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You've probably experienced this yourself. Sometimes our eyes just get drawn to that first thing on a list. Maybe it's the top special on the menu or the first movie on the marquee. It might not be rational, but the order of things on a list can really affect how we choose things, even, it turns out, for a group of people who we'd like to think are some of the most rational people in the world - economists. And if this sounds like a setup to bring in social science correspondent, Shankar Vedantam, it is.

Hi, Shankar.


GREENE: So what is being studied here?

VEDANTAM: Well, I'm not sure it actually set out to study the rationality of economists, David, but this new research ended up doing just that. Here's the background you need to know. There's a very important organization known as the National Bureau of Economic Research. And what it does, the bureau collects all the top economic research that's been done recently and sends out an email, and basically it says you should know about all this important stuff that's happened recently. I spoke to Ina Ganguli at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and she told me this weekly email was extremely influential.

INA GANGULI: What's neat is that it actually goes out - this email - to quite a few individuals. It goes out to over 23,000 subscribers. And it's actually a mix of both academic economists, but other - you know, students, people in - you know, government, policymakers. So it's - you know, it's the range of people who are receiving this email every Monday morning at 10 a.m.

GREENE: This is like one of the news roundups that journalists might get except the headlines are actually from academic economic research papers.

VEDANTAM: That's exactly right. Now, here's the thing to remember, David. The studies and papers that are listed in this email are not listed in order of importance, so the order is random. Now, each study title comes with a link, so you have to click on the link. And then it opens up a short abstract, a little summary of the paper. And then you have to click on the abstract in order to open up the full article. Ganguli and her colleagues, Daniel Feenberg, Patrick Gaule and Jonathan Gruber, analyzed how often subscribers click on these links, and what they found is that the order of the articles matters enormously. So just by chance if your study happened to be the first one listed - boom - you get clicked on a lot, you get downloaded a lot, you get a lot of attention.

GREENE: Why did I have this image of economists being the type of people who would actually read down and sort of look at sort of studies that would interest them the most instead of just grabbing the first one?

VEDANTAM: Yeah. Now, in fairness, David, you know, we've known this happens a lot with a lot of other people. It turns out this affects economists as well. This is sometimes called a primacy effect - the item at the top of the list gets a lot more attention than the fifth or sixth thing. But here's the thing. This isn't like what you and I do every day during our day jobs, David, where we look at the first cat video rather than the fifth cat video.

GREENE: Speak for yourself, Shankar.


VEDANTAM: So the many subscribers on this list are professional economists. And here's the important thing - when they find articles that they like, they cite these articles in their own work, and this has big ramifications. We often judge the quality of researchers by seeing how often they get cited. The citations rate, in other words, as a measure of the quality of the work. And if you get cited a lot, you get important positions, you get tenure, you might be invited to sit at the table to make important policy decisions. And what Ganguli and her colleagues find is that professional economists are citing the first article in this list far more than other articles. Here she is again.

GANGULI: The most striking, I think, the most, you know, biggest contribution of our paper, I think, in a sense, is that we see a 27 percent increase in citations. And so what this means is that people are then subsequently citing this research more in their own work because this paper was listed first. So the ordering is leading to these almost 30 percent increases in the attention that people are giving to these papers.

GREENE: And I imagine these papers, it doesn't just mean, you know, economists who write them getting tenure and things like that. I mean, it could almost drive the conversation about what's important in the national or global economy at that moment.

VEDANTAM: I think that's right, David. And I think this work in general vindicates sort of the insight of behavioral economists, who have always argued that human nature and human psychology play a very important role in how we make decisions, even decisions that we think of as rational. So speaking for myself, I am going to pay much more attention to that fifth cat video because it actually might be a much better cat video than the first one.

GREENE: Shankar, you're always at the top of our list.

VEDANTAM: Thank you, David.

GREENE: That's NPR social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam, who regularly comes in to talk about social science research, and you can follow him on Twitter at @HiddenBrain. You can follow this program at @nprgreene and at @MorningEdition. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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