This Is the Online Shopping Mistake You Need to Stop Making Now

If you use online ratings and reviews to decide which products and services to buy, raise your hand. Well, our hands are raised, but we just found out that those ratings may not always lead to the best choices. Here's what you need to know.

Kite rin/Shutterstock

Online reviews can be highly entertaining, and theoretically, they should be helping us make good decisions about what to spend our money on. As it turns out, however, they do help us make decisions—just not necessarily the best ones, according to a new study led by Derek Powell, PhD, a Stanford University postdoctoral research fellow. The study was published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Specifically, the study reveals that we are more inclined to buy a product that has more reviews than a product that has less, even if the product with more reviews has lower ratings. That inclination is so strong, in fact, that given a choice between two products that have equally bad reviews, we’re still inclined to buy the one with more reviews—despite that the higher number of reviews means that the product is even more likely to be bad (because more people agree that it’s bad).

Dr. Powell and his colleagues (two from UCLA and one from Indiana University) asked several hundred people to look at a series of cell phone cases, presented in pairs along with the average user rating and number of reviews for each case, and then indicate which case they would be more inclined to purchase. Across the board, for each pair, the participants tended to choose the case that had more reviews, rather than better reviews.

This herd-mentality is a function of social learning, according to Dr. Powell. Social learning is the process by which new behaviors are learned through observing the behavior of others: “The Internet now provides social evidence on an unprecedented scale. However, properly utilizing this evidence requires a capacity for statistical inference.”

Pitting “statistical information against social information,” the researchers concluded that our brains are so wired to gravitate toward what we see others doing that we find ourselves unable to see beyond that to make meaningful statistical inferences. “We found that people were biased toward choosing to purchase more popular products and that this sometimes led them to make very poor decisions,” he explains in a press release by the Association for Psychological Science.

“Consumers try to use information about other people’s experiences to make good choices, and retailers have an incentive to steer consumers toward products they will be satisfied with,” Dr. Powell added. “Our data suggest that retailers might need to rethink how reviews are presented and consumers might need to do more to educate themselves about how to use reviews to guide their choices.” That includes absorbing the notion that a larger number of reviews is not a reliable indicator of a product’s quality.

Here are a collection of online reviews that aren’t going to change your buying habits, but are guaranteed to make you laugh.

Lauren Cahn
Lauren Cahn is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared regularly on Reader's Digest, The Huffington Post, and a variety of other publications since 2008. She covers life and style, popular culture, law, religion, health, fitness, yoga, entertaining and entertainment. Lauren is also an author of crime fiction; her first full-length manuscript, The Trust Game, was short-listed for the 2017 CLUE Award for emerging talent in the genre of suspense fiction.