Buying on­line? Oliver Burke­man’s news on bad re­views

The Guardian - Weekend - - This Column Will Change Your Life - @oliv­er­burke­man

Last sum­mer I fell straight into a trap that, I’ve since learned, is com­mon when shop­ping on the web. Seek­ing to ban­ish sun­light from the bed­room of a tiny hu­man who starts his nights be­fore dark, I stum­bled upon a black­out blind that promised to cling to the win­dows as if by magic (though ac­tu­ally by static elec­tric­ity). It got plenty of re­views on­line, but a me­diocre av­er­age rat­ing ow­ing to the fact that, in many cases, it didn’t cling at all. Yet in some semi-con­scious back cor­ner of my brain, I fig­ured that a prod­uct bought by so many peo­ple couldn’t be so bad. Un­for­tu­nately, it was. For the money I paid,

I could have taped bin bags on the win­dows, then spent the rest on a nice whisky to sip in the 45 min­utes avail­able to me each evening be­tween the baby go­ing to bed and me fall­ing asleep, which is how it goes when you’re wo­ken as early as I am these days.

There’s so­lace, I sup­pose, in learn­ing from a paper just pub­lished in Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence that this ap­pears to be a ba­sic hu­man bias: we’re in­flu­enced more by how many other peo­ple have cho­sen a prod­uct than by how that prod­uct worked out for them. The Stan­ford psy­chol­o­gist Derek Pow­ell and his col­leagues pre­sented peo­ple with pairs of prod­ucts as they might show up on Ama­zon, one with a poor av­er­age rat­ing based on lots of re­views, the other with a sim­i­larly low rat­ing based only on a hand­ful. Re­li­ably, peo­ple chose the prod­uct with more re­views.

This makes no sense, sta­tis­ti­cally speak­ing: the larger the num­ber of re­views on which a bad rat­ing is based, the higher the like­li­hood the prod­uct re­ally is bad. This is the “law of large num­bers”: fa­mously, if you ask a crowd of 1,000 to guess the num­ber of jelly beans in a jar, the av­er­age of their guesses will be spook­ily close to the truth; ask three peo­ple and it prob­a­bly won’t. So, if forced to choose be­tween two prod­ucts with lack­lus­tre rat­ings, you’re ac­tu­ally bet­ter off se­lect­ing the one with fewer re­views, since there’s a big­ger chance the peo­ple who hated it are out­liers, whose un­happy ex­pe­ri­ence won’t ac­cord with your own.

There’s a faint echo here of the “mere ex­po­sure ef­fect”, which de­scribes the way that we grow fond of any­thing to which we’re re­peat­edly ex­posed, all else be­ing equal, re­gard­less of any other rea­son to like or dis­like it. That’s one rea­son that grat­ing TV ad­verts work: sure, they’re an­noy­ing, but the grat­ing­ness guar­an­tees you’ll no­tice them lots, and notic­ing leads to lik­ing. In both cases, we seem de­signed to find sheer quan­tity (of prod­uct re­views, of en­coun­ters with an ad) re­as­sur­ing at a gut level. It takes more con­scious rea­son­ing to see, in the case of on­line shop­ping, that the larger the quan­tity of pur­chasers, the more se­ri­ously you should recog­nise their judg­ment – and not buy some­thing if they hated it.

This is, per­haps not co­in­ci­den­tally in my case, e, the kind of rea­son­ing it’s no­to­ri­ously harder to prac­tise when you’re tired.

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