If you’re in the market for a good movie, you might want to go ahead and see it now. This is sage advice from the book world, anyway. As Chicago Booth’s Amanda Sharkey and her colleague Balázs Kovács from the University of Lugano discovered, books are rated very differently after they win prestigious awards than when they’re mere nominees. And the results are likely to apply to other art forms as well.
What’s interesting is that the phenomenon works a bit differently from what you might expect. It seems logical that we might view award-winners as fundamentally better or higher quality than “losers,” but what actually happens is just the opposite: We tend to rate books more negatively after they win a prestigious award.
There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that a book’s audience can increase hugely after it wins a celebrated prize, so readers’ motivations can vary widely. Sharkey and Kovács looked at thousands of reader reviews on Goodreads.com and predicted readers’ ratings of books based on their past likes and dislikes. The team compared books that eventually won prizes like the National Book Award or the PEN/Faulkner Award before and after they won, as well as books that were just nominated but didn’t win. They found that award-winning books only had lower predicted ratings than nominated books only after the award was announced—there was no difference in the two before the announcements. In other words, reader ratings can take a nosedive because “books tend to attract new readers who wouldn’t normally read and like this particular type of book,” says Sharkey.
The other reason that award-winning books garner worse reviews after they win is simply their quick rise to stardom—and it’s the popularity alone that can spark negativity in us. Again using regression models, the team found that poor reviews were intimately linked with quick rises in readership. Sharkey says that we may dislike popular books not because we’re mean-spirited, but simply because popularity threatens our uniqueness. “Reading a particular book,” she says, “becomes less of an identity signal if everyone else is reading the book as well.” And we don’t like to have our identity threatened, least of all by a work of art.
So, if you’re debating whether to see the new Meryl Streep movie, you should probably go ahead and see it now. You might like it a lot less if it wins an Oscar. As Sharkey says, this happens “not because these movies are ‘bad’ but rather because they are different than the type of movies we normally like.” And if you arrive at a packed house and suddenly feel your identity threatened, forget about it. You may as well arrive at the theater armed with rotten tomatoes.