The psychology of prizes

Obama’s Nobel Prize brought to mind a vaguely remembered line in a novel by Thomas Bernhard (I think it was Wittgenstein’s Nephew but only because that is the only novel of his I remember reading) to the effect that nothing is as humiliating as being given a prize.  Bernhard was famously splenetic, as were the anti-heroes of his novels, but that line stuck in my head because it had the ring of truth.  Virtually everyone with any sense recognizes that Obama’s prize was an embarrassment, including Obama himself:

I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who have been honored by this prize, men and women who’ve inspired me and inspired the entire world through their courageous pursuit of peace.

It’s one thing to be modest about one’s accomplishments, but few people who win prizes actually say they don’t deserve them.  In doing so, one casts doubt on the judgment of the prize committee and hence the merits of the other prize winners—which can only come across as a monstrous act of ingratitude—and diminishes oneself as well.  But Obama had no alternative; he could not claim that he deserved the prize because no one outside the prize committee believes that his accomplishments compare with those who have won it.  To accept the prize without qualification would come across as megalomania of the first order.  (Just imagine the ridicule and incomprehension that would have greeted any suggestion that Obama deserved the prize if it had been made by anyone prior to the announcement of the award.)

Obama did not reject the prize, of course.  His equivocal response—accepting the prize but declaring that he does not deserve to be in the company of the people who did deserve it, and treating it as a “call to action”—was bizarre in literal terms, but was politically a reasonable effort to squirm out of the dilemma imposed on him by the unworldly Norwegian politicians who put him to the choice of ingratitude or megalomania.

Few of us deserve prizes of any sort but we’re also spared the humiliation of having to announce our unworthiness to the world.  In Obama’s case, a further complication is that he is the president of the United States and, both in official and popular mythology, he’s a great and world-historical figure.  Just, by his own concession, not as great as Al Gore, Jimmy Carter, or Jody Williams, it turns out.