Ratings rise over time because they feel easier to make

March 12, 2018, Association for Psychological Science
Ratings rise over time because they feel easier to make
Credit: Association for Psychological Science

Tasks often feel easier to perform as we gain experience with them, which can have unintended consequences when the task involves rating a series of items, according to findings published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. The findings show that people tend to attribute the increasing ease of making ratings to the items themselves rather than to the ratings process, resulting in rating inflation over time.

"We find that increased experience makes the evaluation process easier which, in many instances, leads to an upward trend in judges' evaluations," says study author Kieran O'Connor of the McIntire School of Commerce at the University of Virginia. "This effect emerged with judges on a dance show, with teachers who give higher grades the longer they teach a course, and in the lab where we have people evaluate photos or short stories over successive days."

Given that sequential ratings are a part of many everyday activities, this research has potentially wide-reaching implications.

"These findings suggest that people new to an evaluation task may be more critical than those who have been doing the evaluation task for longer," O'Connor notes. "This can bias decisions about hiring, employee evaluations, grading, and scoring - simply based on the experience of the evaluator."

In one study, O'Connor and coauthor Amar Cheema examined judges' ratings from the TV show Dancing With the Stars. The researchers specifically looked at 5,511 scores made by the three core judges over 20 seasons of the show. They found that the judges' average scores increased season by season over the 20-season run. Additional analyses indicate that the rise in ratings was not due to professional dance partners' increasing experience with the show, or increased dance ability, over successive seasons.

Ratings inflation also emerged in a domain with broad relevance: Student grades. The researchers analyzed data from 991 course sections offered at a large US university over successive spring and fall semesters from 2000 to 2009. They found that successive sections offered by the same instructor had higher grades over time, a phenomenon that couldn't be explained by instructor ability or student performance improving over time, or even by calendar year (i.e., general grade inflation over time).

Studying the phenomenon in a controlled experimental setting, O'Connor and Cheema also found the rating inflation effect in students' ratings of short stories. Students evaluated 1 story per day over a 2-week period, evaluating a total of 10 stories presented in random order. Analyses of 1,572 observations from 168 participants showed that participants tended to rate each successive story more positively than the previous one. Participants also reported that the rating process became easier, quicker, and more enjoyable over time, but did not believe that their ratings became more favorable.

Another online study produced a similar result, showing that participants perceived the ratings process as more fluent—that is, easier and quicker—as they evaluated more stories, which boosted their ratings over time. Despite this, participants remained unaware of the study aims.

The inflation effect may be small, the researchers note, but it is consistent across different contexts and can influence outcomes in meaningful ways. In the college grades study, for example, course GPA increased on average from a B+ to an A- over approximately 20 successive offerings.

Typical approaches to ensuring objectivity, such as randomizing the order of items, will not address the inflation effect. As such, it is important to understand the factors that could actually mitigate this bias:

"Making people aware of this pattern, and perhaps providing them an explicit standard that they should stick to when evaluating, may be the way to go," O'Connor says.

Explore further: Study says some nursing homes gaming the system to improve their Medicare star ratings

More information: Kieran O'Connor et al, Do Evaluations Rise With Experience?, Psychological Science (2018). DOI: 10.1177/0956797617744517

Related Stories

Study says some nursing homes gaming the system to improve their Medicare star ratings

January 17, 2018
For families faced with the difficult decision of placing a loved one in a nursing home, a government rating system is often the only source of information to determine which facilities are the best. However, a new study ...

Our psychological biases mean order matters when we judge items in sequence

January 25, 2017
We often need to make decisions about sequences of things or people rather than just a single item in isolation. For instance, in an everyday setting, we might choose which smartphone to buy after trying out several. There ...

Online ratings not aligned with objective quality measures

October 17, 2017
(HealthDay)—Online consumer ratings of specialist physicians do not predict objective measures of quality of care or peer assessment of clinical performance, according to a study published online Sept. 8 in the Journal ...

Recommended for you

Psychiatric disorders share an underlying genetic basis

June 21, 2018
Psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder often run in families. In a new international collaboration, researchers explored the genetic connections between these and other disorders of the brain at ...

One year of school comes with an IQ bump, meta-analysis shows

June 21, 2018
A year of schooling leaves students with new knowledge, and it also equates with a small but noticeable increase to students' IQ, according to a systematic meta-analysis published in Psychological Science, a journal of the ...

Mindful movement may help lower stress, anxiety

June 21, 2018
Taking a walk may be a good opportunity to mentally review your to-do list, but using the time to instead be more mindful of your breathing and surroundings may help boost your wellbeing, according to researchers.

Brain tingles—first study of its kind reveals physiological benefits of ASMR

June 21, 2018
Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) – the relaxing 'brain tingles' experienced by some people in response to specific triggers, such as whispering, tapping and slow hand movements – may have benefits for both ...

New study debunks Dale Carnegie advice to 'put yourself in their shoes'

June 21, 2018
Putting yourself in someone else's shoes and relying on intuition or "gut instinct" isn't an accurate way to determine what they're thinking or feeling," say researchers from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU), the ...

Science Says: What makes something truly addictive

June 21, 2018
Now that the world's leading public health group says too much Minecraft can be an addiction, could overindulging in chocolate, exercise, even sex, be next?

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.