I work as a software developer, and we have a ticketing system. Tickets can have "priority levels", with labels like "Critical", "Highest", "High", "Medium", "Low" and similar.

It is my experience that such systems gravitate to using only three of them -- basically "Must Be Done Absolutely Right Now", "Normal" and "Will Never Be Done". And one day the first category grows too fast to get done, and the middle category also disappears.

There is a name for this phenomenon, as I recall reading about it, but I forgot what it is. "Priority compression" or something like it, but that's a useless search term as there are too many compression-related hits.

Does anybody know what it's called?

  • 3
    This strikes me as similar to the phenomenon of grade inflation in schools. Would 'priority inflation' work?
    – John Feltz
    Aug 29, 2018 at 15:15
  • How arbitrary is your three-part "must…", "normal…" "won't? Wouldn't we normally shrink "Critical", "Highest", "High", "Medium", "Low" and similar into three groups call it "triage"? Isn't it true that if you need to go further, the term for your situation - such as "crisis" or "catastrophe" becomes so more important, the wording doesn't matter? Sep 16, 2018 at 18:23
  • I'm not aware of an actual name for it. I've seen it quite a bit over the years in software development, unfortunately. Colloquially we just say they "want the moon" and we do our best to prioritize the tasks ourselves...
    – Gerald
    Oct 29, 2018 at 19:36
  • I've heard this called 'collapsing categories'.
    – AmI
    Nov 21, 2018 at 21:54

6 Answers 6


Some folks, at least in the software engineering field, have called this tendency "Priority Inflation":

An instance of this problem is observed in the bug reporting process, where testers are encouraged to increase the reported priority in order to maximize the number of fixes delivered. This situation — called Priority Inflation by practitioners — is analyzed using game theory.
- "The Priority Inflation Game", Software Systems Engineering Group, UCL Department of Computer Science, University College London (paper in progress).


The phenomenon I call priority inflation.... Over the past few years, I've seen a shift in the labelling of priorities in planning documents. A new priority has been introduced: Priority Zero. Nobody has explained to me what Priority 0 means, but I assume somebody invented it to emphasize that the feature is even more critical than priority 1. Mind you, I'm not sure what could be more important to a project than "If we don't do this, we're all fired." Maybe "If we don't do this, the earth will explode."
- "The great thing about priorities is that you can always go one higher", Raymond Chen, Microsoft, November 21, 2008.


Is it schedule compression? In project management, when you basically have too many tasks to complete them in the original time frame and you're in danger of blowing a deadline, you can use schedule compression techniques like fast-tracking (grouping and reordering tasks that can be stacked to run in parallel with one another) and crashing (basically throwing extra resources, like overtime, at the problem) to get the time line back on track.


You could call it task precedence or task sequencing. Combine the two for more clarity and you get task precedence sequencing or simply precedence sequencing. This might not be the aptest term that you're trying to remember but should fit in just right.

  • 1
    This sounds like generic terms for a rating system. The OP is looking for the term that describes how people only use 2 or 3 ratings on a scale that has five.
    – Laurel
    Oct 17, 2018 at 4:07

This phenomenon can be referred to by the shape of the graph it produces. In your case, you have a W curve and (later) a U curve. In other contexts (e.g. most five star rating systems), you get a J curve, where the average is like 4.7 stars.

See for example the article Ratings Bias Effects:

This figure shows the graphs of 5-star ratings from nine different Yahoo! sites with all the volume numbers redacted. We don't need them, since we only want to talk about the shapes of the curves.

Eight of these graphs have what is known to reputation system aficionados as J-curves- where the far right point (5 Stars) has the very highest count, 4-Stars the next, and 1-Star a little more than the rest. Generally, a J-curve is considered less-than ideal for several reasons: The average aggregate scores all clump together between 4.5 to 4.7 and therefore they all display as 4- or 5-stars and are not-so-useful for visually sorting between options. Also, this sort of curve begs the question: Why use a 5-point scale at all? Wouldn't you get the same effect with a simpler thumbs-up/down scale, or maybe even just a super-simple favorite pattern?

The outlier amongst the graphs is for Yahoo! Autos Custom (which is now shut down) where users were rating the car-profile pages created by other users - has a W-curve. Lots of 1, 3, and 5 star ratings and a healthy share of 4 and 2 star as well. This is a healthy distribution and suggests that "a 5-point scale is good for this community".


There is one ratings curve not shown here, the U-curve, where 1 and 5 stars are disproportionately selected. Some highly-controversial objects on Amazon see this rating curve. Yahoo's now defunct personal music service also saw this kind of curve when introducing new music to established users: 1 star came to mean "Never play this song again" and 5 meant "More like this one, please". If you are seeing U-curves, consider that the 1) users are telling you something other than what you wanted to measure is important and/or 2) you might need a different rating scale.

  • Since the OP is asking for a specific term, are you suggesting "Ratings Bias"?
    – miltonaut
    Nov 8, 2018 at 9:35

How about "priority level simplification"?


How about "triage"? It was first used in a medical setting to sort patients by the severity of their injuries and the urgency or futility of the treatment. Many episodes of the television series "MASH" use the word triage and demonstrate the rapidity of the sorting.

Triage indicates three levels, just as your example. The repair aspect of the work is analogous to medical treatment of the body.

  • 2
    Triage refers to the process of assigning priorities, not the phenomenon of priorities being assigned in a skewed manner.
    – ssokolow
    Sep 15, 2018 at 6:16

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