Suspicious or expected? On credibility and gender.

Suspicious or expected? On credibility and gender.

Written by Chloé Lybaert & Bernard De Clerck

Recent studies show that no less than 84% of online readers consider electronic word-of-mouth to be as reliable as traditional word-of-mouth. This just goes to show again how important online messages are and how important it is for a hotel to also be visible in responding to the comments made, especially now that the comments on your hotel from one Theo from Tilburg are considered as reliable as the revenu of your own Aunt Terry in Tenerife. Somehow this is strange, because unlike traditional word-of-mouth, with online reviews we usually do not know who wrote them, nor do we know the reviewer's intentions. Is the reviewer painting a realistic picture of a product or service, or does the reviewer want to reinforce his status as a self-proclaimed expert by being deliberately more critical? In any case, as a reviewer it is relatively easy to spread misinformation (just think of the scourge of fake reviews), and as a reader it is difficult to determine which and how much information is correct or not. Consumers do try - subconsciously or not - to find out the reliability of a review and reviewer, but they usually don't have much information on which to base this. Below, we at Hotelspeaker take a preliminary look at those aspects that do come into play when assessing reliability. This can also help you as a hotel to assess which posts are most likely to cause collateral damage (and which just barely).

In determining whether a review is credible or not, the content of the message and the quality of the arguments, among other things, play a role: well-substantiated reviews, for instance, are considered more credible than reviews that hardly contain any arguments. These therefore deserve extra attention in the responses. In addition, as demonstrated in this blog post, the use of language, and more specifically the standard language of the message, also affects credibility: reviews in Standard Dutch are perceived as more credible and professional than reviews containing errors (e.g. a dt error) or colloquial elements (e.g. omission of endings in da, wa, nie). Moreover, research has also shown that very negative comments tend to be perceived as less credible than the very positive reviews. Even though consumers are inclined, out of a kind of curiosity, to go and look at the handful of very negative comments among the generally positive reviews of that one hotel, in the end they apparently do not have very much impact. However, research also shows that not answering those negative comments then provokes negative reactions. Hotelspeaker can of course help you with this.

Besides content and wording, we also rely on characteristics that the reviewer shares about himself: name or screen name, a possible profile picture and - depending on what the reviewer reveals about himself in the message - other personal data. Two important aspects emerge here: the less anonymous the reviewer, the more trustworthy, and the more the reviewer's profile resembles that of the reader, the better for credibility. This confirms the so-called homophily principle, which states that people look for people with similar demographics and interests to obtain credible and accurate information and advice on goods and services. A 25-year-old single woman will find it easier to go along with the advice of a woman with the same profile on a group tour in Thailand than a 20-year-old man who has been to Thailand with his wife.

Hotelspeaker collaborated with researchers at UGent who wondered to what extent gender as one of these personality traits still plays a role in this anno 21st century. The setting used is that of a restaurant review, but it could just as well have been a hotel breakfast or a hotel stay. We first briefly review what has already been said in the literature, among other things, and then briefly discuss the experiment.


The credibility of men and women

Several studies have been conducted in recent years on how we evaluate people of the same and opposite gender, but the results vary quite a bit. Some studies have shown that we are more likely to believe what the same gender says: for example, according to research, the gender of the reviewer appears to help determine which film reviews we find more credible. This is in line with the homophily principle we cited above. Then again, other research points to men having greater credibility: we would be more likely to want advice from a man on buying a new phone, for example, than from a woman.

So sometimes men seem to be more positive towards men and women towards women, and sometimes men are more appreciated across the board by both sexes. Of course, much also depends on the context and the product or service being reviewed or offered. For instance, men appear to get higher bids on average for goods on e-Bay than women, but that effect is stronger when it comes to rather technical products, while items like (baby) clothes and toys just score higher again with female sellers. It then remains to be seen what the effect will be in the restaurant reviews studied. Who is more believed by whom there?

A review on the Italian fictional restaurant Porto Fino

In the pilot study, a negative review about an Italian restaurant Porto Fino was presented to a group of informants. The questionnaire circulated along with the review probed perceptions of credibility, reliability, professionalism, and propensity to follow the advice given.

The exact same review was attributed to a male reviewer Peter and to a female reviewer Sofie. The reviewer's name was listed in the account information. The image above the reviewer's name was neutral, remaining the same in both scenarios, to avoid influencing respondents' attitudes.

What emerged: there were very strong differences between the male and female reviewer: Peter's review was evaluated as clearer, more credible, more reliable, and as more qualitative and useful. Peter was also more intelligent according to the informants, and his review was taken more seriously than Sofie's.

The gender of the respondents was also considered. According to the homophily principle, men should evaluate Peter's review as better, and women should evaluate Sofie's review. However, the results of the study do not seem to confirm this: men did indeed evaluate Peter's review as better than Sofie's, but so did women. Women also considered Peter more credible, convincing and intelligent, and took his complaint more seriously.

That comes across. So men would be better able to judge the quality of a spaghetti bolognese at restaurant than the woman who - as research on behavioural patterns within contemporary families shows - is still ultimately most responsible for preparing the daily fare. So what does this mean for complaints and complaint management? Should hotel management therefore take men's complaints more seriously because they are perceived as more serious? We can go even further (theoretically then). If it is the case that reviews from men are perceived as more credible, does the same apply to the responses to the reviews? Or in other words, are you better off choosing a male social media manager? At Hotelspeaker, at least, we take a slightly more nuanced approach: after all, other research also shows that women's input in service and communication was equally and sometimes better liked than men's.

Moreover - and fortunately - we should also point out here the effect that the name itself can have on perception. For the experiment, the common, neutral-sounding names Sofie and Peter were chosen rather arbitrarily. However, if we add the 2017 population register data, we see a difference between the two names in terms of age distribution: under eighteen there are proportionally more Sofies than Peters, over 65 the reverse is true. So there is a chance that respondents in the experiment associate Peter with an age group older than Sofie, and the life experience that this implies might also lead to a higher assessment of Peter's culinary expertise. However, follow-up research will have to clarify whether this is effectively the case (e.g. by using the 'younger' variant Pieter as a name instead of Peter). Besides the age association, other aspects are on the list for further analysis (e.g. consider the socio-economic background evoked by names like Kenji and Jean-Baptiste and their effect on credibility). Future research will also have to show whether similar phenomena can be identified in positive review contexts, when the spaghetti did resonate with Peter and Sofie.

In any case, the fact that credibility is still so strongly determined by gender on the one hand, and perhaps even by name on the other, raises a number of (ethical) questions in terms of complaint management. It's up to you whether you would rather pass the hot potato or the baked pears to Sofie, Peter or the people at Hotelspeaker J.

This blog is based on the studies 'The impact of language and gender on the credibility of online reviews' of 2018 (Depovere, S.) and 'The impact of language and gender on the credibility of online reviews' of 2018 (author: Loete, T.) and was written by Chloé Lybaert and Bernard De Clerck of the Department of Translation, Interpreting and Communication at Ghent University.