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The Negativity Bias and the Online Experience: An Essential Guide

Photo credit: Thinkstock/BuzzFeed/Kimberley Dadds. Quote courtesy of Karl Pilkington

Recently, I received some feedback from a customer wanting to purchase a necklace from an eCommerce website I run in my spare time.

They were angry because they didn’t have a PayPal account and they thought that was the only option available to them to make the purchase. Truth was, it wasn’t the only option and they were able to use their card, but it just wasn’t obvious enough for them on the site. Bad user experience. I gave myself a telling off.

People do love a good moan though don’t they? According to this statistic from an American Express Survey in 2011, Americans tell an average of 9 people about good experiences, but 16 people about poor experiences.

Otherwise called the Negativity Bias or Negativity Effect, it’s the notion that things of a negative nature have a greater effect on psychological state than neutral or positive things do, even when, inherently, they are equal.

Unfortunately this means if you’re looking for praise or positive feedback you have to work extra hard to get it. In this article I aim to provide an understanding of this strange phenomenon and outline how it could affect your online business. I’ll also provide ways of coping with and addressing negative feedback and how to turn it around to benefit your business and website.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, that same customer must have really liked the necklace (or my responses and quick actions), as she went on to buy it.

So why do bad experiences have more of an impact than good ones?

Clifford Nass, a professor of communication at Stanford University says:

“negative emotions generally involve more thinking, and the information is processed more thoroughly than positive ones. Thus, we tend to ruminate more about unpleasant events, and use stronger words to describe them, than happy ones. In addition, bad events wear off more slowly than good ones.”

In other words, because negative situations or experiences have a greater effect on us due to the energy required to process them, we are more likely to recall and ultimately talk about them.

Rather worryingly, in general it seems we are all programmed to look at the negative rather than positive. It’s human instinct.

How does this affect my online business?

Although the negativity bias doesn’t necessarily affect the online world anymore than the offline world, the nature of the web and the ever-growing popularity of social media means disgruntled customers are more likely to rush to Facebook or Twitter to voice their frustrations rather than approach the business directly, especially if they’re dealing with a larger, unapproachable corporation. If your service isn’t up to scratch, your customers are only two clicks away from venting their frustrations to the world.

It’s hard to stop customers publicly shaming a business over the internet if they’re that way inclined, there are however, certainly ways you can limit the damage if managed correctly.

What to do if you get negative feedback?

If you’ve received a direct complaint or public shaming, no matter what the delivery method, there’s only one way to address it, and that’s head on.

Take a leaf from Sir Richard Branson. On 23rd February 2007 he was faced with a real emergency when one of their Virgin Rail trains had derailed killing an elderly passenger and seriously injuring others. For 10 years they’d operated safely without incident or injury but in this one moment his brand came into the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. It was all over the press and there were people who wanted answers. But it was how he dealt with the situation that prevented it from escalating and turning into a real PR disaster. Richard travelled directly to the scene, faced the barrage of questions from the press, met with the lady’s family offering them his condolences, and he apologised. He communicated openly with the press and explained the steps he would take to correct the situation and investigated the matter thoroughly. This kept everything in check and managed the situation.

Although most business won’t ever face an ordeal of this magnitude, the steps taken to deal with it can be applied to all:

  • Investigate the matter thoroughly
  • Communicate openly
  • Take steps to rectify the problem or issue
  • Apologise

If your business, service or website is criticised it can be so easy to take it personally and be defensive, especially if you’re running a small enterprise and are particularly close to it. But however you’re feeling, it’s important to detach from these emotions, look at it objectively, see if they have a point and address it appropriately.


Image credit: @XboxSupport

One recent study found that 95% of unhappy customers will return if an issue is fixed quickly and efficiently. So make sure you respond calmly to the customer feedback or complaint and let them know steps are being taken to rectify the issue.

Monitor Social Media

“Knowing what’s being said about your company online allows you to see where you’re succeeding and where you need improvement.” Gail Goodman, Entrepreneur, 2011

Sometimes people won’t target their complaint directly at you, they’ll just generically moan to their peers and followers. Therefore it’s important to do regular searches for your business name (via hashtags or similar) for any negative mentions. Learn from them and respond quickly. A negative comment left unattended would do much more damage to your reputation than one that’s been addressed.


Photo credit: The Telegraph

James Blunt deals with his critics in a hilarious way that perfectly suits his brand:

@dinolauz: “Who the f*** invited James Blunt to the Invictus Games?”
James Blunt’s reply: “Prince Harry. By text. BOOM!

Not only did his replies stop the original tweeters in their tracks, but they went viral, providing more press coverage and a whole host of new fans.

When negative reviews are positive: products and services


Photo credit: Conversionxl

When it comes to buying online, according to Econsultancy, 68%ย of consumers trust reviews more when they see both good and bad reviews. Whereas 30% of people suspect businesses that have universally positive reviews, of censorship.

So don’t be afraid to add negative reviews to your website, but make sure the right balance is met and the type of bad review shown is monitored. As with anything web-related, do some A/B testing to find the ‘sweet spot’ for your product or service.

“68% of consumers trust reviews more when they see both good and bad reviews”

When negative feedback is positive: website experience

Most ecommerce stores go through a phase of user testing before going live as it usually brings to light any bugs or user experience hiccups that can be quickly addressed (which is why this phase is so important).

But if your site receives tens of thousands of visitors each month, these users are bound to run into issues that may not have been picked up on previously. If they provide helpful and valid feedback (prompted or unprompted) then you’re in luck. Follow up immediately and not only will there be PR points all round, but you’ll prevent the future loss of custom via the same means.

  • See that it’s corrected straight away.
  • Apologise to the customer for any inconvenience
  • Consider giving them a discount off their next purchase as a thank you.

Nitty Gritty

There’s a huge distinction between bad website experience that prompts people to make complaints or provide constructive criticism, and the websites out there that actively receive good feedback. Then there are the distinctly average sites that bumble along neither offending anyone nor attracting much attention.

So, does your website scare people off, blend with the scenery or shout ‘look at me, look at me’? Here are some pointers that may help you to determine:

Below average

Here are some indications of bad user experience:

  • Visitors not understanding what the site is about. The impact is they’re likely to bounce straight off. They may not remember the site so no lasting damage is done, but you’ll have lost out on that sale.
  • The site clearly communicates what it offers and the visitor identifies that it meets their initial criteria, but they can’t find out any more information or get answers to their questions. Impact is they’ll spend a bit of time on your site tirelessly looking around until they get frustrated and leave.
  • Elements of the site not working intuitively. Seemingly, little issues can have a big effect on usability and experience. For example when ordering groceries from Sainsbury’s online, you enter a list of products, but when you’ve added one to the list you have to scroll back up and click on the next one. An intuitive experience would have this automatically load up results for the next item.


Here are some indications that a website may be flying under the radar, neither good nor bad:

  • A good click-through rate from landing pages.
  • An average conversion rate.
  • Rarely any complaints or questions from visitors.

Above average

Examples of good practice that could get people talking:

  • Trend-setting but useful / usable for example, finding a unique way of showcasing your products / services that stands out in a way that enhances the user experience rather than hindering it.
    This otherwise unremarkable Wye Valley pub website left a friend in awe with it’s 360 degree virtual tour to take in surroundings.
  • Surprise and delight! Offer more than your customers expect and they’ll talk about with their friends and colleagues.

Knowing where your website stands and where you would like it to be, will enable you to prepare an effective strategy to increase it’s success.

Stay positive people!

In summary, by looking at the negativity bias from a positive angle we can recognise that by acting upon feedback and criticism, we can easily improve experiences for users and therefore the bottom lines for our businesses.

Although this article may provide some comfort to all fallible website owners, it’s important not to get too comfortable. It’s too easy to stay in the below average / average comfort zone, constantly responding to criticism or just pottering along. Strive to be remarkable and over-deliver where budget allows. That way you’ll completely avoid the negativity bias and perhaps even generate your own PR buzz at the same time.

“There is proven ROI in doing whatever you can to turn your customers into advocates for your brand or business. The way to create advocates is to offer superior customer service.” Gary Vaynerchuk, “The Thank You Economy”

Citations and further reading:
Richard Branson Like a Virgin (Book)








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