IDEAS home Printed from
   My bibliography  Save this paper

Optimal Inequality/Optimal Incentives: Evidence from a Tournament


  • Richard B. Freeman
  • Alexander M. Gelber


This paper examines performance in a tournament setting with different levels of inequality in rewards and different provision of information about individual's skill at the task prior to the tournament. We find that that total tournament output depends on inequality according to an inverse U shaped function: We reward subjects based on the number of mazes they can solve, and the number of solved mazes is lowest when payments are independent of the participants' performance; rises to a maximum at a medium level of inequality; then falls at the highest level of inequality. These results are strongest when participants know the number of mazes they solved relative to others in a pre-tournament round and thus can judge their likely success in the tournament. Finally, we find that cheating/fudging on the experiment responds to the level of inequality and information about relative positions. Our results support a model of optimal allocation of prizes in tournaments that postulate convex cost of effort functions.

Suggested Citation

  • Richard B. Freeman & Alexander M. Gelber, 2006. "Optimal Inequality/Optimal Incentives: Evidence from a Tournament," NBER Working Papers 12588, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:12588
    Note: LS POL

    Download full text from publisher

    File URL:
    Download Restriction: no

    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Benny Moldovanu & Aner Sela, 2001. "The Optimal Allocation of Prizes in Contests," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 91(3), pages 542-558, June.
    2. Deininger, Klaus & Squire, Lyn, 1998. "New ways of looking at old issues: inequality and growth," Journal of Development Economics, Elsevier, vol. 57(2), pages 259-287.
    3. Brian A. Jacob & Steven D. Levitt, 2003. "Rotten Apples: An Investigation of the Prevalence and Predictors of Teacher Cheating," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 118(3), pages 843-877.
    4. Keefer, Philip & Knack, Stephen, 2002. "Polarization, Politics and Property Rights: Links between Inequality and Growth," Public Choice, Springer, vol. 111(1-2), pages 127-154, March.
    5. Alm, James & McClelland, Gary H. & Schulze, William D., 1992. "Why do people pay taxes?," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 48(1), pages 21-38, June.
    6. Andrew Schotter & Allan Corns, 1999. "Can Affirmative Action Be Cost Effective? An Experimental Examination of Price-Preference Auctions," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 89(1), pages 291-305, March.
    7. Roland Bénabou, 1996. "Inequality and Growth," NBER Chapters,in: NBER Macroeconomics Annual 1996, Volume 11, pages 11-92 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    8. Yasar Barut & Dan Kovenock & Charles N. Noussair, 2002. "A Comparison of Multiple-Unit All-Pay and Winner-Pay Auctions Under Incomplete Information," International Economic Review, Department of Economics, University of Pennsylvania and Osaka University Institute of Social and Economic Research Association, vol. 43(3), pages 675-708, August.
    9. Uri Gneezy & Muriel Niederle & Aldo Rustichini, 2003. "Performance in Competitive Environments: Gender Differences," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 118(3), pages 1049-1074.
    10. Uri Gneezy & Aldo Rustichini, 2000. "Pay Enough or Don't Pay at All," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 115(3), pages 791-810.
    11. Harbring, Christine & Irlenbusch, Bernd, 2003. "An experimental study on tournament design," Labour Economics, Elsevier, vol. 10(4), pages 443-464, August.
    12. Banerjee, Abhijit V & Duflo, Esther, 2003. "Inequality and Growth: What Can the Data Say?," Journal of Economic Growth, Springer, vol. 8(3), pages 267-299, September.
    13. Perotti, Roberto, 1996. "Growth, Income Distribution, and Democracy: What the Data Say," Journal of Economic Growth, Springer, vol. 1(2), pages 149-187, June.
    14. PARREIRAS, Sérgio O. & RUBINCHIK-PESSACH, Anna, 2006. "Contests with heterogeneous agents," CORE Discussion Papers 2006004, Université catholique de Louvain, Center for Operations Research and Econometrics (CORE).
    15. Barro, Robert J, 2000. "Inequality and Growth in a Panel of Countries," Journal of Economic Growth, Springer, vol. 5(1), pages 5-32, March.
    16. Noussair, Charles & Silver, Jonathon, 2006. "Behavior in all-pay auctions with incomplete information," Games and Economic Behavior, Elsevier, vol. 55(1), pages 189-206, April.
    17. Friedland, Nehemiah & Maital, Shlomo & Rutenberg, Aryeh, 1978. "A simulation study of income tax evasion," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 10(1), pages 107-116, August.
    18. Kristin J. Forbes, 2000. "A Reassessment of the Relationship between Inequality and Growth," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 90(4), pages 869-887, September.
    Full references (including those not matched with items on IDEAS)


    Citations are extracted by the CitEc Project, subscribe to its RSS feed for this item.

    Cited by:

    1. Edwin Leuven & Hessel Oosterbeek & Joep Sonnemans & Bas van der Klaauw, 2011. "Incentives versus Sorting in Tournaments: Evidence from a Field Experiment," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 29(3), pages 637-658.
    2. Papps, Kerry L. & Bryson, Alex & Gomez, Rafael, 2011. "Heterogeneous worker ability and team-based production: Evidence from major league baseball, 1920-2009," Labour Economics, Elsevier, vol. 18(3), pages 310-319, June.
    3. Richard B. Freeman & Alexander M. Gelber, 2010. "Prize Structure and Information in Tournaments: Experimental Evidence," American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, American Economic Association, vol. 2(1), pages 149-164, January.
    4. repec:hrv:faseco:34310817 is not listed on IDEAS
    5. Brüggen, Alexander & Luft, Joan, 2011. "Capital rationing, competition, and misrepresentation in budget forecasts," Accounting, Organizations and Society, Elsevier, vol. 36(7), pages 399-411.
    6. Christian Pfeifer, 2010. "Impact of wages and job levels on worker absenteeism," International Journal of Manpower, Emerald Group Publishing, vol. 31(1), pages 59-72, March.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • A0 - General Economics and Teaching - - General
    • H0 - Public Economics - - General
    • J0 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - General

    NEP fields

    This paper has been announced in the following NEP Reports:


    Access and download statistics


    All material on this site has been provided by the respective publishers and authors. You can help correct errors and omissions. When requesting a correction, please mention this item's handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:12588. See general information about how to correct material in RePEc.

    For technical questions regarding this item, or to correct its authors, title, abstract, bibliographic or download information, contact: (). General contact details of provider: .

    If you have authored this item and are not yet registered with RePEc, we encourage you to do it here. This allows to link your profile to this item. It also allows you to accept potential citations to this item that we are uncertain about.

    If CitEc recognized a reference but did not link an item in RePEc to it, you can help with this form .

    If you know of missing items citing this one, you can help us creating those links by adding the relevant references in the same way as above, for each refering item. If you are a registered author of this item, you may also want to check the "citations" tab in your RePEc Author Service profile, as there may be some citations waiting for confirmation.

    Please note that corrections may take a couple of weeks to filter through the various RePEc services.

    IDEAS is a RePEc service hosted by the Research Division of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis . RePEc uses bibliographic data supplied by the respective publishers.