The Ignobel Prizes – A computational study of the Peter Principle

This year’s Ignobel Prizes have been announced. Among the winners are an engineering solution to the problem of collecting whale snot, a prize in Medicine for the people who discovered that asthma can be treated by putting the patient on a roller coaster (I’m having a hard time imagining clinical trials for this!), a Peace prize for the people who’ve shown that swearing relieves pain, a Public Health prize for the people who’ve shown that microbes can be carried on beards, and a prize in Biology for the people who discovered that fruit bats engage in fellatio.

There’s also been a prize in Chemistry for BP, for disproving the age-old notion that oil and water don’t mix, and an Economics prize for the executives and directors of Goldman Sachs, AIG, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, and Magnetar, for finding newer and better ways to screw with the economy (that last phrase is mine).

ResearchBlogging.orgThe best one, for me, is the Management prize for the people who’ve shown using a computational model that the Peter Principle is valid. The Peter principle, for those who didn’t know, states that ‘Every new member in a hierarchical organization climbs the hierarchy until he/she reaches his/her level of maximum incompetence’. The paper can be downloaded from here. The authors have also created a Java applet that lets you test their calculations for yourself.

The paper shows this by building a model of an organisation with different hierarchy levels, by assigning ‘impact factors’ for each level, assuming that the behaviour of the organisation is somewhere between the Peter Hypothesis and a total-merit situation, and by simulating three different strategies – promote the best, promote the worst, and promote at random. (The Peter Hypothesis says that a promotion usually takes a person from a job they are good at and puts them in a job they do badly. It says that the competence at the new level is random, for the purposes of the Ignobel paper.)

The paper finds that, given that you don’t know which of the two hypothesis is operating in a real organisation – i.e. that you don’t know how somebody is going to do at a new hierarchical level  based on how well they do their current job, the best strategy is to promote the best person and the worst person alternatingly (the ratio should be about 0.47:0.53 in favour of the worst person is what the study finds!) If you do know that your organisation obeys the Peter Hypothesis, of course, the best strategy for promotion is to promote the worst employees. (Au contraire, if you know that the Peter Hypothesis is completely invalid, the best strategy is to promote the best employees. Do you see why, one way or the other?)

So, if you got promoted recently, and you think your organisation is headed by a bunch of smart people, you might want to consider whether you were promoted for your hard work or for your… wait, check that. Your organisation is probably headed by nitwits in the first place. Never mind, then!



Pluchino, A., Rapisarda, A., & Garofalo, C. (2010). The Peter principle revisited: A computational study Physica A: Statistical Mechanics and its Applications, 389 (3), 467-472 DOI: 10.1016/j.physa.2009.09.045

[End. Fini. Kaputski. Peter!]


3 thoughts on “The Ignobel Prizes – A computational study of the Peter Principle”

  1. Andre Geim of the Univ. Manchester (Konstantin Novoselov is his student, apparently) has been awarded the Nobel in Physics for his work on Graphene.

    He’d won the 2001 IgNobel for his work on diamagnetic levitation (he made a frog fly).

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