What Makes an Article or Review Persuasive?

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As I have been arguing of late, the gist, the information, and the emotional components all play a role. A new study looks at the helpfulness of consumer reviews in guiding choice. The emotion they chose to consider – anger – is, unfortunately, around us 24/7/365.

The study design was simple, asking participants to consider various reviews of consumer products or stores. In each case, the information was unchanged; they only changed the article's tone, with a control and two levels of anger. Nothing complex – in one instance saying, “I am a little bit angry,” in others, “Let me tell you: I’m very angry!” (For the sharp-eyed, exclamation marks and ALL CAPS, do make a difference)

As the researchers write,

“Individuals become angry when they perceive that an undesirable, personally relevant event is obstructing their goals and believe that the event was caused by another party rather than by themselves or the circumstances. After becoming angry, individuals are motivated to actively oppose or harm the causal party.”

Any of us who have ever been angry can relate to that. And any of us who have heard or read an angry rant might reasonably infer and then discount what is being said as “blowing off steam.” But, being the social creatures we are as a species, our mirror neurons might also mimic that emotion, even just a little – so we might be affectively influenced in the same direction.

So, the researchers considered two hypotheses, that anger diminishes the perception of helpfulness in a review and counter-intuitively enhances the adverse impact of that review. Their subjects were undergraduates or recruits from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk who were presented with differing reviews and asked to rank their helpfulness and view towards the product or retailer. [1] The findings I am about to report were all statistically significant, but as with much social science, or even biologic science research, a little cautious uncertainty is in order.

  • High levels of anger were indeed associated with a review being considered less helpful, and they were more influential in persuading the reader. The low level of anger and control reviews did not differ in helpfulness or persuasion and were felt to be more helpful but were not as persuasive.
  • In one version of their experiment, the control group chose a store 63% of the time, but those reading the same information, now bracketed by “I feel so mad!!!” and “I’m very angry!!!,” chose the store 36% of the time. And those results were obtained by only one angry review out of three presented; the other two were positive. Our emotional response to words is very powerful!
  • In subsequent variations in the experiment, the researchers found that angry reviews were considered less helpful because the review seemed less rational; the reviewer was “out of their minds,” as it were, ranting and, as I suggested, “blowing off steam.” They did not find that affective component. The participants did not mimic the angry feelings; there was no, to use the researchers’ term, “emotional contagion.”
  • Finally, the researchers sought to look at the role of attention, giving participants a one- or seven- number digit to remember before reading reviews. As you might expect, attention did play a role. When participants were distracted simply by being asked to recall a seven-digit number, anger did not reduce the review's helpfulness. Still, it increased the anger at the subject of the review.

In sum, the emotional tone of anger in a review is persuasive, especially when we may be distracted. As the researchers write,

“The consistent impact of anger in our studies suggests that manufacturers, marketers, and retailers should take any word of mouth expressing anger seriously, even if it is seemingly ‘trivial.’”

They suggest that pointing to the irrationality of the review and unambiguously emphasizing the positive attributes of the product or service might counteract the angry press.


That is a German word, evidently coined or chosen by Einstein, to describe a thought experiment. You might call it speculation, but it did result in the Theory of Relativity. Here is the thought experiment I want you to consider. Can the findings of this research be generalized from reviews of products and services to, say, articles on vaccines and mandates, or ivermectin and emergency use authorization, or the Governors of Florida, Texas, New York, or California?

I think the answer is yes. The attention economy of the Internet loves anger; it gets eyes-on-ads. The endless scrolling, the estimated 55 seconds we spend reading an article, even less if there is a “like” button, certainly demonstrates our distraction. As a result, we share the anger of emotion far more than the underlying information. And having written thousands of words in the last year, I can suggest that emphasizing the irrationality of those who disagree with me or noting the positive qualities or effects that I champion barely moves the needle—just saying.


[1] They used various scales of helpfulness and subsequent attitude.


Source: Anger In Consumer Reviews: Unhelpful But Persuasive? MIS (Management Information Systems) Quarterly DOI: 10.25300/MISQ/2021/15363