Why We Take Aim at Young Guns

The Art of Thinking Clearly - Rolf Dobelli 2014

Why We Take Aim at Young Guns

Social Comparison Bias

As one of my books reached number one on the bestseller list, my publisher asked me for a favor. An acquaintance’s title was on the verge of entering the top 10 list, and the publisher was convinced that a testimonial from me would give it the necessary push.

It always amazes me that these little testimonials work at all. Everyone knows that only favorable comments end up on a book’s jacket. (The book you hold in your hands is no exception.) A rational reader should ignore the praise or at least consider it alongside the criticism, which is always available, albeit in different places. Nevertheless, I’ve written plenty of testimonials for other books, but they were never for rival titles. I hesitated: Wouldn’t writing a blurb be cutting off my nose to spite my face? Why should I help someone who might soon vie for the top slot? As I pondered the question, I realized social comparison bias had kicked in—that is, the tendency to withhold assistance to people who might outdo you, even if you look like a fool in the long run.

Book testimonials are a harmless example of the social comparison bias. However, the phenomenon has reached toxic levels in academia. Every scientist’s goal is to publish as many articles as possible in the most prestigious scientific journals. Over time, you make a name for yourself, and soon editors ask you to assess other scientists’ submissions. In the end, often just two or three experts decide what gets published in a particular field. Taking this into account, what happens if a young researcher sends in an earth-shattering paper that turns the entire department on its head and threatens to knock them off their thrones? They will be especially rigorous when evaluating the article. That’s social comparison bias hard at work.

The psychologist Stephen Garcia and his fellow researchers describe the case of a Nobel laureate who prevented a promising young colleague from applying for a job at “his” university. This may seem judicious in the short term, but in the long run it is counterproductive. What happens when that young prodigy joins another research group and applies his acumen there—most likely depriving the old institution of maintaining its world-class status? Garcia suggests that social comparison bias may well be the reason why hardly any research groups remain at the top for many years in succession.

The social comparison bias is also a cause for concern with start-up companies. Guy Kawasaki was “chief evangelist” at Apple for four years. Today he is a venture capitalist and advises entrepreneurs. Kawasaki says: “A-players hire people even better than themselves. It’s clear, though, that B-players hire C-players so they can feel superior to them, and C-players hire D-players. If you start hiring B-players, expect what Steve [Jobs] called ’the bozo explosion’ to happen in your organization.” In other words, start hiring B-players and you end up with Z-players. Recommendation: Hire people who are better than you, otherwise you soon preside over a pack of underdogs. The so-called Duning-Kruger effect applies to such Z-players: The inept are gifted at overlooking the extent of their incompetence. They suffer from illusory superiority, which leads them to make even more thinking errors, thus creating a vicious cycle that erodes the talent pool over time.

While his school was closed due to an outbreak of plague in 1666—67, twenty-five-year-old Isaac Newton showed his professor, Isaac Barrow, what research he was conducting in his spare time. Barrow immediately gave up his job as a professor and became a student of Newton. What a noble gesture. What ethical behavior. When was the last time you heard of a professor vacating his post in favor of a better candidate? And when was the last time you read about a CEO clearing out his desk when he realized that one of his twenty thousand employees could do a better job?

In conclusion: Do you foster individuals more talented than you? Admittedly, in the short term, the preponderance of stars can endanger your status, but in the long run, you can only profit from their contributions. Others will overtake you at some stage anyway. Until then, you should get in the up-and-comers’ good books—and learn from them. This is why I wrote the testimonial in the end.