revisiting the past. The memory might involve a magical romance, an outing with a deceased parent, a summer camp, an old house, an aunt or a baseball game. Memories can offer a sense of meaning and peace, because they give narrative continuity to our lives.

“The Wonder Years,” a television series that started in 1988 and ran for six years, is all about remembered utility. The (indispensable) narrator is the adult Kevin, played by Fred Savage, looking back on his childhood self. We can hear them both at once.

For all the parents and children hunkered down in front of a television during this pandemic year, there’s nothing better than “The Wonder Years.” It’s funny and moving, and it leaves you with a lot to talk about.

Neal Marlens and Carol Black, who conceived the show and did much of the writing, won an Emmy for it in 1988. But their real triumph is this year, when they take home the Becon.

Best film: “Desirability bias” means, in brief, that people believe what they want to believe — which by itself isn’t exactly shocking, but which explains all sorts of things, including social division, polarization and the power of misinformation.

“Messiah,” a television series, is a thriller about a mysterious man from the Middle East played by Mehdi Dehbi who may be a trickster and may be the Messiah, and who is attracting converts all over the world. What if Jesus appeared today? The maybe Messiah is investigated by a CIA officer, played by the Michelle Monaghan.

The series investigates desirability bias, and its role in faith — and in the absence of faith. It constantly asks: What do you want to believe? “Messiah” is a miracle, and it wins the Becon. Amen.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Cass R. Sunstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author of “Too Much Information” and a co-author of “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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