The Science Behind Negative Reviews

February 23, 2016

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A negative online review of your business can kick you in the face and make you feel like you just lost a boxing match without a fight.

That’s how it might feel at first. Then you reassess and think that maybe you should address the customer’s feedback and find a way to manage the negative review to engage, say sorry, and deliver a better customer experience next time.

“One of the primary reasons we have emotions in the first place is to help us evaluate our experience,” said psychologist Jonathan M. Adler in a Scientific American article about the upside of negative emotions.

Adler, an associate professor at the Olin College of Engineering, along with Hal E. Hershfield, an assistant marketing professor at UCLA, conducted a study about the link between a mixed emotional experience and good psychological health.

“When facing negative events in the course of one’s life, many people choose to either suppress negative emotions, or express them,” write Adler and Hershfield. “There are benefits and drawbacks to both approaches, but failing to confront negative events can ultimately lead to increased stress levels.”

According to Scientific American, negative experiences are remembered worse than they actually are if one thinks they have to go through the negative experience again. Scientific American reported a study by researchers at New York University and Carnegie Mellon University. The researchers found that we remember more negative experiences to be worse than they truly were, so if we have the experience again, it won’t be as bad.

The researchers ran seven experiments. In one, students listened to vacuum cleaner noise for 40 seconds. The researchers told half of the students they would hear the noise again, while the other half was told that the study was completed.

The participants rated their experience. The students who thought they had to hear the vacuum noise again found the noise more irritating than those who did not expect to hear the noise another time.

‘Bad Is Stronger Than Good’

A 2001 study, “Bad Is Stronger Than Good,” explains why people have a tendency to focus on negative information more than the positive.

The authors of the study make some interesting points about the power of bad events. They write that people are more driven to avoid the bad self-definitions than to chase after good self-definitions. The authors note that in every day life, bad events are more powerful than good.

“All lives contain both good and bad events,” the authors write. “If bad is stronger than good, then the bad events will have longer lasting and more intense consequences than good events. In particular, the effects of good events should dissipate more rapidly than the effects of bad events.”

The authors continue: “It is evolutionarily adaptive for bad to be stronger than good. We believe that throughout our evolutionary history, organisms that were better attuned to bad things would have been more likely to survive threats and, consequently, would have an increased probability of passing along their genes.”

It’s important to process negative thoughts, according to a study by researchers at the University of New South Wales, who found that suppressing emotional thoughts can lead to dream rebound, an effect in which any attempted suppression of unwanted thoughts prior to sleep leads to increased dreaming about that target.

Negative Emotions are Processed More Thoroughly

Professor Clifford Nass, a professor of communication at Stanford University, told The New York Times that negative emotions are usually processed more carefully than positive emotions because negative emotions usually require more thinking.

“This is a general tendency for everyone,” Nass said. “Some people do have a more positive outlook, but almost everyone remembers negative things more strongly and in more detail.”

Are negative reviews, in part, a way for people to express their negative emotions from a negative or less-than-positive experience? Might leaving a negative review be a way for them to think about their experience more thoroughly?

The studies above are not directly linked to negative reviews or customer feedback posted online. But they just might give you a little more insight into how and why consumers process and share their negative experiences.

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