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Mobile Marketing

The Psychology of Star Ratings: 3 Predictions for a World After Peeple

Alex Walz  //  November 3, 2015  //  10 min read

Star ratings meet online dating meme

We’ve already seen the ease at which crowdsourced ratings can make or break an app, but what if someone gave you a one-star review? What would happen if instead of checking for references, your potential future employer pulls up a tell-all account from a vengeful ex? Or if Mrs. Right swipes left after reliving your beef with that one bad roommate we’ve all had?

Unfortunately, these might not be hypotheticals for long. Peeple, described as the “People-Rating App,” is set to hit the app stores this month to bring ratings and reviews to you and me.

The Peeple app was first marketed as a “Yelp for People,” an app that allows anyone, anywhere to rate and review one another. In case this doesn’t conjure up enough of a Pandora’s Box of first job horror stories and middle school drama relived, the app’s original roadmap failed to include any sort of opt-out ability. Just as a business can’t remove its listing from Yelp, individuals would have no control over what others said about them in a public format, regardless of whether or not they’ve even heard of the Peeple app.

But the buck doesn’t stop here. Peeple could just be the first in a series of apps dedicated to crowdsourcing private investigation.

Earlier this month, Hadoken Labs announced its new app, The Know, with the tagline: “Because ignorance isn’t bliss.” In opposition to the surge of dating apps, The Know markets itself as an anti-cheating app that tells you not who to date, but who not to date.

The Know allows members to take dating intelligence one step further by using the app to describe their partner (such as a name, phone number, or physical description) and connecting with anyone “pursuing the same partner.” If there is a match, the two describing the same individual can connect to “share valuable intel and get the inside scoop” on their mutual admiree.

The Know app introduces crowdsourced private investigation to the world of online dating

The Know takes dating intelligence to a whole new level.
Source: Hadoken Labs

Like Peeple, The Know creates new channels for individuals to access a wealth of information on anyone, anywhere—with or without that person’s consent or knowledge.

All of this begs the question: Would you want to leave your reputation to hearsay?

For many, this is an easy question to answer. Within hours of their announcement, Peeple and The Know sparked terror on the internet and received an onslaught of criticism from media pundits across the globe.

HBO’s John Oliver weighs in on Peeple

In light of the public outcry, Peeple founder Julia Cordray defended her original vision of the app as a “Positivity App.” The 34-year-old entrepreneur told Newsweek:

“[Peeple] is all about uplifting each other and helping each other and operating from positivity. We want to clarify that this isn’t a judging website. We want to be given the opportunity to prove to you that the world is predominantly good, filled with people who absolutely love you and want to lift you up… We all deserve to know the best of the best are. This is about uplifting people.” (emphasis our own)

Peeple founder Julia Cordray poses with her controversial people-rating app

Peeple founder Julia Cordray shows off the new “Yelp for People.”
Source: Peeple

What outcomes should we expect from the controversial matter of people-rating?

Regardless of whether the internet is full of people who, according to Cordray, “absolutely love you and want to lift you up” or, in the words of political comedian John Oliver, a “faucet of hate,” we expect apps like Peeple and The Know to make a big splash. To see just how big of a splash, we’ve combined leading theories of social psychology with our own research on crowdsourced ratings to contrive three predictions for a post-Peeple world:

Prediction #1: We’ll spend too much time fretting about star ratings, and forget what they really mean.

It’s no secret that we all dwell a little too much on shame or criticism. Whether you’re evaluating a 3-star app or torturing yourself over why someone gave you three stars, it’s important to step back and realize the limitations of this myopic metric.

Online ratings and reviews fall under what social psychologists call social proof. Simply put, we’re faced with far too many decisions every day to give them the time and energy they deserve. Instead, we look for heuristics, or mental shortcuts, to make our lives a little easier.

To see this heuristic in action, think back to your process of evaluating the last app you downloaded. If you had all the time in the world, you might download every possible app that seemingly meets your present need. You would try each app, and only then make your decision. This strategy might work well for evaluating a niche app, but with 1.5M+ apps in the market, you’ll run into far too many alternatives to the average app to make this approach feasible.

Thus, we turn to heuristics. We ditch the toilsome work of testing alternatives and computing our exact preferences, and rely instead on whatever public information we can gather. When it comes to the app stores, this means judging an app’s quality on a proxy—it’s ratings and reviews. And it’s something we do an astonishing 92% of the time.

We don’t have enough time to evaluate each app; but fortunately, others have done the dirty work for us. We just have to trust their judgment: If the average Joe gave this app a higher rating than its competitors, it has to be the best app for me… right?

Like it or not, this is why we all spend so much time thinking about ratings. A single star can make or break an app, or perhaps even a person’s reputation, in the absence of other indicators of quality.

To see just how much a star matters, we asked 300+ mobile app customers what they considered to be minimum acceptable star rating an app would need to warrant their download.

The findings? People are over 3x more likely to download a 3-star app than a 2-star app, and almost 2x more likely to download a 4-star app than a 3-star app.

The psychology of star ratings for 2-star apps The psychology of star ratings for 3-star apps The psychology of star ratings for 4-star apps

As much as we love star ratings, it’s important to recognize that shortcuts like the social proof heuristic are imperfect rules of thumb, not de-facto truths.

Before you let that coveted star rating dictate your attitude toward an app or even a person, remember that star ratings are aggregate data while preferences are individual. Star ratings, especially when averaged out, paint a picture of how the general populace perceives the item. Unless your needs and preferences align with the average person’s, your attitude toward the item will be different than what is represented in that crowdsourced star rating.

The limitations of online reviews comic

How well do those anonymous reviews speak to your own wants and needs?
Source: xkcd

Of course, this shouldn’t take away the power of the star. It just adds a disclaimer. Apps cater to different customer segments, looking for different features or use cases, just as some personality types don’t always mesh. To augment your own evaluation based on those anonymous ratings, look one step further and read a few of the reviews behind those stars. Can you see yourself writing those reviews? Are they praising and critiquing features that you care about, or features that speak to different customer personas?

Prediction #2: The act of people-rating will cause us to focus on the minute personality quirks and character flaws rather than the goodness of humanity.

In the backlash of her first wave of criticism, Peeple founder Julia Cordray emphasized that her upcoming app was first and foremost a “positivity app.” She envisioned an app in which reviews would be overwhelmingly positive and uplifting. It’s a nice sentiment, but one look at the app stores, Yelp, or Amazon will quickly cast doubt on this well-meaning vision. In each of these environments, the threshold for leaving negative feedback is far thinner than that for positive feedback.

To see just how big this gap really is, we conducted our own research around review behavior. Our national consumer survey found that people are 33% more likely to leave feedback after a negative customer experience than they are for a positive experience.

The Psychology of Ratings & Negative Customer Experiences The Psychology of Ratings & Positive Customer Experiences

This negative bias in online ratings tends to only increase with anonymity. Known as deindividuation, this tendency is a well-researched theory in the world of psychology. Study after study has showed that we tend to lose our civility or social inhibitions the moment we perceive a diluted sense of responsibility. The University of Houston orchestrated one such study by scanning 900 responses to controversial articles in mainstream publications. Half of their responses came from newspapers that required log-ins and some sort of personalized identifier. The other half allowed for completely anonymous guest comments.

29% of the identified posters were uncivil in tone, the study found. With the introduction of anonymity, this number almost doubled to a whopping 53% of posts.

The anonymity effect of star ratings

Does your online behavior differ from your offline personality?
Source: Peter Steiner, The New Yorker

And while we’re confident your app is teeming with more positive customer experiences than negative ones, it’s important nonetheless to give special care to those few negative reviews.

The Russian adage, “A spoonful of tar can spoil a barrel of honey, but a spoonful of honey does nothing for a barrel of tar,” has never proved truer than in the case of online ratings and reviews. It takes only a few one-star reviews to undo the work of a pond of five-star reviews and cause lasting damage to your brand reputation.

The moral of the story? Before torturing yourself over that one-star review, come to terms with the psychology of star ratings and reviews and the completely natural phenomenon that is the negativity bias. And if worst comes to worst, follow these 10 tips for handling negative reviews and feedback.

Prediction #3: How we’re rated, and how we rated others, will be prone to bias from the start.

Last but not least, we predict that ratings and reviews in a post-Peeple world will misrepresent reality. If the world of online and app store ratings provides any indication, we expect to see reviews concentrated at either end of sentiment—expressing love or hate. In other words, those who have an extreme reaction one way or another are significantly likelier to leave feedback than those with mixed or average opinions.

At Apptentive, we call these extremes the vocal minorities, characterized by the fewer than 1% of customers that will ever leave feedback. The average business never hears from the other 99% of its customers, which we call the silent majority.

Have you given a voice to the silent majority of your customers?

The 80-1 rule:
80% of apps are deleted after just one use, yet only 1% of those churned customers will provide any indication why.

This trend toward the extremes is ubiquitous across virtually all rating scales. It’s also the reason several sites, including YouTube, have moved away from the 5-star model. According to Facebook Director of Product Design and then-UX Lead at YouTube, Margaret Stewart:

“Now, years ago, when I was working at YouTube, we were looking for ways to encourage more people to rate videos, and it was interesting because when we looked into the data, we found that almost everyone was exclusively using the highest five-star rating, a handful of people were using the lowest one-star, and virtually no one was using two, three, or four stars. So we decided to simplify into an up-down kind of voting binary model.” – Margaret Stewart, How giant websites design for you (and a billion others, too)

The distribution of star ratings on YouTube

Distribution of star ratings on YouTube prior to the website’s transition to a binary model.

We expect to see this trend apply just as much to people-rating as it does to anonymous retail or website reviews.

You have a handful of good friends whom you’ll do just about anything for. These are the people for whom you’ll jump at the first opportunity to sing your praises with a five-star review. On your other hand, you can probably count five people that you avoid at the grocery store—including, perhaps, a particularly bad ex, a horrible boss, or a childhood rival. Whatever your intentions, these are the people you secretly want to see punished. And, they’re the people you’d don an evil grin for while you leave that 1-star review. Preferably under the cloak of an anonymous username, of course.

Apart from these two groups, you have little to no incentive to rate the vast majority of your other acquaintances. After all, why take the time to download an app, look someone up, and leave a review for someone you’re just indifferent to?

What’s Your Take on the Psychology of Star Ratings?

And there you have it—our three predictions for a post-Peeple world.

If our predictions are correct and people-rating resembles what we’ve already observed in the app stores, ratings and reviews will never be entirely representative of your actual self. Before letting your self-worth be defined by your ratings, come to an understanding of what a star rating actually means, who’s leaving them, how they’re biased toward negativity, and when (and when not) to use them.

What effects do you think people-rating and crowdsourced private investigation will have on our self-esteem and relationships with others? Are apps like Peeple and The Know something to be lauded, feared, or a little of both? Weigh in by sharing your thoughts below or tweeting us @apptentive.

For more on the psychology behind online ratings, download our free eBook, The Mobile Marketers’ Guide to App Store Ratings & Reviews, for 55 pages of original research and insights:

The Mobile Marketer's Guide to App Store Ratings and Reviews

About Alex Walz

Apptentive's resident wordsmith, Alex can frequently be found cranking away at eBooks or scrawling down ideas late into the night from a local coffee shop. He's an avid traveler, coffee connoisseur, and tech enthusiast, and he shares his thoughts on each over Twitter.
View all posts by Alex Walz >

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