For online reviews, shoppers believe a pretty face

Beauty is truth – or at least, that’s what consumers sifting through online reviews seem to think.

New Cornell research has found that people are more inclined to be swayed by positive recommendations posted online by attractive reviewers.

The finding – consistent with ample research showing that, in real life, beautiful people are believed to be more intelligent, likable, competent and trustworthy – has implications for marketers or social media managers seeking to save us from making superficial judgments.

“You have to teach people to be more mindful of what’s written in the review than the picture that’s next to it,” said Marie Ozanne, assistant professor of food and beverage management in the School of Hotel Administration and first author of “Are Attractive Reviewers More Persuasive? Examining the Role of Physical Attractiveness in Online Reviews,” which published in July in the Journal of Consumer Marketing.

Around 92% of online shoppers read online reviews before placing orders, and consumers are 23 times more likely to trust customer-generated content than marketer-generated copy, market research has found. Yet few studies have explored how real-world biases impact our online interactions.

“More often than we think, we are replicating our offline behavior online, and we don’t know the impact of all our general offline thinking on our online thinking,” Ozanne said. “Hopefully, understanding it can help us be more conscious about it and find ways to focus more on the information that matters.”

Though consumers were more influenced by positive reviews by attractive people than those posted by less-attractive people, the same did not hold true for negative reviews. This, Ozanne said, is likely because negative reviews require people to think more deeply about their decisions, and once they are thinking more carefully, unconscious cues such as the attractiveness bias become less persuasive.

The study also found that the gender of the reviewer didn’t impact the attractiveness bias.

To conduct the study, the researchers used a photo-editing tool to modify profile pictures of seven men and seven women, chosen from a database. They asked 119 adults, via crowdsourcing, to evaluate the physical attractiveness of each of the people on a scale of 1-10.

They then used the modified pictures to accompany an array of positive and negative reviews of a midrange hotel, taken from a Facebook fan page and given a fake name. In two separate studies, around 600 people were asked to answer survey questions about the hotel after reading reviews from attractive and less-attractive posters.

They found that people had a higher opinion of the hotel when the positive review was written by an attractive reviewer, despite the presence of negative reviews.

Ozanne suggested social media sites could add language reminding people to focus on the content of a review. This could cause them to think more deeply about it, potentially counteracting the bias.

The paper was co-authored with Stephanie Q. Liu of Ohio State University and Anna S. Mattila of Pennsylvania State University.

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Rebecca Valli