Anything you can do, I can do better

Topic: Feedback, Decision Making
Publication:  Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes
Article: Use of absolute and comparative performance feedback in absolute and comparative judgments and decisions.
Blogger:  James Grand

Few people missed Michael Phelps’ performance during this past Summer Olympics—8 gold medals in 8 races, setting 7 world records in the process (the one race he didn’t get the world record? He only set the new Olympic record…slacker).

But when Phelps went into these competitions, his self-proclaimed goal was to win gold medals, not set new records.  Examining these standards of performance more closely, we see a great example of what psychologists refer to as comparative versus absolute performance.  Winning a gold medal (or being told where your performance ranks among your co-workers) is comparative in nature, as the outcome is measured relative to how one ranks among the field of others regardless of “actual” performance.  Setting a record (or obtaining a specific score on a performance evaluation), on the other hand, places the outcome on an absolute scale; as it provides feedback in relation to how one performs relative to an objective standard regardless of how one ranks among others.

However, an important question arises from the example above: which accomplishments do individuals see as the better indicator of performance?

These are all questions answered by renowned psychologist Leon Festinger’s (1954) social comparison theory and empirically tested in a recent article published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes (Moore & Klein, 2008, Vol. 107).  In short, Festinger stated that although individuals compare themselves to others to make sense of their abilities and performance, if given information about both they prefer and will most readily use absolute standards.  The experimental study by Moore and Klein largely supported this claim, finding that the effect of feedback in relation to absolute performance had greater influence on people’s future performance-related behaviors, confidence in future performance, and the positive experience of their performance outcomes than comparative feedback.

For businesses, this suggests that although workers may be interested in knowing their standing among their peers, providing them with information regarding their performance compared to objective metrics may be more beneficial from an individual and organizational perspective. For Phelps, he should be thinking 2012 will be a breeze.

Moore, D. A., & Klein, W. M. P. (2008). Use of absolute and comparative performance feedback in absolute and comparative judgments and decisions. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 107, 60-74. Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations, 7, 117-140.