Why Oscar Winners Say They’re 'Humbled'

Receiving an award makes you feel proud, but a new study suggests some winners may suppress their natural joy so they seem like good sports.
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John Wayne appears to wipe away a tear while accepting the Best Actor Oscar for True Grit in 1970, while Barbra Streisand looks on. (AP)

Winning an award is about the least humbling thing in the world, and yet when people receive an Oscar or some other illustrious honor, they often say they feel “humbled.” Really, what winners feel is immense pride—and immense fear of being seen as prideful—and so they cover for it by saying they feel the exact opposite, humility. No one wants to come across as cocky. Are winners right to fear backlash for expressing a natural emotion at their most exultant moment? New research finds that they are. 

Consider the two cases of John Wayne’s and James Cameron’s Oscar acceptance speeches. Accepting the award for Best Actor in 1970, Wayne appears to be delivering a eulogy. “Tonight I don’t feel very clever, or very witty,” he somberly intones. “I feel very grateful, very humble.” In 1998, when Cameron won Best Director, he high-fived the people around him, and ended his speech by throwing his arms in the air and hollering “I’m the king of the world! Wooooo!”

“John Wayne’s response tends to appear on ‘best of’ speeches lists,” says Elise Kalokerinos, a doctoral candidate at the University of Queensland and the lead author of the new paper, “and James Cameron’s speech has become an infamous example of an Oscars speech gone wrong.”

In their first experiment—published in the journal Emotion under the title “Don’t Grin When You Win”—Kalokerinos and her collaborators showed Australian university students 30-second clips of people winning things: Academy Awards, tennis matches, and game shows. Some winners expressed obvious happiness and pride, while others suppressed it. In each clip, there were no actual words spoken, just an initial emotional reaction. Participants expressed how positively they viewed the winners by rating them on several traits: aggressive, selfish, intelligent, friendly, nice, and likable. They also judged the winners’ hubristic pride by rating how arrogant, conceited, and egotistical they were. Winners who kept their emotions in check were rated more positively (5.35 versus 4.88 on a 1–7 scale), and this was, in part, due to lower perceived hubristic pride.

The researchers showed the same videos to another set of subjects—American Internet users—and asked them to rate the degree to which the winners were deliberately keeping their emotions to themselves. Some of the videos also played without sound. The inexpressive winners were seen to be suppressing their joyful expressions, which suggests that the appearance of suppression may be enhancing people’s impressions of them—it’s not that people thought they were experiencing less joy internally. Putting the videos on mute didn’t make a difference, indicating that nonverbal cues were key to viewer judgments.

In a final experiment, Kalokerinos and colleagues tested a factor besides perceived hubris that might lead viewers to prefer inexpressive winners. Americans online watched the expressive and inexpressive videos and rated the hubris and positive and negative traits of the winners as before, as well as how well they thought they’d get along with the winners. They also rated how much each winner was trying to protect the loser’s feelings. Suppressing pride led to more positive impressions, and greater appeal as a potential friend. These judgments were partially accounted for by lower ratings of hubristic pride, and, independently, a greater perceived desire to protect the loser. So inexpressive winners were seen as both humble and considerate.

Why do people still sometimes celebrate publicly when they win? The results presented here form a complicated picture of emotional regulation. Previous research has consistently shown that suppression of emotion is mentally and physically unhealthy, as well as bad for relationships and friendships. It can make people appear inauthentic and untrustworthy. Keeping a lid on positive feelings reduces happiness and self-esteem.

What’s more, evidence suggests that pride evolved in humans and other animals to signal dominance and thus accumulate even more respect and resources. Jessica Tracy of the University of British Columbia, and others, have shown that pride displays—standing erect, lifting your head, smiling, putting your hands on your hips or in the air—are automatically recognized cross-culturally and even by four-year-olds. These movements are displayed by non-human primates, as well as Olympic athletes (even those from collectivistic countries such as China and Iran), and are displayed by blind Paralympic champions who have never seen anyone else perform them. They appear to be innate reactions to success.

Besides wanting to feel good, avoid inauthenticity, and establish status, Kalokerinos suggests a few more reasons people might show pride. “Suppressing positive emotion also requires some effort on the part of the winner, and can be quite mentally draining,” she says. Further, “it could be the case that some winners just don’t realize that expressing their positive emotions could be making a poor impression.” Finally, recall that judgments of winners rely in part on winners’ apparent concern for the losers’ feelings. If number two’s not in your midst, you have freer reign to pop the bubbly.

In deciding whether to express self-satisfaction, one must make a context-sensitive tradeoff. Put simply, would you rather be seen as on top of your game or a good sport? Would you rather be feared or loved? In a competitive situation, it might be better to take the personal and positional hit of not beating your chest, and in exchange reap the reward of being seen as a nice, humble success story whom everyone really, really likes. 

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Matthew Hutson is a science writer based in New York City. He is the author of The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking.

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