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John Fahy is the Professor of Marketing in the University of Limerick and Adjunct Professor of Marketing at the University of Adelaide. He is an award winning author and speaker on marketing issues around the world.

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Be First, If You Can!

Interviewing for that dream graduateship or prestigious MBA programme is challenging enough but is it possible that your chances of success may be a function of whether you happen to be the first interviewee that day or the last. Or what about the exam paper that you have just written? Are your chances of getting a good grade influenced by whether you happen to be the first paper that is graded on a given day or not? If you are a regular reader of this blog, you no doubt sense where this is going and you probably know you won’t like it!



The new psychological term that you need to add to your vocabulary is ‘narrow bracketing’. It occurs in any kind of activity where a small subset of cases from a larger pool is examined at intervals. So for example, an academic may take 10 papers from an overall total of 200 each day or a venture capitalist may look at 5 proposals each day from a larger pool of submissions. Narrow bracketing means that people avoid making subsets of judgements that deviate much from what they expect the overall set of judgements to be like. If you have already seen two good VC proposals and you expect about 40 per cent to be good, the remaining three on that day may be judged more harshly. So getting on that MBA programme may not just be a function of the total pool of applicants that year but also on the few others randomly interviewed that day!


This effect was demonstrated in a recent study published by psychologists Simonsohn and Gino on ten years of MBA applications at a US university. They found a persistent effect where the scores of previous applicants on a given day either positively or negatively affected that of the next applicant. For example, if the score of previous applicants increased by one standard deviation it meant that the expected score for the next applicant dropped, meaning that she would need an extra 30 points on the GMAT, 23 more months of experience or .23 more points (one a 1-5 scale) on her written application to make up the deficit. Once again, this shows the limitations of our so-called ability to make rational decisions either at work or at home!


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