Published in the Los Angeles Times
It's safe to say that Anne Hathaway isn't rooting for the Dow to tank. But she should be. According to psychologist Terry Pettijohn, the actress' career might get a boost during a recession. Why? Her small eyes.
Pettijohn, an assistant professor at Coastal Carolina University, helped conduct a study that looked at the top few female box-office stars every year from 1932 to 1995, as ranked by the annual Quigley poll of movie exhibitors. His hypothesis was that audiences would prefer mature features (small eyes, thin cheeks, large chin) during troubled economic times, because they imply that the person is independent and supportive. Audiences would prefer actresses with baby-faced features (large eyes, round cheeks, small chin) during happier times, because they connote a youthful, free-spirited outlook.
Yes, it sounds strange. But the hypothesis worked. During the recession in 1990, for instance, the popular actresses included Julia Roberts ("Pretty Woman") and Demi Moore ("Ghost"), who have relatively small eyes, thin cheeks and large chins. By contrast, the big-eyed stars Bette Davis, Judy Garland and Rita Hayworth were popular during productive years right after the Great Depression.
Do we really watch movies this way? "It's just a piece of the overall puzzle of our social preferences. There are a lot of other factors that are going to contribute to what we find popular," acknowledges Pettijohn, who also conducted a similar study that found that Playboy Playmates of the year have more mature body types during tough times.
William McIntosh, professor of psychology at Georgia Southern University, co-wrote an even more elaborate study, which looked at the characters who told sexual jokes in the year's top-grossing film comedies from 1951 to 2000 -- the characters who were, in a way, flirting with the audience. It charted how attractive the female characters were and how high-status the male characters were (since many psychologists believe that men favor attractiveness in women and women favor status in men). McIntosh predicted that in bad years, the men would be more low-status and the women would be less attractive, because pessimism leads to lowered expectations in potential mates -- even unattainable ones on screen.
This crazy hypothesis was true as well. What's more, other variables -- such as the intelligence and morality of these characters -- were not affected as much by troubled times.
Though these conclusions might seem farfetched or distasteful, the evidence is there, McIntosh says. "When it starts to pile up, you say, 'There's got to be something going on here.' "