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I was recently in a bar catching up with a friend. They were somewhat glum over their singleness and yearned to find someone great. I asked whether they had anyone in mind – they did – but this admission came with the suffix “oh but they are in another league”. This was total crap, of course.

Not to get too Carrie Bradshaw over this, but the idea of social leagues made me think. It made me realise I’ve never really thought of people as being out of my league. I recognise there are plenty of people more attractive, funnier, fitter, stronger, nicer, more selfless, better in the sack (not that I’ve attempted to find a metric for this, although OPH might work), higher earning, and generally better than me on a whole host of different attributes.

But, the problem with ranking something as complex as a person is that you can only rank one attribute at a time. It is reductive. It can help us understand isolated components, but it tells us nearly nothing at all about the ‘whole’.

So why do we like to rank everything (football teams, people who can run in a straight line for 100m really quickly, TV programmes, music, each other)? While I’m sure a social psychologist could probably give you a better answer than me, I think it might be:

One of the consequences of social behaviour evolving from natural selection.

We tend to think we’re true social beings, but our sociality has been built onto an intrinsic framework of competition. These two attributes aren’t exactly yin and yang. The specific reason for ranking is simply that it’s the most linear and easily comprehensible form of comparative analysis for the mind to calculate. In fact, the reason we are mysteriously drawn to ranking is probably because of a minefield of psychological facets, including substitution, intensity matching and availability heuristics. All of which you can read about in Daniel Kahneman’s marvellous Thinking, Fast & Slow. (No, I’m not on commission, and I suspect Nobel Laureate Kahneman has no problems selling his book).

In short, the problem with ranking is the reductive simplicity. When attempting to overcome the challenge of ranking a visually attractive yet horrible person, the response tends to be “let’s do more ranking!” Instead of ranking one attribute, we can rank 10 different attributes out of 100 and add them up. Seems fair, it’s certainly better than ranking a single attribute alone but… Unfortunately, this is a bit like ranking an athlete’s right leg, left leg, right arm, left arm, torso, shoulders, head, hands and feet separately and adding them up to conclude the quality of the athlete. What it ignores is synergy. Synergy is elusive and emergent. But its influence in our world is incalculable.

The idea that the whole can be significantly more powerful than the sum of its parts is a universal truth. It’s also true in reverse. Try sticking a car together from a load of super cars: Lamborghini chassis, Zonda gearbox, Bugatti Veyron engine, Ferrari suspension. The likelihood is that it would be a terrible car, it probably wouldn’t even work because the pieces are all out of kilter with each other, it would be asynergistic.

And now to massively shoehorn this into a discussion about education, because, well, why not? There are tens, if not hundreds, of university rankings – some more respected than others. And one of the things you notice when you start analysing them is that they often yield very strange results. The University where I used work is regularly ranked relatively poorly in national league tables – notably so when you consider its reputation as a top UK university, with the highest student satisfaction and retention rates in the UK.

So, what causes this discrepancy? Synergy. My old university may have a series of attributes that are technically weaker than other universities, but the way in which the University brings these attributes together and makes them work is highly synergistic.

Conversely there are universities that achieve high results even though there are substantial holes in their offer. Like a champion pedigree race horse, with only three legs.

Sadly, unless rankings evolve to account for synergy, which I think is unlikely – my old University and my wonderful friend will never be judged as high as they should. We desperately need to get over our ‘rank obsession’, else we will forever undervalue many of life’s most important things, and will continue to distort decision making away from the truth.