The Wiki Man

The real reason for rotten online reviews on TripAdvisor

12 October 2013

9:00 AM

12 October 2013

9:00 AM

‘Sorry, I’d love to go the pub this evening, but I have to go out. It’s my wife’s wedding anniversary.’ This Freudian slip was uttered by one of my colleagues a few years ago. It sprang into mind when I was casually browsing reviews of restaurants and hotels on TripAdvisor.

I always head for the negative reviews first. Not for what they tell you about the venue, but for what they unintendedly reveal about the reviewer. Sarcastic quotation marks and periphrasis are always a bit of a give-away: ‘…there was a floating rubber object in the toilet bowl!!! After complaining at reception we were given another room and a full refund. Staff were very apologetic about the incident.… I asked for additional compensation as we thought that a change of room and a refund was not really adequate. This was refused.’

‘Reasonably-priced food ? Hardly — £6.70 for a cream tea — they are taking the proverbial here. And blackcurrant jam, when it should be strawberry.’
I secretly hope these writers are abducted on their next holiday, to see how they handle real discomfort. ‘Without so much as an excuse-me, my wife and I were manacled to a wall and pistol-whipped by Serbian mercenaries. I would have awarded only one star, but for the Šljivovica, which was delicious, and served properly chilled!!!!’

Some complainants are genuine, of course. You can get terrible service (‘Do you want sugar in your tea?’ ‘No.’ ‘Well don’t stir it then’ was an example from a few years ago). But the most interesting thing about hostile reviews is how often the following phrases occur: ‘anniversary dinner’, ‘Mother’s Day’, ‘aunt’s birthday’, ‘family reunion’, and so forth. It would be interesting to analyse which special occasions generate most bad reviews.

What causes this? One explanation comes in a 1974 paper by Donald Dutton and Arthur Aron called ‘Some Evidence for Heightened Sexual Attraction under Conditions of High Anxiety’, later known as the Capilano Bridge experiment. In the test, an attractive female researcher with a questionnaire buttonholed men who had just crossed a wobbly wooden suspension bridge 230 feet above a river in Vancouver. She did the same to people who had just crossed a solid, low bridge upstream, in both cases leaving her phone number in case the men had ‘any follow-up questions’.

Half the men who had crossed the rickety bridge called her; only one in eight of the men who had crossed the ordinary bridge did so. This gave rise to the ‘misattribution of arousal’ theory. Effectively, when men’s bodies are flooded with adrenalin from crossing a dangerous bridge, they are as likely to attribute the hormonal explosion to the girl, not the bridge.

A similar effect may be at work in restaurants. The ‘misattribution of irritation’, in other words. People who are grumpy at being forced to attend celebratory meals under duress, or who are socially awkward in fancy restaurants, are much more likely to blame the restaurant than the circumstances for their mood. If you ever want a bad meal, just turn up at a good restaurant half an hour late. You will be angry at yourself for being late but unconsciously redirect your animus towards the staff. We’ve all done it.

It all suggests that David Hume was right: reason really is ‘the slave of the passions’. We explain our moods by hastily contrived, self-serving post-rationalisation. This is never more apparent than in politics. The supposed reasons people advance for being morally outraged are mostly spurious: off-the-shelf narratives to justify an emotional reaction. Let’s face it, if Guardian reporters had gatecrashed a Tory’s memorial service, few on the left would have given a damn.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • Damian

    also – citing a sentimentally important occasion – real or fictitious – can make a complaint seem to carry more weight.

    “Look what have you done, poured wine down my wife’s blouse, on this our tenth wedding anniversary, and she only just diagnosed with terminal cancer, too. If only there was some way this could be made right…”

    I suspect emotional blackmail has quite a lot to do with the mentioning of special occasions in complaints.

    • rorysutherland

      This may be right. It may also be that people are vastly more sensitive to perceived slights when in the presence of their spouse’s relatives.

      A rich man is anyone who earns more than his wife’s sister’s husband – and all that!

      • rorysutherland

        I must say, a free room for the night in return for sighting a condom in the lavatory seems like more than generous compensation to me. Asking for yet more compensation seems a bit much. I would happily flush away a condom every night in return for completely free lodging in all the world’s hotels.

        • Ripple

          It certainly does seem too much. Years ago I had a rather harrowing night in one ‘hotel’ — posh large building in Bath but, unbelievably, no phone in the room and this was before mobiles — on account of a drunken young football team that had been slotted on the same floor, unbeknownst to me. Ended up on the street at 2 in the morning trying to find police. The hotelier gave us half a night’s discount, which was better than nothing but hardly generous given our fright (my legs were shaking as I felt that we were in danger from these yobs).

          As for the rubber, I’m not sure I agree. Probably the unpleasantness derived not only from the sight of it but from the unwelcome awareness of what the bed they were sleeping in had just been used for. In hotels, you know but you don’t want to be reminded. Preferable to think that the last visitors were a couple of fuddy-duds who merely farted into the mattress. Or…maybe not.

  • E Hart

    TripAdvisor is nonsensical. It is often, as you say, a depository for ire, malice, projection, thwarted ambition and straightforward cronyism. I used to review restaurants and hotels for guidebooks – the genuinely good stood out like a unicorn rampant on a field of azure. You had to rub your eyes in amazement or order a very large cognac to celebrate. They had that quality of immediacy – they told you they were good – and they didn’t warrant a second thought after that. The rest went from bad to mediocre where most of them congregated like the damned in an Hieronymous Bosch painting. Why do choice and expectation encourage people to believe that it will or should be otherwise?

    • rorysutherland

      I think it does have a value, but often you have to read between the lines.

      I mostly find it valuable in three ways.

      First, it has helped me discover occasional hidden gems: what looked like an unprepossessing noodle bar in Tunbridge Wells (which I had driven past many times) turned out to be a Japanese restaurant of surprising brilliance. I would never have discovered this without Tripadvisor.

      Second, it helps set realistic expectations before I go somewhere. For instance, there are quite a few pretty good places where the service is a bit dippy or slow. If I know from reviews to expect this in advance, I won’t take their failings as a personal affront, but will just accept it as characteristic of the place. This will make me less likely to get generally irritable, and help me enjoy what’s actually good about the experience.

      Finally, it does everyone else in the hotel and restaurant sector a favour by driving the very worst hotels and restaurants out of business. Truly awful hotels and restaurants are damaging to the industry as a whole, since people will not risk trying new hotels or restaurants if there is a significant chance of severe disappointment. Before Tripadvisor, you could open a hotel or restaurant in a well-trafficked tourist area and simply rip off the unsuspecting passers-by.

      • E Hart

        Since my folks died I’ve lost the best advanced scouts in the business. A real couple of Marco Polos, it was they who brought back tales of The Sportsman at Seasalter in the early 2000s. It is always more difficult to find such places in Britain – TripAdvisor[TA] not withstanding – because we have no real culture of food here and testimonies are unreliable.

        In Spain, France and Italy, you can at least follow some of the locals. After visiting Garabandal, Cantabria, the scene of a Marian apparition, I discovered some locals going into the most unprepossessing of places. As it turned out, it did Cocido Montañés – a hearty stew of white beans, cabbage, black pudding, potatoes and chorizo – more suitable for pastoralists than those who get out of a hire car – but delicious nevertheless. And they had Arena de Cabrales – a cheese of the gods. Here, you’d end up at a Harvester or somewhere with an unfeasibly large menu and a microwave. Some time ago, I scoured Cornwall for a decent pub and good food – it was well nigh hopeless.

        My experience with Michelin in Spain and France is similarly disappointing. Only Gourmetour (which may or may not exist now) was much better. Too many duff places make the cut. I remember going to a restaurant in Mallorca, recommended in Michelin, only to find that it had been shut for some time and was a burnt out shell. Another in Mahon, Menorca, was the cockroach equivalent of the Indy 500.

        I think it remains to be seen whether TA will drive out the dumps because for that to happen people will have to be more discerning. I am inclined to agree with you, though, it ought to help – eventually.

      • Ripple

        Good points. There is (or was) a pub outside Hever Castle* that serves up dreadful food, and knows it can get away with it because the coachloads of tourists (and even locals as we were at the time) come in all unsuspecting — and what’s more, they have precious little choice if they’re hungry, and they can’t register dissatisfaction by not coming again as they’re not likely to come again, anyway!

        *It might possibly be under new management now: I hope so.

      • Don Simon

        Perhaps there is a market for restaurants to inform costumers about their slow service. The assumption from the customers point of view would be that the quality of the food would be higher, they are maybe also more likely to order snacks or starters and potentially a couple of rounds of drinks before the food arrives as opposed to the societal norm of 1.

  • Duty Pedant

    Men “are as likely to attribute the hormonal explosion to the girl, not the bridge” – is just plain wrong. What is happening is that they have been pre-aroused physiologically by the adrenalin, and the woman is the lucky (?) recipient, that’s all.

  • Shoe On Head

    brilliant. definitely an overlap between first world problems and reviews…

    – i had too much food on my plate. the peas kept falling off.
    – the only place showing football was the irish bar.
    – went to the beach. the sand was too hot to walk on

    (shoe on head)

  • Felix

    “Let’s face it, if Guardian reporters had gatecrashed a Tory’s memorial service, few on the left would have given a damn.”

    Without of course meaning to rush into an off-the-shelf narrative of hastily contrived, self-serving post-rationalisation.

  • AB

    The Capilano Bridge effect works negatively too. Some years ago I went there with my now wife. She still remarks on how I apparently barged my way past some woman mid-way along the bridge, oblivious to her fear of the drop. Not that I’m habitually ungallant, but I can’t believe I’ve never since in the intervening 11 years lightly jostled someone passing on a bridge, yet my wife has never mentioned it.

  • Lena Helena

    Does anyone actually read The Spectator? – load of right wing shite.

    • wobble

      And yet here you are , commenting…

    • Ripple

      And you represent the generosity and charm of the Left, obviously.

  • Ripple

    Hilarious and so true, for the most part. (‘As likely… to the girl as to the bridge’.) It does not necessarily follow, in the case of arousal however, that there is strictly speaking a misattribution or confusion of causes. It may be instead that the men, having crossed a dodgy bridge and met the challenge, not only felt hormonally primed (as they undoubtedly did) but also enjoyed a surge in self-confidence: they had triumphed in some way and proved some smidgen of their worth. Men that feel competent and in charge are more likely, surely, to pursue women or assert themselves in general. It is a question of self-esteem, surely.

    And another point: what constitutes an ‘attractive’ woman? One can’t say ‘a Victoria’s Secret’ model: some are, and some are not (I asked my husband to be sure). Some people like blue eyes, and some like brown. (I myself have a distinct preference and always have.) I’d think you’d want a couple of women there, to cover the bases. And now, the next-most-obvious question: why was there not a test of women bridge-walkers and a man?

    • rorysutherland

      This was 1973!

      • Ripple

        Aha! That would explain it.

  • Kevin Russell

    For anyone complaining on TA, my advice is make it as funny as humanly possible and write it for your own amusement because no one’s really listening and your issue is most likely trivial. I once complained about getting a sore hand from the entertainment staff’s constant high-fiving…

  • Agni Sharman

    TripAdvisor steals data from phone, even after disabling account

    TripAdvisor denies access to my account via my email ID and seems to have blocked it long time back. however there was no email or warning when they did it. Only a few days back i realised the ID is blocked but however were making me publish reviews and picture via my Samsung Galaxy S4 TripAdvisor app.

    When I learned about it i asked for a explanation and they sent me a email which talks about violation of terms. But when and how they themselves are not sure about.

    I decided get out of the blessed product and requested to remove all the contents i had contributed sine 2008. They agreed but would not reply to my repeated reminders to remove my contents… What should I do now?

  • Sam

    Great article. Sad that trip advisor is so full of unreasonable negatives but also so many fake reviews to combat these. Getting to a town and staying at the number 1 hotel that doesn’t have doors…entirely possible with self reviews. For example..