Podcast: Why Rankings Matter to People (& Why They Should Not)

In this episode of Status Check with Spivey, Mike discusses some of the psychological and societal reasons that rankings seem to matter so much to people—then explains the reasons that they shouldn't matter as much as they do.

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Full Transcript:

Mike: Welcome to Status Check with Spivey, where we talk about life, law school, law school admissions, a little bit of everything. In the "everything" category—something our firm does for schools but also openly speaks about pejoratively, because it needs to be spoken about—is rankings.

So what do I mean by that? Rankings are incredibly prominent in higher education, much more so than, off the top of my head, any field I can think of. And our firm does reverse-engineer rankings very well, and we can use that model that we have at the undergraduate/law school level to do some pretty sophisticated things as far as where resources should be allocated, etc., etc. But that doesn't mean that we think that rankings are good for the market, are good for schools, are good for students. So while we make money off of rankings, we also openly talk about the negative consequences of rankings publicly. In a perfect world, rankings, I think, would go away or they would be very diffuse. It's a small revenue stream for our firm; we would gladly take the hit. Which often leaves me wondering, why do rankings seem to matter so much? They matter because they impact behavior. And they impact behavior for interesting reasons, and I want to talk about those interesting reasons.

Rankings have been something that, for 26 years now I've been embedded in higher education, I've noticed have a super-sized over-influence on how people behave. Even when I was a kid, I remember my dad every year would have us rank our favorite summer vacations. Whether it was, like, a drive to Hershey Park in Pennsylvania or whatever, he would want us to rank them. So there's something about the human mind that craves rankings. We’re here to dive a little bit into Mike Spivey, we'll call it, pseudo-psychology. Pseudo-psychology based on not just 25, 26 years of thinking about this, but having interviewed now—and you could check out our interviews—people like Terry Real, who has been on Oprah and written a 20-year best-selling list. So I'm tracking with the psychology that they've taught me.

Number one, for evolutionary reasons, humans crave to get rid of extraneous noise. We are bombarded with information, data at such a level that we have to ordinally rank things, which is what rankings do. There's almost a ranking for anything out there, service or product. You can find a rankings for, be it socks or eggs or hospitals. They're ranked. And the reason why they’re ranked is, smart people have realized that people will be drawn, will give them more attention if they rank these things. “What are the top five supplements to take for longevity?” I can tell you right now that we noticed at our firm, very early on in our analytics, if we said something like, “One of the top 10 ways to get into law school,” “One of the top 10 things that will surprise you as a first-year law school student,” those blogs got far more hits analytically than a blog that would say, “Things you should know as an incoming 1L student.” Now we try to titrate this; we try not to go overboard with rankings, because again, it's almost like we understand so well how much rankings matter that it would be unfair to just keep coming up with rankings. Because I don't want to overemphasize—there might not be a "top 10 admissions hacks to get into law school." It might vary from person to person, school to school. In fact, it does, which is why we haven't done “these are the top 10.” There's a top two—have a strong test score, have a great GPA, neither of which our firm does. So focus on those top two, and then there's thousands at the margins that are going to increase your chances you can work on. None of which we're going to rank.

I'm not immune to this at all. I am drawn to things like “Top 10 supplements for longevity,” I can assure you. Why am I drawn to this? So beyond the need to get rid of the noise, I mentioned that in higher education, rankings seem to matter more than in any other arena I’ve seen. Interestingly enough, biglaw particularly seems also to be drawn towards rankings of law firms, rankings of prestige.

In today's society, more than ever before, we have more downtime. It's the easiest time, physically, to survive. There's an abundance of resources available to most people on the planet, almost everyone going to law school; by resources—we don't have to worry about starvation or survival. (Obviously there's outliers.) The converse of that though is, it is the hardest time psychologically to exist on the planet, for that very reason. A great book on this is Dr. Anna Lembke at Stanford's book, Dopamine Nation, speaking about how much time we have in today's society—and how this is only going to trend upward towards 2040—to be in our own heads. Our own heads are going to be pretty messy at times. One of my favorite authors, David Foster Wallace, who, you know, unfortunately struggled himself in his own head, said, you know, “If only I could sit quietly in a room for 15 minutes with my own thoughts.” So often our thoughts are going towards different areas of where we get our esteem, how we feel about ourselves. I promise you, this is coming back to rankings on higher ed in a big way, so just bear with the pseudo-psychology here.

There's four areas to get esteem. I’ll start with the most common for me and maybe a lot of people listening to this—I’d suspect a lot of people listening to this—and I'll end with the best area. There's performance-based esteem. I've written extensively about this, because for much of my life, this was 90% of where my esteem came from. Did I win the race? Did I get an A on the paper? Did my business do well this year? Sounds maybe decent in theory if it drives you towards doing better. The problem is there's always going to be someone better, and if you're purely performance-based esteem, which I essentially was, if you don't perform well, if someone beats you, if you have a bad day or if there's just someone better, then your esteem is going to be low, and has—it's conditioned upon something external. Keep rankings in mind, because performance-based esteem relates to getting into highly ranked schools.

There's other-based esteem. Did that person smile at me? Did that law school email me back? Did that highly-ranked law school email me back? You see where I'm going with this. So other-based esteem is also conditioned, nefariously, on how others treat you. Did I tweet something and someone tweets something angrily back at me? Do I let that impact me? For some people, more than others, that might be low—it's relatively low for me, but it's certainly there for me, I can assure you—and for others, it might be high. And again, for those where it's high, often the higher the ranked the school, the more they crave the other-based attention.

The third—very endemic to higher education; in fact Terry Real in his book, I Don't Want To Talk About It, cites higher education and Harvard as an example—is attribute-based esteem. Did I go to Harvard? Did my child go to Harvard? Did I get a paper in Harvard Law Review? Do I drive a BMW? Any of those are attribute-based esteem.

Incidentally, all three of these, I think, are not what you want. We all have a little bit of these. Yours could be other-based or attribute-based; mine is predominantly performance-based (unfortunately). And higher education, particularly elite schools, would suffer greatly if not for attribute-based esteem. Nothing's black or white.

So I'm not saying any of these are all bad, but ideally—the fourth kind of esteem is unconditional self-love, self-esteem. I'm here, I'm in this universe. So are you. Congrats to both of us; I made it and you made it. I’m not worse than you, but I'm also no better than you. And you've had these moments, I assure you, and I have these moments. I particularly have them when I'm meditating or running in the mountains and just feeling good about life, nature and the universe—we're all in it together.

Rankings are conditioned, and unfortunately, today's society points us in these three directions of performance—"Did I get into Harvard Law School?"—attribute—"Did I go to Harvard Law School?”—other—"Did Harvard Law School show me attention?" What rankings do is, they feed these kinds of esteem that the society we live in thrusts us towards anyways.

We'll probably title this something like, “Why Rankings Matter to People.” I think this is it. I've spent many years thinking of this. There might be more, and if there are, please chime in on our YouTube or Spotify if you have other theories.

But the second part of the title would be, “Why They Should Not.” Should one media source, U.S. News & World Report, tell you, an applicant, that this school is "two better" than another school for you? Of course not. It could be infinitely worse as far as fit. I personally would much rather go to UVA than NYU for many reasons, and I've been to both. And some of those are just the small-town feel versus the big-town feel. We have a feature called MyRank, myrankbyspivey.com, it's free, where you can weigh what categories matter to you. Certainly I could not care less what the median GPA of the people around me in law school is. I personally could not care less about the citation counts of faculty at law schools that I might attend, but other people could. If U.S. News adds in citations, or chairs in the library (an even more, to me, absurd one), yeah, that might matter to a tiny fraction of librarians or other people, but it's not going to matter to you, which is why the first half is behaviorally, psychologically, my best guess why rankings matter. But if we can get past these evolutionary, the first part, in today's society—the second part, reasons rankings really should not matter. Employment outcomes, maybe a ton. So if you were to rank schools just on employment outcomes, maybe they would matter a little more. That still takes you out of the equation. At the end of the day, in an ideal world, it would be you coming up with your own rankings. “I like Princeton Law School because of these reasons that matter to me unconditionally, not conditioned on other people or what society tells me I should like.”

So our firm—it's kind of interesting, and I get that it almost can seem oxymoronic—we look at the rankings carefully, because there's so much misinformation about the rankings. And we put out information about the rankings, but every time we do, to the nth degree, we try to disclaim—almost to the point where it's overly disclaiming—please understand that, as much as we're trying to clarify some of the mystery of the rankings to the market, we're also imploring: do not make big decisions based on rankings. And I see it at the faculty level, sadly; obviously, you know, a lot of some of my best friends in this world are faculty members from schools I've worked at. But you see faculty members treating other faculty members of lower-ranked schools as inferior some of the time. That's not a reflection on the rankings or the school being better, that's a reflection—and I could tell you real-life stories—on the person treating the other person as an inferior.

Ending on that note. Rankings can be deleterious, nefarious, and harmful, not just when you're making school decisions, if you're making it based on what others might think, “Oh well, if others want me to go to a higher ranked school, I should.” We see this all the time. We try to talk people out of this pathway all the time. Please don't make a school decision based on what other people think you should do. It's what you should do. It's even more impactful, in a negative sense and a sad sense, when anyone ever treats someone as an inferior because they think they're at a "higher-ranked school."

I hope this was interesting. The fact that rankings impact behavior so much has long been something that I’ve thought about, and I finally wanted to sit down and just share some of those thoughts. I'm not saying I'm necessarily right, and I think there might be more going on. So if you have more, let us know. This was Mike Spivey of the Spivey Consulting Group.