Why you should not rely on testimonials

Checking testimonials is a common way to evaluate the product or service you consider to purchase. What could be better than hear a feedback from people who already use it?

Unfortunately, testimonials are not as reliable as we may think and I will explain why below.

Cognitive dissonance

Let’s go back in 1950ths. That time couple young scientists (Elliot Aronson and Judson Mills) conducted an interesting study in the Stanford University. They created a fake student fraternity and invited students to join it. All interested people were required to pass an admission test to become a member of the club, but they were divided to two streams: for the first half the initiation test was quite easy while for the second – pretty sever and required significant time and efforts to pass. Then new members from both streams were asked to listen the same tape recording with the discussion allegedly occurred in the society they’d just joined. Afterward the researchers asked them to evaluate the dispute and people who took part in it. In fact, the tape were prepared in advance and constructed such a way that the discussion was quite dull and boring, the topic was pretty far from the declared club focus and discussants looked like depressing and not very smart people, so an average person wouldn’t grade it high.

The results were pretty interesting: the students who experienced a mild initiation evaluated the discussion as it was – dump and purposeless and the speakers as wearing and unwise. In contrast, the group that passed a hard admission test had found the record interesting and exciting, discussants – intelligent and attractive. Similar experiments were conducted several times with the same results: people, who voluntary invested significant efforts to get something gave it much higher grades. How could it be? Why the same object had so different evaluation?

The answer is related with two concepts: cognitive dissonance and confirmatory bias. When a person agree to go through a big pain, or do something hard to get a desired object, it means that the initial evaluation of that object was quite positive. Every investment to the object increases it price in the person’s mind, so expectations how good is, for example that fraternity, establishes at a very high level. When the person finally gets the object he/she tends to notice only the information that supports that pre-defined expectations and miss all that dis-confirms them. Such a feature of a human mind is called “confirmatory bias”. What happens when the person obtain a contradicting piece of information about the object? If the fact is against our evaluation of the object, we need either to change our evaluation or do something with that fact. Such situation, when there are two exclusive theory in the mind is called a cognitive dissonance and people do not like to live with it. For the human’s brain it’s easier to skip the fact or change it’s interpretation, because otherwise we have to accept that we made a mistake with our evaluation and the higher was the evaluation, the harder to admit that it was wrong. So most of us will adjust a perceived reality to make it suits our expectations. Sometimes, however, we have to change our evaluation, like the fox in “The fox and the grape”.

Though, how all this is related with the testimonials? If one purchased something, especially an expensive product or service, there is a very high probability that he/she will notice only information, confirming that the purchase decision was very correct and finally completely convince himself in it, even if the buying is not so good. That believe will becomes very sincere and put deep roots in his mind, so he will honestly give a product/service a great testimonial, that in fact is not deserved.

Hence, do not rely on testimonials so much, people who already made a purchase rarely provide an unbiased feedback. I don’t say that testimonials completely useless, if the product is a complete crap, probably people have to adjust their evaluations, but in many cases, especially if we talk about premium brands, better to hear somebody else, maybe people who are just considering a purchase.

5 Replies to “Why you should not rely on testimonials”

  1. Interesting article. Reminds me of the great book Influence, Science and Practice (go and read it now). Yes, in general the harder people work for items, the more they value them and the less likely they are to experience cognative dissonance. Their words therefore have a halo effect which can thread through testimonials.

    It’s therefore not really a case of disregarding testimonials, but more so looking at any fact based evidence reported and making a judgement call on these facts. This helps to remove heightened emotion.

    In essence, buying is an emotional experience (backed up buy rational retro-fitting). Testimonials speak directly to this.

  2. Hi David,

    thanks for positive comment.

    Another good book, written by one of the guy, who did that experiement in Stanford is “Mistakes Were Made”(Carol Tavris, Elliot Aronson).

  3. Ha, Conscientious Objector, good point, you catched us.

    Indeed we provided testimonials for books. I reckon, while books are non-expensive stuff, they require pretty high time investment, so if you read it all (voluntary) it’s not easy to accept that it was a crap. Hence indeed, you should be cautios with our evaluations.

    I think the similar logic can apply to movies. How often have you heard from people who already watched them that they are complete flop?

    As for me, however, I read the book I referred partly and as a part of my study, so, probably my opinion is less biased.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *