Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Unbearable Lightness of Utility and Ranking

We are all familiar with experiments in which subjects cannot tell the difference between a high priced wine and and low priced one. Now comes a study showing that knowing the price ahead of time affects the ranking. Not surprisingly, they rank a wine as better if it is more expensive. The is as one would expect. Price is a form of information; high price can mean high quality. What is more interesting about the newest studies is that those ranking the wine are not making it up. In reality, pleasure receptors in their brains actually did react more to the higher priced wine even though it was the same as the wine marked with a lower price.

Replace high price with a candidate's law school and I think you will find the same response in law school hiring and law review placement. Take the same person, send that person to one interview armed with a super resume and to another with a second level resume. Don't you think that the first interview will be perceived as having gone better than the second? Send the same article to law reviews. One submission identifies the author as from a highly ranked school with all kinds of name-dropping acknowledgements. The other submission says it is from a professor at a mid or lower level law school and delete the acknowledgements. My bet is a different set of acceptances.

I do not know of any one who has tried either of these experiments. Years ago I heard of a Houston attorney, whose name I will not disclose since this is hearsay, who provided a bartender with a super resume and sent him to interview at his very prestigious law firm. The result was an offer.

What the wine study suggests is that these feeling are real. Or as real as as well . . . "real" can be. As many economists, including Amartya Sen, have pointed out in one way or another, good feelings can be "light" -- without an underlying foundation -- and fleeting.

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