Which Olympic gymnast will win the gold? Which job applicant will land the job? The victor isn’t as hard to predict as you think. In any judged competition, says Wändi Bruine de Bruin of Carnegie Mellon University, look to those who go last.
Bruine de Bruin analyzed the World and European Figure Skating Championships and the Eurovision Song Contest to see whether order of performance has an effect on outcome. In contests decided by judges, she says, the last few competitors overwhelmingly end up in the winner’s circle.
It doesn’t matter whether judges make their decisions after each competitor or at the end of the contest. Nor do national biases seem to interfere. Bruine de Bruin emphasizes that this does not mean that judges aren’t doing their jobs. It could be that people simply perform better when they follow others—or that with each new contestant, only the unique qualities stand out for the judges. In previous research Bruine de Bruin found people show the same preference in everyday situations like choosing an apartment or a prospective love interest. Indeed, she chose the Drifters’ 1961 hit “Save the Last Dance for Me” as the title of her latest study, published in Acta Psychologica.
Some contests seem to favor front-runners by having them go last in later rounds. American Idol may also have built-in biases. Although a show spokesman says the order of contestants is based on song tempo, Bruine de Bruin says it is more than that. “They put their favorites on later,” she says. “That’s fine from an entertainment perspective, but it is not randomized.”