Why do we compare other people and things?

We permanently compare ourselves with others. High school class reunions, say, are wonderful opportunities to compare our success in any aspects of life from attractiveness via career and intelligence to marriage. The self-evaluation of our own attitudes, abilities and beliefs is based on comparison with others. This observation turned to be a celebrated theory of social psychology, called social comparison theory published by Leon Festinger in 1954. We don’t necessary like to see that we are overweighted compared to our former teammates, but generally (well, I wrote.. generally, so not always…) we have the social skills to control our envy feelings. The quote attributed to former U.S. president Teddy Roosevelt, ”Comparison is the thief of joy”, still we can’t stop to compare. Social psychologists still analyze our motivation to compare, and in their book “Friend and Foe: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both” Adam Galinksy a social psychologist from Columbia University) and Maurice Schweitzer (from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania) write that ”when it comes to using social comparison to boost your own motivation, here is the key rule to keep in mind: Seek favorable comparisons if you want to feel happier, and seek unfavorable comparisons if you want to push yourself harder.” You may not be able to quit your social-comparison habit, but you can learn to make it work for you.”

Upward and downward comparison: person compares herself with other who are better/worse than her. There are from literature to pop culture, reflected also in the idiom ”Keeping up with the Joneses”. Here I add just one example from my own life:
”As a young adult I had two close friends, say John and Joe. In the seventies and early eighties people did not necessarily have a car in Budapest. If they had, most likely it was an ”Eastern” car, the most common was called Trabant produced in East Germany. It adopted two-stroke engines, what was very obsolete even that time. It was told that two people needs to its construction, one who cuts and one who glues, as it was from plastic. There was a story I remember: A donkey and a Trabant meet the Thuringian Forest. ”Hi car!” – greeted the donkey. ”Hi donkey! – answered the Trabant. ”It is not nice to call me donkey, if I addressed you as a car. You should have called me at least as a horse! I bought a six year old Trabant in my mid-thirties as my first car. It was not a status symbol, but it had four wheels.. John does not have any car (not only he could not afford it as a mathematician, but he had high diopter glasses, could not get driving licence). Textbooks suggest that the positive effects of any downward competition is gratitude what I certainly felt. While I don’t believe I felt the textbook’s negative effect (scorn), but I might have experienced some superiority. Joe, who worked for a French company soon got a ”Western” car, actually a Renault type. Did I felt any hope or inspiration, the positive effects of upward comparison of the textbooks? Probably my aspiration increased to afford (well, in a distant future a Western car. As concerns negative effects, I cannot deny I was envy. Was John unhappy or frustrated? Absolutely not! Relevance is a necessary condition of social comparison, and he was absolutely not interested in having cars! “

About the ranking of employees

How to rank employees? Just to mention and example: in the last several years Yahoo’s Quarterly Performance Review has extensively been discussed not only in the business/leadership literature, but in the popular magazines, too. It is very difficult or impossible to find objective measures to promote gifted and lay off inappropriate employees. Still, we know that employees are different in terms of their ability, performance, so we should understand the challenge to rate and rank people. The link is eighteen months old, still it is worth to read.

From the Ten Commandments to the Top Ten Lists

Ten Commandments seem to be an unranked list. However, in the rabbinic literature there are different interpretations whether or not some items have higher rank than others. Say, Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi said: Be as scrupulous in observing a minor commandment as a major commandment, because you do not know the value of each commandment; (Pirkei Avot 2:1). (Pirkei Avot is generally translated as Ethics of the Fathers.) Actually the situation is more complicated. In the rabbinical Judaism to refer to the 613 commandments (mitzvah) given in the Torah at biblical Mount Sinai and the seven rabbinic commandments instituted later for a total of 620. ”There IS a value to each mitzvah; we just don’t know what it is. A specific mitzvah may be worth dozens of other mitzvot. Only the Master of Opinions knows how the comparison between sins and merits is made; (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 3:1-2). Our obsession with chart rankings, top ten list etc. might be considered as some secular echo of the litanies of faith.

Competitive Titles

toThere are several excellent books, which discuss different aspects of ranking, from the mathematical algorithms to ranking academic institutions, countries or political candidates.

The book   Who’s #1?: The Science of Rating and Ranking  written by the mathematicians Amy N. Langville and Carl D. Meyer (Princeton Univ. Press, 2012) grew up from the authors’ studies on mining the Web, and offer a broad overview on the mathematical algorithms and methods used to rate and rank sports teams, political candidates, products, Web pages etc., and is naturally located on a shelf for math books.

Engines of Anxiety: Academic Rankings, Reputation, and Accountability (Russel Sage, 2016) by two sociologists, Wendy Nelson Espeland and Michael Sauder analyzes the history and present practice of evaluation and ranking of the quality of higher education institution, particularly law schools. Ranking not only reflects but also shapes social hierarchy. The book well demonstrates our paradoxical emotions to ranking, quantification of performance are both needed very much and also source of anxiety.

Rather parallelly, Ranking the World: Grading States as a Tool of Global Governance   (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2015) edited by Alexander Cooley and Jack Snyder (Editors) describes our paradoxical emotions to ranking. International ranking of states performance are characterized by about hundred different indices, from ”Human Freedom Index” via ”Corruption Perceptions Index” to ”World Happiness”. The pattern is that ranking organizations are not totally independent, and some ranked countries (say, China and Russia) occasionally reacted angrily to the performance analysis, still they are interested in the result.

Majority Judgment: Measuring, Ranking, and Electing (MIT Press, 2011) by by Michel Balinski and Rida Laraki is about ranking political candidates, and the authors argue that ”The intent of this book is to show why the majority judgment is superior to any known method of voting and to any known method of judging competitions.”

I was somewhat positively surprised that the narrative of all the three social science books seems to be conform with the take away of my own planned book: we like ranking with the hope that it reflects objectivity, but frequently the objectivity is illusion only, and might be subject to manipulation. The challenge is to write a popular, easily readable integrative book on ranking and rating in accordance with both the modern theories of social and computational sciences and the everyday’s experience


Welcome to the site of Ranking

I decided to write a non-fiction book with the title and subtitle RANKING – The reality, illusion and manipulation of objectivity.  The book discusses the Hows and Whys of our love and fear of making ranks and being ranked through many real life examples to be viewed from three different angles (reality, illusion and manipulation) of objectivity. Ranking converts scientific theories to everyday’s experience by raising and answering such question as:

  • Are college ranking lists objective?
  • How to rank and rate states based on their fragility, corruption or even happiness?
  • How to find the most relevant web pages?
  • How to rank employees?

Life and society is really complex, consequently our message is not so simple such as ”Ranking is good!” or ”Ranking is bad!”. Since we permanently rank ourselves and others and are also being ranked, the message is twofold: how to prepare the possible most objective ranking and how to accept that ranking does  not necessarily reflects our real values and achievements. The reader will understand our difficulties to navigate between objective and subjective and gets help to identify and modify her place in real and virtual communities by combining our human intelligence with computational techniques.