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Education Matters in Hollywood Marriages

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.

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Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

An odd find

Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

Why understanding memory matters

person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

Party chat

Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

spinning 3D model of a brain

Temporal lobes

Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

Seek, find

Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

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