Sifting between the well-priced gems and the scammy junk can be a difficult task when shopping online, so it's no wonder that most of us rely on product reviews to help us narrow down the choices. The most careful of us (read: Me) will even go as far as to see how many reviews something has to help determine how well-established and liked a given item is.
If one product has a three-star rating with 12 reviews, and one has a three-star rating with 300 reviews, I'm definitely more likely to purchase the item with the 300 reviews, even if it's a tiny bit more expensive than the alternative, because it seems more popular, which in my mind equates it to being better — and I'm not alone.
A recent study published by the journal Psychological Science, and reported on by Quartz, found that most people are like me, and will want to buy the more-reviewed item almost all the time, determining that if something is popular then that mean's it's also of better quality. The only problem? That isn't what it means at all.
Statistically speaking, that popular product is actually likely to be a poorer-quality product that the one with fewer reviews. For instance, in the case of two similar products with a 3.1 rating, one with 29 reviews and one with 154, the more reviewed product only has a 40 per cent chance of actually being better than the product with just 29 reviews. However, researchers found that buyers were 90 per cent more likely to buy it because they perceived it was better.
The study, whose lead author Derek Powell is a postdoctoral researcher in psychology at Stanford University, looked at 15.6 million reviews spanning over 350,000 different products in Amazon's catalogue. When a product has a ton of reviews but a mediocre rating such as a three, the only thing that should be telling you as a customer is that it is definitely a mediocre product. Alternatively, the product that currently has the same rating, but a fewer number of reviews, has a better chance of actually being a better product overall since it hasn't been reviewed by such a large group — meaning there's a less decisive consensus that the product isn't so great.
While the study looked at specifically Amazon, the advice is good for almost all online stores: Just because something is popular doesn't mean it's better. Instead, look for products with higher ratings overall, and actually read some of those reviews to understand what other buyers considered the hits and misses of a particular product.