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The order you read reviews affects your decision accuracy

I published in the Journal of Economic Psychology research showing how we might make more accurate decisions when purchasing online. Specifically, when we read positive reviews before negative reviews, our chances of making a regretful purchase are much higher than if we read negative reviews before positive reviews. Those people who read negative reviews first, before reading positive reviews, have far less likelihood of regret, and higher levels of satisfaction with the purchase down the road.

Let’s face it –we all read customer reviews online to help us make a decision on whether or not to buy. We assume customer reviews are impartial –obviously the vendor selling the product is not going to tell us their deficiencies –we have to learn what we might be in for from those who have already bought.

Our aim is to make an accurate decision about a purchase, because online what we see is what we get. But this method of evaluation is not perfect –we’ve all suffered regret after buying something online –even if we did our best to make an accurate decision by reading other people’s reviews. Many people assume it wasn’t their fault –there was no way they could have known without physically inspecting the product beforehand. There might be some truth to that, especially for ‘experience’ type goods (second hand cars, business suits), but there is another factor at play here that is impacting the accuracy of our purchase decisions online –our sub-consciousness.

When we are evaluating a potential purchase, our attitude shifts in real time dependent on the information we’re exposed to. For example, when reading negative reviews our attitudes move towards negative, and when we read positive reviews our attitude moves towards positive. However, we also know that our sub-consciousness plays a part in influencing our judgment. Some psychologists refer to this as having ‘dual attitudes’. Our subconscious attitude can influence our conscious attitude, without us being aware of it.

What my research has found is that a subconscious positive attitude can have a stronger effect on our conscious attitude, than can a subconscious negative attitude. For this reason, positive reviews tend to continue to influence our current judgments longer than negative reviews. And so, when we read positive reviews, our sub consciousness remains positive and continues to influence our judgments when we read negative reviews. The result is that when we read negative reviews they don’t appear to be as negative as they actually are. This in turn leads to a less accurate decision, and more chance of making a regretful purchase.

The solution to making a more accurate decision to purchase when shopping online: read negative reviews before you read positive reviews.