What's the psychology behind guest reviews?

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Dr. Gerben Langendijk, Senior Consumer Psychologist at Booking.com, discusses the psychological influences that have the potential to impact guest reviews

Psychology plays a significant role in reviews. From why people write them, to how they make decisions after reading them, psychological influences are constantly in motion. We know that travellers looking to book accommodation rely heavily on other people’s behaviours and opinions. This is because the less you know about a destination, the more you depend on external direction.

There are multiple reasons why people feel prompted to write a review. It could give them a sense of self enhancement, or make them feel like they’re helping other travellers. Of course, it could simply be out of frustration from a negative experience.

External influences

The way we perceive and recreate our own realities is very much a part of what ends up in a review. A memory is not, objectively speaking, the actual reality, it’s a representation of elements you picked up on at the time. If you put five people in the same room, for instance, they are going to notice different things depending on influences such as their background and how they’re feeling that day. This means that all five could have varying opinions because their version of reality differs, ultimately impacting their memories.

‘Relying on gathering guest content via invitation helps prevent fake ones’.

'Relying on gathering guest content via invitation helps prevent fake ones'

Sometimes you’ll also find that people’s reviews are influenced by aspects of their trip that are beyond a property’s control, such as the weather or industrial action. Guests may try to view these external factors separately to the property, but those factors will ultimately influence the way they see all other components. Say you arrive at the airport late and there are no taxis and a lot of chaos -  that’s going to impact the rest of your experiences, at least during that day. If you’re only going away for a weekend, an external factor like that has the potential to negatively influence the rest of your trip. So there are definitely things outside of a property's control that are hard for people to let go of and end up influencing their review as a result.

It’s definitely worth hoteliers still taking these reviews into consideration however. It may help to take them with a grain of salt, but properties can still use them to improve their service if they notice recurring complaints. For example, if there’s a theme of guests expressing frustration that it rained during their stay, it’s worth the property asking themselves if they should start handing out umbrellas.

The role of spatial distance

The psychological theory of spatial (geographical) distance also has the potential to impact a guests’ perception. As part of the Construal Level Theory and psychological distance, the principle of this theory is fairly simple: the closer you are to something, the more details you take in and the more concrete it is. The further away you are from something, the more abstract it becomes. For example, once a guest arrives at their destination the spatial distance is zero but, when they leave and are back home, that spatial distance is larger, causing their experiences and recollection of the trip to become more abstract.

What impact can this have on reviews? Well, research has found that the more abstract you look at something the more it reduces intensity of the experiences, but at the same time it increases positivity in both negative and positive experiences. This can result in a more positive outlook, even if the experience at the time didn’t reflect that entirely.

Everyone has certain beliefs and behaviours and those two things need to align, otherwise there’s friction

Spatial distance can also make it easier for people to accept things working differently to what they’re used to, depending on how far from home they are. This is where cognitive dissonance deserves a mention. Everyone has certain beliefs and behaviours and those two things need to align, otherwise there’s friction. If someone’s put more effort into getting to a destination (e.g. put more time in, more money) but they somehow had a bad experience, in time, people tend to reflect on this travel experience more positively. This way, theoretically, they’re trying to alleviate some of the friction rather than thinking it was a waste of time and money.

How Booking.com collects reviews

There’s a big difference between how Booking.com collects user-generated content versus other platforms. At Booking.com we have verified reviews, so not everyone can write anything they want. Only people who actually stayed somewhere receive an invite to have an opinion on that specific property. Relying on gathering guest content via invitation helps prevent fake ones, while maintaining trust and transparency.

We usually send a review invite the day after checkout, a reminder after four days and another reminder after 26 days. We aim for a very short window (30 days at the moment) to get the most details from people. Based on construal level theory and psychological distance, in this case temporal distance, we expect to receive more detail from people the earlier they share their thoughts. There’s also thought behind what questions we ask guests, and we try to use psychological nudges to ensure that reviewers are writing a substantial amount.

As for what's in store for the future of reviews, Booking.com is starting to offer different products and as we grow in this direction we need to understand how we should evaluate these offerings. Reviews should help us, our visitors and our partners learn where we could improve even more.

You might also want to read:

Academic papers:

1. Stamolampros, P., & Korfiatis, N. (2018). Exploring the behavioral drivers of review valence: The direct and indirect effects of multiple psychological distances. International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management, 30(10), 3083-3099.

2. Trope, Y., & Liberman, N. (2010). Construal-level theory of psychological distance. Psychological review, 117(2), 440.

What do you think of this page?


Psychological influences are constantly at play, determining why people write reviews and how they make decisions after reading them
How people perceive and recreate their own realities is a significant part of what ends up in a review
People's reviews can also be influenced by aspects of their trip that are beyond a property's control, so hoteliers may want to take them with a grain of salt
Relying on gathering guest content via invitation helps prevent fake ones, while maintaining trust and transparency