gossipYou’re thinking of buying something or some service and an acquintance says, “Don’t do it; I bought that/hired them and it was a total waste of money.  I got screwed.”

Do you trust that acquaintance enough to let them sway your decision? Generally speaking, yes.

But if you’re on Amazon, looking at an interesting book, and you see a handful of 5-star reviews, many claiming that this is “The Best” book on the subject, do you trust the positive reviews?

Well, it depends on how well written and substantiated the reviews are, etc. But generally speaking, no, you don’t really trust them.  All else being equal, we tend to give far less credence to positive reviews than negative ones.

Why we trust negative reviews more than positive recommendations

Basically, we grant others authority in the matter of their own personal experiences. If they say their favorite color is blue, we believe them.  If they say they had a bad experience with such and such a product or service provider, we believe that too, because they are speaking from their own personal experience in that one situation.

You don’t have to be an expert on vacum cleaners to know that the one you bought has failed you miserably. And your experience alone is often enough to sway someone from buying that brand.

But a general recommendation is different. The ability to credibly make a positive recommendation requires more than just personal experience with a given product. For a recommendation to be persuasive, the reader must have faith in the reviewer’s overall judgement and in their field-specific knowledge.

You can tell me you liked a specific type of ergonomic chair, but your experience alone isn’t enough to make me want to buy that chair because there are a lot of good chairs out there and I’m not looking for good – I’m looking for the best my money can buy.

In order to persuade me that the chair you bought is the best chair for my money, you have to have more than just your experience with the chair.  You need to have broad knowledge and expertise (or at least experience) with the top ergonomic chairs on the market so that you can compare multiple chairs and competently pick out the best performing chair for the money.

To believe and act on your recommendation, I’d need to know:

  • that your use of the chair is similar to mine,
  • that you’ve already tried a bunch of chairs, and
  • what your criteria were for selecting the chair you did.

All this over and above your personal experience with the chair you eventually bought and recommended.

See the difference?

A Social Media “Friend” isn’t necessarily a friend

A lot has been made recently about studies purporting to show that people trust their friends less and experts more. It’s well worth looking at the study, but be careful about applying this too broadly.

First of all, what the study is really saying is that people trust anonymous reviews less than recommendations stemming from an authoritative source.  Well, duh!

Does that mean reviews and testimonials have lost importance?  Hell no.  Keeping in mind what we just discussed, here’s what I believe it means:

  1. Negative reviews can still have an outsized impact.
  2. Positive reviewers need to substantiate their unbiased nature and subject matter expertise.

Sean D’Souza is ahead of the curve, as usual

What this really reminds me of is Sean D’Souza’s advice on Testimonials, advice that clearly understood (and masterfully leveraged) this phenomena several years ago when his product first came out.  He used to give the PDF away to members of his newsletter, but the product he’s selling now for $40 is well worth it, in my humble opinion – and I’ve sampled more than my fair share of copywriting books, info-products, and guru advice 😉


  1. Zoli Cserei on 02.19.2010

    Hi Jeff,

    Negative comments indeed have a kind of superiority with positive ones. When you go to an art exhibition, for example, and tell everyone how much you liked it, you might come across as naive. If, however, comes Peter and says that he didn’t like how the composition was (even if there was nothing wrong with it), he looks a lot more clever. Further, if Peter’s character is powerful enough, then many people will start to agree with his bullshit so that they wouldn’t seem foolish compared to Peter.

    Opinions can be interpreted in so many ways! 🙂

    Take care,

  2. Jeff on 02.19.2010


    Thanks for the comment. I agree with you 100% and also feel that there’s more than one dynamic at play with negative reviews. A friend on Twitter also pointed out that people are motivated more by fear of loss than hope of gain, which is true.

    And yes, in the case of art, criticism seems to require an ability to see the strings and pullies being manipulated by the artist and pointing out the flaws. But most critics just point out the flaws. Not doing so kind of does make one look naive. But again, I also think that if you say “The composition is flawed,” you’re more likely to get a pass on people demanding specifics, while saying “the composition is brilliant” people are more apt to ask you for specifics and substantiation.

    – Jeff

  3. Jeff Sexton - L’asimmetria della fiducia - ideawebitalia on 03.14.2010

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  4. Holly Buchanan on 04.02.2010

    Interesting point about “opinion” vs. “expertise”.

    In my research, i’ve found men are less likely to trust a friend’s opinion and more likely to put faith in an expert – someone who is an authority.

    Women tend to have more confidence in a friend’s opinion, if they feel that friend is like them.

    I see women lose credibilty with men when they cite their personal experience as proof of concept. (I found that out the hard way). Yet, I see them gain credibility with other women when those women think, “I’ve totally had the same experience.”

    For example, if a technology expert recommends a digitial camera, that does not hold as much weight with me as a friend who I know and trust saying she loves a certain digital camera.

    But there I go citing a pesonal experience as proof 🙂
    I think it comes down to men’s respect for authority and women’s respect for common experience.