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Sex, Drugs and Personal Trauma: What Online Restaurant Reviews Reveal About Our Inner Selves

Little Sister in Manhattan Beach
Little Sister in Manhattan Beach
Anne Fishbein

A new study out of Stanford university has some interesting things to say about the psychological make-up of online reviewers. After analyzing the language in 900,000 Yelp reviews, some distinct patterns emerged.

The basics are this: We think fancy restaurants are sexy, we think delicious cheap food is like drugs, and we relate negative restaurant experiences to personal trauma. Ick. 

The study looked at reviews from Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. The researchers hoped to uncover truths about our "inner selves" by analyzing the language we use to express positive or negative restaurant experiences. The main discoveries they made had to do with the type of words we use to describe those experiences. 

So, for instance, they found that positive reviews of expensive restaurants tended to use metaphors of sex and sensual pleasure, words like "orgasmic" and "seductive." The words we use to describe those kinds of restaurants were also longer, fancier words, because when we talk about fancy food it apparently makes us unbearably pretentious.

When reviewers talk about cheap food positively, they tend to use words associated with drugs and addiction. Cupcakes are like crack, etc. The foods most likely to get this druggy treatment were pizza, burgers, desserts and sushi.

The study also confirmed what others (including Yelp itself) have said for some time, which is that bad reviews are most likely to be caused by bad customer service. This might explain the trauma thing, though not really. But I suppose bad personal interactions with a waiter could be considered more traumatic than an overcooked piece of fish. 

The upshot? Not only are we using insufferable food cliches, we're using them to reveal sad truths about ourselves. Awesome.

You can read more about the study here.  


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