From Yelping to dating, there’s a better way.
Sparkling or still water? Organic or conventional avocados? Four stars or three-and-a-half? The modern world sets loose upon us a barrage of choice in the consumer marketplace, while the Internet not only expands our consumption opportunities—giving us most of the world’s music in a smartphone app—it offers us myriad new chances to learn about the tastes, and distastes, of others.
For several years, leading up to the 2016 publication of my book You May Also Like: Taste in An Age of Endless Choice, I dove into the latest research on consumer behavior, via social science, psychology, and neuroscience. Now, to help you navigate the confusing landscape of endless choices, to choose wisely, more efficiently, and with greater self-awareness, I have distilled some of that research into the form of an advice column—though in this case I also supplied the questions, based on real questions that arose during my research, and which I have subsequently heard from friends and readers.
I was trying to find a hotel in Florence last night on TripAdvisor. I spent hours reading reviews and afterward felt less certain about my choice than when I began. Can I trust the “wisdom of crowds” at places like TripAdvisor and Yelp?
First, let’s unpack that phrase. An often neglected point that author James Surowiecki made in his popular 2004 book The Wisdom of Crowds is that a group is “far more likely to come up with a good decision if the people in the group of are independent of each other.” In other words, the crowd has a better chance of being wise when they do not have access to “the same old data everyone is already familiar with.” On Yelp, TripAdvisor, Amazon, and other hives of user-generated ratings and reviews, people are not acting alone. The review that they write will be seen by many other people, and before writing their review, they were probably exposed to the opinions of many other people.
Reading about strangers’ experiences is not necessarily a bad way to predict our own experience. As University of Virginia psychologist Timothy D. Wilson and colleagues note, the process of “surrogation” (learning vicariously through others) can lead to “more accurate forecasts about one’s own enjoyment than receiving a description of that experience.” This is in part because we might discount our own biases in thinking about how much we might enjoy something like a hotel, and in part because we might tend to think our own opinion is more unique than it is.
Use TripAdvisor and its ilk sparingly. Glance at the overall rating, and number of reviews, but don’t wade too deep into the thicket of reviews.
But others’ opinions can create biases of their own. Massachusetts Institute of Technology management professor Sinan Aral and colleagues have found in experiments, through the mechanism of “social influence bias,” that the presence of a positive review, for example, can inflate the number of subsequent positive reviews. An analysis of Amazon reviews, by contrast, found that later book reviews tended to diverge from earlier book reviews; one problem is that readers’ expectations have been influenced by previous reviews—people began to review other reviewers. And reviewers, of course, tend to be those who are most motivated—those who had the best, and worst, experiences. This helps explain the famous “J-shaped distribution” of Internet reviews: Mostly positive, with a sharp negative tail, and a dip in the middle. Selection bias begins before reviewing, of course; “purchasing bias” implies the people who are more likely to like something were those who purchased it in the first place.
There are other caveats. A property may be popular on TripAdvisor because it is cheap, or because it has a lot of reviews—not necessarily because it is the “best” place to stay. As a study in The Journal of Consumer Research found, comparing reviews of products on Amazon across various categories, the things that got the best reviews rarely converged with the products deemed best in Consumer Reports testing.
Lastly, because of ordering effects, we may simply never find the things that would be our favorites. On a recent trip to a coastal Mexican town, a person pointed me to a low-key fish shack on the beach. It was easily the trip’s most memorable meal. But when I looked for it on review sites, it was buried dozens of places away from the “top” restaurants.
So what to do? Use TripAdvisor and its ilk sparingly. Glance at the overall rating, and number of reviews, but don’t wade too deep into the thicket of reviews—you will become quickly confused by the conflict between varying peoples’ expectations and experiences. Ignore one or five star reviews, and focus on the action in the middle, where people are more authentically grappling with how they felt. Look at user-submitted photos more than reviews, so you can draw your own conclusions. Finally, look to other sources. The wisdom of the crowds is not always good at seeking out the lesser-crowded places…