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Fairness and Desert in Tournaments

Gill, David and Stone, Rebecca (2010): Fairness and Desert in Tournaments. Forthcoming in: Games and Economic Behavior

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Abstract

We model the behavior of agents who care about receiving what they feel they deserve in a two-player rank-order tournament. Perceived entitlements are sensitive to how hard an agent has worked relative to her rival, and agents are loss averse around their meritocratically determined endogenous reference points. In a fair tournament sufficiently large desert concerns drive identical agents to push their effort levels apart in order to end up closer to their reference points on average. In an unfair tournament, where one agent is advantaged, the equilibrium is symmetric in the absence of desert, but asymmetric in the presence of desert. We find that desert concerns can undermine the standard conclusion that competition for a fixed supply of status is socially wasteful and explain why, when the distribution of output noise is fat-tailed, an employer might use a rank-order incentive scheme.

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