Do negative reviews perform better?

If you've been on the internet this week, you saw that there have been some pretty negative reviews out there: both Mass Effect Andromeda and Iron Fist were pretty heavily lambasted within a few corners. I tried out both and have been liking them both so far, but that isn't what this is about. This is about the propensity for negative reviews to catch on and be, well, good business sense.

I'm going to start with a personal story before delving into some of my research. Recently, I wrote reviews and co-hosted a podcast on a corner of the internet. We did fairly well. One of the regular requests we got, however, was to do more negative reviews. We had a tendency only to review things we liked, and say nothing about the things that we didn't like. The old "if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all approach."

This isn't what our audience wanted. From a business perspective, they had limited resources and wanted to be warned off of things that weren't worth their time. From another perspective, I think that there's a certain schadenfreude to reading a negative review, seeing that something isn't doing as well as some had hoped, or otherwise cut other people down a peg. I'm not saying most people are conscious about doing this, but I imagine that there might be something to it.

For the Mass Effect Andromeda coverage, there was a tendency for tentatively optimistic coverage until someone broke the pattern. Suddenly, it was all the rage for people to review it negatively and pile on. There were even those on Reddit who talked about an authoritarian liberal agenda that was forcing opinions down the throats of others.

This got me thinking - wondering - whether my theory was correct. Did negative reviews drive more traffic than positive ones. This seems to be a difficult thing to get a final decision on. A study done in 1997 examined whether film critics were able to predict the success of a movie.[1] Their examination suggested they weren't predictors of success, so much as influencers of that success. Further, the longer that the movie was out, the greater influence that the reviews had. This contrasted with predictions about word of mouth countering that.

Similarly, a more recent study in 2007 found that consumers were surprisingly astute about determining the background of the reviewer, and making their decision with that factor in place.[2] That study specifically found that “readers of negative hedonic product reviews are more likely to attribute the negative opinions expressed, to the reviewer's internal (or non-product related) reasons; and therefore are less likely to find the negative reviews useful”. By contrast, they found that utilitarian cases reveal that negative reviews are taken more seriously. There are also a number of instances when negative publicity in a variety of forms can increase sales.[3]

Still, it is difficult to gauge the effects of virality in terms of reviews. When an instance goes widespread, like it has in the case of Mass Effect Andromeda, it is very hard to see what effect that will actually have on sales. Some more recent studies have suggested that consumers are often influenced by a positivity or negativity bias in order to either find reasons to buy or find reasons to avoid their purchase.[4] Other studies have suggested that the decision is made based upon being a “high involvement” or “low involvement” consumer. In these instances, the high involvement consumer focuses on the quality of the positive and negative reviews, suggesting a deeper attempt at understanding, while low involvement consumers are looking more at the quantity of each.[5]

None of this really examines whether they drive more traffic than positive reviews. As an excitable amateur at researching this kind of thing, I couldn’t find definitive information either way. I’m going to keep looking into it, and trying to figure it out. If you have any sources, findings, or thoughts on it, please comment below!