A few years ago I was at a conference of economic historians in Toronto where I happened to meet Dr. Mary Yeager, a professor in UCLA’s history department who also just happens to be married to the actor/writer John Lithgow. She gave me some very useful comments on a paper I had been working on, which I really appreciated. I have to admit that at the time I was mystified by the notion that a movie star was married to an academic, but then I also didn’t realize that John Lithgow was a Harvard graduate and Fulbright scholar.
Talking about Hollywood marriages may seem frivolous, but a new economics paper makes good use of essentially tabloid data to explain the marriage choices made by us mere mortals. In fact, it goes part of the way to explaining the role of an acquirable characteristic you wouldn’t think movie stars would have much need for – education. *
First the fluffy stuff, then the economics. Using information about the current marital status (trolled off the internet) of the top 400 movie actors (a ranking based on the Ulmer Scale) the author of this paper finds that on average male and female stars have just below 14 years of education (high school plus some college). Of the men on that top 400 list, 52% were married at the time the data was collected in 2008 (several notables on the list are no longer married). Far fewer of the women were married, only 38%, despite an average age for women of 41. Only about half of movie stars are married to people who are well know, either because they are also actors or because they are models, singers, musicians etc. For married stars, the average age at which they entered their current marriage was 38 for men and 35 for women. The vast majority of top actors have either never been married (27%) or have been married only once (45%) making them slightly less likely than the average US citizen to have been married once and slightly more likely never to have been married at all. While they are slightly more likely than the average person to be have been married twice (20%) or three times (8%) the differences are small enough to be insignificant.
So despite our pre-conception that marriages in Hollywood are fleeting and frequent, the top stars seem to behave pretty similarly to the rest of us.
Okay, so onto the economics. In general when economists look at marriage data we find that people tend to marry others with similar education levels. There is a market explanation for this phenomenon in that education is a good predictor of income. So if everyone is trying to maximize income through marriage then each individual will try to marry a person with the highest possible education level who is also willing to marry them. So people with the highest income levels marry others with equally high income levels (and potential lifetime earnings) leaving those with lower education levels to marry each other.
This marriage market effect has been blamed for the recent skewing of the income distribution over families as power couples have come to dominate the top of the distribution and couples consisting of high school drop-outs the bottom.
So what does this have to do with Hollywood marriages? Well, the interesting thing about movie stars is that their income is not linked to their level of education but rather to a variety of other skills. So in the Hollywood marriage market we shouldn’t observe couples matching over education but rather other characteristics that increase income – like physical appearance.
After all, if you are a successful male movie actor why should it matter to you that your future wife has a similar education level to your own?
The funny thing is that it does appear to matter. The correlation on education levels (the degree at which their education levels are related to each other) in movie star marriage is about 0.4. That may not mean much to you but when you think that among the general public the correlation is about 0.6 there is very little difference between the marriage decision of stars and everyone else when it comes to the education of their partner.
This matters not because we care particularly about the married life of movie stars (we don’t), but because it suggests that the marriage market theory I described above, the one that explains why couples are often matched on education levels, only tells part of the story. Education is not a predictor of future income for movie stars and yet it still matters in marriage choices. Clearly similar education levels bring something else to marriages outside of income.
Perhaps education matters for compatibility even for those walking the red carpet.
* Bruze, Gustaf (2011). “Marriage Choices of Movie Stars: Does Spouse's Education Matter?” Journal of Human Capital, Spring 2011, v. 5, iss. 1, pp. 1-28.