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Darla Moore School of Business

Economics professor studies optimal conditions for workplace and innovation contests

May 26, 2020

Moore School economics assistant professor Philip Brookins is interested in individuals’ behavior in workplace competition settings and, more generally, any contest-like situation.

The goal of Brookins’ research is to understand how individuals behave in various competitive situations and to create settings that lead to the highest performance in such contests, such as maximizing the expected quality of a new innovative product or stimulating high efforts across employees in the workplace.

“Contests are everywhere,” Brookins said. “Examples include employees competing for a raise, firms racing for exclusive patent rights and programmers competing in algorithmic contests hosted by Netflix and NASA."

With his current research heavily focused on the optimal design of open innovation contests, Brookins asks questions about how to optimally structure contests so as to best induce superior innovations, the number of rewards that should be offered, the type of environmental information or feedback that should be available to competitors, among others.

Brookins said his research typically follows a two-step process. First, using a game-theoretic approach — a mathematical framework involving the strategic interactions between variables — he models the competitive situations needed to explore his research questions. Second, he carries out laboratory experiments to test the validity of model predictions. These techniques help Brookins understand behaviors in certain competitive settings and whether or not they agree with theoretical predictions. Altogether, this approach allows him to better advise contest administrators about how to best achieve their desired contest results.

For example, the contest design conducive to solving chemical equations might differ from the design that best promotes creative innovation. Brookins’ research attempts to identify these characteristics and their outputs.

“With the proper design, a contest can induce high-quality outputs that can significantly impact society by providing faster and more efficient algorithms, new technological advancements, improved architectural design or even stimulating high effort levels within organizations,” Brookins said. “Consequently, it is important to understand which design should be used, keeping in mind environmental factors and contest objectives.”

Often, small and inexpensive changes to the contest design and environment can increase competitors’ performance. For example, if a contest organizer wants to maximize collective investments, should she let contestants know the total number of other contestants they are competing with, or should this information be concealed? This is a costless decision. In a series of laboratory experiments, Brookins found that disclosing the total number of competitors significantly increased contest investments, but only when the expected number of potential competitors was low.

“This has far-reaching consequences for the success and impact of a contest,” Brookins added.

Brookins has also researched the impact of group size on competition results and the optimal sorting of workers in professional competition settings. Brookins asks questions like, “how should we sort individuals with different levels of talent into competing teams in a way that will maximize total contest investments? Should the most talented workers be sorted together to form one team, thereby leaving less talented workers to form another? Or, should balanced teams be created, with each consisting of a mixture of low and high-talent individuals?”

After a series of laboratory experiments, and contrary to many theoretical predictions, he found that creating balanced teams always produced higher total contest investments than unbalanced teams. While this research was targeted towards workplace competitions, Brookins points out that the implications are profound. For example, in professional sports, teams must abide by restrictive competition rules that provide a more balanced pool of talent. With salary caps or reverse-order drafts, teams are unable to recruit all of the highest-performing players to have more collective efforts that mix lower- and higher-talent athletes.

Brookins finds laboratory experiments like these intriguing.

“The level of diversity and flexibility in research is why studying economics is so exciting for me,” he said.

While Brookins chooses to specialize in the contest sector of economics, he said he likes that there are many interesting fields of expertise within the economics industry. Brookins has previously researched topics within behavioral economics and economic psychology.

With this being Brookins’ first year teaching at the Moore School, he said he is excited to explore USC and Columbia.

“Accepting the offer to join the Economics Department in the Moore School was easy,” Brookins said. “My new colleagues are friendly and productive, and I have research overlap with many of them. I already feel at home working from my new office.”

Additionally, Brookins said he looks forward to partaking in outdoor activities, growing carnivorous plants, enjoying interesting restaurants in Columbia as well as attending Gamecock athletics events, especially tennis matches.

-Erin Mooney

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.