Photographed by Emily Malan.
"The bacon wrapped dates stuffed with goat cheese were literally to die for. OMG you have to get the chocolate soufflé with salted caramel ice cream. I mean, un…real." Yelp restaurant reviews come in all shapes and sizes. And, while they help future restaurant patrons decide where to dine and what to order, new research suggests they reveal key traits about the reviewers themselves, not just if a meal was stellar or subpar.
The study, published in the journal First Monday, looks beyond the surface of online food reviews to make educated guesses about the psychology of the people who write them. Researchers examined 887,658 Yelp reviews of 6,548 restaurants from Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington D.C., from fast food to luxury. Only places categorized as restaurants and bars were included (that means no delis or markets or grocery stores made the cut). The study was also limited to English-language reviews of American restaurants in major cities during a five-year span. The researchers — who have a background in linguistics — used software to measure characteristics of the write-ups, for instance, the length of the review, the use of specific pronouns, and words or phrases like “rude,” “worst,” and “hearty.”
Women were more likely to use metaphors of addiction to describe food cravings (i.e. chocoholic) and were also more likely to discuss desserts. Men were less likely to use drug metaphors (i.e. food crack) to describe their attitude toward food — especially when talking about pizza, burgers, sweets, and sushi. But, the most surprising finding, according to the study’s lead researcher, was how the language used in negative reviews strongly mirrored language used after a traumatizing event, like the death of a family member. Such words include "failure," "disappointed," and "heartbreaking." The researchers consider bad reviews as a means of coping with not-so-great customer service.
The researchers believe the reviews tell a lot about how we want to be portrayed, rather than utilizing an outlet to praise an incredible meal or call out poor service. We admit, some of the conclusions of this study may sound like a bit of a stretch — reviews of expensive restaurants use more complex words and sensuality (“the apple tarty ice cream pastry caramely thing was just orgasmic”) to portray higher education and “credentials as a sensualist,” and one-star reviews portray the author as a victim seeking solace in community.
Whether you buy into the findings or not, what really compels an individual to take the time to write a restaurant review after the meal is said and done? What’s the gain? We’re curious, have you ever written a restaurant review, and if so, what made you do it? Let us know in the comment sections below.