The 5-Star Fallacy

How Uber ruined the single-point rating system…and how we can get back to “Good”.

Photo by Bogomil Mihaylov on Unsplash

Prior to the last, say, 3 years or so, when searching for and assigning ratings to services or products online, there was a universal understanding of the scale, weight, and reliability of a 3-star vs. 5-star rating. Now, I feel, this is no longer true. And I blame Uber. Well, not Uber, exclusively. Rather, I blame how we’ve placed reward on an unrealistic, expected result, rather than using those results to inform, implement, and measure an improved outcome.

“If You Ain’t First, You’re Last”

In the modern comedic satire Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Ricky’s father imparts some (rather flawed, yet motivating!) wisdom on his young son: “Ricky, if you ain’t first, you’re last”. While this fueled Ricky to go all out in each race he pursued, it meant that — as a driver, teammate, parent, friend, and spouse — he left no opportunity for improvement. It was either win or crash.

Father of Year, Reece Bobby, and his sound advice to children…

In psychology this is referred to as ‘splitting’, where an individual is unable to recognize or acknowledge the variance of both good and not-so-good qualities in order to create a more complete, connected assessment. When ride share company, Uber, came on to the market, there was a (mostly) unspoken understanding that — unless a driver had a 4.6 star average — they could be dropped (essentially, fired) from Uber as a driver. The following picture explaining the rating system from one driver pretty much spotlights the critical flaw with this policy:

Caroline O’Donovan / BuzzFeed News

Through basing hiring and firing on the notion of exceptional or nothing, as evidenced above, legendary is in the same category as a mediocre or decent experience. The act of simply completing the task one was asked to perform without causing physical or emotional harm is all that is needed to warrant 5 stars! OK is now the best. The driver even clearly states that 4-stars “does not mean average or above average”. If 5-stars indicates “I can improve” then how and when can you ever know if they have?

Exceptionalism for Everyone!

I have personally struggled with the Uber rating model. I can count on one hand the number of drivers and rides that were exceptional and worthy of 5 stars, where nothing could have made the drive more enjoyable: immaculate car, snacks, drinks, phone chargers, and music preferences offered. I feel a tinge of frustration anytime I must rate a driver at the end of the ride. I have even avoided the little ‘notification’ that pops up, leaving the rating to someone else’s conscience.

In fact, I feel angry and as though I’m being strong-armed into awarding exceptionalism to someone who was not, due to the burden of being responsible for their livelihood and employment. They may have been a good and pleasant driver, but they did not provide the same level of service as those who went the extra mile (pardon the pun). If everyone must be considered exceptional in order to not get fired, then no one is. In addition, if an OK (3 or 4 star) driver continually receives 5-star ratings, how will he or she ever know there are opportunities for improvement?

Michelin has a 3-star rating…and it’s not awarded for mediocrity. Chefs work for years — some even a lifetime — to have the opportunity to be bestowed the coveted top tier status. For anyone not a foodie or fan of “exceptional cuisine that is worth a special journey”, they may think a 3 Star-rated restaurant (based on Uber’s scale, above) “sucks so bad I never want to [eat there]”.

Quid Pro No

Another way in which the value and inaccuracy of ratings and loyalty deceives is through a new social media marketing scheme I like to call “baucus-style marketing”. It’s when, in exchange for a perfect rating, ‘Like’, ‘Follow’, or ’Share’ the person receives some sort of reward or kickback. Maybe it’s a discount on a service, an entry into a contest, or — in the business world — an extra point on their performance assessment.

Dilbert by Scott Adams

While it’s true that you should try and reward the behavior you want to see, doing so through manipulation and bribery is a not-so-great way to go about it. Through this technique, you have businesses who have tons of ‘Likes’, a mountain of 5-star ratings, and with no revenue or terrible service. Employees or clients appear to be engaged, but have little real interest in your business. From an HR perspective, how can you decipher between the A players and the 4th string?

On a side note, while my best friend has proclaimed that almost every situation in life can tie back to a Sex in the City episode, I feel there’s always a good ‘Dilbert’ comic to illustrate the (oh so many) flaws and quirks in the business world. So, to Scott Adams, I thank you, good sir. You help lighten the tone of my otherwise rather moody rants and posts.

Make America Good Again

Despite our current state of misinformation and ‘alternative facts’ around ratings, I feel there are opportunities we can begin to adopt and encourage (or even demand) within our own lives, businesses, and activities we patronize.

Accept that “Average” is not a 4-letter word

It’s time we reset our single-point rating system back to what it used to mean:

  • 1 = Poor
  • 2 = Fair
  • 3 = Average/Good (Minimum acceptable satisfaction)
  • 4 = Above Average/Better (a slightly better experience or outcome than expected)
  • 5 = Exceptional/Best (a memorable experience or outcome, rarely encountered)

Average is not poor or unacceptable. It’s simply the baseline for ‘good’, with an opportunity for improvement.

Get Clear on What You’re Rating

As a business, get clear on what you’re trying to measure and strive to educate your customers and clients on what and how your rating system is used to continually assess and adapt your business operations and people. I encourage businesses to place more value on a 5-star rating based on growth and enrichment. Business, just as in life (or politics, parenting, education, and so on) is not a black or white, right or wrong, pass or fail, zero-sum game.

Do you want your business to be mediocre, or do you want to understand how and where you can grow and improve? If you aren’t placing high value on the quality of your service, people, products, or offerings, then you are not truly invested in delivering an ‘exceptional’ experience.

However, don’t fall into the ‘Uber’ way and consider less than stellar ratings as a means for disciplinary action or termination. While sometimes a hard pill to swallow, the reward for ‘taking your lumps’ and developing action plans for improvement — be it for an individual, a department, or a process — will undoubtedly lead to more positive ratings.

Also, as a customer or client, rather than treating every rating system like that of (in my opinion) the worst models, inquire what the ratings mean for the business(es) you are working for and with. This way, you can ensure you are providing them with a rating that aligns with the measurement that is most important to them.

Don’t Take the Bait

Stop persisting or participating in baucus-style marketing.

As a business, I know it can be tempting to create an incentive-based campaign for likes or ratings. It’s just as tempting for the you, as the customer, to like a page you either don’t love or have never heard of; or give a perfect rating to a company or person who was just ok in order to receive a ‘prize’. But, think about how you are contributing to and perpetuating the fallacy of exceptionalism to others? Would you want a friend or loved one going to a restaurant or buying a product that was just ok or did not meet your desired standards? Then why make it seem amazing to others?

As Facebook’s recent algorithm changes indicated, ‘engagement’ has a renewed definition and includes real feedback and meaningful communication. As a business, simply encouraging and promoting likes will no longer improve your social media presence or saturation.

Recognize and Reward Improvement

Don’t simply reward exceptional outcomes. Instead recognize and reward when improvement occurs. Creating value around upticks in a rating’s result versus simply expecting the best and punishing those that fall short will encourage continual drive and desire for improvement instead of discouragement (and even, abandonment).

There’s a joke amongst my friends that my rating scale (1–10) ends at 9, because hardly anything (even my husband or myself) is worthy of a 10. But, you know what? That’s ok. It doesn’t mean I am continually disappointed; rather it’s that I recognize there are always opportunities for improvement, in most any product, person, business, or situation. And I feel those instances where it’s been amazing, I want to be able to recognize it, authentically. Heck, even Reese Bobby realized the error of his advice, acknowledging that 2nd or 3rd place is still commendable.

If he can do it, then I am pretty sure the rest of us can. Let’s embrace average, learn from the feedback, and continue to strive to be exceptional, knowing that continual improvement is the real measure of our success.

This post originally appeared on

Founder of Painted Porch Strategies, where we help individuals and businesses Design a Blueprint for Eudaimonia (aka “the Good Life”) through Stoicism.

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