The Reputation Economy

Thrilled or Upset: What Drives People to Share and Review Product Experiences?

Anja Dieckmann and Matthias Unfried


Consumer Experience, Emotion, Social Sharing, Persuasion

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The Internet is full of reviews and recommendations but also rants about almost everything. Indeed, we may be increasingly reluctant to book a restaurant or order an item online that has not been thoroughly reviewed. But what drives people’s decision to share product and service experiences in the first place?

Why people share their experiences
Research across different disciplines has investigated why individuals share reputational information. Behavioral economists have investigated relevant motives using experiments on social interactions. They demonstrated that, for some people, altruism is the main motivator for sharing experiences, and reviewers simply want to help others in making better decisions. For others, reciprocity seems to be the driving force – for positive as well as negative experiences. For instance, hotel guests experiencing severe failures that ruined their holidays might be inclined to retaliate with bad word-of-mouth or reviews. On the positive side, a highly satisfied customer who enjoyed an exceptionally delicious dinner might be motivated to give something back and publicly praise the restaurant.
Another highly discussed factor explaining why people do (or do not) share reputational information is the costs of sharing. Preparing and verbalizing the information to be shared requires cognitive effort. Further, it takes time to actually publish or share the information, leading to additional executional costs. Lower cognitive and executional costs make sharing more likely.


Word-of-mouth expert Jonah Berger has identified additional key factors that drive the sharing of information. Individuals want to shape the impression others have of them, or they might want to persuade others by sharing specific content. Some share experiences as a way to bond and socialize with others. Related to that, sharing information can be motivated by the desire to receive social support or additional information. Last but not least, another important function of word-of-mouth is to help consumers regulate their emotions. In the case of a rude service representative, for instance, telling others about it can help customers deal with these negative consumption experiences and reduce the emotional impact. So, it allows people to vent, but also to spread positive excitement over an experience.

The role of emotional arousal for social sharing
Several studies highlight a sender’s emotional arousal as a relevant factor for social sharing and virality of online content. According to psychological research, emotions are accompanied by a state of heightened physiological arousal or activation, which results from experiencing personally relevant events, independent of whether they are positive or negative. Arousal tends to boost social transmission. Ads that elicit more emotional engagement receive more buzz than less activating commercials. Further, the fact that surprising, novel, or outrageous content is more likely to be shared also seems consistent with the notion that arousal boosts transmission.

The measurement of arousal
Aside from self-report via rating scales, the measurement of arousal has been technically challenging. Activation was measured via changes in somebody´s heart rate or skin conductance response with elaborate physiological tools and electrodes attached to respondents. More recently, technological progress in the field of Affective Computing has greatly facilitated emotion observation. Software for automatic and unobtrusive analysis of emotion expressions in both the face and the voice have been advanced. Research has revealed that emotional arousal can be validly detected in a person’s voice by technology and/or attentive listeners who can hear when the arousal level of a speaker changes. This is the approach we used in our study on the effects of arousal on social sharing (see Box 1).


Higher arousal – more sharing – more persuasion
The results (Figure 2) of our experiment are in line with other research confirming that increased arousal is associated with higher levels of social sharing. For practitioners in marketing, the results highlight the importance of arousal for goals like determining whether a product, service, or advertising is perceived as relevant, and whether or not consumers will share their experience in social media. Also, at least for spoken reviews, there is an indication that higher arousal can even increase persuasiveness. Revealing emotions in reviews may thus add authenticity and credibility .

How to make use of the insights on emotional arousal
To increase the chances for sharing positive reviews of a product or service, a piece of advice for marketers is to link their brands and products to positively arousing emotions, such as amusement and surprise, beyond pure contentment. On the other hand, alarm bells should sound – quite literally – once customer dissatisfaction evolves into hot anger. Being furious at a company rather than merely disappointed may increase the likelihood of telling others about it. A brand can be seriously damaged when bad reviews escalate. To prevent this, customer service hotlines, for instance, could use voice analysis to flag the increase of arousal during calls to initiate effective countermeasures, like consulting a manager or offering compensation.

To end on a positive note, annoyance caused by negative experiences may not necessarily translate into negative reviews. Research by Nobel-prize-winner Daniel Kahneman and colleagues demonstrates that experiences extended over time, such as restaurant visits or hotel stays, can effectively benefit from positive endings: The peak and the end of emotional experiences is what most sticks to people’s memories. This buys retailers and service providers some time: if something went wrong, negative effects can be partially counteracted by friendly and effective complaint management. According to research findings, a simple apology can make a substantial proportion of customers withdraw negative reviews.


Anja Dieckmann, Professor of Business Psychology, Aalen University, Germany, anja.dieckmann@hs-aalen.de

Matthias Unfried, Head of Behavioral Science, Nuremberg Institute for Market, Decisions, Nuremberg, Germany, matthias.unfried@nim.org

Further Reading

Abeler, J.; Calaki, J.; Andree, K.; & Basek, Ch. (2010): “The power of apology”, Economics Letters, Vol. 107 (2),  233-235. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.econlet.2010.01.033.

Berger, J. (2014): “Word of mouth and interpersonal communication: A review and directions for future research”, Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 24, 586-607.

Fredrickson, B.; & Kahneman, D. (1993): “Duration neglect in retrospective evaluations of affective episodes”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 65, 45–55.