Thursday, 5 January 2006

Mind where you sit - how being in the middle is associated with superior performance

If you’re going for a group interview, or if you want to make an impression in class, try to sit as centrally as you can – new research suggests observers tend to overestimate the performance of people located in the centre.

Priya Raghubir and Ana Valenzuela analysed the first 20 episodes of the quiz show The Weakest Link that appeared on American TV in 2001. The quiz involves eight contestants standing in a semi-circle with one player, ‘the weakest link’, voted off each round by the other players. Raghubir and Valenzuela found that players occupying the two central positions reached the final round 42.5 per cent of the time, and won the game 45 per cent of time, whereas players in the two most extreme positions reached the final round just 17.5 per cent of the time, and won just 10 per cent of the time.

In another study 22 students watched an episode of The Weakest Link and attempted to recall the performance of each player afterwards. This showed they tended to overestimate the performance of the central players but underestimate the performance of the peripheral players. When the participants were warned to pay special attention, their accuracy at recalling the central players’ performance improved whereas their memory for the peripheral players remained unaffected. This is consistent with the researchers’ theory that observers pay less attention to people in the centre, assuming their performance will be superior because of where they’re located.

In another experiment, 111 students were shown different versions of a group photo showing five candidates for a business internship arranged in different positions. The participants knew the candidates had similar abilities but still tended to choose the candidate in the middle of the photo they were shown. Afterwards the participants stated whether they agreed with the statement “Important people sit in the middle of the table”, and it became clear that it was only participants who agreed with that statement who tended to favour the internship candidate in the middle of the group photo they saw.

“We have identified a biasing cue in objective judgments: the target’s position”, the researchers concluded. “These results have implications for selection interviews and performance assessment tasks such as grading, auditions or any evaluation of individuals competing in groups”.
Raghubir, P. & Valenzuela. (2006). Centre-of-inattention: Position biases in decision-making. Organisational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes, 99, 66-80.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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