Why Do We Give Out Awards? Expert Dr. Jana Gallus Explains

Legacy and prestige are just some of the reasons awards are given out each year, but as Gallus explains, there's often a lot of backlash beyond #OscarsSoWhite.

In our build up to our NOTscars special, we were wondering… why does anyone care about awards in the first place?

For answers, we called up a phalerist. Which, as you probably don’t know, is someone who studies awards. Dr. Jana Gallus holds a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Zurich, and she’s a phalerist of some renown. Perhaps you’ve read her paper entitled “Awards, Honors and Ribbons: Between Fame and Shame.”

When Brendan spoke with her, she explained the many reasons people and industries give out awards and why it can sometimes backfire.

Interview highlights:

Why are awards given out in the first place? Legacy and prestige

Portrait of Alfred Nobel.
Portrait of Alfred Nobel.

Dr. Jana Gallus: There are various reasons why people give awards and organizations choose to create awards. One reason is, of course, that you want to establish your own status and gain reputation. Because when you’re giving an award, you have to be in a position to confer prestige, right? Which means that you have prestige.

Another reason that’s linked to this is that you want to establish a legacy. So, thinking about the Nobel Prizes for instance, which are really well known, right? Alfred Nobel, why did he create or establish those prizes?

There’s one interesting story — I don’t know how much of it is true — but that he was known for being the creator of dynamite, and that might not be the legacy that you want to create and establish. So, Nobel then decided to give part of his endowment and earmark that for the creation of prizes for the greatest benefit to mankind. Quite in contrast to being the creator of dynamite.

On using awards, like the Oscars, to shape a field

Dr. Jana Gallus: But there are, of course, other reasons why people create and give awards, right? So, another reason is that they want to shape a field and influence the direction that a field takes.

If you’re talking about the Academy Awards and also fields where it’s more difficult to really observe quality, then, by creating an award, you really establish what is considered high quality. And you can also channel attention and create role models. Then you determine who’s invited and who’s in the in group, who’s in the out group, and that’s basically how you can shape a field, really.

They are establishing what is considered quality, and then, of course, that influences the production of movies in the future if the award is valuable enough to be something that people seek to achieve, to attain.

Awards backlash beyond #OscarsSoWhite

Dr. Jana Gallus: With awards you also run risks because they are public. The giver also runs a risk because, for one, he or she can award a candidate who is undeserving. That can be because of past performance that the giver wasn’t aware of, but also because of future performance.

An example would be the Spanish king, for instance. He was the honorary president of the World Wildlife Fund. Well, then he was caught catching elephants in Botswana and had to be stripped of that honor. So, he was clearly not the most deserving candidate for the World Wildlife Fund.

Another instance where awards can turn out to have negative effects for the giver is, of course, if the candidates refuse to accept the award. A very well-renowned example is, of course, Sartre, who refused to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, and that reflects negatively on the award giver as well. So, there’s always some sort of risk involved because it’s public.

Even people who study awards can win awards for their research on awards

Brendan Francis Newnam: So, I understand that you received an award for your award research.

Dr. Jana Gallus: Yes, yes. That was quite surprising, yeah. Yeah.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And so, yeah, how did you feel when you received it?

Dr. Jana Gallus: Good, very good.

BONUS: Brendan also asked who Dr. Jana Gallus would like to give an award to. Listen below to hear her response.