Why Awards Are Bad for You!

Consider this gorgeous quilted wall hanging over Melanie’s right shoulder.

MBB Quilt Award

Note that pretty ribbon on the upper left corner!  An award winner!  And for a large, regional quilt show at Sauder Village.  Quite an accomplishment, especially for an amateur.  See, Melanie is a professor of some renown.  She’s one of the most published scholars in the history of communication research, former chair of her department, and president of a large professional communication association.  So, she just quilts for fun . . . and now wins awards for that, too.

What can be wrong with this?  Melanie can tell you.

“I was shocked and happy when I first saw the ribbon.  It made me very happy.  Then I found myself walking around looking at the other quilts and seeing that some got higher awards and I found myself nitpicking them.  ‘Why did the judges like that?’  ‘Didn’t they see that flaw in the work?’   I was looking at things differently with a more critical eye.  Now I was competing.  And, I found myself planning my next project so I could do better than the ones who placed higher.  On the other hand it did provide a bit of excitement and incentive.  How crazy is that?”

And that is exactly what happens when you move from an Internal Attribution to an External Attribution with an Award.  This is just persuasion human nature.

Consider that Melanie quilts for fun, for relaxation, for the joy of the thing itself.  Ask her why she quilts and she can tell you.  “I want it for myself.  I like it for myself.  The sheer act of doing it is fun.”  In other words, an Internal Attribution.  The locus of causality for her action rests within her own control and motivation.  She likes it.

Then she gets an Award.  She knew this could happen, but since she’s an amateur and does this for fun, she doesn’t expect it.  Just to be in the quilt show is enough . . . at first.  Now, after the Award, when Melanie asks herself, “Why do I quilt?” the answer gets complicated.  Instead of the joyful, simple Internal Attribution of “I do it because I want to for the fun,” she now has other obvious explanations.

She does it to win Awards.

She does it for recognition.

She does it because other people expect it of her.

In other words, External Attributions.  The locus of causality for her quilting behavior shifts from her self to forces outside of her.  And, in so doing, her evaluation, her motivation, her expectation of herself, the activity of quilting, and the event of doing quilt shows changes.

What’s especially telling about this, is that Melanie teaches Attribution Theory and is well aware of this effect.  It is a classic finding in the research, but even with her knowledge and skill, she, like all of us, cannot escape her persuasion human nature.  I can report the same kind of weird experience in my own life when I’ve received awards for things I just loved to do for my own reasons and motivation.  And, afterward, I found myself not loving that thing in quite the same way and becoming more interested in what other people thought about it and what other awards I could get and, “Hey, why did the other guy get that?”

It seems such a simple thing.

Why do you do what you do?  I love it and, yeah, I may get an award for it.  What’s the difference?

Don’t be surprised when you win an award, then find yourself with a different point of view.