The Phantom Steering Effect in Q&A Websites.

Nicholas Hoernle, Gregory Kehne, Ariel D. Procaccia, Kobi Gal

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contributionpeer-review


Badges are commonly used in online platforms as incentives for promoting contributions. It is widely accepted that badges “steer” people's behavior toward increasing their rate of contributions before obtaining the badge. This paper provides a new probabilistic model of user behavior in the presence of badges. By applying the model to data from thousands of users on the Q&A site Stack Overflow, we find that steering is not as widely applicable as was previously understood. Rather, the majority of users remain apathetic toward badges, while still providing a substantial number of contributions to the site. An interesting statistical phenomenon, termed “Phantom Steering,” accounts for the interaction data of these users and this may have contributed to some previous conclusions about steering. Our results suggest that a small population, approximately 20%, of users respond to the badge incentives. Moreover, we conduct a qualitative survey of the users on Stack Overflow which provides further evidence that the insights from the model reflect the true behavior of the community. We argue that while badges might contribute toward a suite of effective rewards in an online system, research into other aspects of reward systems, such as Stack Overflow's reputation points, should become a focus of the community.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publication2020 IEEE International Conference on Data Mining (ICDM)
EditorsClaudia Plant, Haixun Wang, Alfredo Cuzzocrea, Carlo Zaniolo, Xindong Wu
Number of pages10
ISBN (Electronic)9781728183169
StatePublished - 2020
Event20th IEEE International Conference on Data Mining, ICDM 2020 - Virtual, Sorrento, Italy
Duration: 17 Nov 202020 Nov 2020

Publication series

NameProceedings - IEEE International Conference on Data Mining, ICDM
ISSN (Print)1550-4786


Conference20th IEEE International Conference on Data Mining, ICDM 2020
CityVirtual, Sorrento


  • Virtual badges
  • steering
  • goal-gradient hypothesis
  • amortized inference


Dive into the research topics of 'The Phantom Steering Effect in Q&A Websites.'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this