Science: a few good early reviews outweigh later negative critical consensus

Do you ever notice how a few websites review big games early, and how those early reviews tend to be positive? Well, it turns out that there’s a demonstrable psychological effect at play when this happens:

A pair of studies suggests that we remain impressed after reading early positive reviews, even if negative reviews come later…Seventy-six undergrads were told all positive facts about one fictional coffee brand and all negative facts about another, along the lines of: “the company has put green policies in place” and “the company has tried to cover up exploitation of its workers”. 

Next a research assistant told the participants that a mistake had been made – the fact sheets had been wrongly labelled, so that the positive statements actually applied to other coffee brand and vice versa. They were asked to imagine the sheets had been labelled correctly and then say how they felt about the two companies. Their responses were compared against the ratings of a control group for whom the reversal wasn’t made.

The key finding here was that the impact of the early positive facts lingered, leading to enhanced ratings for the brand that was originally misdescribed in glowing terms. In contrast, the stain of negative facts wore off. The brand originally misdescribed in negative terms was given fair ratings by the participants, as if they were able to forget the mistaken negative associations.

This is fascinating, and I think it also plays into the anticipation cycle I wrote about yesterday when I encouraged gamers not to watch the opening sequence of BioShock Infinite. The flipside of anticipation, of course, is disappointment, and when we are primed to think a game is going to be great because of laudatory early reviews, I think it makes it more likely that we are let down by a game. Embargo culture on game reviews is not about to end, but this is an important dynamic to keep in mind as a consumer, not just of video games, but of movies (where this happens all the time) and music as well.