2 min read

The Ranking Trope

I’ve always admired my son’s Bartebly-like resistance to one of the most common questions that adults ask children: what is your favorite?

Faced with a question like, “What do you like better, hamburgers or fries?” My son would reply, “Hamburgers and fries.” “Who do you like more, Mom or Dad?” “Mom and Dad.”

Even though I don’t particularly like questions like these, I found myself asking them quite frequently, especially when he was younger. What was your favorite part of the movie? What food did you like more? It’s a natural question format.

But there is a deep way in which the “favorite” concept distorts true preferences. Suppose you ask me to choose between a bowl of ripe, fresh blueberries and a gloriously steeped cup of masala chai. “What is your favorite?” you might ask.

This is a question that presumes an unreality. There are contexts in which I’d prefer one. And contexts in which I’d prefer the other. They do not offer comparable eating experiences. So what sense does it make to compare them?

The “favorite” concept is closely related to another cherished idea — ranking. Favorite is a flavor of “best” and best is the top of a ranked list. Judging from pop culture (and which Youtube videos are popular), many people like to rank their favorite things and like to hear other people rank their favorite things, too.

But there is a strange kind of logic to ranking. You can rank your favorite fruits (e.g., Blueberries — 1; Peaches — 2; Passionfruit — 3). And you can rank your favorite cereals (Cheerios, Wheaties, Oatmeal). But you can also rank your favorite foods, generally. So these two ranked lists of fruits and cereals — and in fact all of your ranked lists of food categories — have to somehow be integrated. Are blueberries better than Cheerios? Well, yes, but they are also different.

The problem with our ranking preoccupation is that it asks us to spend cognitive work — and real work — in a wasteful way.

You can rank your favorite tools, if you want. But that doesn't change the fact that you use certain tools for certain jobs. And an excellent tool for one job – hammering in a stubborn nail – is a poor tool for another (cutting that board in half).

Not all rankings are like this. Elo rankings of chess players are estimates of player strength based on prior performance in qualifying chess events. The ranking for any individual player might be inaccurate, but it's based on a common metric (which chess games do you win?) and applied consistently. The ranking is just an outcome variable.

Product reviews often use ranking to explore the best cameras or the best washing machines or the best 4X strategy board game in a steampunk setting. But the ranking format is really just a structure to hang comparisons on. And its really the criteria for comparison that influences the consumer's decision-making: if price is a concern, choose X; if reliability is a concern, choose Y.

Making comparisons is an exceedingly powerful learning mechanic. But it only works when the comparison helps people to see the objects differently. The ranking format so popular on social media usually skips right over observation and moves directly to judgment.

Several Youtube commenters have asked me for a video ranking the top 10 study methods – a topic that would surely satisfy the Youtube algorithm. But what would people remember from the video: the ranking? Or the why? "What is the best study method?" is the wrong question to ask and "my favorite study method" is irrelevant. I've tried explaining this to the Youtube algorithm, but so far it hasn't listened.

Epistemic forms – like ranking – have specific uses. There are times when I’d like to have some blueberries. And times when I could go for masala chai. They are both delicious and wonderful. Don’t ask me to compare them.