The Allure of Prizes: How Contests Trap Us in Competitive Relationships

Michael Scroggins, Daniel Souleles

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Contests and prizes along with the compulsion to make winners and losers are ubiquitous features of contemporary capitalism in the USA. Combining the anthropological literature on traps and trapping, Simmel’s work on competitive relationships, film criticism, and a rereading of management consulting logic, we develop a theory of prizes as organizers and enforcers of competitive relationships. We argue that contests are traps, funnelling both the wary and unsuspecting into competitive relationships through the lure of material and symbolic rewards. Empirically, our argument proceeds through paired case studies. The first case examines how a straightforward (if technically daunting) educational project designed to teach newcomers the basics of laboratory techniques is transformed into a competitive project when a potential prize is introduced. The second case examines how people spontaneously organize and compete with each other around the promise of an amorphous and fictitious prize during the development of high-speed trading.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationCompetition : What It Is and Why It Happens
EditorsStefan Arora-Jonsson, Nils Brunsson, Raimund Hasse, Katarina Lagerström
Number of pages15
Place of PublicationOxford
PublisherOxford University Press
Publication date2021
ISBN (Print)9780192898012
ISBN (Electronic)9780192652867
Publication statusPublished - 2021


  • Contests
  • Prizes
  • Traps
  • DIYbio
  • High-frequency stock trading

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