The Ranking Game

The only guy who seems to have escaped the rankings game is Adam. He got into the record books without trying: Before him there was nobody. Eve had to settle for runner-up, and look what happened when she tried to get ahead by snacking on a piece of fruit.

The ancient Greeks picked up the game, fashioning bits of gold, silver and bronze to represent win, place and show. Earning an Olympic medal meant, and still means, you are the best of the best, the top dog in your chosen category of competition. It is absolute and objective, not relative and subjective. The best sprinter gets the gold because she is fast, not because she is popular.

But then the ranking game got strange. Rather than identifying something incontrovertible, such as whether it was Melankomas or Cleitomachus who had the most boxing wins back in ancient Greece, rankings became a melding of opinions, coupled with some facts, about things for which there were no clear-cut answers.

Take, for instance, the U.S. News & World Report annual rankings of American colleges and universities. High school guidance counselors, parents and students around the world have come to rely on the magazine’s report to help them in the college selection process. What fascinates me is that we use these rankings as if they were truth.

Comparing one school’s tuition or alumni giving record with another’s might be important, but it does not say anything about the quality of campus life and the overall educational experience. Likewise, the importance of factors like location, size, student body makeup and sports teams varies depending on the beholder. And, in the end, does it really matter if you enroll at a school ranked 23rd rather than one ranked 24th or even 45th? Is there any real difference between the top 10 liberal arts colleges? Who can really say with certainty that Amherst (#2) is better than Carleton (#8), or not as good as Williams (#1)? And if they do venture an opinion on these matters, what criteria is it based on? Nobody can say for certain whether you should pick Dartmouth (#9) or Columbia (#4), assuming you got into both; we too often rely on rankings.

Seeing how our fellow human beings rank things gives us confidence to make decisions, especially when there really are not clear differences. Do the absolute best singers win on “American Idol” or the Eurovision Song Contest? Is it really the top chef who wins on “Top Chef”? Or the best fashion designers who win on “Project Runway”? Or the best chili cooks who win the Terlingua chili competition? No, just like colleges and universities, these are categories that defy absolute comparisons.

Malcolm Gladwell, a keen observer of the idiosyncrasies of life, recently argued in The New Yorker magazine that when organizations develop a comprehensive system using multiple variables for doing rankings, the outcome grows arcane. Even if the ranking organization considers a multitude of categories, the one that is of most importance to you may escape notice. For example, Gladwell looked at the automobile ratings in the American edition of Car and Driver and offered a fascinating analysis of the magazine’s ranking method, which uses 21 variables and a 235-point rating system, based on four categories. Change the weight of any of the variables and the results tilt up or down. Who decides if “fun to drive” should get more points than “chassis”? More variables lead to greater ambiguity. The same is true for colleges and universities.

Given these built-in flaws, what fascinates me is the public’s need for numerical ranking for almost everything. Using such “data” is a staple of how people from around the world — especially Americans — think about much of daily life. We like keeping score, breaking life into columns of “wins” and “losses,” as if ranking lattes or croques-monsieurs was the same as ranking soccer teams or prizefighters. Restaurants are awarded coveted stars, as well as forks and knives, by Michelin or given numerical rankings by Zagat for food, ambience and service. So important have these rankings become that there are people who plan vacations around a tour of multistar eateries in France or Spain, around five-star hotels in the countryside, around wineries producing 95-and-up wines.

Is it wise strategy for us to do this, in an attempt to minimize our chances of being disappointed, or do we do it because we are insecure? Do rankings help us, by getting us to focus on what matters, or do they keep us from straying off the beaten track and away from new adventures? Do rankings open or close the mind? Do they lead to more opportunities or fewer? It depends on how we use them.

Social media and e-commerce have given everyone’s opinion a new level of legitimacy and visibility. Just this week a friend told me that her new book had reached the top 100 Kindle downloads on Amazon’s list. Is that better or worse than appearing on The New York Times Best Sellers list? How does it compare with a review by someone who reads books for a living? Or, with a professor’s analysis? Or with what the author’s peers think? And, of course, does the number of people who download an e-book bear any relationship to a book’s accuracy, meaning, not to mention its style and grace?

Not all rankings are meaningful. If you are a consumer of something, you need to know what result you want in order not to be misguided by rank. That varies depending on what is at stake.Are you looking for fun-to-drive over chassis rigidity, or is it speed over looks? In a college or university, you have to know what you want before you take advice from a group of strangers.

Adam didn’t have to deal with people who put a premium on rank. In fact, for a long while, he didn’t have to deal with anybody at all. He made all his own decisions. When the Greeks came on the scene, they gave medals for performance. But the Greeks didn’t give medals for knowing yourself or knowing what you want. If you want to use the rankings, be my guest. But how will you know whether you get what you want if you don’t know what you want to get?

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Stephen Joel Trachtenberg is president emeritus and university professor of public service at the George Washington University and chairman of the Education Specialty Practice at Korn/Ferry International. He is based in Washington, D.C.