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"Killer Incentives: Awards, Status Competition, and Pilot Performance during World War II"

New paper by Leo Bursztyn, Philipp Ager and Hans‐Joachim Voth (pdf):

How can [fighter pilots] be motivated to [risk their lives]? We study the role of awards and of status competition. We collect and compile new, detailed data on monthly victory scores of over 5,000 German pilots during World War II. Our results suggest that awards may have been an important incentive. Crucially, we find evidence of status competition: When the daily bulletin of the German armed forces mentioned the accomplishments of a particular fighter [pilot], his former peers perform markedly better. …

The authors write:

In an average month, [a] … German pilot scored 0.55 victories and faced a risk of 3.4% of exiting the sample permanently, synonymous in almost all cases with death.

How does that compare to other extreme activities?

  • The fatality rate for astronauts is about 1%.

  • The chance of dying while making it to a peak above 7000m in the Himalayas is also about 1-2%. Here are the numbers (totals for both members and hired personnel) according to the Himalayan Database assembled by Elizabeth Hawley (see p. 125):1

      Reached top Deaths Share
    1950-1989 16581 425 2.5%
    1990-2009 30738 340 1.1%

So pilots could not well expect to survive and – due to institutional change – those that survived weren’t seen as heroes and those that died weren’t revered as martyrs.

It would be interesting to learn more about the pilots’ motivations and their expectations of the end of the war and the time after. Did they bet on reaping the benefits of their status after the war? Or were they driven by duty, revenging the death of their friends and the wish to outshine their peers?

  1. The Economist puts the number higher for Mt Everest a chance of dying of 1 in 30 while a quarter of people have died that tried to climb Annapurna.