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2 Jan 2012

The Seduction of Rankings

The Nature of RankingsEven though rankings are extremely subjective, they seduce us as strongly as the sirens did sailors in Greek mythology. Consequently, we often wreck ourselves on the rocky shores of fantasy island.

In order to understand the lure of rankings, we need to understand the lure of numbers. When we quantify something, it becomes easier to grasp. However, easier doesn’t mean that what we are grasping is real. It’s often easier to understand what we want to believe than it is to understand reality. For example, in reality a woman’s measurements don’t tell us much about her, but that doesn’t prevent them from triggering our fantasies.

Applying this illusionary power to rankings, they tap into our insecure desires for:

  1. Simplifying a complex world
  2. Defining limits to large or limitless knowledge pools
  3. Quantifying the unquantifiable
  4. Delivering certainty in an uncertain world

Rankings perform complex thought for us by determining which is better by deciphering many, many variables. They imply we can get by on much less knowledge by giving importance to the top ten rather than the top million or billion. Their parameters and measurements are subjectively determined, trying to measure something that normally is immeasurable. Finally, as implied above, the quantification inherent in rankings provides certainty; “these are the important ones and that’s it.”

For instance, consider these Google searches:

“Top 10” = 743 million results
“Top 100” = 1,083 million
“Top 1,000” = 46 million
“Top 10,000” = 17 million
“Top 100,000” = 2 million
“Top 1,000,000” = .6 million
“Top 1,000,000,000” = 5,250

Clearly, our focus is on the simple with limits; so, the problem is this: How are we going to ever appreciate the billions of unique people, places, creatures and things in this universe if we’re so focused on the top ten?


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