SAS Australia is a reality TV show which made waves across Australia. In it, a team of ex-British SAS soldiers took a group of 17 Australian celebrities through various physical and mental challenges, designed to simulate SAS selection.

What similarity do the challenges featured in the show have to those used in the Australian Army, and what does the psychological literature say about its effectiveness?

The Effect of Ranking Your Peers

In this classic exercise, candidates are lined up and told to rank each other according to several key attributes. Who in the group is the most reliable? Who is the least reliable? Who would you want most on your team? Who would you want least on your team? And so forth.

Click here to view the segment within SAS Australia.

This activity is conducted in a range of environments. At Officer Selection Boards, candidates write their responses down on paper and hand it to selection staff, who use it to gauge how each person is perceived by their peers.  On SAS Australia, the results of these rankings are voiced immediately and publicly to the rest of the group, allowing those who are not performing to be immediately identified and shamed in front of the group.

Previous studies on Special Forces selection within the US military have shown that while peer rankings do not accurately assess non-personality characteristics, such as military knowledge or academic grades, they are on average more accurate than supervisor evaluations of an individual’s personality traits – such as interpersonal skills and teamwork. It therefore makes sense that Directing Staff (DS) seek out teammates’ perspective in the process of assessing one’s character.

A former Royal Military College Drill Sergeant who was previously a DS on RMC’s infamous Exercise Shaggy Ridge, told me that staff are less interested in how people are ranked, but more in how they respond to being ranked.

To paraphrase a recent conversation I had with this former DS – ‘usually the people who are ranked the worst in the group do one of two things. They either drop their bundle and fail the course miserably, or they rise to the challenge and strive hard to break free of that label and prove themselves to the group’.

What the Literature Says

What does the psychology literature have to say about all this? And does it align with what is portrayed in real life and in more controlled environments such as SAS Australia?

In military environments, peer rankings have a significant impact.  The impact upon us is determined by who and in what environment we are being ranked. For example, peer rankings have little impact on one’s behaviour unless the peers are people known to the individual and if the ranking is in a metric that is relevant.  This makes sense; a football player wouldn’t be affected if a group of strangers ranked them on their ability to play netball. However, a group of officer cadets who have spent 12 months training together would certainly be affected if their peers ranked them on a quality such as ‘leadership’ and ‘integrity’; two things seeking to be measured and developed throughout their time at RMC.  Drawing back to SAS Australia, peer rankings would arguably have lesser impact on a group of celebrities – who’ve only known each other for a few days, and are measured in military-based competencies which may not be of personal relevance.

The impact of being ranked

Now that we’ve identified that those in military training environments are most susceptible to the effects of peer rankings – what impact does it have upon them?

There have been many studies conducted on the effect of rankings, and how it induces certain behaviour. Unsurprisingly, being ranked against your peers fosters competitive behaviour; however it can also induce teamwork – with lower ranked players banding together to knock those higher ranked off their perch. In Australia, we might also label this as part of ‘tall poppy syndrome’.  Other effects of being lower ranked include, a decreased desire to achieve outcomes for the team, elevated levels of cheating, and an increased likelihood of sabotaging others in the group.

When it comes to decision making and risk, rankings can have variable effects. In one study analysing the effects of lottery winnings and rank, participants who experienced a rapid climb in social-rank from their winnings were more care-free and brash in their spending. Meanwhile, in a study with adolescents playing a simple video game, those randomly ranked as ‘top players’ tried to play it safe and were overly cautious, in a bid to hang onto their lead, while lower ranked players took more risks playing the game.  This suggests that one’s response to being ranked in the top or bottom of one’s cohort (the equivalent of the ‘who is the most/least reliable person’ question here posed to the SAS Australia recruits) is dependent upon the individual and the situation. Will they adapt more risky decision making because they feel they can afford to lose, or because they have nothing to lose? Will they play it safe so they can rest on their laurels, or because they are determined to improve their ranking? These varied effects certainly support the anecdotes of the former DS I spoke with.

Notably, the most interesting component of peer ranking is that the effects can be overridden through what one academic calls a ‘robust system of cooperation’. The phrase we are most familiar with to describe this is a ‘culture of teamwork’. This culture of teamwork is heavily studied in the business world. For example, extensive studies have been done on team environments where sales teams benefit from passing leads to each other, but their employer also ranks the employees based on their individual levels of sales.

Army, too, operates in a similar environment. We rely heavily upon teamwork in order to do business. We must work as a team to ensure timings are met. When out field, we make the solider on piquet a hot brew, we volunteer to carry the section ammunition in our pack,  or fill up someone else’s water at the same time we do our own. Yet despite all that cooperation, we are ranked as individuals against our cohort - which effects our performance reviews, promotions and even corps preferences.

The research shows that organisations with an established system of 'generalized reciprocity' may nonetheless be able to withstand such disruptions. For example, strong norms of helping colleagues, supported by organisational routines and practices, maintain cooperation despite a reward-based system for performance rankings - much like we have in Army. As we operate in highly cooperative teams and have a strong organisational culture of teamwork, Army may be able to withstand the everyday pressures that arise with performance rankings.

The implementation of peer rankings, are as much a test of the team as they are of the individual.  While the practice may lead to unhealthy competition, organisations with a strong culture of reciprocity can continue their culture of teamwork even with the pressures of being constantly ranked.