Maybe Online Reviews Shouldn’t Be So Easy to Do

Platforms such as Amazon, Yelp, and Uber actively encourage customers to leave product and service reviews. The hope is that by making it easy to leave reviews, they will garner lots of honest feedback, making the average rating as accurate as possible.

That may not be what really happens, CUNY researchers say. In a study that appears in PNAS, the scientists tested an idea borrowed from ecology called “costly signaling theory.” The researchers argue that by making it cost something to leave feedback, the feedback becomes more accurate.

Ideally, our online connectedness would facilitate productive discussions and self-governance through reviews and forums. But the speed and ease of the internet make things chaotic, the authors say. People leave one-star reviews for minor infractions in restaurants and give drivers five stars to support their livelihoods even when the ride was mediocre.

“We need to engineer communication environments that make it easier for people to cooperate and make smart, collective decisions,” said Professor Ofer Tchernichovsky of Hunter College, first author on the paper. Professor Lucas Parra and Daniel Fimiarz of City College were also authors.

The researchers created an online game in which players raced around collecting money on roadsides. Occasionally players needed to cross a body of water via ferry. Afterward, they rated the ferry using a sliding scale. Was it speedy, or did it lag and take up time they could’ve used to collect more money?

In some instances the slider had “friction,” making it more difficult to pull it towards an extreme rating, thus taking up more time and potential money. When there was friction, the players gave rankings that more accurately reflected the ferry’s actual performance than with an easily sliding scale.

In a Vice article he wrote with co-investigator Dalton Conley of Princeton University, Tchernichovsky explained this method isn’t perfect for every situation. For instance, in voting there should be as few barriers as possible.

“At this early stage the answer should be to compare both theories,” Tchernichovsky said. “This study is only the first step. The online world is a safe and fun way of experimenting, but we would like to do more real-world studies.”

Beyond SUM

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Ofer Tchernichovsky (Professor, Biology, Psychology) | Profile 1 | Profile 2
Lucas Parra (Associate Professor, Biomedical engineering, Psychology) | Profile 1 | Profile 2