Monday, March 9, 2009

N-Effect Review: Part Three – Conclusion

Over the last two postings I have been reviewing Stephen M. Garcia and Avishalom Tor’s “N-Effect.” In this third and concluding posting I give my verdict on the N-Effect and provide some additional research ideas for further work in the social comparison space. A note to readers: This series is best read starting with Part One.

Verdict on N-Effect

Despite the criticisms and alternative explanations in past postings , collectively Garcia and Tor’s studies begin to build a strong case for an N-Effect. The authors cite numerous past studies linking social comparison to competitive motivation so any failure to unequivocally prove a relationship internal to this research paper is easily forgivable. Furthermore, their early analysis that N is a ubiquitous objective factor in all competitive situations and that subjects are more likely to make social comparisons when there are few rather than may competitors due to, if nothing else, the fact that “it becomes less viable and informative to compare oneself, or anticipate comparisons, with a great multitude of Targets,” seem quite sound. The later is proven out experimentally in several of the studies. As for the appropriateness of dependent variable measures, while one can poke holes in the relationships, the simplest explanation is that actual performance and self reported motivation are measures of true competitive motivation. Study 4 goes a long way toward invalidating a ratio bias hypothesis (discussed previously) and Studies 3 and 5 are quite persuasive in arguing for an N-Effect. Study 3 incorporates a social comparison orientation (SCO) assessment of subjects, a scale that was designed and demonstrated to “reveal interpersonal differences” in subject tendencies for social comparison. Study 3 analysis demonstrates that high SCO scoring subjects are more likely to exhibit the N-Effect, a fact that is very difficult to explain with alternative theories. Study 5 measures social comparison, competitive motivation, ease of task, and N all in one place -- negating the need to rely on assumptions about the relationships between these variable formed in earlier, more limited studies. Study 5 shows that social comparison is indeed acting as a mediator of competitive motivation.

Advancing the Broader Research Agenda

The N-Effect research prompts several questions related to the broader research agenda in social comparison and competition motivation.

Mapping Motivation and Actual Performance: What is the relationship between motivation and actual performance? If actual performance is to be a reliable measure of competitive motivation, a more granular mapping should be done to determine if there is indeed a linear versus an inverted U relationship. (It is likely that others have already established this relationship but it is not mentioned in the paper)

Revisit Past Studies: Are there previous studies on social comparison that could be reexamined in light of the N-Effect? Most likely earlier social comparison studies have neglected to specify or at least recognize group size. New insights into these past studies could be gained by revisiting the role N may have played in their results.

Interventions: What interventions would enable subjects to view competitions in the same way for a given probability of winning?

Other Objective Factors: What other objective factors besides N might play a role in social comparison?

Framing Effects: If subjects were assessing their possibility of incurring a penalty instead of receiving an award would it change the nature of the N-Effect, perhaps reversing the polarity of social comparison?

Sample v. Population: Do subjects recognize potential sample effects when considering competitive difficulty? While a randomly selected group of 100 people is likely normally distributed in ability and represent the population, a group of 10 people has the potential to be quite skewed in their abilities. Perhaps the subject in a small N group is unlucky and finds themselves up against a small but exceptionally talented group of people who are excellent at solving the assigned task. Could this factor partially explain increased need for social comparison for small N groups?

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