Serious product reviewers need peers and audiences to see them as credible. But new research indicates that pursuing credibility may compromise the objectivity of their evaluations. Photo via Getty Images

Theoretically, product evaluations should be impartial and unbiased. However, this assumption overlooks a crucial truth about product evaluators: They are human beings who are concerned about maintaining credibility with their audience, especially their peer evaluators.

Because evaluators must also care about being perceived as legitimate yet skillful themselves, certain social pressures are at play that potentially influence their product reviews.

Research by Minjae Kim (Rice Business) and Daniel DellaPosta (Penn State) takes up the question of how evaluators navigate those pressures. They find that in some cases, evaluators uphold majority opinion to appear legitimate and authoritative. In other contexts, they offer a contrasting viewpoint so that they seem more refined and sophisticated.

Pretend a movie critic gives an uplifting review of a widely overlooked film. By departing from the aesthetic judgments of cinema aficionados, the reviewer risks losing credibility with their audience. Not only does the reviewer fail to understand this specific film, the audience might say; they fail to understand film and filmmaking, broadly.

But it’s also conceivable, in other situations, that the dissenting evaluator will come across as uniquely perceptive.

What makes the difference between these conflicting perceptions?

Partly, it depends on how niche or mainstream the product is. With large-audience products, Kim and DellaPosta hypothesize, evaluators are more willing to contradict widespread opinion. (Without a large audience, contradicting opinions are like the sound of a tree that falls in a forest without anyone nearby to hear.)

The perceived classiness of the product can affect the evaluator’s approach, as well. It’s easier to dissent from majority opinion on products deemed “lowbrow” than those deemed “highbrow.” Kim and DellaPosta suggest it’s more of a risk to downgrade a “highbrow” product that seems to require more sophisticated taste (e.g., classical music) and easier to downgrade a highly rated yet “lowbrow” product that seems easier to appreciate (e.g., a blockbuster movie).

Thus, the “safe spot” for disagreeing with established opinion is when a product has already been thoroughly and highly reviewed yet appears easier to understand. In that case, evaluators might sense an opportunity to stand out, rather than try to fit in. But disagreeing with something just for the sake of disagreeing can make people think you’re not a fair or reasonable evaluator. To avoid that perception, it might be better to agree with the high rating.

To test their hypotheses, Kim and DellaPosta used data from beer enthusiast site BeerAdvocate.com, an online platform where amateur evaluators review beers while also engaging with other users. Online reviewers publicly rate and describe their impressions of a variety of beers, from craft to mainstream.

The data set included 1.66 million user-submitted reviews of American-produced beers, including 82,077 unique beers, 4,302 brewers, 47,561 reviewers and 103 unique styles of beer. The reviews spanned from December 2000 to September 2015.

When the researchers compared scores given to the same beer over time, they confirmed their hypothesis about the conditions under which evaluators contradict the majority opinion. On average, reviewers were more inclined to contradict the majority opinions for a beer that had been highly rated and widely reviewed. When reviewers considered a particular brew to be a “lowbrow,” downgrading occurred to an even greater extent.

Kim and DellaPosta’s research has implications for both producers and consumers. Both groups should be aware of the social dynamics involved in product evaluation. The research suggests that reviews and ratings are as much about elevating the people who make them as they are about product quality.

Making evaluators identifiable and non-anonymous may help increase accountability for what they say online — a seemingly positive thing. But Kim and DellaPosta reveal a potential downside: Knowing who evaluators are, Kim says, “might warp the ratings in ways that depart from true objective quality.”

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and was based on research from Minjae Kim, assistant professor of Management – Organizational Behavior at Rice Business, and Daniel DellaPosta, associate professor of Sociology and Social Data Analytics at Pennsylvania State University.

When it comes to promoting social causes, corporations have to find a way to appear genuine over posturing. Photo via Getty Images

Navigating corporate challenge of genuinely supporting social causes, per Rice research

Houston Voices

It is becoming more and more common for companies to promote social causes such as human rights, LGBTQ+ rights, racial justice, and environmental sustainability. But organizations face a tricky dilemma when expressing commitments to helping address social issues: Stakeholders may interpret their words and deeds as shallow rhetoric or insincere posturing.

Terms like “greenwashing” (regarding environmentalism) or “pinkwashing” (regarding LGBTQ+ rights) are on the rise, and they signal heightened suspicions around companies doing something with ostensible objectives of bringing in positive social change.

It's critical for researchers and business leaders to investigate this duality of audience perception: actual virtue versus virtue-signaling. In an age of social media and polarization, consumers are increasingly likely to wonder: Does this company have ulterior motives? Are they trying to cover for their own wrongdoing? Are they actually walking the walk, or are they merely talking the talk?

When can companies avoid such suspicion of being pro-social imposters?

Minjae Kim of Rice Business and Ezra W. Zuckerman Sivan of MIT Sloan School of Management have taken a close look at the conditions under which upholding social norms will make firms appear to be “model citizens” and when it will make them seem like imposters.

Their theory is two-fold: First, those who follow through and do social good in response to an explicit “social mandate” are viewed as “model citizens.” Second, those who go out of their way to do social good without any prompts or social mandates are less likely to be trusted and will be widely viewed as imposters.

Think about the following situation. A “social mandate” is given to a politician when they are asked in an interview what they think about a particular cause. In that context, if they express support, audiences are less likely to suspect the politician of having ulterior motives or pandering to constituents. After all, if the politician does not express support in that situation, that is tantamount to expressing disapproval. Here, the interview question (i.e., “social mandate”) provides a cover of plausible deniability to any suspicions of ulterior motives. Law enforcement (e.g., police, prosecutors) often have this social mandate built into their professions.

But if the politician takes initiative — unprompted — to support the same cause, they will more likely be viewed with suspicion. They may instead appear to seek out social rewards associated with supporting the cause (e.g., good reputation), without the cover of plausible deniability.

To test their theory, Kim and Zuckerman launched a series of experiments involving 509 online participants based in the United States. The experiments sought to determine how respondents perceive individuals who encourage others to abide by social norms. Participants were specifically asked to identify which of two individuals they think are “model citizens” committed to the norm, or “imposters” who are uncommitted but trying to hide their own deviance.

The researchers found that people who encourage others to abide by social norms when prompted (“social mandate”) are perceived as “model citizens,” while those who do the same but without such prompts are more likely to appear as “imposters.” This duality provides a clear guideline for managers engaging in corporate social responsibility: When suspicions are rampant, launching pro-social campaigns without a plausible mandate may heighten suspicion regarding motives.

The larger question is how to build firms and societies where people can safely support norms (that we all support) without being suspected as imposters. After all, we want our own norms and moral principles to govern our lives. But in some situations, we may mistakenly vilify those who are trying to do good, based on the absence of some contextual “social mandate.”

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and was based on research from Minjae Kim, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Rice University Jones Graduate School of Business, and Ezra Zuckerman Sivan, the Alvin J. Siteman (1948) Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at MIT Sloan School of Management.

Professionals are more likely to refer a friend, rather than an acquaintance, for a job. Photo via Getty Images

Houston research: Strong connections go a long way in job hunting

houston voices

Job hunting can feel like prying open a succession of elaborately padlocked doors, and making it through all of them might seem to require a miracle. In reality, though, you could know someone who has the right keys – and is willing to use them for you.

As layoffs and furloughs continue to transform the workplace, commentators often discuss whether job hunters are better served by a team of close friends or a wider, less intimate army of acquaintances. This discussion is especially relevant when about 20 percent of high-income workers appear to get jobs via firm-driven referral practices.

For years, research pointed toward the less intimate army. Casual acquaintances or friends-of-friends, the types of relationships known as "weak ties," seemed preferable because they offered a greater number of and more diverse job tips. Social media platforms such as LinkedIn, Facebook and other networking sites thrived on the notion that loosely connected groups were more effective networks than the concentrated energies of a few friends.

But Rice Business professor Minjae Kim and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Roberto M. Fernandez have taken a fresh look at the matter, questioning whether weak ties are really that useful. In a recent paper, they analyzed when and why socially connected people share job opportunities they know about.

To gather their data, the team surveyed 196 first-year MBA students, asking half of them (randomly assigned) their willingness to help close friends and the other half about acquaintances. Both close friends and acquaintances were described as qualified for the opportunities.

Past research assumed that regardless of the strength of the ties, people would be equally likely to relay job information, thus focusing on the reach of weaker, more numerous ties. But in Kim and Fernandez' study, the participants, most of whom were former professionals, said they were more likely to help friends than people with distant, weaker connections.

This was true even when the students being surveyed were offered a hypothetical financial bonus. Offering money for referrals is a time-honored practice in many industries, and indeed, when a bonus was offered, participants in the study were more willing to give a job tip to an acquaintance.

But the study also revealed that money isn't always enough to make people pass along job information, which other recent research confirms. For some people, Kim and Fernandez found, helping a good friend is more important than gaining professional or social benefit by helping a mere acquaintance.

In fact, even when an acquaintance was known to be qualified for a job, and even with referral bonuses as an incentive, when it came to passing on job tips, most participants surveyed favored close friends over people with whom they only had weak ties.

Praising the weak tie is still de rigueur in many employment think pieces. But, the team concluded, landing a job requires more than simply knowing people who know about possible job opportunities. In many cases, someone needs to make an effort for you. We all have a range of motivations, only some of them financial, for sharing information. Friendship, Kim and Fernandez discovered, is a surpassingly strong motivator for relaying job information.

Having an intricate network can be a highly effective way to learn what's out there. But because individuals have such a strong bias toward friends, big networks should not be a job hunters' lone strategy. Keeping your friends close, it turns out, offers professional benefits. The person with the key to your next job may be standing nearer than you think.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and is based on research from Minjae Kim, an assistant professor of management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

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Health tech startup launches Houston study improve stroke patients recovery

now enrolling

A Houston-born company is enrolling patients in a study to test the efficacy of nerve stimulation to improve outcomes for stroke survivors.

Dr. Kirt Gill and Joe Upchurch founded NeuraStasis in 2021 as part of the TMC Biodesign fellowship program.

“The idea for the company manifested during that year because both Joe and I had experiences with stroke survivors in our own lives,” Gill tells InnovationMap. It began for Gill when his former college roommate had a stroke in his twenties.

“It’s a very unpredictable, sudden disease with ramifications not just for my best friend but for everyone in his life. I saw what it did to his family and caregivers and it's one of those things that doesn't have as many solutions for people to continue recovery and to prevent damage and that's an area that I wanted to focus myself on in my career,” Gill explains.

Gill and Upchurch arrived at the trigeminal and vagus nerves as a potential key to helping stroke patients. Gill says that there is a growing amount of academic literature that talks about the efficacy of stimulating those nerves. The co-founders met Dr. Sean Savitz, the director of the UTHealth Institute for Stroke and Cerebrovascular Diseases, during their fellowship. He is now their principal investigator for their clinical feasibility study, located at his facility.

The treatment is targeted for patients who have suffered an ischemic stroke, meaning that it’s caused by a blockage of blood flow to the brain.

“Rehabilitation after a stroke is intended to help the brain develop new networks to compensate for permanently damaged areas,” Gill says. “But the recovery process typically slows to essentially a standstill or plateau by three to six months after that stroke. The result is that the majority of stroke survivors, around 7.6 million in the US alone, live with a form of disability that prevents complete independence afterwards.”

NeuraStasis’ technology is intended to help patients who are past that window. They accomplish that with a non-invasive brain-stimulation device that targets the trigeminal and vagus nerves.

“Think of it kind of like a wearable headset that enables stimulation to be delivered, paired to survivors going through rehabilitation action. So the goal here is to help reinforce and rewire networks as they're performing specific tasks that they're looking to improve upon,” Gill explains.

The study, which hopes to enroll around 25 subjects, is intended to help people with residual arm and hand deficits six months or more after their ischemic stroke. The patients enrolled will receive nerve stimulation three times a week for six weeks. It’s in this window that Gill says he hopes to see meaningful improvement in patients’ upper extremity deficits.

Though NeuraStasis currently boasts just its two co-founders as full-time employees, the company is seeing healthy growth. It was selected for a $1.1 million award from the National Institutes of Health through its Blueprint MedTech program. The award was funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. The funding furthers NeuraStasis’ work for two years, and supports product development for work on acute stroke and for another product that will aid in emergency situations.

Gill says that he believes “Houston has been tailor-made for medical healthcare-focused innovation.”

NeuraStasis, he continues, has benefited greatly from its advisors and mentors from throughout the TMC, as well as the engineering talent from Rice, University of Houston and Texas A&M. And the entrepreneur says that he hopes that Houston will benefit as much from NeuraStasis’ technology as the company has from its hometown.

“I know that there are people within the community that could benefit from our device,” he says.

Texas Space Commission launches, Houston execs named to leadership

future of space

Governor Greg Abbott announced the Texas Space Commission, naming its inaugural board of directors and Texas Aerospace Research and Space Economy Consortium Executive Committee.

The announcement came at NASA's Johnson Space Center, and the governor was joined by Speaker Dade Phelan, Representative Greg Bonnen, Representative Dennis Paul, NASA's Johnson Space Center Director Vanessa Wyche, and various aerospace industry leaders.

According to a news release, the Texas Space Commission will aim to strengthen commercial, civil, and military aerospace activity by promoting innovation in space exploration and commercial aerospace opportunities, which will include the integration of space, aeronautics, and aviation industries as part of the Texas economy.

The Commission will be governed by a nine-member board of directors. The board will also administer the legislatively created Space Exploration and Aeronautics Research Fund to provide grants to eligible entities.

“Texas is home to trailblazers and innovators, and we have a rich history of traversing the final frontier: space,” Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick says in a news release. “Texas is and will continue to be the epicenter for the space industry across the globe, and I have total confidence that my appointees to the Texas Space Commission Board of Directors and the Texas Aerospace Research and Space Economy Consortium Executive Committee will ensure the Texas space industry remains an international powerhouse for cutting-edge space innovation.”

TARSEC will independently identify research opportunities that will assist the state’s position in aeronautics research and development, astronautics, space commercialization, and space flight infrastructure. It also plans to fuel the integration of space, aeronautics, astronautics, and aviation industries into the Texas economy. TARSEC will be governed by an executive committee and will be composed of representatives of each higher education institution in the state.

“Since its very inception, NASA’s Johnson Space Center has been home to manned spaceflight, propelling Texas as the national leader in the U.S. space program,” Abbott says during the announcement. “It was at Rice University where President John F. Kennedy announced that the U.S. would put a man on the moon—not because it was easy, but because it was hard.

"Now, with the Texas Space Commission, our great state will have a group that is responsible for dreaming and achieving the next generation of human exploration in space," he continues. "Texas is the launchpad for Mars, innovating the technology that will colonize humanity’s first new planet. As we look into the future of space, one thing is clear: those who reach for the stars do so from the great state of Texas. I look forward to working with the Texas Space Commission, and I thank the Texas Legislature for partnering with industry and higher education institutions to secure the future of Texas' robust space industry."

The Houston-area board of directors appointees included:

  • Gwen Griffin, chief executive officer of the Griffin Communications Group
  • John Shannon, vice president of Exploration Systems at the Boeing Company
  • Sarah "Sassie" Duggleby, co-founder and CEO of Venus Aerospace
  • Kirk Shireman, vice president of Lunar Exploration Campaigns at Lockheed Martin
  • Dr. Nancy Currie-Gregg, director of the Texas A&M Space Institute

Additionally, a few Houstonians were named to the TARSEC committee, including:

  • Stephanie Murphy, CEO and executive chairman of Aegis Aerospace
  • Matt Ondler, president and former chief technology officer at Axiom Space
  • Jack “2fish” Fischer, vice president of production and operations at Intuitive Machines
  • Brian Freedman, president of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership and vice chairman of Wellby Financial
  • David Alexander, professor of physics and astronomy and director of the Rice Space Institute at Rice University

To see the full list of appointed board and committee members, along with their extended bios, click here.