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Who’s on first and last?

New research shows that looking at the big picture helps us appreciate where we are.

We’ve all heard of the Cinderella story. No, not the one with the evil stepsisters. The one where in 2018, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, defeated Virginia to become the first 16-seed team ever to upset a No. 1 seed in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Or who can forget the 1980 U.S. men’s Olympic hockey team beating the USSR? In the business world, Apple and Amazon — both of which started in a garage — came from out of nowhere to become two of the biggest businesses in the world.

It’s a phenomenon that Evan Weingarten, assistant professor of marketing, observed watching an esports tournament, and it got him thinking. “There was a team that was at the top of the standings the entire time,” he says. “I was rooting for them and thinking, ‘There's no way they won't make the finals.’ Then the last round of the tournament — seemingly out of nowhere — this team that was ranked below them leapfrogged them and made the finals instead. I was just like, ‘Wait, what just happened?’”

What happened was, Weingarten messaged his friend, Alixandra Barasch, an associate professor of marketing at the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado Boulder, to say: “This just happened. I think there's something there.”

That message led to the paper published, "Who’s On First? People Asymmetrically Attend to Higher-Ranked (vs. Lower-Ranked) Competitors,” which Weingarten wrote with co-authors Barasch and Shai Davidai, assistant professors in the management division of Columbia Business School. The team looked at whether people attend more and respond more to the people who are ranked above them. For example, if you're ranked fifth, do you react more to the people ranked first, second, third, and fourth? Are they more attention-grabbing than the people who are ranked just below you in sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth?

If that’s the case, Weingarten says, people are missing out on the big picture.

The thing that always gets me is, to know how well you're doing in life, you can’t only pay attention to the people who are better than you. If you want to get a sense of how you're doing, you have to look at the full distribution.

That’s true not just to get ahead or stay ahead, but also to appreciate where you are. Students might get upset because a classmate scored better than they did, for example, but they ignore the 75% of the class who scored way worse than they did.

While this asymmetry means that teams and individuals are keeping their eye on the prize, they’re neglecting to look behind or below them. That’s where the Cinderella story sneaks in.

Studying asymmetry

The team designed several studies to test their theory that tried to get people to spend more time thinking about other parts of the distribution, not just the top.

In one of the studies, participants — identified only by their home state — competed against others to complete a word jumble and showed results that they were ranked fifth among nine competitors.

After a brief filler task, they were asked to identify the states representing their higher-ranked and lower-ranked competitors. Participants consistently remembered the states that were higher ranked more accurately than those ranked below them.

Researchers also asked NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament fans to recall the teams slated to play in their team’s regional bracket. As predicted, participants recalled a greater proportion of the teams ranked higher than their team than the teams ranked below their team.

In another study, participants imagined taking part in a stock investment competition with eight friends that had been going on for seven months. They were told that they were currently ranked in fifth place with five months to go. The participants were offered the opportunity to choose to add one of two funds to their portfolio: the Sigma Fund (which could mitigate risk by diversifying their portfolio) and the Epsilon Fund (which would increase their risk by failing to diversify their portfolio). They also had the chance to see what fund the highest-ranking participants had selected. In most cases, the lower-ranking people followed the lead of the top-ranked person even though it increased their risk.

The overinflation effect

Beyond sports and competitions, the paper’s findings have several practical implications. They found that an asymmetrical focus on higher-ranking individuals plays out in terms of people overinflating minority representation. If several Fortune 500 companies have female executives, for example, it can create the impression that we've solved gender discrimination, Weingarten says. “No, we haven't. You're just more sensitive to the people who are at the top of the hierarchy so you might overinflate representation because you assume the bottom of the distribution looks like the top of the distribution,” he explains. “If you see more women at the top, you’re likely to think, ‘Well, there are a lot of women up there, there are probably a lot of women below me as well,’ when the reality is they're still underrepresented.”

Another area this asymmetrical focus can affect is your workplace or classroom performance. Over-attention to those who rank above you can influence your motivation. When you focus on people who are slightly better than you or even people who are superstars relative to you, you might become depressed or feel hopeless that you’ll never achieve the highest standing.

On the flip side, if you only look at the bottom part of the distribution, you might tell yourself you’re so much better off than them, which can lead to a lack of motivation. Looking at the full distribution can give you a picture of the true dynamics of the situation, so you don’t spend a lot of time beating yourself up for not being the top performer and maybe even appreciate the fact that you’re doing great. But ultimately, he says, it depends on how you internalize these kinds of comparisons.

“I think there's sort of a balance, and there are dynamic opposing forces there — the people ahead of you might motivate you but they also might depress you while the people below you might strike fear in your heart because you don’t want to risk being in their shoes,” he says. He suggests thinking of it this way: You might not be the No. 1 salesperson in your region or received the best score on your last exam, but 100 people are sitting in a room right now wishing they were in your spot.

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