Rankings, standards, and competition: Task vs. scale comparisons

Stephen M. Garcia, Avishalom Tor

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Research showing how upward social comparison breeds competitive behavior has so far conflated local comparisons in task performance (e.g. a test score) with comparisons on a more general scale (i.e. an underlying skill). Using a ranking methodology (Garcia, Tor, & Gonzalez, 2006) to separate task and scale comparisons, Studies 1-2 reveal that an upward comparison on the scale (e.g. being surpassed in rank), rather than in the mere task (e.g., being outperformed), is necessary to generate competition among rivals proximate to a standard (e.g. ranked #3 vs. 4, near "the top"); rivals far from a standard (e.g. ranked #203 vs. 204), on the other hand, still tend to cooperate. Study 3 illustrates this finding with player trades in Major League Baseball. Study 4 further shows how an implicit scale comparison, instead of the commonly assumed explicit task comparison, may account for those classical competition findings in the literature. Study 5 then reveals how scale ranking becomes all important in the proximity of a standard, leading rivals to tolerate even an upward scale comparison to increase their proximity to the standard. Implications for the increasingly popular "forced ranking" management systems (e.g., at General Electric) are also discussed.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)95-108
Number of pages14
JournalOrganizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2007

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank Max Bazerman, Ryan Estevez, Thomas Kochan, Joachim Kruger, Skip Lupia, Ilana Ritov, Lance Sandelands, and Kim Weaver for helpful comments. We also thank Lingling Zhang for statistical advice and seminar participants at Brown University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Michigan. Special thanks to Elizabeth Brisson, Bryan Harrison, Mitch Meyle, Alex Radetsky, Shannon Riley, Bryan Spence, and Irina Yudovich for data collection assistance. This research was supported by a Horace Rackham Faculty Research grant to Stephen Garcia and a Senior Research Fellowship at the Olin Center for Law, Economics, and Business at Harvard Law School to Avishalom Tor.


  • Behavioral economics
  • Choice behavior
  • Competition
  • Decision making
  • Rankings
  • Social comparison

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Applied Psychology
  • Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management


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