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Banter watch: Who’s wrong in a resto tiff

By: - Reporter / @neltayao
/ 05:15 AM January 13, 2019

Imagine that you’re at a restaurant, and before you this scene unfolds: A customer, apparently unsatisfied with the service, lashes out at the waitstaff assigned to his table. As an observer, who would you sympathize with?

One might answer, “It depends on who is in the wrong,” but a recent study posits something else—that you will most likely sympathize with the one more similar to you.

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The study by Lisa Wan, assistant professor of School of Hotel and Tourism Management at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, and Robert Wyer Jr., visiting professor of marketing in Lindner College of Business at the University of Cincinnati, is titled “The Influence of Incidental Similarity on Observers’ Causal Attributions and Reactions to a Service Failure.” The research answers this question: When people observe or read about someone’s complaint to a service provider, what factors influence their attributions of responsibility, and what are the effects of these attributions?

The researchers conducted the study through a few experiments in which participants were placed in different service failure scenarios—one of which was the aforementioned restaurant scene. Participants were invited to a restaurant during different time slots and witnessed a customer complaining to a waitress about her food. The participants either had the same last name as the waitress or the customer.

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The result: participants who had the same last name as the customer blamed the waitress for the service failure, while those with the same last name as the waitress blamed the customer instead.

According to Wan, who cites related research on the effect of incidental similarity on people directly involved in a service failure, such phenomenon is also  “valid even when people are only observing and not directly involved in the service failure.” Citing previous studies, the report also says that when consumers identify similarities with a salesperson, such as the same last name, birthday or hometown, they are more likely to favor the salesperson and the service or product as a result of the personal connection.

In another experiment, participants were asked to read a negative review of a hotel on the website TripAdvisor. An additional variable was included: they were given a cognitive task, to memorize a two-digit number or a 10-digit number before commenting on the review.

Results of this experiment were mixed. Participants who were asked to remember the two-digit number pretty much reacted the same way as those who took part in the restaurant experiment—that is, they were less inclined to blame the service provider for a service failure when they were incidentally similar to him, but were more inclined to do so when they were incidentally similar to the customer.

On the other hand, those who were asked to memorize the 10-digit number found themselves distracted by the additional task; thus, the effect of incidental similarity was not as evident in this group.

Such findings have implications on consumer behavior. One, the report states that a person’s tendency to patronize an establishment or not may depend on who he or she attributes responsibility to for a service failure that he or she witnesses—either the customer or the service  provider—when incidental similarity is in effect.

Online reviews, the report further states, could also manipulate one’s decision  when shopping online, as consumers’ reactions to online reviews play a major part in one’s purchasing decisions.

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“The study reveals that our reactions to online reviews can be manipulated by something as trivial and accidental as the reviewer’s last name,” says Wan.

Finally, Wan also believes the study  reflects a unique characteristic of Asian societies.

“Participants in our research are all Asians, who may be particularly sensitive to the similarities between themselves and others and inclined to value social connectedness,” she says.

The full report is available at https://academic.oup.com

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