What Online Restaurant Reviews Reveal About Those Who Write Them


Online reviews on sites like Yelp (not to mention Chowhound, Urban Spoon, Zagat, TripAdvisor and others) presumably tell us a lot about restaurants. They also tell us a lot about the people who write them, a new study concludes.

For the study, published by the peer-reviewed online journal First Monday, Stanford University linguistics professor Dan Jurafsky and his co-authors examined 900,000 online restaurant reviews using computational linguistics and "sentiment analysis" to ferret out "the meanings that are hidden in the way people use words and connotations," Dan explained in the Stanford Report.

Among the researchers' key discoveries: In positive reviews of pricey restaurants, people tend to use longer, fancier (more-aspirational) words aimed at making them sound well educated and well heeled. They also use metaphors that are associated with sensual or sexual pleasures, describing food as "orgasmic," "seductive" or "sinful," for example.

Those positively reviewing less-expensive fare — pizza, burgers, sweet treats and other foods that satisfy our cravings for the fatty and the starchy — are more apt to use drug metaphors, including words and phrases such as "addictive" and "like crack." Overall, women are more inclined to employ drug metaphors than men – and more frequently cop to craving (or being "addicted to") foods like chocolate.

Negative reviews, meanwhile, often use language patterns commonly associated with the sharing of personal trauma — and focus more on bad customer service than on bad food. (The latter finding confirms previous studies, LA Weekly notes.)

"We examined a random selection of one-star reviews," the authors write in the study. "While there were definitely complaints about food ('watery' chowder, 'tasteless dry overfried' fish, 'no flavor at all') and price ('overpriced,' 'outrageously expensive'), the overriding complaint was indeed about traumatic interpersonal relations: the host made the customer wait before seating or sat other people first or chose a bad table, the waiter or waitress was rude, unavailable, or didn’t apologize for mistakes, the manager didn’t help, and so on."

In conveying these experiences, reviewers tend to tell stories portraying themselves as victims, and they use the first-person plural — "we" and "us" — an indication, according to the researchers, "that negative reviews function as a means of coping with service-related trauma." We share our restaurant-related misery online to find solace in the sense of "collectively shared grief" and as a means of achieving "collective closure."

A Yelp for help? Guess it's cheaper than therapy.

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