The dangers of status competition

Sunday, February 12th, 2017

Status competition can have corrosive effects:

Neighbours of lottery winners often make extravagant status good purchases (Kuhn et al. 2011) and are more likely to go bankrupt (Agarwal, Mikhed, and Scholnick 2016). Card et al. (2012) and Ashraf et al. (2014) show that job satisfaction and performance suffer when there are direct rankings and explicit comparisons with others in the same group.

Status competition can kill you — if you’re a fighter pilot:

During the height of the [Battle of Britain], in the summer of 1940, two of Germany’s highest-scoring aces did something unexpected: they went deer hunting. Werner Mölders, commanding a squadron of fighters on the Channel Coast, was asked by Hermann Göring head of the German air force, to confer with him for three days at Karinhall, his country retreat. Mölders at first refused, as he was competing against Adolf Galland for the honour of being the highest-scoring German ace. Mölders relented only on the condition that Galland would also be grounded for three days. Göring, who had also been a fighter ace in World War I, agreed and brought Galland along on the hunting trip (Galland 1993).

So, in the middle of the defining conflict for the German air force, two of its best pilots had been pulled from the front line – and one of them was not brought because there was an operational or administrative need, but to maintain a ‘level killing field’ with his competition. Competition for status was intense amongst German pilots. It was behind the elaborate systems of awards and medals that pervaded the military. Similar awards are also common in many other walks of life, from academia to the top ranks of business and politics.

Most air forces during WWII devoted considerable bureaucratic attention to filing, witnessing, adjudicating, and aggregating the victory claims made by their pilots. In the German system, pilots had to give the grid coordinates, aircraft type, type of destruction (pilot bail-out, impact, explosion, and so on) and time to file a claim. The claim would have to be witnessed by another pilot to stand a chance of being accepted. Claims would be sent to a central office of the Luftwaffe for adjudication, where many would be rejected.

This elaborate system was necessary because awards and medals were closely tied to victory scores. The Luftwaffe awarded medals based on informal quotas. For example, in early 1942 for a pilot to have a chance of receiving the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords, that pilot would have needed 100 victories.

We have data on the victory claims of more than 5,000 pilots for the entire conflict, 1939-45. These pilots filed claims that they had shot down 54,800 enemy planes. Victories were extremely unevenly distributed. The highest-scoring ace, Erich Hartmann, claimed more than 350 victories, and the top 100 pilots scored almost as many victories as the bottom 4,900. The maximum monthly victory score was 68, recorded in 1943 on the Eastern front.

These successes were bought at a high price (Figure 1). In an average month, 3.3% of pilots died. After two years of service, half the low-scoring pilots would have been killed. Amongst the better-performing pilots, only one-quarter would have survived. Towards the end of the war, loss rates became extremely high, averaging 25% or more from the spring of 1944 (Murray 1996).

Victory claims and exit rate among German fighter pilots, by month

Figure 2 summarises our key results. Good pilots – those whose average monthly victory score put them in the top 20% of the distribution – on average improved their victory score by 50%, from less than two to more than three a month, when the successes of their former peers were advertised. Pilots in the bottom 80% scored fewer victories overall, but also improved by a small margin. Strikingly, results are different for exit rates (‘exit’ usually meant death). Great pilots, on average, died more often, but they were not more likely to exit in times of peer recognition. The opposite was true for average and the poor pilots, whose exit rate increased by almost half. In other words, aces tried harder when a former colleague got a public pat on the back, but didn’t take many more risks. Average or poor pilots tried harder, were a bit more successful, but also tended to get themselves killed more often.

Victory and Exit

German pilots during WWII had the highest numbers of aerial victories ever recorded:

The top 100 pilots of all time are all German.


  1. Dan Kurt says:

    re: “The top 100 pilots of all time are all German.”

    I met two former WW2 german fighter pilots in the 1970s. Both were impressive and neither were aces. The first had been in a University in 1943 when he was drafted and selected for pilot training. He never told me how many victories he had if any but he was a brilliant individual and responsible for some of the engineering of one or more of the HP calculators of that era. The second was a University professor and author. He had been shot down in North Africa and was a POW in America. He earned a Ph.D. in Germany after the war and then a second one in America (NYU I think). Both were impressive individuals. If those two were typical representatives of German fighter pilots of WW2 the Luftwaffe certainly selected high IQ men.

  2. Faze says:

    the Luftwaffe certainly selected high IQ men.

    And killed them.

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