Posts tagged ‘ranking’

H.P. Lovecraft Knows Ranking Doesn’t Work

One of my colleagues found this question on a survey from the Democratic National Committee:

Please rank the following 14 national issues by their level of priority:

• America’s Economic Situation Weird Tales 1942
• Regulation of Financial Institutions and Markets
• Lowering Unemployment
• Dealing with Iran
• Health Insurance Reform
• Fighting Terrorism
• War in Afghanistan
• Handing over responsibility to the Iraqi People
• Improving Race Relations
• Nuclear Proliferation
• Improving Education
• Energy Independence
• America’s Image in the World Community
• Dealing with North Korea

Well, go ahead – rank them. I dare you. Absurd, isn’t it? Can you really give me a rational way to judge the relative importance of Nuclear Proliferation vs. Improving Education? And suppose you established their importance – if you took the survey the next day, would you arrive at the same ranking? I doubt it. And so, what use is the data you get?

Ranking questions like these are usually a waste of time, for at least three reasons.
1. Usually all the issues being ranked are of vital importance, making ranking an exercise in futility
2. It’s psychologically impossible to hold in one’s head a scale that ranks 14 (or 10, or 8, or even 6) factors in a coherent scale of importance. H.P. Lovecraft said “The most merciful thing in the world is the inability of the mind to correlate all its contents.” Merciful, yes, but tough on survey takers.
3. You’re asking people to take things which have an emotional value – war, unemployment, society – and give them a numerical value. The results are rarely consistent enough to be of use.

What you really want is to understand which issues they’re really passionate about, and why. Learn that, and you can continue conversations with them. So focus on identifying those key areas. Don’t worry if the 11th item is more or less important than the 12th. That way lies chaos, fear, and madness.


May 5, 2010 at 7:44 AM Leave a comment

Thompson Morrison

Thompson Morrison

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As CEO of FUSE Insight, Thompson Morrison uses powerful new web interviewing technologies to help businesses better align their brand with the needs and aspirations of their customers. Learn more at


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