Rankings Give No. 1 Choice an Extra Boost at the Expense of Others

People pay less attention to other valuable details when they see rankings, research shows

November 22, 2021
Behavioral Science
stock illustration of star, thumbs up icon and other iconography related to ratings

Landing the No. 1 spot in a ranking offers great benefits to the top choice, regardless of whether it’s a vacuum cleaner, restaurant or college.

According to new research from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, ranked lists increase people’s tendency to select the No. 1 option, even among other very similar options.  

The research, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, also shows that rankings cause people to pay less attention to other important information that might affect their decision-making process.

“Rankings seem to be everywhere now,” said Rick Larrick, a social psychologist and Fuqua professor who co-authored the research. “Whichever college has the highest average ratings across features like standardized test scores, selectivity, etc., also receives the No. 1 ranking. But the ranking doesn’t tell you any more than what the college’s overall rating told you. The ranking is redundant information. Our research shows that rankings lead people to chase the No. 1 option at the expense of the others that are often very similar in quality and value.”

To learn how rankings affect decision-making, Larrick arranged seven studies and experiments involving more than 3,600 people. He worked with co-author Jinseok Chun, a former postdoctoral fellow at Fuqua who is now teaching at Sungkyunkwan University.

In one study, they analyzed 70 years of data on National Basketball Association players elected to the All-NBA Team. They learned that players who ranked No. 1 in a prominent statistical category – points, assists or rebounds per game – were more likely to be chosen for the elite team compared to players with a similar overall performance, but who didn’t rank No. 1 in any of the categories.

Pay attention to the actual ratings and don’t get swept up in the rankings.
Rick Larrick, professor of management & organizations
Fuqua School of Business

Further experiments tested how people reacted to rankings based on a specific dimension, such as price or quality. In one example, participants were split into two groups and asked to select a plumbing product. One group saw information that included a list of the products ranked by quality. Seeing that information, their preference for the higher-quality, more expensive option increased. The researchers observed the opposite response from the other group, which saw a different list – the same products ranked by price. Those participants were more likely to choose the lower-quality, less expensive option.

In another example, participants were asked to choose a new sales manager from a pool of job candidates who were evaluated based on two dimensions: their sales records and overall evaluations from their co-workers. When candidates were ranked based on sales, participants easily remembered the No. 1 seller but couldn’t accurately recall the candidate with the best interpersonal skills. When participants saw candidate information that didn’t include any rankings, they were less likely to choose the top seller and more likely to choose the candidate with the strongest interpersonal skills – an essential attribute for any manager, Larrick said.

“Rankings skew how decision-makers review information,” he said. “This can lead people to pay more attention to positive information for a top-ranked choice and overlook the strengths of other options.”

The authors pointed out another caveat about rankings: the creator of any ranking scheme makes subjective decisions about what information to include, and how to weight the importance of these attributes. For restaurant rankings, this could mean deciding whether price, food quality and wait times are equally important, or that food quality is more important than price, Larrick said.

“Our research shows that rankings increase people’s preference for the highest-rated option,” Larrick said. “But hidden underneath those rankings is the fact that a third party made choices about what was included and how these different dimensions were weighted. Who says they are right? Perhaps some attributes matter more to different people. Given how many rankings there are in the media and online, there’s an important real-world implication: Pay attention to the actual ratings and don’t get swept up in the rankings.”

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