Angry commenters on sites like Rotten Tomatoes often fall back on a stock attack when laying into critics who write negative reviews of popular geek properties. The wording might vary, the grammar might be better or worse (probably worse), but the message is always the same: "You just wrote this to get your website some extra traffic and attention." Which, of course, is absurd, embittered blather. Any review that favors the whims of its readership over the whims of its author's taste isn't worth the Instapaper it's digitally printed on. But — and, trust me, saying this feels like swallowing a rusty knife — the commenters aren't entirely incorrect in this case. The critics might not do it intentionally, but negative reviews do indeed receive more traffic than positive ones. The meaner the prose, it seems, the higher the hit count.
But why? In The Guardian, restaurant critic Jay Rayner puts forward his theory, in an article entitled "Why do people love a bad review?" Tellingly, the piece is basically an advertisement for Rayner's upcoming eBook, "My Dining Hell," a compilation of twenty of his meanest restaurant critiques. Would anyone publish a compilation of Rayner's most positive reviews? (My dining) Hell no, he says. The fact that most of the restaurants covered in the eBook are already closed is entirely besides the point. You don't read an extremely negative review because you're curious whether or not to eat or read or watch something. If that's all you're interested in, you can probably glean that from the first couple words of the first sentence. You stick around for something else. Rayner explains:
"The psychologist and author Oliver James tells me that, to understand their appeal, we must look to what's called 'social-comparison theory.' He says we have 'a natural tendency to compare ourselves with other people in order to learn how to perform better and improve our self-esteem.' We can compare both upwards and downwards, but 'comparing upwards is dangerous because it can make you feel inadequate.' If, however, you compare down, that can have positive outcomes. 'We want to hear about bad things happening to other people,' James says, 'because it makes us feel better about ourselves.' I like this theory, because it suggests I am performing a greater service for the readers than just telling them where not to eat. I am literally brightening their day."
Whether we acknowledge it or not, then, we read a really harsh review for the same reason we (I) read the "Stars are Just Like Us" feature in Us Magazine or laugh at Hugh Grant when he solicits a prostitute. We all want to believe we just as talented (and just as susceptible to stupidity) as as the people who make the movies or television shows we love. The truly wicked pan reassures us. It confirms all our attitudes about creativity and success and gives us a (kind of unhealthy) justification for our own failures. Maybe society only builds people up so it has someone to tear down.
Rayner argues that he's performing a service for his readers by brightening their day. I think he's also performing another one: offering them a vicarious thrill for their own repressed critical urges. In almost every other line of work if you think someone is bad at their job, it's in your best interest to keep quiet about it. If you tell off a slow waiter, they'll spit in your food. If you complain to your boss that they're making bad decisions, you could risk your next promotion. If a critic lays into a filmmaker or a chef, he or she's just doing their job. The critic might face some blowback — especially if they're writing about a Samuel L. Jackson movie — but they'll probably be rewarded too. Like receiving a lot more traffic or maybe an eBook of their work.
What do you say, readers: why do you like to read negative reviews?
Read more of "Why Do People Love a Bad Movie?"