I Like Awards, Despite Their Dark Side

I was in a meeting of the board of an academic professional society and someone proposed that an annual award be created to acknowledge scholarly achievement. To my surprise, one professor spoke out immediately and passionately: “Awards are bad. All they do is tell everyone but the winner that they aren’t good enough”.

There was too much of the zero sum view of life in her comment for my taste, but her words nonetheless sensitized me to the dark side of awards, prizes and honors. For every Academy Award Winner, there are many Academy Award losers. For every gold medal winner, there is a silver medal winner, a bronze medal winner and a large number of non-winners. And being in that large group outside the winner’s circle can sting.

In my youth, teachers’ announcements of winners of academic contests were usually prefaced with bromides about how “we were all winners”. But by the age of 12, even the dimmest of us knew that that was just honey to help make swallowing the jagged brick of defeat more tolerable.

At our best, we delight in the success of others. But by definition, we are not always at our best, perhaps particularly when we have just lost some contest.

Some people have contempt for those who receive awards. Michael Oakeshott, who turned down the offer of far higher honours, mocked The Beatles’ acceptance of an MBE award thus: “Perfectly appropriate. Honors go to those who want them.” Turning down awards for political reasons (e.g., opposition to hierarchy in all its forms) had a vogue in Anglo-America in the 1960s and 1970s, so much so that some people got more good press from refusing an award than others did from accepting one.

Despite all that, I mostly like the idea of awards, for three reasons.

First, award competitions can become a spur to recognize someone who has done well. I was part of a large group of people who wrote letters in support of an award for an underappreciated colleague who had dedicated his life to helping the poor and the infirm. Knowing that so many people had rallied to acknowledge him caused him to weep tears of joy. The award gave him an emotional lift that he badly needed in his very difficult work.

Second, awards are a way for a community to affirm certain values. A university prize for outstanding mentorship of minority students for example is not just a prize for an individual. It’s also an important statement of what the larger academic community treasures.

Third, although some people pursue awards in a crass fashion (e.g., taking credit for other people’s work), I think most people are motivated in good ways by the possibility of recognition. Our motivations to work hard, do the right thing and be productive compete with our motivations to eat Haagan-Dazs, watch television, and not give a damn. Well-targeted awards serve as a finger on the scale that may help tip the balance in favor of the better angels of our nature.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

31 thoughts on “I Like Awards, Despite Their Dark Side”

    1. Well, I, I, don’t know what to say…this is a great honor. I’d like to thank my agent and all the little people, but I can’t because I did it all on my own.

  1. Timely! I just edited one of Mark’s cooperative papers (in which someone had written “disincentivize,” which made my head melt) that touched on inexpensive childhood interventions that have potential for improving the odds of success. I recalled the “Nudges in Health” conference in which a bunch of us RBCers participated, suggesting that risk of death is less motivating in smoking cessation than coupons for discounts at the drugstore.

    There’s definitely something here. Hard for me to grasp, since my life’s goal is to obtain a cloak of invisibility. My sister teaches in a Boston public school that suffers from all the ills you might expect; the students are among the most disadvantaged I’ve ever known about. She recently reported great success with a “shout out” assembly in which students could simply “recognize” others– for anything they thought was laudable. Apparently it was remarkable.

    So how does this factor into the “Trophy Generation” stuff? I’m told that the current crop of baby lawyers entering the working world are a management nightmare; apparently firms are having to deprogram them since they are so used to being celebrated for getting out of bed in the morning.

    I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for parents to get these values into children: praise the accomplishments of others, work hard to do distinguished work, do not expect (or, god forbid, demand) recognition for yourself.

    1. my life’s goal is to obtain a cloak of invisibility.

      I must say that’s a remarkable turn of phrase! Good writing.

      On your substantive point, I put the qualifier “well-targeted” awards in consciously. If everything earns an award, nothing does, making their motivating power vanish.

  2. by definition, we are not always at our best

    As my son in-law likes to say: Only the mediocre are at their best all the time.

  3. “…someone proposed that an annual award be created to acknowledge scholarly achievement.”

    In your intro, the award was not a “best of” trophy, like the motion picture Oscars. In the “acknowledge scholarly achievement” scenario, there is a winner and no losers. That looks pretty good to me, like the Congressional Medal of Freedom. Unlike the Oscars, which seem to make the production of high quality films into a zero-sum competition.

  4. I deal with baby lawyers every summer. They don’t seem unusually entitled to me. Indeed, if anything, they seem unusually meek and well-behaved. I suppose I would be too, in this terrible job market.

  5. When I was in the Socialist Party USA, the highest honor you could get was called the Jimmy Higgins Award. Jimmy Higgins is a mythical character who is always there to do the least glorious work: folding the chairs after the meeting, sweeping the floor, getting the next signature on that petition, whatever is needed. The tradition was that the recipient would be someone outside the leadership, someone who had neither sought nor received recognition.

  6. Fourth, it’s a chance for the award judges to have sex with someone who would otherwise be out of their league. Or is that just for awards handed out by Donald Trump?

  7. Deming is really good on this, and he deplores giving prizes to individuals for three reasons. (1) It undermines group identification and collaboration: when the top salesman goes to Hawaii with his wife, he leaves fifteen resentful losers (and their wives at home saying, “so why didn’t you win and get us this nice trip?”) because they understand intuitively that (2) the company is actually rewarding random variation and luck in large part, and the criteria for the prize necessarily omit a lot of other ways value is created for the enterprise (is there a prize for “best ambassador to talk the boss down from his occasional loony initiatives?”). (3) Next year, regression toward the mean sets in and the winner looks like he is slacking.
    Value is created by groups and management structures, not individual heroes (which does not mean people are interchangeable). In the case of your scholarly achievement prize candidate: the colleagues on whose shoulders the winner will have stood to see farther, the accident of her having attended a conference where she had coffee with the guy who had exactly the right dataset for a breakthrough paper, the admissions committee who put a great batch of graduate students in her path, her third-grade teacher, her PhD advisor, and on and on. Prizes necessarily collapse many dimensions of excellence and achievement into a scalar, but with tacit weighting that can’t be defended with a straight face, and they are not necessary for groups to recognize the much more interesting and useful individual dimensions of excellence.

    1. It undermines group identification and collaboration

      Hmmm…your example is of a reward that focuses on random variation and clearly does not unify…fair enough but is that a universally generalizable example? Would you say the same thing for example of Mandela winning a Nobel Peace Prize for his work on behalf of his country?

      Also, I am curious: this Deming you mention who deplored individual awards was clearly not W. Edwards Deming, who accepted the Distinguished Career in Science award from the National Academy of Sciences, as well as this award, and the National Medal of Technology, and Japan’s Order of the Sacred Treasure, and many honorary degrees….so which Deming was it? : )

      1. The same, of course. There’s no inconsistency between graciously accepting an award when the people giving it obviously mean well, and recommending against the practice as a management principle; indeed it would be really meanspirited and tineared to use such an occasion to lecture the world about its faults. And there’s a difference between lifetime awards like the Nobel or Pritzker that people don’t really “compete for” over a long period of activity, and annual prizes inside an enterprize for the best dissertation or most sales or whatnot…maybe also awards to people who are going to stay in the organization, like teaching prizes for profs, and awards to people on their way out like HS valedictorian.

        Things are not as flatfooted as I made them sound, I agree. But they are more complicated, and more fraught, than they appear, and at least in the context he was thinking about, it’s hard to go wrong learning from Deming, whose combination of smart and humane is really awesome.

        1. awards to people who are going to stay in the organization, like teaching prizes for profs

          I am glad that this is a logical statement at UCB – it’s one of the truly great things about Cal. Where I went to school the list of outstanding teaching award winners was a who’s who of those were subsequntly denied tenure and therefore had to leave!

          1. That calls to mind the (probably apocryphal) story of a new assistant on the tenure track who took her teaching seriously, and won a University teaching award as a result.

            At her annual performance evaluation, her Department’s P&T committee told her, “Well done. Congratulations. Don’t ever do that again.”

      2. I would say that to a very considerable degree, Mandela’s winning the Nobel peace prize did involve a combination of unique qualities with a lot of random chance. For example, the fact that he was jailed only after becoming the top leader or nearly the top leader meant that his leadership position was, in certain ways, insulated from challenges by ambitious subordinates just as he was insulated from a considerable degree of blame for ANC terrorism.

        Certainly, Mandela’s capacity for personal growth and a focus on building a better future (at least for some South Africans) and avoiding the excess of that plagued other revolutionary groups after coming to power marked him as an exceptional individual. But there was a certain amount of luck involved and group effort, too.

      3. Honestly, I’d say that the Nobel Peace Prize is the absolutely worst example of an award, if what you want is lack of random variation and a potential to unify. I can think of few awards with a more haphazard list of laureates.

        Even if you want to consider the other Nobel Prizes, the Turing Award, or the Fields Medal: They are generally awarded to scientists who already have earned plenty of peer recognition, who are least likely to need motivation, and they still are awarded to only a tiny fraction of even brilliant scientists, so they don’t really motivate a lot of people.

        Granted, the existence of the Turing Award allows us to rub Berkeley’s nose in having denied Stephen Cook tenure, but I don’t think that’s really an intended benefit. 🙂

        1. Hi Katja,

          I don’t follow your logic. I could use it to argue that because NBA basketball all-stars have earned plenty of peer recognition prior to their being voted as outstanding pros, and because only a tiny fraction of even very good players are voted for NBA all-star selection, therefore the possibility of being an NBA all-star does not motivate many people. I don’t think that hypothesis would survive a single afternoon in any city playground with a hoop on it.

          1. First of all, I think you’re misunderstanding me here. I was referring specifically to things like the Nobel Prizes. The chances of a professional basketball or football player being named for an NBA All-Star Game or the NFL Pro Bowl are orders of magnitude higher than, say, getting the Turing Award as a computer scientist. This does make a difference.

            Second, professional sports are a special case. Competing for an award is what they are all about, after all. Even so, in team sports, coaches are usually unhappy (to put it mildly) if a player puts personal success ahead of that of the team. Glory hounds generally aren’t all that welcome in team sports.

            Third, there are cultural differences. You’ll note that the Champions League does not have anything comparable to, say, the Pro Bowl. In fact, for the past years, the European opponent of the MLS All-Star team has been a European soccer club (Roma, Chelsea, and Manchester United in recent years). The “employee of the month” thing is a similar issue. The Dutch seem to find it ridiculous (as it runs counter to their mindset), Germans seem to find it creepy as it reminds them of communist-era “hero of the working class” style awards. (And, of course, it’s usually an excuse for not actually paying employees what they’re worth or for requiring them to put up with poor working conditions, but that’s a bit beside the point.)

            Finally, let me point out that there’s also a gender issue. For better or worse, society tends to reward men for being competitive, women for being cooperative. This is not to say that women aren’t competitive and men don’t cooperate or that the two are even mutually exclusive; it’s that there are heavy socialization issue that assign status rewards for behaving accordingly. (The classic example is that a man who aggressively negotiates for a bigger salary is considered assertive, while a woman doing the same risks being thought of as bitchy.) When half the population risks being subtly penalized for being too competitive, then using competition as a scheme for motivation strikes me as highly problematic. (I’ll also note that I wouldn’t be exactly surprised if there was a similar racial issue, or if awards in general served to reinforce existing hierarchies rather than challenging them.)

          2. First of all, I think you’re misunderstanding me here. I was referring specifically to things like the Nobel Prizes. The chances of a professional basketball or football player being named for an NBA All-Star Game or the NFL Pro Bowl are orders of magnitude higher than, say, getting the Turing Award as a computer scientist. This does make a difference.

            The comparison I was drawing was the number of kids on playgrounds who want to grow up to be NBA all-stars, and their odds are very low indeed. That’s why I don’t agree with the idea that something that goes only to a tiny fraction doesn’t motivate many people or that very hard to get honors only motivate self-starters who really need no external motivation.

            I am curious as to what your view is: Would you ban awards if you could, or do you see any value in them? Given what you said about gender (which I think is generally correct) I also wonder if you think women should be allowed to compete against each other, for example should awards like Best Actress in a Motion Picture or Welsh Woman of the Year exist or do you think they are inherently destructive?

          3. Let’s start at the end: First, I have zero problems wit women competing against each other (though I would prefer competition not to be segregated by gender, except where human biology makes that infeasible). I’ve got a pretty competitive streak myself (though I primarily think of myself as a person who values cooperation much more). My point was about women getting penalized for being competitive (even if they’re competing with other women only), so awards strike me as a fairly dubious idea in that respect.

            Second, I don’t do the “ban” thing (unless there’s demonstrable and significant harm). I prefer a free marketplace of ideas, not a sanitized one, and I believe there’s a right to be wrong and that making mistakes is an important part of the learning process of the human race (whether that of individual people or society at large). That I think an idea is bad or stupid does not mean that I think it should be banned; in fact, unless it actively causes harm, I think it’s important that you should have the right to pursue a bad or stupid idea. Plus, of course, just because I think something is a bad idea doesn’t mean that it actually is one.

            Third, I see relatively little value in awards outside their entertainment value (I also think that most of them are just silly, and not all that harmful). Your mileage may vary, of course, and there’s very likely some bias based on how I was raised. But if you want my opinion, I think most of the supposed benefits of awards seem to be ex post justifications to me. The Academy Award for Best Actress (or Best Actor, for that matter) is a case in point: I see the Academy Awards largely as a marketing ploy for the movie industry with the primary purpose of occupying prime newspaper and TV screen real estate. If they have an actual effect on Hollywood actors, and considering the general toxicity of that small subsection of American society, it can’t be a good one.

            I do think that recognition is important, but I also think that awards are basically recognition done wrong. Awards come with a built-in quota that is not based on fostering motivation, but is designed to create a narrative (often of rugged individualism, or to simply follow the traditional template of a story with a single primary protagonist). Let me note here that I don’t disagree with the second point in your original post: such a narrative can indeed affirm certain values if done right, but that’s different from recognition.

            Finally, with respect to kids on playgrounds who want to grow up to NBA stars, I simply disagree. If you look outside America, you’ll find plenty of athletes that young boys (or girls) want to be like without them having won any awards (this may also be a good time to dwell on the fact that Pelé, one of the two FIFA players of the 20th century, and probably the #1 role model for Brazilian boys playing soccer, didn’t win a single individual award during his career, though he placed second a couple of times). Plus, in Europe, fame is often filtered through a national lens: When Lionel Messi was the UEFA Best Player in Europe in 2011, English and German boys were still more likely to be inspired by the stars of Manchester United and Bayern München, respectively [1]. I think there’s strong evidence that what you’re looking at here is a function of fame, not awards. Granted, awards can fuel fame, but in the absence of awards, fame doesn’t disappear.

            I also can’t stress the cultural differences enough. For example, if you look at both the English and German language pages for Franz Beckenbauer, you’ll note that the introductory section of the English page consists largely of a litany of awards that he won, while the introductory section of the German page simply notes that his biggest accomplishments were his two world cup wins, with no mention of his awards. My personal impression is that many Germans seem to regard awards as inauthentic (engineered by committee, based on often questionable criteria or as a popularity contest), while tournament wins are real (there may be a lot of randomness involved in soccer, which means that you can lose despite being good, but you don’t win a world cup without being good).

            [1] Or whatever their favorite team was. Both teams are also wildly disliked by a significant part of the population.

        2. I can think of few awards with a more haphazard list of laureates.

          Agreed. Mandela was obviously deserving, but I’m still trying to figure out what Obama did to earn his.

          1. Not being G W Bush seemed to suffice. It was an award based on hope. While I am still delighted that Obama is not W, I am not sure his actions have justified the Peace Prize. Rather not, I’d say.

          2. i’ve always taken that award as a symbolic way of giving the prize to the american voting public for electing someone who was neither george w. bush nor john mccain.

            thousands of civilian drone casualties later it doesn’t necessarily look so good but at the time it seemed quite the change.

  8. I am inclined to like awards and prizes, especially for individuals, but perhaps especially where the award has no financial benefit – no trip to Hawaii, for example. But in the public service, where performance bonuses are not common but excellent performances are known to occur anyway, some recognition can compensate for the extra efforts and frustrations, and encourage one not to resort to the Haagen Dazes at home instead of the extra article or memo or meeting or appointment with a vulnerable person, or whatever.

    We are pressed in our ‘recognition’ program to nominate teams. The problem with that is that three members of the team do all the work but all ten members get the award – and half of the slackers figure that they earned it, too.

    I take Michael O’Hare’s points from Deming about the downsides, but they don’t apply to all types of awards.

  9. Our neighborhood wanted to give a prize for the best (read: biggest, splashiest) home decorations. On great: we’re encouraging more and more people to display more and more electrical displays.

  10. Since there’s no way to eliminate hierarchies (a fact that some Marxists went to great lengths to unwittingly prove), there’s nothing wrong with awards.

    The most important thing to remember is what Mickey Kaus wrote about in “The End of Equality”– social equality is a key value, and people shouldn’t think they are BETTER than others or have the right to lord over other people or run their lives because they score higher on some metric or another.

    In other words, freedom and respecting the right of others to make choices you don’t like is what makes hierarchies tolerable.

  11. I’ve always said there’s nothing wrong with giving everyone a trophy — as long as the winner gets a bigger one.

  12. In the past several years I’ve done quite a bit of running around to get people to nominate me for awards, because I was told by a political consultant that winning awards increases one’s chances of winning elections. But none of the things I’ve done were motivated by the possibility of winning an award–in fact, I didn’t even know the awards existed until I starting prospecting for them. So apparently in the non-academic world, the main consequence of award-giving is to motivate people to secure awards. Seeking them makes me feel rather pathetic and grade-grubby; the occasional win seems tainted.

    None of that answers the question about whether they are a valuable incentive, except in my personal case. And for me the lack of incentive holds even outside the formal awards structure: I worked harder for Obama in 2008 than I did in 2012, but in 2012 I made sure certain potential political allies knew what I was doing, whereas in 2008 I just wanted to do everything I could to elect my guy. Probably the time I spent getting noticed was time which could have been better spent actually doing the work.

    Good topic, Keith–thanks for the conversation.

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