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Abstract

This study investigates when and how disagreements in online customer ratings prompt more favorable product evaluations. Among the three metrics of volume, valence, and variance that feature in the research on online customer ratings, volume and valence have exhibited consistently positive patterns in their effects on product sales or evaluations (e.g., Dellarocas, Zhang, and Awad 2007; Liu 2006). Ratings variance, or the degree of disagreement among reviewers, however, has shown rather mixed results, with some studies reporting positive effects on product sales (e.g., Clement, Proppe, and Rott 2007) while others finding negative effects on product evaluations (e.g., Zhu and Zhang 2010). This study aims to resolve these contradictory findings by introducing preference heterogeneity as a possible moderator and causal attribution as a mediator to account for the moderating effect. The main proposition of this study is that when preference heterogeneity is perceived as high, a disagreement in ratings is attributed more to reviewers` different preferences than to unreliable product quality, which in turn prompts better quality evaluations of a product. Because disagreements mostly result from differences in reviewers` tastes or the low reliability of a product`s quality (Mizerski 1982; Sen and Lerman 2007), a greater level of attribution to reviewer tastes can mitigate the negative effect of disagreement on product evaluations. Specifically, if consumers infer that reviewers` heterogeneous preferences result in subjectively different experiences and thereby highly diverse ratings, they would not disregard the overall quality of a product. However, if consumers infer that reviewers` preferences are quite homogeneous and thus the low reliability of the product quality contributes to such disagreements, they would discount the overall product quality. Therefore, consumers would respond more favorably to disagreements in ratings when preference heterogeneity is perceived as high rather than low. This study furthermore extends this prediction to the various levels of average ratings. The heuristicsystematic processing model so far indicates that the engagement in effortful systematic processing occurs only when sufficient motivation is present (Hann et al. 2007; Maheswaran and Chaiken 1991; Martin and Davies 1998). One of the key factors affecting this motivation is the aspiration level of the decision maker. Only under conditions that meet or exceed his aspiration level does he tend to engage in systematic processing (Patzelt and Shepherd 2008; Stephanous and Sage 1987). Therefore, systematic causal attribution processing regarding ratings variance is likely more activated when the average rating is high enough to meet the aspiration level than when it is too low to meet it. Considering that the interaction between ratings variance and preference heterogeneity occurs through the mediation of causal attribution, this greater activation of causal attribution in high versus low average ratings would lead to more pronounced interaction between ratings variance and preference heterogeneity in high versus low average ratings. Overall, this study proposes that the interaction between ratings variance and preference heterogeneity is more pronounced when the average rating is high as compared to when it is low. Two laboratory studies lend support to these predictions. Study 1 reveals that participants exposed to a high-preference heterogeneity book title (i.e., a novel) attributed disagreement in ratings more to reviewers` tastes, and thereby more favorably evaluated books with such ratings, compared to those exposed to a low-preference heterogeneity title (i.e., an English listening practice book). Study 2 then extended these findings to the various levels of average ratings and found that this greater preference for disagreement options under high preference heterogeneity is more pronounced when the average rating is high compared to when it is low. This study makes an important theoretical contribution to the online customer ratings literature by showing that preference heterogeneity serves as a key moderator of the effect of ratings variance on product evaluations and that causal attribution acts as a mediator of this moderation effect. A more comprehensive picture of the interplay among ratings variance, preference heterogeneity, and average ratings is also provided by revealing that the interaction between ratings variance and preference heterogeneity varies as a function of the average rating. In addition, this work provides some significant managerial implications for marketers in terms of how they manage word of mouth. Because a lack of consensus creates some uncertainty and anxiety over the given information, consumers experience a psychological burden regarding their choice of a product when ratings show disagreement. The results of this study offer a way to address this problem. By explicitly clarifying that there are many more differences in tastes among reviewers than expected, marketers can allow consumers to speculate that differing tastes of reviewers rather than an uncertain or poor product quality contribute to such conflicts in ratings. Thus, when fierce disagreements are observed in the WOM arena, marketers are advised to communicate to consumers that diverse, rather than uniform, tastes govern reviews and evaluations of products.

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