Tip O’ the Day: Don’t Be Trapped by the Tyranny of the List

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.


A couple of days ago I stumbled across a story about the weekly email that NBER sends out touting its latest working papers. They recently decided to randomize the order of the papers separately for each of the 23,000 emails they send out. “This will mean that roughly the same number of message recipients will see a given paper in the first position, in the second position, and so on.”

One thing led to another, and I never wrote about this. But Neil Irwin picks up the ball today:

No editorial judgment goes into the sequence in which the working papers appear. It is random, based on the order in which the paper was submitted and in which the N.B.E.R. approval process was completed. In other words, there is no inherent reason to think that the first paper listed is more groundbreaking, important or interesting than the third or 17th.

But a lot more people read the first one listed. Showing up first in the email generated a 33 percent increase in the number of people who clicked on the working paper and a 29 percent increase in the number who downloaded it.

Perhaps even more amazing, it wasn’t just that more people pulled up the paper that appeared first. Those papers also received 27 percent more citations in later research, though that result was based on a relatively small time period. Having the luck to appear first in the email meant that a given working paper had greater influence in subsequent economic research.

In other words, high-IQ economists are as lazy about clicking only the first entry on a list as your average teenage Google user. And it’s not just economists. The same thing is true of physicists. The inventor of arXiv, a website that publishes early copies of physics papers, discovered the same thing several years ago. You can see the result in the graph at the right. Physicists might be as lazy as the rest of us, but they’re not dumb, and they all figured out a long time ago that being first on the list is a big deal. Since each day’s announcements are made in the order they were submitted, starting at 4 pm the previous day, it means that a huge herd of physicists are all pounding their Enter keys at 4 pm in a desperate effort to be first on the next day’s list.

The moral of this story is that….economists and physicists are as lazy and irrational as everyone else? I guess. But the real moral of the story is for you not to be trapped by the tyranny of the list. The next time you google something, try clicking on the 8th link. In fact, do what I do and change the default number of hits to 50 per page and then try clicking the 18th link. You might be pleasantly surprised.

We've never been very good at being conservative.

And usually, that serves us well in doing the ambitious, hard-hitting journalism that you turn to Mother Jones for. But it also means we can't afford to come up short when it comes to scratching together the funds it takes to keep our team firing on all cylinders, and the truth is, we finished our budgeting cycle on June 30 about $100,000 short of our online goal.

This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

payment methods

We've never been very good at being conservative.

And usually, that serves us well in doing the ambitious, hard-hitting journalism that you turn to Mother Jones for. But it also means we can't afford to come up short when it comes to scratching together the funds it takes to keep our team firing on all cylinders, and the truth is, we finished our budgeting cycle on June 30 about $100,000 short of our online goal.

This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate