During the first month of this year, I noticed that I was waffling over my ratings for a few books I really loved. Should I go for the 5 star? Can I even hand out a 5 star rating in the first weeks of the year? What if I give the book 5 stars, but find lots of books later in the year that I love even more?
This type of bias actually exists in sports and is supported by research
This phenomenon is prevalent in subjective Olympic sports (such as gymnastics, diving, and figure skating). For a finals competition, athletes usually perform in order based on their preliminary round scores, with the top-seeded athlete going last. Even if the athlete who goes first does a perfect routine or dive, the judges might avoid awarding a perfect score because they could (and likely will) see greater things from later athletes.
This judging bias took center stage during the Women’s Gymnastics Team Competition in the 2012 London Olympics, when the U.S.’s Jordyn Wieber (the reigning World All-Around Champion) failed to qualify for the individual all-around based on her team competition scores. Ex-Olympic Head Coach and gymnastics guru Bela Karolyi (of 1996 “YOU CAN DO IT, KERRI!!!!!” fame) blamed the U.S. coaching staff for having her perform too early in the team competition line-up and thus subjecting her to this early performer judging bias. You can read more about this in Slate and check out actual research supporting the existence of this type of judging bias.
Can this apply to books as well?
I read two books that were candidates for 5 star ratings in January, which has never happened to me so early in the year. I ended up going ahead with a 5 star rating for My Name is Lucy Barton, but sticking with 4.5 stars for Only Love Can Break Your Heart. As I was considering my rating for My Name is Lucy Barton, I questioned whether it was too early in the year to award a book 5 stars. All the “what ifs” I mentioned earlier ran through my head. I ended up forcing myself to go with it because I didn’t want to allow silly timing issues to affect my rating.
But, then I did the exact opposite with Only Love Can Break Your Heart. Why? Was it because I read My Name is Lucy Barton first and was skittish about giving a second 5 star rating so close to the first? Was it because there was one tiny thing about this book’s ending that was a concrete and tangible reason I could cite for withholding that last half star? I’m really not sure…
Obviously, the type of seeding issues you see in sports (with top scorers from previous rounds performing last) do not apply to book release dates. But, can we as book reviewers still suffer from wanting to “hold out” top ratings until later in the year when we’ve seen a better representation of what’s out there?
Are you stingy with 5 star ratings at the beginning of the year? Why or why not?