Monday, 17 December 2012

The psychology of online reviews

We used to rely on word-of-mouth or expert critics to help us choose our purchases, be that a planned holiday or a movie rental. Today that's all changed. A few mouse clicks and sites like Trip Advisor and Amazon offer us an abundance of reviews written by strangers. Yet, how they affect our judgements has been little researched.

Now Brent Coker has conducted a pair of studies and his main finding suggests that we remain impressed after reading early positive reviews, even if negative reviews come later. It's a finding that could help us be more objective when reading review pages, and it will surely also be of interest to marketeers and PR professionals hoping to give their products an advantage.

Seventy-six undergrads were told all positive facts about one fictional coffee brand and all negative facts about another, along the lines of: "the company has put green policies in place" and "the company has tried to cover up exploitation of its workers". Pictures illustrated the facts.

Next a research assistant told the participants that a mistake had been made - the fact sheets had been wrongly labelled, so that the positive statements actually applied to other coffee brand and vice versa. They were asked to imagine the sheets had been labelled correctly and then say how they felt about the two companies. Their responses were compared against the ratings of a control group for whom the reversal wasn't made.

The key finding here was that the impact of the early positive facts lingered, leading to enhanced ratings for the brand that was originally misdescribed in glowing terms. In contrast, the stain of negative facts wore off. The brand originally misdescribed in negative terms was given fair ratings by the participants, as if they were able to forget the mistaken negative associations.

A second study tested this principle with online reviews for an LA hotel. Two hundred and eighty undergrads read five Trip Advisor reviews for the hotel, either ordered so that they went from positive to negative, or from negative to positive. The participants showed more favour for the hotel when they read the more positive reviews first, again showing how the impact of early positive reviews appears to linger. This remained the case even when the reviews were labelled such that they appeared to have been written over the course of a year (so giving the impression that the hotel had deteriorated during that time).

"This research documented evidence of asymmetrical affective perseverance when consumers form attitudes towards brands," Coker concluded. "... Consumers may overshoot their judgments towards brands when positive information is replaced with negative information."


Coker, B. (2012). Seeking the opinions of others online: Evidence of evaluation overshoot. Journal of Economic Psychology, 33 (6), 1033-1042 DOI: 10.1016/j.joep.2012.06.005

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


Ted S said...

I suspect that people generally go in assuming if not wanting a positive & look to reinforce it, bailing only when it's clearly not the case. It would be interesting to test Amazon's approach of contrasting a good & bad review upfront to see if / how that shifts behavior around.

Jeffrey Pylant said...

Don't like.

Jason DaCruz said...

Interesting --

I have a habit of always reading reviews from negative to positive. Most positive reviews summarize what a product is supposed to do ("this hair straightener straightened my hair" or "this book was entertaining when I read it"). The real gold is in the negative comments, where you can find out about a product's problems and then assess how much those shortcomings matter to you.

Great post!

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