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Understanding Negativity Bias

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no pessimism stop negativity think positive stop pessimistic tho

The Problem

It happens every day.

You decide to buy something new – a hair dryer, for example. You’ve done your research; you understand the product specifications, you know what to expect in terms of cost, you’ve examined the competition. For the most part, you’ve made up your mind. The only thing left is to see what other people are saying about it. You saunter casually online to read a few consumer reviews, and then…WHAM! You’re hit with a wall of negativity.

“This is the WORST THING EVER!!! Don’t waste your money on this piece of crap!” -Cyndi S. from Buffalo, NY

“I bought this hair dryer thinking it was a good investment, but the first day I used it I suffered horrible 3rd degree burns!! I want my money back!”Armand

“I USED THIS THING FOR TWO WEEKS AND NOW IT DOESN’T WORK RIGHT!!!!!!!!! BUYER BEWARE!!!!!!!!!!” – Anonymous

What do you notice about the comments above? Other than the prolific use of caps lock, of course, and the gratuitous application of exclamation points (both painfully common to online comments). Well, for one, all of the remarks are pretty anonymous. For all you know, Cyndi, Armand, and Anonymous are all the same person – someone with a fierce and inexplicable grudge against this particular brand of hair dryer. What else do you notice? Like the majority of online comments, these are all fairly unspecific, with the possible exception of comment number two. Armand has at least told us why he doesn’t like the hair dryer (though he doesn’t provide any details about how he managed to burn himself so severely). The other two have merely informed the reader that they don’t care for the product, without providing any helpful or new information.

Alas, reliability isn’t the only problem with online comments. There is a larger issue, and one that is far more insidious. Chances are, if you go to a review site to see how others are rating a product, you’re going to see 150 comments similar the three above – venomous, vitriolic, unhelpful (and usually illiterate) – and only ten or twelve positive messages. Why is this? Why are you so much more likely to see bad reviews?

The answer is simple, actually. The whole phenomenon is due to a little thing called negativity bias.

What Is Negativity Bias?

According to experts, negativity bias is a normal thing – an innate human reaction to bad circumstances. Good ol’ Wikipedia defines it as “the notion that, even when of equal intensity, things of a more negative nature…have a greater effect on one’s psychological state and processes than do neutral or positive things.”

Hara Estroff Marano, a writer for Psychology Today, puts it a bit more succinctly: “Nastiness just makes a bigger impact on our brains.”

So there you have it. As a species, humans are hardwired to focus on the bad aspects of life and to gripe, moan, and complain about the things that go wrong. Not very flattering, I know, but evolutionary, this was a great tactic! If you ate a poisonous berry (and lived to tell the tale), the odds are good that your animus toward that particular fruit would be communicated to the rest of the tribe, saving them all from death, or even just really bad indigestion. The grumpier the group – the more people whining about dirty water and rancid mammoth – the most likely it was to survive. It was a matter of basic natural selection.

Negativity worked great for stone age folks, but the sad truth is that for all us 21st century homo sapiens, this instinct doesn’t serve us as well. (No one likes a Gloomy Gus.) Unfortunately, like other features we have outgrown (the appendix, for example, or our overwhelming preference for sweet, fatty food), our genetic propensity for Eeyore-like behavior isn’t going anywhere soon. The best we can do at this point is to be aware of our tendencies and learn how to recognize negativity bias at work.

Negativity Bias In Product Reviews

Let’s go back to our hair dryer example to see how negativity bias plays out in real life. A hundred and fifty negative comments about one product seems genuinely alarming, until you realize that the hair dryer company has been in business for 60 years and has sold about a million units of the model in question. So 999,000+ people have used the hair dryer and A) liked it just fine or B) had a few minor problems which didn’t warrant a complaint. The people who are complaining, who actually cared about the issue enough to stop what they were doing, sit down, and type out a nasty review, are in the minority by far.

Look at it this way: you know how you never notice a minor body part, like your pinky toe, until it forces itself on your attention? It’s only after you stub your little piggy on the coffee table that you are aware of its existence, and for a time, it is the only thing you’re aware of. Similarly, in most cases, 99 out of 100 folks are content enough with their hair dryer that they don’t give it a moment’s thought. It doesn’t even register in their consciousness. It’s there, they use it, their hair gets dry. End of story. But every so often, on person – we’ll use Armand as our paragon of negativity bias – gets distracted while he’s styling his hair and ends up with a painful burn. Ouch! You better believe that he isn’t going to forget about his grooming appliances any time soon. Every time he brushes up against that burn or applies aloe vera, he’s going to think about his hair dryer. Naturally, he’s going to become angry. No one else should have to endure this agony and indignity, he thinks. Eventually, he’s so steamed about the issue that he takes action and writes a negative review.

The few other people who have shared Armand’s bad experience with the hair dryer (in varying degrees of severity – negativity bias or no, some people just like to complain) feel compelled to write unpleasant reviews, either to warn others away, or to pay back the company for ‘cheating’ them. Meanwhile, floating around in the cosmos, are hundreds and thousands of satisfied users who don’t think about their hair dryer one way or another. They’re certainly not going to be writing glowing reviews, just for the heck of it. Who has time to comment on every object they own?

What does this mean for you, as a reader of product reviews? Well, the bad news is that you probably aren’t going to get a fair and balanced idea of how well the product works, or how safe/reliable it actually is. Our shared human instinct to focus on the negative has led only unsatisfied people to post reviews, and now you are left to sort through loads and loads of bad messages and only a few positive ones. Unless you’re from Mars or Melmac, your own negativity bias will kick in at this point. The overwhelming negative feedback will start to influence your brain. Wow, this product really is terrible, you’ll think. People really seem to hate it! I better get something different. Long story short, you end up avoiding a hair dryer that would have suited you just fine.

Negativity Bias and Merchant Maverick

This is a software and small business services review site, of course, so at some point we have to stop talking about hypothetical hair dryers and start talking about what negativity bias means in this arena. Here at Merchant Maverick, we specialize in researching, testing, and rating software vendors and merchant account providers. We spend a lot of time thinking about which companies to recommend, and don’t take our jobs lightly. After all, if we make a bad recommendation and you end up with a lemon of a POS system, or a clunky little accounting suite, everyone loses. You have to find something else that will serve your needs better, and we lose credibility in the industry. Because our reputation is on the line, when we give a company 5 stars, we really mean it.

But no matter how hard we try, sometimes negativity bias is going to rear its ugly head.

Often, a new reader will check out one of our reviews, read what we have to say about the product, and see that we’ve rated it highly. They start to feel great about our recommendation, and everything seems copacetic. Until they check out the comments section, that is. The overwhelming majority of comments we receive are aggressive and generally unpleasant, and this is just as true of the 5 star reviews as it is of the 1 star variety. A large part of that can be attributed to the common or garden internet troll, a nasty species that tends to lurk around blogs and websites, looking for prey. But a lot of the comments are genuine, from people who are genuinely frustrated by the vendor.

Did they have a bad experience? Yes. Are they justified in feeling frustrated and angry? Again, yes. Is our overall evaluation of the company in question therefore flawed? No. Emphatically, no. Remember, the people who comment are the few who have been burned. If the company truly is reliable, then the vast, unseen majority of users are still happily rolling along. When looking to a review site for information, then – whether it is for software or hair dryers – it is vital to recall that contented people don’t leave comments.

Now, there are times when we rate a product highly and then start to receive a huge amount of negative feedback. If a whole lot of people are voicing dissatisfaction about a specific issue, then there is probably something very wrong going on. In such situations, we look into the problem and often reevaluate our initial rating.

The Takeaway: Finding a Way Around the Issue

It would be easy after an in-depth discussion of negativity bias like this to simply say: don’t look at consumer reviews – they aren’t reliable. But that’s not really true. Online comments and consumer reviews can be very useful tools, if you bear a few key concepts in mind at all times:

  • Happy consumers don’t comment, unless they are unusually good-natured. A lack of good feedback, then, is not an automatic red flag.
  • People with genuine gripes will voice specific complaints. Avoid giving credence to negative comments that are vague.
  • Negativity bias or no, if you see a large number of complaints about the same issue, there is probably something to it. Run the other direction.

Whether you’re buying a hair dryer or investing in a complex point of sale solution, you’re going to want to do your homework before you take the leap. Accounting for negativity bias in the reviews you read will help you make a better, more informed decision.

Of course, if you don’t agree, you can leave a comment below…

Julie Titterington

Julie Titterington

Managing Editor at Merchant Maverick
Julie Titterington is a writer, editor, and native Oregonian. She graduated from George Fox University in 2004 with a BA in Writing/Literature. Julie has appeared in a variety of industry publications, including YFS Magazine, PM Times, and SmallBizClub. For the last five years, she has specialized in SMB software and services, particularly project management, point of sale, and small business lending.
Julie Titterington
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