German pilots strapped themselves into fighter planes and risked death with every flight in World War II. With a task that perilous, what could motivate them to try harder? A new research paper argues they were spurred by competition, and particularly a hunger for the praise showered on their successful colleagues.
When a German pilot was singled out for recognition in the armed forces daily bulletin—a high and rare honor in Nazi Germany—the performance of his peers increased. The effect was most dramatic among the best fighter pilots, the aces. When their fellow ace was recognized, the number of combat victories from other aces in his squadron climbed by two thirds, to three victories a month, according to the paper by a trio of economists from the University of Southern Denmark, the University of Zurich, and the University of Chicago.
The research is published as a working paper (PDF) from the National Bureau of Economic Research, which means it hasn’t been reviewed by other academics.
Using the Nazi army’s meticulous records, the authors examined the monthly victory scores of more than 5,000 Luftwaffe pilots who flew 96,127 missions. While other nations retired their pilots after a fixed number of flights, the pilots in Nazi Germany would fly until they were shot down. That meant their best pilots flew far more missions than their British or American counterparts, and recorded much higher individual victory totals: 379 German pilots had 40 or more combat wins, compared to one each from the US and UK.
The best German pilots were particularly motivated by competition and external praise, the authors write. In one case, during the Battle of Britain in 1940, two aces were neck-and-neck in the tally of victories. When one was ordered to return to Berlin for three days for a briefing, he demanded the Luftwaffe ground the other pilot, to prevent him from running up the score in his absence.
While the daily bulletin mentions drove the best pilots to greater successes, it had a calamitous impact on less-accomplished pilots. Their kill rate improved marginally—but their casualty rate doubled. The authors theorize that when the lesser-skilled pilots took more risks to increase their victories, they were more likely to be shot down.
Economists are still learning what motivates workers. While it was once assumed that financial incentives were sufficient, a revolution in behavioral economics has made it clear that we also respond to a range of non-financial factors, including praise, fear, and jealousy, and not always in predictable ways. While the German fighter pilots were driven by the success of their peers, other research (PDF) shows that employees who discover they earn less than their colleagues can lose motivation and look for other jobs.
Rewards and commendations belong in a manager’s tool kit. But it would unwise to expect every employee to crave praise like a German fighter pilot.