‘Top 10 Effect’: Unpacking the science of rankings


‘Top 10 Effect’: Unpacking the science of rankings

Previous research has shown media rankings to be highly influential. Now, a new study reveals the importance of number placement and annual movement.

Photograph by: Postmedia News/Photo Illustration , Postmedia News

It’s no wonder Santa checks his list twice. A striking new study reveals that rankings don’t affect people’s valuations in the linear way you’d think, with the difference in worth between each number being equal.

Instead, researchers find we have a tendency to mentally group things in fives and 10s, and ultimately perceive exaggerated disparity between numbers ending in zeros or fives and the numbers that immediately follow. For example, Christmas toys ranked 11th and 13th on a list would have a smaller perceived gap in importance than those ranked 10th and 11th.

They call it the “Top 10 Effect,” and it has vast implications for universities, brands, businesses, and pretty much anything else subject to media lists — which, this time of year, are harder to avoid than a headache in a mall parking lot.

“Lots of companies make decisions based on their specific rank (on a list),” said study co-author Mathew Isaac, assistant professor of marketing at the Albers School of Business and Economics at Seattle University.

“This study tells us that if you’re at 15 and it’s going to take a lot of work to get into the Top 10, you may not want to make that investment. But if you’re at 11, it may really be worth it because that one spot could make a huge difference in the minds of consumers.”

The paper, to appear in the prestigious Journal of Consumer Research, draws on six experiments in a variety of settings.

In one, for instance, investigators looked at data from 484,922 takers of a business school admissions exam over a three-year period, which included the names of schools to which the students wished to apply. These were then compared with U.S. News & World Report’s annual ranking of business schools in each of those years.

Notably, if a school’s ranking passed a boundary — say, improving from 12 to 10 or from 26 to 24 — that shift was the best predictor of an increase in the number of applications the institution received.

In another experiment, 193 participants were given a list of 28 math students ranked in order of performance on an exam. They were then asked to evaluate those students’ skills on a scale ranging from “extremely weak” to “extremely strong.”

The manipulation involved fictional student Charles Pipp, who was ranked differently depending on which list a participant was given.

Ultimately, Isaac and co-author Robert Schindler, of Rutgers University, found Pipp’s perceived math skills decreased by a small amount when his rank moved from eight to nine, from nine to 10, or from 11 to 12. However, when his rank changed from 10 to 11 — crossing a category boundary — his perceived prowess decreased by a disproportionately large amount.

In other words, if there’s something you really want to find under the tree this year, be aware of where you place it on your wish list. Numbering it five instead of six could make all the difference Christmas morning.



Top 10 Effect

Previous research has shown media rankings to be highly influential. Now, a new study reveals the importance of number placement and annual movement.

Photograph by: Postmedia News/Photo Illustration , Postmedia News


More Photo Galleries

Rovaniemi, Norway

10 frigid places that were warmer...

Check out some of the notoriously frosty places from...

Dressing for the cold, Calgary-style

Dressing for the bitter cold, ...

It's hard to look chic when the thermometer is at -...

A file photo taken on March 15, 1994 shows the President of the African National Congress (ANC) Nelson Mandela raising a clenched fist to supporters upon his arrival for an election rally

Ten inspirational quotes from ...

Wise words from a leader who devoted his life to battling...

We encourage all readers to share their views on our articles and blog posts. We are committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion, so we ask you to avoid personal attacks, and please keep your comments relevant and respectful. If you encounter a comment that is abusive, click the "X" in the upper right corner of the comment box to report spam or abuse. We are using Facebook commenting. Visit our FAQ page for more information.

Calgary Herald Headline News

Sign up to receive daily headline news from the Calgary Herald.


A protester breaks apart a statue of Lenin at a monument in his honor after it was pulled down during a mass rally called “The March of a Million” in Kiev’s Independence Square on December 8, 2013. Ukrainians protesting against the government’s rejection of a key pact with the European Union today toppled the statue of Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin in central Kiev, police said. Hundreds of thousands of pro-EU Ukrainians rallied in Kiev on December 8 for a new protest aimed at forci

Gallery: Protests expand in Ukraine over desire to join EU

Ukrainians protesting against the governments rejection of a key pact with the European Union...



Calgary Hitmen #24 Joe Mahon exchange punches with Lethbridge Hurricanes #27 Carter Folk during third period WHL action Saturday night at the Scotiabank Saddledome.

Gallery: Tough Hitmen beat Hurricanes 5-2

The Calgary Hitmen overcame the Lethbridge Hurricanes 5-2 Saturday night, and not without dropping the...


Santa Shuffle

Gallery: Frozen Faces of the Santa Shuffle

About a 1000 runners braved the North Pole like temperatures Saturday to raise money for the Salvation...


Santa Retires

Gallery: Santa Retires

Retired Calgary firefighter Don Sawatzky has acted as Santa Claus for 60 years at the Firefighters&#...



Rovaniemi, Norway

Gallery: 10 frigid places that were warmer than Calgary on Friday morning

Check out some of the notoriously frosty places from around the world that were warmer than our fair...


Gallery: Queen's Ball

Gallery: Teens shine at Nanton Queen's Ball

The 47th Annual Nanton Queens Ball took place on Dec. 6, 2013 at J. T. Foster school with 13 ...

Subscribe to Calgary Herald and stay connected your way