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.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and served as Senior Policy Advisor in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy in the Obama Administration. @KeithNHumphreys