When to Pay Attention to Product Reviews

There's something liberating about starred product reviews. If every version of the generic item you need looks about the same, those aggregated satisfaction scores can tip you in one direction to wrap up the purchase. Whether the wisdom of the commons always gives you the best product, however, is another story.

New research released this summer tried to find correlations between how many reviews an item has online and how that influences consumer choice. Using data from Amazon, psychologists compared average ratings with number of reviews. Their findings may or may not surprise you — turns out there's no relationship between how many people have reviewed a product and whether that product is actually any good.

With that in mind, the researchers then turned to shopping behavior. Study participants chose between pairs of similar phone cases, using average ratings and total number of reviews. Common sense suggests choosing the product with either a high rating from lots of people or a mediocre rating from a handful of people. (For the latter, one poor review can skew the whole average.) But the researchers found that instead, participants gravitated simply toward whichever product had the most reviews, regardless of its quality.

Ilana Straus, writing for The Cut, describes her strategy when falling into this trap as "if so many people were buying it … could it really be that bad?" The answer is sometimes definitely yes. Product reviews can be super helpful, but consider what they're really telling you before you click to purchase.