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Social Ratings, Reviews, and the Power of Groupthink [Study]


How much do other people’s opinions online affect the way you think about something? According to new research, it could be more than you think.

In findings published from a study led by researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, MIT, and NYU, tests show that group mentality online does sway individual opinion and action.

The experiment involved a website similar to Reddit, where users submit articles, can comment on those articles and vote comments up or down. The site requested to remain nameless in order to allow the experiment.

During the test, researchers randomly voted positively, negatively or not at all on comments in more than 100,000 posts. Each comment received a calculated rating by subtracting the negative votes from the positive votes.

From the study’s abstract on the findings (more on what this means after):

Prior ratings created significant bias in individual rating behavior, and positive and negative social influences created asymmetric herding effects. Whereas negative social influence inspired users to correct manipulated ratings, positive social influence increased the likelihood of positive ratings by 32% and created accumulating positive herding that increased final ratings by 25% on average. This positive herding was topic-dependent and affected by whether individuals were viewing the opinions of friends or enemies. A mixture of changing opinion and greater turnout under both manipulations together with a natural tendency to up-vote on the site combined to create the herding effects.

Basically, popular opinion tended to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, according to the research.

Popular Mechanics dove into an interesting aspect of the findings:

Oddly enough, this snowballing didn’t work in reverse—nobody was ganging up on commenters unfairly based on a downvote or two. Instead, the researcher’s artificial downvote made users slightly more likely to respond positively, essentially negating the researchers’ interference.

Sinan Aral is a lead researcher in the study, and stated this phenomenon was “a correction effect.” He says one explanation is that “people will go along with positive opinions but are more skeptical of the negative opinions of others.”

Several media outlets reporting on this study speculated on the affect of reviews and ratings on sites like TripAdvisor, Amazon and Yelp – reviews that help people make buying decisions every day, even when some of them could be fabricated or perhaps even subconsciously biased.

Yelp recently tackled the issue of fake reviews in a blog post, assuring readers it has processes in place for identifying those fictional biases that could occur.

But what happens when the popular opinion is purely fabricated by groupthink? According to this study, that’s a likely scenario in many cases online.

Groupthink creeps into almost everything we do. In business, groupthink can be attributed to bad decisions that aren’t grounded in reason. In society, groupthink can evolve into something ugly with detrimental consequences.

As marketers and people in general, we’re certainly wired for a mindset of more popular = better.

Take a blog post, social media update or even a personal brand, for example. More activity, more shares, more engagement, more anything triggers something in many people to believe it’s inherently good.

This is why more shares and more engagement tends to spur more shares and more engagement online; heck, that concept is even part of algorithms in Facebook and Google.

Good or bad, groupthink and the subsequent influence that comes from it goes way deeper than just the tools that help facilitate it today, like the Internet, social media and review sites.

But sometimes, those who go against popular opinion end up being those who are in fact, the most popular. And according to Irving Janis, a pioneer in groupthink research, this element of the unpopular opinion is essential to preventing the ugly side of this phenomenon.

Janis stated there are several things you can do to prevent groupthink when you are part of a decision-making group:

  1. Leaders should assign each member the role of “critical evaluator”. This allows each member to freely air objections and doubts.
  2. Leaders should not express an opinion when assigning a task to a group.
  3. Leaders should absent themselves from many of the group meetings to avoid excessively influencing the outcome.
  4. The organization should set up several independent groups, working on the same problem.
  5. All effective alternatives should be examined.
  6. Each member should discuss the group’s ideas with trusted people outside of the group.
  7. The group should invite outside experts into meetings. Group members should be allowed to discuss with and question the outside experts.
  8. At least one group member should be assigned the role of Devil’s advocate. This should be a different person for each meeting.

So when it comes to groupthink, what do you think?

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