Incentives Knockin’ on the Nobel Prize’s Door

Samantha Bucklar HB – When you go to a search engine and type in incentives, the first definition that comes up describes it is as something “that encourages a person to do something or to work harder.”[1] This year, the Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan, a singer/songwriter who has many famous songs including, Blowin’ in the Wind, Like a Rolling Stone, and Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.  One thing you may notice is that Dylan does not have any written novels that goes towards this award, so the question arises of why he won? There had to be incentives for the Swedish Academy to vote for a person who has orally spoken about life, politics, and war instead of writing or publishing novels.  As Charles Wheelan says in Naked Economics, “incentives matter. When we are paid on commission, we work harder; if the price of gasoline goes up, we drive less…”[2] The fact that the academy chose to award Bob Dylan with the Nobel Prize for Literature displays that they were incentivized to bring more relevance for the award around the world and in pop culture.

More than likely the Academy decided that it was time to change their image from the “self-perpetuating intellectualism and elitism for which the award had been criticized.”[3] Last year a woman by the name of Svetlana Alexievich won the award, but a poll in Russia about a month after she won expressed that sixty-five percent of Russians have never even heard of her.[4] Cultures are changing, people don’t read as much anymore and with that an incentive was created for the Academy to choose someone with a more widely based crowd and someone who could attract the media’s attention. While almost nobody in her home country knew Alexievich, Time has announced that “Spotify said streams of [Bob Dylan’s] songs rose 512% across the world since the prize was announced.”[5]

Before choosing Dylan, the Academy most likely tried to think of all the scenarios of what could happen in the media.  There were probably a few people on the board who didn’t want to choose Dylan because of the perverse incentives. Preserve incentives are “inadvertent incentives that can be created when we set out to do something completely different.”[6] Knowing about these, I believe that the Academy may have been worried about a perverse incentive coming about.  While they most likely chose Dylan to fix their image and gain better footing with pop culture, the media could have responded poorly and put the Prize’s reputation in a worse place.  Luckily, the media has responded positively towards Bob Dylan receiving the award, and not only did the incentive for the Academy work out, but with that an incentive was created for people to go and listen to what the Swedish Academy calls, “a great poet in the English speaking tradition.”[7]


[1] “Incentive.” Accessed October 20, 2016.

[2] “Incentive.” Accessed October 20, 2016.

[3] BBC. “Bob Dylan wins Nobel Prize for Literature.” BBC. Last modified October 13,
2016. Accessed October 20, 2016.

[4] The Moscow Times. “Two-Thirds of Russians Have Never Heard of Svetlana
Alexievich – Poll.” The Moscow Times. Last modified October 30, 2015.
Accessed October 20, 2016.

[5] Haynes, Suyin. “Bob Dylan’s Spotify Streams Skyrocketed After Nobel Prize Win.”
Time. Last modified October 14, 2016. Accessed October 20, 2016.

[6] Wheelan, Charles. Naked Economics. New York City, NY: W. W. Norton & Company,
Inc., 2010.

[7] Ellis-Peterson, Hanna, and Alison Flood. “Bob Dylan wins Nobel Prize in
literature.” the Guardian. Last modified October 13, 2016. Accessed October
20, 2016.


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