A Point of View: Why do medals make people happy?

Three boys with medals Image copyright iStock

Medals and honours don't make people richer, but they do make them happier - even when they're meaningless, argues the writer Adam Gopnik.

Last week I was thinking about Shakespeare and his desire to get a coat of arms and be made a gentleman. I'm sure some of you know the story. Around 1599, someone revived an application to the Garter King of Arms for a heraldic shield and motto for the Shakespeares. It's assumed that this was actually done by young William, rather than by his father, John (the old man having by then gotten into some sort of trouble - religious, political or alcoholic, no one quite knows) back in Stratford. In any case, William did get the coat of arms eventually, complete with a motto "Non Sans Droit" - "Not Without Right.' The great Ben Jonson mocked him by having a simple-minded character in a play boast as his family motto, "Not Without Mustard".

The story is entertaining, and interesting inasmuch as it proves once again what needs no proof - that William Shakespeare of Stratford and William Shakespeare the poet and actor were the same person. But as I turned the old details over in my mind in light of some new information that I happened to be pursuing, one overriding thought did fill my head - why would Shakespeare want a shield? What are there in honours and glittery gewgaws and medals and decorations and mottos that can make a man of genius pursue them? A man of genius at that, who knew everything there was to know about "the bubble, reputation" and the general meaningless of all the things of this world?

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I should add immediately that I throw this stone from a solid glass house - or rather, from what would have been a solid glass house, had several thrown stones not already broken all the windows. I have one small honour - a French decoration that makes me a make-believe knight in a non-existent Empire - a chevalier of the French Republic of Arts and Letters. It entitles me to nothing, empowers me to do nil, and is viewed by all those who see it - to the degree they do - as a touching joke played on a simple minded American Francophile.

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Hear Adam Gopnik present A Point of View: The Love Of Honours on Radio 4, Friday 4 March at 20:50 GMT and repeated Sunday 6 March, 08:50 GMT - Catch up on BBC iPlayer Radio

Nonetheless it means a great deal to me. I wore the medal for the whole evening after the ceremony, to the snickers of my family and the startled looks of the would-be actor-waiters at the restaurant. With French decorations you wear a small ribbon in your lapel afterwards to stand in for the medal even you are too embarrassed to wear on your shirtfront - and there I am, on even semi-formal occasions, beribboned. What makes us want honours we know are more like humiliations? Why do we want prizes - whether the Booker, so dearly desired by so many authors, or the simple prize in the box of the American candy Crackerjack, whose jingle ("Candy-coated popcorn, peanuts and a prize") is the national anthem of American childhood?

Image copyright Alamy

Well, the system of French honours as they exist now, is a decent case study in the psychology of honours and decorations, since it's mostly traceable to a couple of cynical and shrewd despots, first Louis XIV and then Napoleon. Louis had the insight, upon building Versailles, that one of the best ways to keep his quarrelsome and mutinous courtiers from being quarrelsome and mutinous with him was to offer them a thousand small honours and courtesies and promotions, and get them to be quarrelsome and mutinous with each other instead. They were already ennobled, so it didn't pay to ennoble them further - but their presence at the King's waking up or going to bed or an invitation to Marly, the King's hunting lodge, was a valued honour. Fiendishly clever for a rather dull man, Louis made them ask to be invited - they stood by his bedside saying "Marly? Marly?" like 12-year-olds asking to stay up late to watch Breaking Bad. It worked. As Saint Simon, the chronicler of the court tells us, they were so preoccupied with meaningless little honours that they forgot that all the actual power was in the hands of one man.

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Image caption Louis XIV knew the value of awards...

Napoleon, a century plus later, refined this system to bring common people into it, creating a range of decorations and medals and honorific orders that kept his lowborn generals and newly created nobles in line as well. It worked. It worked twice. People offered the choice between plotting for actual power and pining for a meaningless prize, mostly choose the meaningless prize - or enough of them do often enough to mostly defuse the plotting. They preferred the prize, wrapped in candied popcorn, to the red protein of power.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption ... as did Napoleon

There's even a name for this effect in the social sciences. No, it's not the vanilla yogurt effect - this one's called the Dodo's Prize effect. You may know the text from which the name descends - Alice In Wonderland, when Alice, after observing the disorganised caucus race of the many animals, turns to the Dodo and asks who has won. "Everybody has won," the Dodo tells her gravely, "and all must have prizes". And you'll recall, the Dodo then makes Alice pass out comfits, little candies, from her pocket to all the animals as prizes, and finally, since she deserves a prize herself, give her own thimble to the Dodo, who then presents it to her. (Alice thinks the whole thing "very absurd", but Carroll's chief and shrewd satiric insight was that all the animals, and Alice too, are happy with their prizes despite it.) The obviously arbitrary - not to mention indiscriminate - nature of who's awarded what has absolutely no effect on the authority of the prize or the pleasure taken in getting it. We want honours, not earned awards.

Image copyright Alamy

The social science term originates, I gather, with the study of psychotherapy - all forms of psychotherapy seem about equally efficient. Whether one talks about one's screened sexual memories of mother for half an hour on a couch, or seeks out Jungian archetypes of dad, or just does cognitive work in avoiding another quarrel with sister - all of these therapies, the argument goes, work, or don't work, about as well as the next. What's therapeutic is the idea of therapy (obviously, this is much disputed by the psychotherapists.)

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Image caption Awards - better than therapy?

But the Dodo effect is true in every sphere. There are very few pursuits in life where we don't pass out praise and honours all around - the Oscars, just past, are the chief prize in movies but there are so many alternative prizes that everyone gets one eventually. Even the Oscars spread around nicely - we are all startled to see that this cinematographer or that film editor - people who actually resemble us - has won her sixth or seventh honour. We assume that all must have prizes, and we pass them out. The human response to feeling powerless is rage. The human response to not having an honour is to invent another.

But there is a very positive side to the Dodo effect. The competition for meaningless status shows us, secretly, that status is meaningless. If all had honours, you would think no one would value them - but just the opposite is the case. Everybody at Versailles had something, as everyone on a little league football team in America gets a prize - Mr Inspiration, Ms Congeniality… We want honours not to prevent others from having them but to hold them ourselves. People kill each other for power, but they merely ridicule each other for prizes.

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No, the real competition is never for prestige. It is for power. The actual Booker Prize is being waged among publishers, not between authors. The authors are merely the prizes the publishers give each other. A competition for meaningless honours, known to be meaningless from the outset, is therefore just as meaningful when everyone gets one. Let me say that again - if we all know that the prize is worthless, but we want it anyway, then everyone's getting the prize doesn't it make it worth any less.

And so to return to our first question. Why did Shakespeare want a shield? Shakespeare wanted an honour not to feel superior to others but to feel better about himself. He would have been happy had Ben Jonson got a shield and motto of his own. Knowing that others share the same emptiness, we don't envy the fig leaf they wear. People go to war over power. They make peace with prizes. Why did Shakespeare want a shield? To keep in a box for himself alone. Sometimes, at night, he took it out and looked at it. I know.

A Point of View is broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated Sundays 08:50 BST

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