Stanford Study Finds Correlation Between Polarizing Products and Consumers

Stanford consumer study

Stanford Graduate School of Business recently revealed a new study that explores how online product ratings influence consumer behavior.

Marketing professors S. Christian Wheeler and Baba Shiv, along with Ph.D. graduate Bella Rozenkrants, published findings in the Journal of Consumer Research that seeks to demonstrate how “the impact of ratings depends on what you are buying and why.”

The study finds that products that tend to polarize consumers—“those with more five-star and one-star reviews than the ones with a single peak in the middle”—are the ones that consumers, particularly those who are insecure, are more likely to see as a way to “express their taste and personality.”

Shiv says, “We found people with self-expression needs preferred polarizing products, even though they had a greater number of negative ratings.”

Wheeler attempts an explanation by comparing two drivers: one who needs a car simply to get around versus another who wants to say something about him/herself. “A Honda Civic is cheap, reliable, very utilitarian, but a Honda Civic doesn’t say much about the driver the way a Prius or Hummer might.”

There are parallels between this type of consumer behavior and seemingly esoteric tastes in art, food and culture. Wheeler notes, “You probably feel like you learn more about a person who likes avant-garde classical music and stinky cheese than if they say they like cheddar cheese, pop music and blockbuster films.”

Shiv says their research can be valuable to retailers who cater to specific demographics, like adolescents. “Since style choices are an important way teenagers express themselves, an online retailer catering to that demographic might benefit by building ratings distributions into its online experience, rather than just showing an average rating.”

Shiv muses, “Maybe the next step for us to examine [whether] people are seeing what others are saying and deciding if they agree or disagree with that person.”


About the Author

Jonathan Pfeffer

Jonathan Pfeffer joined the Clear Admit and MetroMBA teams in 2015 after spending several years as an arts/culture writer, editor, and radio producer. In addition to his role as contributing writer at MetroMBA and contributing editor at Clear Admit, he is co-founder and lead producer of the Clear Admit MBA Admissions Podcast. He holds a BA in Film/Video, Ethnomusicology, and Media Studies from Oberlin College.

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