“Don’t Read the Reviews”: Social Conformity, Hype Trains and How Reviews Might Influence Your Bookish Opinions

This might be sacrilegious for me to say as a book blogger, but we all know book reviews are something of a squishy, subjective business.


This might be sacrilegious for me to say as a book blogger, but we all know book reviews are something of a squishy, subjective business.

As reviewers, we prioritize honesty and sharing our true opinions with our readers. But could reading Goodreads reviews before writing our own be getting in the way of this mission?

The Asch Conformity experiment is a famous social psychology experiment that was conducted in 1951. In the experiment, participants were shown a picture of three lines of clearly different lengths. Then they were asked to point out which line was the longest. Should be common sense, right?

Well, actually, apparently not.

The point of the experiment was to test the influence of peer pressure and the drive to conform to social norms, so the participant was in the room with seven other “confederates” who were in on the experiment. All seven of the confederates answered with the wrong line, and the real participant was then asked for his answer. The majority of the participants went along with the group’s wrong answer at least once.

Many of these participants said afterwards that they didn’t actually think the wrong line was correct, but didn’t want to seem weird by answering differently. The influence of their peers made them doubt what was right in front of their eyes.

I first read about this experiment in the fascinating nonfiction psychology book Quiet by Susan Cain (which I reviewed in September), but it has recently come back to the forefront of my mind.

The “1-Star Effect”

I’m not a psychologist by any means, but I’m wondering if this same principle applies to reading book reviews. Can the consumption of other people’s opinions of a book before I start the book, or before I begin writing my review, color my own thoughts?

I often find myself tempted to lower my own rating of a book after reading someone else’s critical review; or, on the contrary, raising my rating after reading glowing praise. Reading someone else’s aggressive tirade never fails to make me question my own judgement about a book. Even if I don’t change my rating, I often feel more hesitant to rate the book differently from someone whose judgement I trust, or to “go against the grain” and disobey the rule of the majority.

Strangely, this happens more with me liking a badly-rated book than with me hating a highly-rated book. When I hate a popular book, I just pass it off as “well, I just have better taste”(hey, I’m being honest…) But if I love a book with a subpar rating, I start to question my own reading tastes. So-and-so says only idiots could like this book. You know, maybe I didn’t actually like it all that much. Maybe this just means I’m too critical a reviewer, but it’s an interesting trend.

Average Ratings on Goodreads

If you’re on Goodreads, or Amazon, or any other book rating sort of website, chances are you’ve looked at the ratings of books you read. Do you decide what to keep on your TBR based on its rating? Are you ever tempted to change your rating based on what the average is?

It seems to me like a snowball effect: if a book’s first few reviews are negative, it’d be hard for that book’s ratings to climb back up because after reading negative reviews, people will be less likely to rate the book highly, and it’s just a downward spiral from there.

Sometimes the hate train can get out of control. Or, sometimes, the book is just bad. But that leads me to…

Hype Trains and ARC Reviews

Another manifestation of this peer-pressure rating phenomenon is the book hype trains. Hyped books always seem to have good ratings, except of course if the book also had a huge hate train wave (e.g. Twilight). Sometimes people don’t want to rate a popular book badly out of fear of an unpopular opinion, and sometimes it’s fun for people to hate on one unfortunate book.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that ARC reviews tend to be more positive than regular reviews. Not all the time, but often new releases have GR ratings that go down as time passes. Is this because only people who are genuinely interested in a book get the ARC? Perhaps. Could it have something to do with a feeling of obligation to rate pre-published books highly to support the author? Could there be some other reason?

I bring it up because I think the ARC situation is what usually kicks off the hype train (as well as TikTok… Barnes & Noble has a whole entire BookTok display now, but I digress, that’s a post for another day…)

Thanks for reading, and let me know in the comments!

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21 comments on ““Don’t Read the Reviews”: Social Conformity, Hype Trains and How Reviews Might Influence Your Bookish Opinions”

  1. I found this fascinating to think more about, Emily!
    I think that social conformity could quite possibly play a role in ratings, but I am far from the best person to offer an opinion on the subject, seeing as it sometimes seems my ratings are pointless (I think I need to come up with an actual system, but anyway…). 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ooh, this was a really cool post! I too, actually find myself wanting to lower a rating if I read a bad review, and i too, don’t usually do it, unless the person makes very good points. And like, i actually usually read bad reviews of books I didn’t like and good ones of books i did- i honestly don’t know why 😅😅

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wonderful post, Emily! The reasons you brought up here are actually a huge part of why I never read reviews for books I haven’t read yet. I love going into books as blindly as possible, and I also want to write my own review without being influenced by what other people say. Because yes, I definitely have noticed that other people’s opinions influence mine – in a very similar way that you have! I also tend to attribute me hating a book everyone else loved to my superior tastes (😁) but if someone rates something lowly and points out good reasons for it, I will start to question my own judgment… The only exception to this rule are very famous classics and winners of prestigious prizes – if I hate those, I also start questioning whether I am really worthy of my literature degree 🙈 Which is so dumb, but I can’t help it!

    Of course, I can’t avoid opinions altogether, though. I would never be reading things that matched my tastes if I did no research at all 😅 But I usually go off of buzzwords that people mention in their wrap-ups or recommendations of people that I know have similar reading tastes to mine – or, if I’m in a bookstore, I’ll go by synopsis. But I try not to look at ratings or reviews too much before I’ve actually read the book!

    Once I’ve read the book, though – I will go all in! I love checking what others have to say on it, and maybe even rereading books in a different light. But I want my first impression to be my own, if that makes any sense 😂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I almost wrote something about the role classics play in all this on my post; the kind of peer pressure/social conformity makes it feel like if you don’t like a classic, you’re not a good reader/you’re not intellectual. I definitely agree and I’m glad I’m not the only one who finds herself getting unwittingly swayed by reviews!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow Emily, you always have the most thought-provoking posts! I don’t read reviews before I READ a book, but I do sometimes read reviews before I write a review, and yes, sometimes it probably influences me a bit. I do think that ARC reviews are generally more positive for the same reasons you stated. I know I try to only request ARC’s for books I think I will really enjoy, and I do think that there is some minor pressure to write more positive reviews for ARC’s, but I try to stay with my OWN feelings about books. IGreat post!!

    Liked by 1 person

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