This morning I found myself saying, “medium” when the woman serving my breakfast burrito asked if I wanted medium or hot picante sauce. If I really know what I want, I will say it unequivocally. But when I’m new to an experience, I find myself opting for the first choice offered, and hardly wait to hear all options. OK, I admit I’m a highly suggestive, conformist kind of person. Perhaps that explains something of my interest in the subject.
I have found myself being herded in a variety of purchasing situations, responsive to proven sets of social stimuli proven to get people to buy things. For instance, I bought a condo once, and at the time I believed I sufficiently weighed the pros and cons. I was also making pretty good money at the time, enough to afford a Florida timeshare. To tell you the truth, I found the congratulatory hoopla embarrassing, and would have preferred the sales team not to announce my decision to the other people sitting around.
So, you’re siting in the quiet privacy of your home, perusing some object on Ebay. A smart phone, let’s say. Having thought about it for some time, you know you want an Android-type phone, but beyond that you don’t really have an informed opinion as to which brand is the better one. You sort by price, and see numerous brand names. Some brands are clearly more expensive than others. The pictures make two different brands look good, but thinking back to the time you bought that PDA that was reputed to have many more functions than the other brand, you are more cautious this time around. After all, the vendor failed to mention that documents created on you PDA were not compatible with Microsoft Word, and were pretty much locked into your PDA without a way to export them to your computer.
Here is a Nokia smart phone, and there is another kind you never heard about called Toplux (these were the brand names used in Li-Fen’s (2011) study, where Nokia had a high mean brand recognition of 4.73 to Toplux with a mean of 1.65). What do you do next? You will probably read the reviews on the cheaper phone you never heard about. You want to read only the positive reviews, but then again, you know that would only be fooling yourself. So you find yourself giving the negative reviews a fair reading, before looking at the glowing reports.
Who do you trust? Are the positive reviewers sincere, or are they plants? Sometimes you can get a sense of who’s who from the kind of language being used. The paid reviewers have a certain style of writing, don’t they? Or do they? To be honest, I’ve read many, many paid-for product reviews by people who obviously speak English as a second language, and were perhaps not-so literate in their own language. Another way of telling might be to follow that one person’s comment history. Hello, what’s this? For some strange reason this reviewer has also written reviews on this brand or vendor on other product pages.
You also look at product ratings, and overall, 5,000 ratings indicate the Nokia phone is pretty reliable. Toplux, however, only has a few dozen votes, and they average out to about a point below the Nokia phone. Surely 5,000 votes could not all be stooges, even if a few might be. Your mind is made up, and you bid on the Nokia phone. Better safe than sorry.
In online bidding studies Yi-Fen (2011) has cautioned that people can sense when they are being manipulated into a purchasing decision by artificially inflated positive rating numbers and product reviews. The key is in numbers that deviate too unrealistically from what consumers expect. For example, if the Toplux phone had 5,000 positive reviews, but the Nokia phone only a handful the consumer might be wary of Toplux. People like honest-looking reporting, and might purchase Toplux if it had just the right amount of positive reviews and positive rating. We might not expect Brand X to be perfect, but a 7 out of 10 for a 20% savings? Hmmm, we might buy it.
A few well placed negative reviews can tank a sale. For example, when searching for a replacement battery for my notebook, I knew that an after market brand would be cheaper. But are all lithium-ion battery packs the same? This is certainly not an expert opinion, but it looks like they are not the same. You have rebuilds, and even with factory new you have different life expectancies. Should I pay $50 for a battery, or $80? If it is the same battery, I should buy the $50 one. But what if they are not the same battery? Consider two reviews. The first is a 4-star review, saying the battery was shipped promptly, and arrived in good shape. The second review, though, while acknowledging the prompt shipment, was written a month after purchase, and the poor consumer discovered that her battery only lasted one month.
Many of us have heard of the restaurant review site Zagat (rhymes with “Cat in the Hat”). Zagat is an excellent example of crowd sourcing, where amateurs contribute to a body of knowledge. In this case, patrons of various levels of expertise will write reviews on restaurants they have visited. Some reviews are of exceptional quality. For instance, I have never heard of a Sommalier, and to see it used in connection with a server of wine gave me the impression that this patron must really know what he’s talking about. Equally, we hardly trust obsequious sycophancy when it comes to restaurant reviews. Don’t the pros find some fault with even the most expensive restaurants? So, too, do we expect to read something negative, even if we may not understand it (“The wine pairings were mediocre, and the Sommalier tried to outsnob us with obscurata”).
Yi-Fen, C. (2011). Auction Fever: Exploring Informational Social Influences on Bidder Choices. Cyberpsychology, Behavior & Social Networking, 14(7/8), 411-416. doi:10.1089/cyber.2009.0355
Traditional Vis-à-vis group psychology is well established in the literature. Marvin E. Shaw's 1971 book Group Dynamics: The Psychology of Small Group Behavior is a seminal text in the formation and maintenance of small groups. My thesis of virtual group mechanics expands on Shaw, generalizing certain basic principals to the realm of virtual, i.e., Web groups. How do people coalesce on the Web? Why do they group together along delineations of politics, religion, aesthetics, and general interests? How do you know when a group has formed, and what are the steps involved in group formation? These are the introductory questions of this new psychology.