Research and impact | By Amy Ripley

City research: A first bad apple spoils the bunch

Researchers at City confirm that people judge entire groups based on the performance of its ‘first member’.

New research led by Cass Business School academic Dr Janina Steinmetz has found that individuals are more likely to judge the performance of a group based on first member heuristic. This is to judge a group by its first member, whether that interaction is good or bad.


Dr Steinmetz and her colleagues, Maferima Touré-Tillery of Northwestern University and Ayelet Fishbach from the University of Chicago, used seven separate studies to confirm that the performance of a group’s first member can significantly influence people’s decisions about the rest of the group.


One implication from this research can be found in supermarkets or retailers where numbered cash registers are in use. The number one on a register automatically labels its cashier as the group’s first member, even though in reality it is an arbitrary number. A person who has a bad experience with this cashier will judge the whole store more harshly than if they had a bad experience at cashier number three, five or any other number.


Conversely, a pleasant experience at register number one will result in greater positivity about the store than any other register.


“If the first member of a group does something bad then the whole group is seen as bad, if the first member does something good then the whole group is seen as good. This is not the case if it concerns the middle or last member of a group,” Dr Steinmetz said.


This is because the first member of a group is influential for the whole group. For example, a company’s first employee shapes its culture much more than later employees.


In one study, participants were presented with a scenario in which five international cancer researchers were granted temporary work visas with a potential for extension.


When the participants were told that the scientist whose visa was approved first made a grave mistake, they judged the whole group of scientists as incompetent and were less likely to support in extending their work visas.


“They would have been more forgiving had the mistake been made by the scientist who received their visa in the middle or last of the group, but because it was the first member that made the mistake, the group was judged harshly,” Dr Steinmetz explains.


This effect occurred although there was no reason to believe that the first researcher was special in any way, or that the group was actually incompetent. Instead, people were ready to deport the scientists because the bad apple in their group happened to be first in some arbitrary way when receiving the visa.


Other studies conducted during the research found the effect is replicated in judging students, athletes and even racehorses.


“If the first of a group of horses trained together runs slowly in its race, then other members of its group are also expected to be slow and would receive less bets,” Dr Steinmetz said.