Thursday, April 18, 2019

econlife - When Awards Give Us More or Less Than We Expect by Elaine Schwartz


An award solved a problem at German Wikipedia. It had been typical for someone to write only one article.

But then they created an award. People who wrote multiple entries got a special badge printed on their profile page. Their names were also listed near the award’s description. While the recognition had a benefit, the cost to Wikipedia was minimal. Before it existed, 35% of their writers submitted another article. Afterwards, 42%.

For Wikipedia, an award did what it was supposed to do. Others have not.


Awards That Backfire

In one study, students who got a “perfect attendance award” subsequently diminished the days they went to school. Researchers have hypothesized that the recipients realized it was okay to do less. They concluded that awards should not honor what you are supposed to do.

At econlife, we’ve written about Olympic medal winners. Of course the gold medal winners are the happiest but so too are the bronze recipients. However, many silver medalists are not quite as ecstatic. The reason? Because the gold was their focus.

Recipients could also be unhappy when too many awards are given. We might call this phenomenon award inflation. Or, you might devalue an award when giving it to people who don’t deserve it. If a recipient is a friend, family, or someone getting unearned adulation, then the award loses some of its credibility.

Funny Awards

Sometimes a “fake” award can make fun of the real thing and still generate admiration for the recipients. Halle Berry received a Worst Actress Golden Raspberry (a Razzie) for her performance in Catwoman (1/4 from Roger Ebert; 3.3/10 from IMDb ). During an acceptance speech that mimicked the Academy Awards, she warmly thanked Warner Brothers and all the people it takes to create so bad a film.

If you are a fan of The Office (as am I), you will enjoy this Dundie award ceremony. For some smiles, do take a look:





Our Bottom Line: Boosting the Market

Awards are a social experience. Group appreciation is supposed to inspire certain behaviors like community service or high grades. At work, management could be saying thank you for many years of service or the armed forces might want to honor bravery. Most Nobel Prizes are for scholarly achievements.

Because awards exist in social territory, they complement the market. The law of supply says we produce more when price climbs higher. But when cash is not enough, awards provide an extra incentive. Sort of like an energy bar, they give a boost to the market (and to German Wikipedia).

My sources and more: Thanks to Hidden Brain for an awards podcast that provided most of my facts.


Ideal for the classroom, econlife.com reflects Elaine Schwartz’s work as a teacher and a writer. As a teacher at the Kent Place School in Summit, NJ, she’s been an Endowed Chair in Economics and chaired the history department. She’s developed curricula, was a featured teacher in the Annenberg/CPB video project “The Economics Classroom,” and has written several books including Econ 101 ½ (Avon Books/Harper Collins). You can get econlife on a daily basis! Head to econlife.