Party Pooper of the Year

When I put the search term “of the year award” into Google it found 6,840,000 results. There was Museum of the Year, Business Analyst of the Year, MP of the Year, Pension Scheme of the Year and multiple awards of Book of the Year, Player of the Year and Employee of the Year. There were even awards for Loo of the Year and one for the year’s Oddest Book Title –for which books titled “Nipples on My Knee” and “Renniks Australian Pre-Decimal and Decimal Coin Errors: The Premier Guide for Australian Pre-Decimal and Decimal Coin Errors” were hot contenders in 2017.

Presumably, many of these awards are not intended to be taken too seriously –though it’s surprising how competitive people can be when there’s a potential title on offer. After all, there have been many reports of gardeners sabotaging their rival’s prize plants in the dead of night. And the supposedly gentle hobby of birdwatching in Britain has been described as truly savage as twitchers battle to dominate the rankings (yes – there are countless birdwatching rankings).

In some cases, awards provide an incentive for the delivery of improved services or products, and they bring satisfaction and pride to the winners, though this may be countered by the collective demotivation and resentment of the many candidates who didn’t win.

Besides the elation or misery they may bring to the contenders, rankings and awards can have significant effects on our decisions. We might choose to study at a university that’s been crowned University of the Year, buy a 4 x 4 that’s Car of the Year, invest our savings on the say so of a Financial Advisor of the Year or promote an academic who’s won the Journal Paper of the Year award.

So does choosing numero uno really mean we can predict that we’ll be getting the best of the best?

To start with, we have to assume that every candidate is in the frame for the award. But, in many cases there are simply too many candidates for this to be possible. Take Book of the Year awards. In the USA, according to UNESCO, 328,259 new titles and editions were published in 2009 –the UK figure was 206,000. Even though awards may specialize in particular types of books, or genre, such as romantic novels, there are still far too many for any judging panel to handle. So the judging process has a fundamental flaw before it has started.

Even when the list of candidates is complete there can be huge problems with the ranking process. Sometimes ranking is a matter of judging whether an apple is better than orange. And if you can’t tell, then toss a coin. The award’s in place and someone has to win it, otherwise we’ll look foolish. Many years ago a relative of mine was asked at the last minute by a neighbour to join him as a judge in a competition of dance troupes of teenage girls. One of the regular judges was indisposed.

“But I know nothing at all about dancing,” my relative protested.

“Don’t worry, when you get the ranking form, just write anything down. That’s what I do,” chuckled the neighbour.

Somewhere a middle-aged women might be fondly recalling the day she was in a group that won “Dance Troupe of the Year award” and proudly showing photographs to her grandchildren.

Even if we try to do an honest job of judging ranks, we are likely to be stumped when there are several criteria to be considered. When trying to rank new cars to choose the Car of the Year, one model might be spacious, stylish, full of gadgets and reliable, but it might also consume lots of petrol and produce a bumpy and noisy ride even on immaculate road surfaces. Another might be quiet, economical and reliable, but it might look rather staid and feel a little cramped compared to the first car. Faced with a list of 20 new cars launched by manufacturers this year, all with different pros and cons like these, how do you rank them?

Psychologists, have found that in situations like this we struggle to process all the information involved. In particular, we face the challenge of making trade-offs in our heads. How much more leg-room would compensate for a car that does ten miles less to the gallon? Would extra gadgets be sufficient to make up for a bumpier ride? To avoid a headache we resort to simplifications. One strategy people use is to rank the contenders on the one criterion we consider to be most important – reliability perhaps –and forget the rest. If two contenders tie on this criterion, rank them on the second most important –fuel economy say -and so on.

This simple method glories under the incongruously lengthy title, lexicographic ranking, because it reflects the way in which words are ordered in a dictionary. The worry is that it might lead to a Car of the Year that’s highly reliable, but awful in every other respect. And who’s to say that reliability is the most important criterion anyway? It’s a matter of personal preferences.

Choosing a Car of the Year in this way would not sound credible when we announce our decision to the media. We need a method that uses all the criteria, but still prevents that headache. So another strategy is to set some tolerable limits for the criterion and eliminate all the cars from our list that fail to meet each limit in turn. Get rid of the cars that do less than 45 miles per gallon, then those that have less than four feet of leg room and so on until hopefully, there’s just one car left.

The trouble is you might be rejecting a car that does 44 miles to the gallon, but is brilliant in every other way. Some employers use this method, called elimination-by-aspects, when they need to whittle down a large pile of application forms from job candidates to a manageable short-list. One wonders how many excellent people have never made short-lists because their examination grades were marginally short of some arbitrary standard or because their experience in the relevant line of work was a month short of the number of years hastily determined by a harassed manager.

In the end, I suspect that most of us resort to gut feel. Choose the car we like the best, or the one that will give the impression that we have sophisticated tastes. Choose the job candidate who emitted the right vibes and seemed the most convivial. After all, we can always retrospectively conjure up a rationale for our choice so that it looks rigorous.

And, if that applies to those who judge and publish ‘of the Year’ awards -which seems likely – we would be well advised to treat these awards with skeptism -especially, when it comes to making our own important choices, and predicting which option will turn out to be the best for us.

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