Study: To Get Top Scores, Go Last?

Here's the scene: You've waited for your big day, and you finally take the stage to belt out that song that's going to put you in the chips, depending on how much the judges like your performance. Will you have a better chance of beating out your competitors if you're first or if you're last?

The edge nearly always goes to competitors who are later in the order of appearance, not earlier, according to some intriguing new research.

Psychologist Wändi Bruine De Bruin of Carnegie Mellon University has studied various competitive events and found that judges tend to give higher scores to those who appeared later in the program than those who appeared earlier.

"I have found that the later you perform, the better your scores and the higher your chances of winning," she says.

Bruine De Bruin, who is from Holland, recently earned her doctorate in the relatively new field of "decision science." She says it is a cross between psychology and economics, and is designed to study how people make decisions, and whether those decisions are the right ones. She is now a research associate in an interdisciplinary program at Carnegie Mellon that emphasizes the roles of various disciplines in how we make decisions and analyze risks.

So she's not obsessed with such things as figure skating and singing competitions, but she's very interested in how the order of appearance affects the judging. We are all victims of something called the "serial position effect," which isn't as deadly as it sounds, but could contribute to your losing a competition or choosing the wrong apartment.

Effect Affects More Than Just Athletes

In fact, the idea for the research emerged when Bruine De Bruin was looking for an apartment herself.

It would be nice if we could see all the options available when we are trying to make a decision, she says, but "in the real world it doesn't always work that way. You can't see all the options at the same time."

Even while looking for an apartment, she says, she tended to exaggerate the importance of the good things in the apartments she viewed last as opposed to those she had seen earlier.

So she turned to two major competitive events in Europe, a figure skating competition and the Eurovision Song Contest, which is sort of like "American Idol," but much older. When she examined the records of nearly 100 events, she found evidence that the late participants usually ranked higher in the judges' evaluations than those who appeared earlier.

But, she says, other factors than just order of appearance may have been at work there.

"In the real world, I can't control what's going on," she says. "Performers may actually do better when they perform later because they are encouraged by having seen their competitors and they want to beat them."

She suspected there was more to it than that, and the order of appearance did influence the judging, so she set up a series of controlled experiments in the Carnegie Mellon psychology lab. One experiment relied on her own experience when she was looking for an apartment. The other offered participants some information about a potential blind date.

The purpose of the experiments was to see if order had any effect, and she says it clearly did. Participants accented the positive for those apartments -- and potential blind dates -- that they viewed later over those they viewed earlier.

Not Just Positive Results

But why should order make any difference?

"I don't know if I can give you a satisfactory answer," she says, but she was willing to take a stab at it. She thinks that when someone is judging, whether it be a skating competition or a blind date, they want to see what's different about each successive candidate.

"So if they are figure skaters, for example, and the first one has a great figure eight, you give that person a nice score. And the next one could have a great pirouette. So you say, 'that one is different, the first one didn't have that,' so you give the last one a better score," she says.

Conversely, if the later one does an unscheduled belly flop, that's also different from the earlier competitors, and the score plunges. So being last can also be a disadvantage if whatever you've done that's different is a big fat negative.

However, Bruine De Bruin, who published her study in a recent edition of the journal Acta Psychologica, says that in the competitions she studied, on average, those who competed last got the best scores.

For those of us who are not likely to be hitting the ice any time soon, at least not as figure skating competitors, there's a message here, she says. When faced with an important decision, be aware of the possibility that your mind may play a trick on you.

You may fall victim to the "serial position effect."

Lee Dye's column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.