James Chu

Department of Sociology

Popularity, Preferences, and the Problem of Competing Rankings


Whether applied to hospitals, colleges, or restaurants, formal ranking systems are now a mainstay of modern societies. Existing work claims that ranking systems powerfully shape how people make decisions. However, less is known about how people choose among multiple competing rankings. One possibility is that we rely on popular rankings, perhaps because we do not know exactly what we want, or because certain goods are valuable to us only when others also value it. On the other hand, we want rankings that align with their personal preferences: systems that best reflect the quality of a good, as understood by ourselves. What is the relative explanatory power of these two possibilities? To what extent does popularity remain relevant even when we know that a ranking system differs dramatically from what we personally prefer? To answer these questions, this survey experiment examines how the perceived popularity of a ranking system affects how likely individuals are to report reliance on it, and how this effect varies by how aligned the ranking criteria are with personal preferences.

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