Friday, October 30, 2015

Can Symbolic Awards Really Motivate? Evidence from a Field Experiment at Wikipedia

ICan symbolic awards motivate individuals to contribute their ideas and knowledge to a common project? This is the question that Jana Gallus, Postdoctoral Fellow with the Behavioral Insights Group at the Harvard Kennedy School, asked in her research, presented at the latest WAPPP Seminar. She found the answer by going where many professors tell students never to go for reliable information: Wikipedia.
Dr. Gallus talking about Wikipedia's editor retention problem
Wikipedia can be an enigma to economists. It is a place where motivated souls go to work for no pay. It has been enormously successful at compiling massive amounts of human knowledge through the sheer dedication of "Wikipedians", who put in time and effort to produce online articles on a range of topics. Unfortunately, initial excitement over the site peaked and the number of editors has been on a downward trend ever since. The situation is a significant problem for Wikipedia. Fortunately, they ran into Gallus, an economist who is contributing to the emerging literature on awards, who had some ideas about how to resolve this problem. 

Awards come in many shapes and sizes. There's great variety of fields, awarding parties, prize components, and periodicities. Dr. Gallus argues that there are important differences between ex ante awards that are previously announced and select winners through clear criteria, such as contests or performance-based awards, and what she calls ex post awards, that are presented for an achievement after the fact, and where the receiving party may not even be aware that they are eligible for an award. Examples of the former type could be an innovation contest where contestants enter to win, or a company bonus for the best sales performance, whereas examples of the latter can include something like a Pulitzer Prize, an Academy Award, or a Nobel Prize. Gallus ran a field experiment at Wikipedia to identify whether ex post awards could be used as motivational tools for newcomers to a field or whether they were only effective as metaphorical crowns for individuals who are already high-achieving.

Wikipedia and Dr. Gallus created a digital badge, the Edelweiss Flower, that would be randomly awarded to new editors on the website (she made sure to implement a rules-based preselection to filter out, for instance, vandals and corporate accounts, so they wouldn't receive anything). Out of the 4,007 editors that first joined Wikipedia in that role between September 2012 and July 2013, 1,617 were included in an award cohort and 2,390 were in the control group, receiving nothing and unaware that the experiment was even happening. The "honored" editors would receive a message thanking them for their contribution and informing them that they had been awarded the Edelweiss. The message included the image of the "medal", which users quickly made into a badge that could be displayed on their profile.

Did users who receive the award stay on as editors more than those who did not? Yes! 43.5% of the editors who did not receive the award did not come back, but only 34.8% of those honored left. A very noticeable difference! What is more is that this effect can be causally attributed to the granting of the award, because the treatment and the control group are virtually no different except for this factor. Gallus commented that theory would explain this observed effect by positing that 1) the badge gives people status, "it gives them reputational capital that they can later use", in her words; 2) they also derive social identity through this kind of categorization, and finally, 3) they value recognition from others. She also found statistically significant effects extending up to six months after the new editors received the Edelweiss.

Though impressive, her work with Wikipedia is far from over. The online encyclopedia identified a very wide gender gap through a survey of editors, and they are looking for ways to close it. Currently, more than 80% of Wikipedia editors are men. Gallus hypothesizes that this may be due to lack of free time, a "harsh" online forum culture, or even "self-stereotyping". Ways to tweak the awards so they may be enticing for women could be to vary the degree of publicity, consider group awards, use bottom-up nomination mechanisms, de-bias juries, and of course, favor ex post awards. As more and more knowledge is produced and stored in places like Wikipedia, her important work will contribute to increase the amount of women sharing ideas and furthering human knowledge.

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