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

    […] The Asym­me­try of Trust […]

  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.

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