You Won a Prize!  The Dark Side of Doing So

Prize Winnings and Spillover Effects

By In Weekly Email 5 minute read time

You Won a Prize!  The Dark Side of Doing So

Morrissey was the famed lead man in the iconic alternative 80’s band, The Smiths.  To the dismay of its many fans, The Smiths broke apart, and Morrissey tried to test the solo market.  One of his most famous ballads as a solo artist is a catchy tune entitled “We hate it when our friends become successful.”   It’s a dark melody that one can catch here.   Wow!  Aren’t we supposed to want our friends and colleagues to do well? Is there any truth to Morrissey’s message?  Apparently, there is.  At least that’s what 3 notable scholars found in a groundbreaking study found here   in the highly acclaimed journal, Administrative Science Quarterly

Aren’t We All Winners?  Um, no…

The authors set out to better understand what happens when a friend wins a big prize or enjoys special recognition.  Specifically, they wanted to see the impact on the surrounding circle or community of individuals attached to a star performer who just won high praise.  They had two competing hypotheses at play.  First, they posit an Endorsement hypothesis.  According to this logic, we should cheer when a friend wins a big award because we win too; there’s a positive spillover effect that rains down upon all neighbors in that given community.  Put simply, when one of us wins a big ass award, we’re all pulled along on this positive trajectory. 

But then there’s the other hypothesis, simply referred to as Competition logic.  Under this theory, 2 bad things occur when one among us wins a big prize.  First, they argue that all attention is now focused on this star.  Because attention is a finite resource, greater attention on this newly recognized superstar means less attention for everyone else.  While one may win, many more suffer in the shadows. Second, when someone wins a big award, like the Nobel prize, it reduces interest in the field, overall, as leading minds consider the issue or topical area settled or closed for debate.

Who Won?

To test these two competing hypotheses, they studied what happened when a researcher won an invite into the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).  16 Nobel laureates and 152 members of the National Academy of Sciences get plucked from this group so it’s kinda a big deal to be recognized into the HHMI.  And, again, they wanted to assess the impact, if any, of a winner’s prize on the attention paid to neighbor articles—those written by scientific peers in the same field as the one who just won the HHMI award. 

After analyzing about 2000 articles and performing statistical modeling that will make your head-spin, they arrived at a starting conclusion. The Competition hypothesis dominated.  When a scientist wins an HHMI award, the neighbor articles, written by peers of the HHMI award winner, suffered greatly in terms of citations and interest.  On average, there was about a 7% decrease, in the rate of citations following the HHMI appointment.  Sadly, this effect seems to be permanent.  Similar or “neighbor” articles written by peers to the newly minted superstar never recovered and experienced a steady decline in citations over time.  To be clear, scientific communities in close contact with the HHMI award winner experienced a loss of attention and interest after the award was announced.

The Learning Prize for All of Us

Maybe Morrissey was on to something.  Perhaps, we know, intuitively, that when one among us wins, everyone else become less interesting to others.  Now, we’re not saying to keep a good man or woman down to keep them from winning huge props.  But, because the Kimono told you so, you shouldn’t be surprised when your fortune turns south when hers turns north. 

We do it for the truth at the Kimono—

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