The Tarantino Puzzle

Erik Aadland

From the Oscars to the Nobel Prize in science, social relationships play a fascinating role in peer evaluations. Are you more likely to win recognition from your peers ‒ or is a friend on the jury your worst enemy?


Consider the fame, fortunes and prestige that flow to the winners of an Oscar, a Nobel Prize or a Grammy award. By creating winners and losers, these awards invokes fascinating social dynamics, igniting antagonisms and calling into question standards of evaluations.

The 67th Venice Film Festival in 2010, where director Quentin Tarantino was the head of the jury, perfectly illustrates these issues. 

While claiming their decisions were not biased, Tarantino’s former partner Sofia Coppola won the best film award and his long-time friend Alex de la Iglesia won two awards, including for best director. His mentor Monte Hellman won a special career award created ad hoc just for him by the jury.

«I actually had a friend on the jury and he told me that a friend on the jury is your worst enemy, as they would be too embarrassed to give you a prize», Tarantino replied, referring to something his mentor said 20 years earlier, when asked by the press whether he had favoured his friends.

Did Tarantino have a point? How do social relationships between jury members and candidates competing for recognition affect the selection of award winners in peer-based evaluative settings?

Relationships and selecting winners

In a study conducted together with Gino Cattani (NYU Stern) and Simone Ferriani (University of Bologna), we examined awarding decisions in a prestigious competition in the Norwegian advertising industry, using a mix of interviews with industry insiders and statistical analysis of large sample data over an 8-year period.

We wanted to investigate whether jury members tend to favour candidates with whom they worked in the past (direct ties), who favoured them in the past (reciprocity) or who are part of the same network clique (cliquishness).

Our findings reveal how relationships indeed can catalyze recognition, yet they also compellingly indicate that relationships can inhibit jury members from engaging in favoritism.

While the relational mechanisms mentioned above all improved a candidate’s odds of attaining an honourable mention, only reciprocity helped candidates move from being mentioned to actually winning an award. In other words, if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.

Searching for self-worth

The positive influence of direct ties to the jury on receiving an honourable mention does not carry over to actually winning the award. This change of significance across recognition levels is even stronger when candidates and jury members are embedded in cohesive networks.

Being part of the same clique can be your ticket into the restricted elite of professionals who are deemed worthy of an honourable mention ‒ but it will not move you up the ladder from the merely good to the great.

The role of awards is crucial in societies where the search for knowledge about one’s worth relative to others is intense. Awards won in film festivals increase box office results, literary prizes ensure access to exclusive distribution channels, and medals in science raise the odds of getting research grants.

Our study’s findings is especially important in light of our society’s ever-increasing calls for transparency in public life. Social relationships do matter, but are not decisive.

In meritocratic cultural settings with strong vocational pride and professional ethos, the suspicion of violating the ideal of impartiality may squander peoples’ reputation. While our study does not ultimately uncover Tarantino’s motivations, it shows how both self-serving interests and a genuine desire to signal moral integrity and avoid inauthenticity concerns might drive jury members in charge of granting prestigious honours.

Only a small number of academic publications ranks as the best in their field world-wide. Last year, 16 BI researchers published papers in these ABS4* journals. These journals are considered among the highest in terms of impact factor and have the highest requirements of data and rigour in theory. Throughout 2019, we highlight these academics, their research and its impact on society.


Aadland, E., Cattani, G., & Ferriani, S. (2019). Friends, Gifts, and Cliques: Social Proximity and Recognition in Peer-Based Tournament Rituals. Academy of Management Journal, 62(3), 883-917. doi:10.5465/amj.2016.0437

Watch the video below: A short film further describing Aadland and his colleagues' research into how social relationships affect peer evaluations: 


Judging winners

Published 21. June 2019

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