Want to be credible? Admit your mistakes.

People trust product reviewers who say they've made bad purchases.

Gregory Nemec

Gregory Nemec

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The next time you want someone to trust your opinion, you might consider telling them about a previous misstep.

“People tend to be afraid of making and admitting mistakes,” says SOM’s Taly Reich, associate professor of marketing. “We wanted to see if we could flip that perspective.”

To test the idea that there could be an upside to admitting error, Reich and Sam Maglio, of the University of Toronto, performed four lab studies. In one experiment, participants were offered a choice between two headphone brands. Each participant was also shown one of two reviews—identical except that in one of them, the reviewer noted dissatisfaction with a previous headphone purchase.

When participants saw the review that didn’t mention a problem, 79 percent of them followed the reviewer’s recommendation. When they saw the review describing a previous mistake, the figure rose to 93 percent.

The three other experiments, with different designs and featuring other products—mints, florist services, speaker systems—yielded similar outcomes. In addition, Reich and Maglio examined data from the Sephora website, which showed that customers found reviews of hair-care products more helpful when they described a prior purchase mistake. The findings apply, Reich and Maglio note, only when the reviewer’s mistake concerned a similar product. The research was published in the Journal of Marketing.

Reich posits that if reviewers appear to have learned from their prior mistakes, they’re perceived as having gained expertise that makes their judgment more credible. The research, she says, has implications not just for online product reviews, but possibly for any individual or company who wants to build a reputation for expertise and trustworthiness. She adds: “Beyond the bottom line, we would probably have a better world if we could take the shame out of admitting and learning from our mistakes.”

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