Online shopping is gradually taking precedence over traditional shopping. In the US, 96% of Americans shop online, and the majority of those prefer shopping online for reasons like saving time and avoiding crowds. Meanwhile, it was reported in 2014 that 95% of British people shop online.
But how do people actually decide how to buy products on the internet? How do you decide, for example, which computer desk to buy? Would you be persuaded of buying one with 900 reviews and 4.1 stars or would you rather go for one with 3,167 reviews with 3.7 stars?
Consumers are influenced by online strangers more than they realise – or are willing to admit). According to a recent study published in Psychological Science, people are likely to favour products with a higher number of reviews, even when it has received the same low rating as an alternative product.
Under certain conditions, people preferred a product with more reviews to one with fewer reviews even though the statistical model indicated that the latter was likely to be of higher quality than the former. Overall, people’s purchasing decisions suggested that they failed to make meaningful statistical inferences.
Derek Powell, the lead author from Stanford University explains: ‘It’s extremely common for websites and apps to display the average score of a product along with the number of reviews. Our research suggests that, in some cases, people might take this information and make systematically bad decisions with it.’
Powell also explains that people are biased toward choosing to purchase more popular products and that this, at times, led them to make poor decisions.
This could be attributed to social proof, a psychological phenomenon where people assume the actions of others in an attempt to reflect correct behaviour in a given situation. Social proof is one type of conformity, and of course people conform for lots of reasons.
Browsing at actual products available on Amazon, Powell and colleagues Jingqi Yu (Indiana University Bloomington), Melissa DeWolf and Keith Holyoak (University of California, Los Angeles) found no link between the number of reviews a product had and its average rating. Hence, real-world data reveal that a large number of reviews is, indeed, not a reliable indicator of a product’s quality.
Intrigued by how people would actually use reviews and rating information, the researchers asked 132 adult to browse at a series of phone cases, presented in pairs. The participants saw an average user rating and total number of reviews for each phone case and indicated which case in each pair they would buy. Across various combinations of average rating and number of reviews, participants consistently picked the alternative with more reviews.
This observed bias was so strong that they often favoured the phone case with more reviews even when both of the options had low ratings, effectively choosing the product that was, in statistical terms, more likely to be low quality.
Although the research have only looked into people’s decisions based on two numbers and did not take into account the impact of other factors such as the content of reviews, it does have implications for both consumers and retailers. As customers, it’s helpful that we are aware about our own internal cognitive bias toward more popular items. Whereas for retailers and web designers, it raises an important issue about how product pages on websites like Amazon and Argos are presented.
Powell says he and his colleagues are interested in continuing their research into examining different ways of communicating reviews.
But then again, we have to bear in mind that some of those glowing reviews are just fake.
Dennis Relojo-Howell is the founder of Psychreg. He writes for the American Psychological Association and has a weekly column for Free Malaysia Today.