Wednesday, May 11, 2011

People Will Work For Purely Symbolic Rewards

See Week in Ideas: Christopher Shea from The Wall Street Journal, 4-30-11.

Thanks for Nothing

Awards that cost companies nothing to provide can pay dividends in productivity, a study finds.

Researchers in Switzerland hired 150 people to do two hours of real work for a nonprofit group. They were paid a flat rate of $37 to search the Web for information useful in fund-raising, namely, contact information for local-government officials who might be approached for grants. The nonprofit group made clear to the students that it had no jobs to offer them if they performed well.

The workers were assigned to small groups and given enough privacy that, if they chose, they could slack off at their computers. Eighty-three of the 150 were assigned to groups whose members were informed they'd be competing for a certificate of special thanks.

Despite the brevity of the job and the fixed wage, both groups were productive. More importantly, the workers competing for a frameable piece of paper gathered, on average, 12% more information than those that did not.

"Getting More Work for Nothing? Symbolic Awards and Worker Performance," Michael Kosfeld and Susanne Neckermann, American Economic Journal: Micro (forthcoming)"

This reminds me of a quote I once read that supposedly came from Napoleon: "The most amazing thing I have learned about war is that men will die for ribbons." (or medals as is sometimes reported) Click here for more info about the paper.

Even more info is at Meaningless Awards Spur Performance.


  1. People been dying and killing for small pieces of papers for a few centuries now...

    Strange planet.

    Luther Blissett

  2. Thanks for dropping by and commenting