Why Do We Trust Our Peers More Than “Experts”?

Larry D. Rosen, Ph.D.

The National Psychologist

Novemeber-December 2006

What do Wikipedia, Amazon.com, and TripAdvisor.com have in common?  Although quite different in their purposes, all three provide user-generated content.  Referred to as Peer-to-Peer or P2P, these three sites, plus hundreds of others, have commentaries and information supplied by people who are not experts in their field.  For example, check out a book on Amazon.com and you will usually find several professional reviews followed by peer reviews.  Which do you read?  I tend to focus more on what my peers say and discount the professional reviews as potentially biased.  How about movie reviews?  Do you trust Roger Ebert or would you rather see a review by someone who appears to have similar movie tastes as you?

This phenomenon is quite widespread and the Internet is the sole reason that it works.  If you have a health issue you can certainly visit WebMD or any of the government websites, but you can also go to Yahoo! Groups (groups.yahoo.com), sign up and read messages about your specific ailment.  You can post questions and in my experience you will get responses from people who also suffer from the same ailment.  Recently I had a question about a high PSA score, so I went to Yahoo! Groups to ask some questions.  First, I found out that there are 162 Yahoo! Groups dealing with prostate issues.  Even eliminating ones that focused on another ailment and only touched on prostate issues, there were more than 30 groups, with an average of about 1,000 members.  I found one on natural healing and discovered that in 2006 alone, the members posted more than 2,000 messages about natural products for prostate health.  I posted a question and within an hour I had four replies. Within a day, I had another 20 more. Some were more valuable than others, but they were all from peers.

In 1980 Alvin Toffler wrote his classic book entitled The Third Wave.  In this strikingly accurate prophetic look at our integration of technology, Toffler described how, up through the early 1970s, we had experienced three waves of technology. The first he called the Agricultural Era which lasted for 3,000 years, to be supplanted by the Industrial Era which lasted about 300 years.  He said that we were now in the Computer Era, which started in the mid-1970s.  Toffler stopped there.  He did note that historically, when one era is waning and another beginning there is always time of social unrest in the world.  He wondered out loud what social unrest we would see as the Computer Era was replaced by a 4th wave at the end of the millennium.

In general, Toffler was quite accurate although I think that this 3rd wave started to abate in the mid-1990s to be supplanted by the 4th wave which I call the Information/Communication Age.  This wave is based on our experience embracing the Internet and focuses on our two major uses – communication and information.  The past 10 years has seen an Internet explosion.  Information on the web doubles every three months.  Do a Google topic search today and you might find several thousand important, valid websites.  Perform it again in three months and I guarantee that will double.

In his later writings, Toffler anticipated this wave but I don’t think he realized that the wave would morph into a peer-supplied information era.  Take Wikipedia for example.  We all grew up with the Encyclopedia Britannica.  I remember fondly flipping through pages looking at the pictures and reading about whatever topic I needed for a school paper.  Nobody buys encyclopedias anymore.  The most popular source of information is now Wikipedia, a is a peer-generated encyclopedia.  Content is supplied by unnamed sources which could be experts, or more likely, are peers.  Anyone can edit content at any time. It is truly the people’s encyclopedia.  And it is one of the most popular websites on the Internet.

Another peer-generated site is YouTube.  The enormously popular video site does not contain professional, polished, theater-ready shorts.  Instead, for the most part, it includes videos generated by people who are not part of show business.  On today’s featured videos is one entitled LisaNova Does P. Diddy, a one minute and thirty-six second video commentary on P. Diddy’s Burger King commercial.  Since its original posting yesterday it has been viewed 69,969 times!

Another such site is RateMyProfessor.com where students evaluate professors in specific courses.  Surprisingly, when I asked my students how many looked at this website before enrolling in a course, nearly all raised their hands.  Similar questions of friends about TripAdvisor.com, which features peer reviews of hotels, attractions and restaurants, showed me its popularity.  One friend who was going to Italy told me that he chose his hotels completely on TripAdvisor reviews.  I use it religiously to see reviews of new restaurants and would not consider staying in a hotel that I didn’t check out there first.

What does this all mean?  It tells me that perhaps we have embarked on Toffler’s Fifth Wave where our use of the Internet is based not on expert information, but rather on material posted by people just like us.  I liken this to the popularity of reality shows.  I think that they are wildly successful because they do not feature actors, but instead have people just like us.  We can identify with these people and that makes our experience more enjoyable and more real.

My favorite site is epinions.com where peers reviews cars, books, movies, music, computer equipment and software, electronics, home and garden products and pretty much any product that interests you.  I just bought a new television and spent about 30 minutes looking at professional comparisons of my three choices and an hour reading peer reviews.  I actually bought one that was rated lower by the professionals based on overwhelmingly positive peer reviews.  My peers told me what I needed to know about how it worked in their homes while the experts told me all about the specs and details that really didn’t matter to me.

I do understand that peer reviews may be biased.  That is the risk you take. But in most cases you have multiple reviews to balance out any inaccuracies and idiosyncratic experiences.  Check out peer review sites and ride Toffler’s 5th wave to better choices.

Copyright, 2006, The National Psychologist. Reprinted with permission. The National Psychologist is a privately-owned bimonthly newspaper which may be purchased for $35 a year. Write or call: TNP, 6100 Channingway Blvd., Suite 303, Columbus, OH 43232; telephone: 614.861.1999 or fax with Visa or MC to 614.861.1996.