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Idol Pleasures

What we prize, we eventually resemble—in unintended ways.

Charles Tilly has written a fascinating book called Credit and Blame, about … well, if you can't get it from the title, it's not my fault. Tilly, a Columbia professor of social sciences, says that humans have invented four ways of giving credit.

1. Tournaments: a process of competitive elimination that starts with many contestants but narrows the winners down to one or a few.

2. Honors: where members of a select group screen outsiders and select a chosen few for recognition.

3. Promotions: the achievement of a certain rank or advance based on some level of performance.

4. Networks: local tribes of people distinguish certain members in their midst who deserve social prizes.

What struck me was a paragraph he wrote about the world in which prizes most resemble tournaments. "Consider the world of novelists, poets, painters, dancers, runners, violinists, boxers, opera singers, fashion models, jazz musicians, and motion picture actors. Tournaments seduce. They offer spectacular rewards to ...

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