The power of rank information

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People, organizations, and products are continuously ranked. The explosion of data has made it easy to rank everything, and, increasingly, outlets for information try to reduce information loads by providing rankings. In the present research, we find that rank information exerts a strong effect on decision making over and above the underlying information it summarizes. For example, when multiple options are presented with ratings alone (e.g., “9.7” vs. “9.5”) versus with ratings and corresponding ranks (e.g., “9.7” and “1st” vs. “9.5” and “2nd”), the presence of rank information increases preference for the top ranked option. This effect of ranking is found in a variety of contexts, ranging from award decisions in a professional sports league to hiring decisions to consumer choices, and it is independent of other well-known effects (such as the effect of sorting). We find that the influence of ranks is explained by the extent to which decision makers attend to the top ranked option and overlook the other options when they are given rank information. Because they invest a disproportionate amount of attention to the top ranked option when they are given rank information, decision makers tend to learn the strength of the top ranked option, but they fail to process the strengths of the other options. We discuss how rank information may operate as one of the processes by which those at the top of the hierarchy maintain a disproportionate level of popularity in the market.

Ryan Watkins