The Top 10 Effect: Why Consumers Depend on Rankings, According to New Research by Rutgers University–Camden Professor

Robert Schindler

Robert Schindler

These days, you can’t scroll through the Internet without seeing a ranked list of the best consumer products, vacation spots, colleges, and virtually anything else worth organizing from the very top to the bottom.

Top 10 lists were a late night staple for the recently retired David Letterman, are a regular feature on ESPN’s SportsCenter, and can be found on just about every blog or Facebook news feed taking up cyberspace. But why do people put so much stock in rankings?

“Ranked lists represent a quick summary of a lot of information. At a glance, consumers can see where the items they’re looking at fall in comparison to other products,” says Robert Schindler, a professor of marketing at the Rutgers School of Business–Camden.

While studying how people process ordered lists, Schindler concluded that consumers mentally create groups and exaggerate perceived differences between consecutively ranked items. These groups are usually based on round numbers, he says.

“When looking at a list, people tend to look for what’s in the top 10 or top 25,” the Rutgers University–Camden scholar says. “They use that information to make judgements on products. This suggests that there might be an exaggerated difference between 10 and 11 and between 25 and 26.”

Through a series of controlled experiments, Schindler and his research partner, Mathew Isaac, an assistant professor of marketing at Seattle University, presented survey respondents with a fabricated list of 28 math students ranked in order of performance on an exam.

Each respondent saw five different versions of the list in which one particular student was ranked 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, or 12th, respectively.

The study showed that the student’s perceived math skills decreased by a wider margin among respondents when his ranking dropped from 10th to 11th than it did when it decreased from 8th to 9th, from 9th to 10th, or from 11th to 12th.

The survey respondents created a category border between the 10th and 11th ranked students in the example, Schindler says.

“There’s a tendency for borders to become distinct when people rank things, so the difference between one side of a border and another side of a border becomes greater,” Schindler says. “Round numbers are used a lot because it’s an easier reference point.”

Schindler applied what he discovered about how people perceive ranked lists and create borders to U.S. News & World Report’s rankings of business schools over a three-year period. He found that if a business school’s ranking surpassed a round-number group border (rising from 12th to 10th or from 26th to 24th, for example), the school received considerably more applications from prospective students.

Furthermore, Schindler says rankings effect product sales, as products ranked inside those round-number groups generally sell better than those ranked outside the groups.

“To most people, the rankings illustrate the quality of a product and they want to purchase the better product or get into a more selective school,” Schindler says. “No one ever says they want to attend a top 11 school.”

He says, for consumers, being aware of the effects of round-number categorization might enable them to compensate for the tendency to experience this cognitive bias when viewing lists.

Schindler’s article, “The Top-Ten Effect: Consumers’ Subjective Categorization of Ranked Lists,” was published in the Journal of Consumer Research in 2014. In 2011, he was recognized as one of the top pricing researchers in the world by an article published in the Journal of Business Research, which surveyed the articles, authors, and institutions that have contributed most to the topic of pricing over the past 30 years.

Schindler received the Bright Idea Award from the Stillman School of Business at Seton Hall University and the NJPRO Foundation, which recognized his paper “Perceived Helpfulness of Online Consumer Reviews: The Role of Message Content and Style” as one of the 10 best manuscripts published in 2012 in New Jersey.

A Cherry Hill resident, Schindler received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and his master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Massachusetts.

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