What are the real social costs of telling others what we think?

Article based on research by Jordi Quoidbach

When we enjoy a delicious meal at a restaurant, a pleasant stay at a hotel, or a great customer-service experience from a retailer, our first instinct is often to tell others. The same is true – perhaps even more so – when we are unhappy with what we have experienced.

Sharing our opinions of our experiences as consumers, a phenomenon known as word of mouth (WOM), is commonplace and even habitual for younger generations. Whether over a coffee with friends or via online platforms, websites or communities, we not only love telling other people about what we think, we also expect that sharing our opinions honestly will reflect positively on us. But is that really the case?

Esade’s Jordi Quoidbach along with Gerri Spassova (Monash University, Australia) and Mauricio Palmeira (Kate Tiedemann College of Business, USA) wanted to find out if people's intuitions regarding the social consequences of WOM matched the actual consequences. Their research provides some fascinating insights into the real social costs of telling others what we think.

People often share word of mouth because they believe that it will favourably impact their social image

Why we review our experiences

Why do we feel driven to share our opinions of what has happened to us as consumers? Quoidbach and his team looked at existing research that revealed a variety of reasons. "Most theories of consumer motivation," they write, "have highlighted the crucial role played by social concerns.

In particular, WOM behaviour seems to be driven to a large extent by the motive to self-enhance; that is, to improve how other people see us and protect our image. This suggests that people often share WOM because they believe that it will favourably impact their social image."

But when it comes to the "what" instead of the "why," the picture is more complicated. People tend to share information about their own positive experiences as consumers but about other people's negative experiences. They are also generally less likely to talk about their own negative experiences.

Social sharing
People tend to share information about their own positive experiences but about other people's negative experiences (Photo: Bea Revayova/Twenty20)

Part of the reason for this is simply that people have more satisfactory than unsatisfactory consumer experiences. But research suggests that it is also due to people's beliefs that good reviews convey something favourable about them, such as the ability to make good product choices.

And the idea that people dislike bearers of bad news is not a recent invention. As Shakespeare wrote in Antony and Cleopatra, "The nature of bad news infects the teller … It is never good to bring bad news. Give to a gracious message a host of tongues, but let ill tidings tell themselves when they be felt."

Our instincts tell us that good news may improve the receiver's mood but bad news will do the opposite – and make us look bad at the same time. Nevertheless, we do still share bad news and bad reviews, which seems counterintuitive until we investigate further.

People are more likely to spread negative WOM when they want to be perceived as unique or knowledgeable

Research reveals that negative WOM may be expected to bring interpersonal benefits in some situations. Quoidbach and his colleagues cite the example that people are more likely to spread negative WOM when they want to be perceived as unique or knowledgeable, or convey that they have novel and interesting opinions. This will come as no surprise to users of social media or online forums, where many participants attempt to stand out and establish themselves in the community by posting negative viewpoints. They feel that being snarky and critical will help them attract attention and to be seen as intelligent.

Not all negative reviews spring from uncharitable sentiment. We may also simply want to help others – a major driver of WOM. Preventing others from having negative experiences is a powerful motivator to share information about problematic products and services.

So although we know that sharing bad WOM may not enamour us to our audience, we believe it will at worst be neutral in terms of social cost, with no significant downsides. At the same time, we believe that good WOM will enhance other people’s opinions of us.

Restaurant review
Engaging in negative WOM can decrease how much other people like us (Photo: Songpol Wuttikaisriarkom/Twenty20)

Our intuitions, however, do not align with reality.

Quoidbach and his fellow researchers carried out six studies which revealed that our expectations are more optimistic than the reality. The truth is that while engaging in positive WOM has little impact on social impressions, engaging in negative WOM can have significant damaging consequences, decreasing how much other people like us.

Companies know that negative product reviews can have a more powerful effect than positive reviews. What is also now clear is that the same is true for the perceptions of the person who communicates the review.

To share or not to share, that is the question

These findings raise issues both for people who leave reviews online and for marketers in charge of designing product-review opportunities.

Quoidbach and his co-authors write: "Researchers so far have largely been concerned with the harmful impact of negative product WOM for companies, but our findings suggest that the impact for person impression management might be just as damaging, even though people do not seem to be aware of it. This raises the intriguing possibility that online WOM needs be thought of as potentially sensitive personal information, similar to information about one’s health or financial records."

It could be that the time has come for marketers to provide more flexible options regarding reviewing, such as the ability to make edits or deletions more easily. And for us as individuals, the old adage "If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all" may need an update to add, "And even then, it’s probably best just to keep it to yourself" when it comes to sharing WOM on products and services.

Original research publication: Palmeira, M, Spassova, G & Quoidbach, J. You’re not Yelping your case: The unexpected social consequences of word of mouthEuropean Journal of Marketing, 54, 419-447 (2020)

All written content is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.