One of Christine Vanderkaap’s Airbnbs. Photo by Dylan Reddinger

Airbnb elicits strong emotions:  Hosts and guests both love it and hate it. Either way, they’re certainly using it. Despite an increase in bans and restrictions on short-term rentals worldwide, active Airbnb listings exceeded 7.7 million by the end of 2023, increasing 18% year-over-year. Yet despite its prevalence, Airbnb’s rating system remains confusing and opaque to both guests and hosts — it’s often the topic of community pages and online forums

A recent experience left me questioning what an Airbnb rating really means — as well as my integrity as a reviewer. 

First, you should understand Airbnb’s star rating: 5 stars = great, 4 stars = good, 3 stars = okay, 2 stars = bad and 1 star = poor.  When it comes to subcategories like check-in, 5 stars = extremely easy, 4 stars = very easy, 3 stars = fairly easy, 2 stars = not very easy and 1 star = not at all easy.

Several months ago, I booked a cute little mother-in-law-type unit in an “organic garden” setting for three nights. It had 4.8 stars and dozens of reviews, but was overall disappointing — and uncomfortable. 

I’m not a picky traveler. In fact, I backpacked through much of my early 20s and I’m fully okay roughing it when the situation calls. But the host’s dogs barked all night, the promised coffee was missing, it wasn’t exactly pristine, and the gate was broken, resulting in a minutes-long, tetanus-risking struggle each time I came or went. And the listing didn’t mention the train that loudly passed by in the middle of the night. But the hosts were really lovely and had a new baby. When I went to leave a review my mouse hovered between 4 and 5 stars, internally conflicted between accuracy and guilt — who was I to potentially harm the livelihood of this new family? Guilt won, I left 5 stars, contributing to what I began feeling like was an inflated rating system — I couldn’t be the only person who reviewed like this, right? 

So, I dove into the weird world of Airbnb reviews and how we leave them. Here’s what I learned. 

Human psychology plays a big role in how we leave reviews. Photo by Clay Banks

I’m not the only one with “guest guilt”

I asked Airbnb user Rachel Abad about her most recent stay: a swanky brutalist-style property on Mexico’s Pacific Coast that goes for more than $300 per night.

“The property was stunning from an architecture and design perspective and very photogenic. The pool was great,” she said. “But the kitchen wasn’t really equipped for cooking, the air conditioning was broken and it was unbearably hot, and one day there was a technician at the property for hours fixing the fridge, which was weird. I left 5 stars because the host was so nice and let me check in early. Four stars probably would have been more accurate, but I would’ve felt bad.” 

This phenomenon has been coined as “positivity bias.” Behavioral science plays a huge role in reviews, said Reilly Newman, a brand strategist focused on the power of psychology and human behavior.

“With an Airbnb host, we see the face of the owner and maybe even a picture of their family, we talk with them. They grant us access to their property; it’s very personal,” he said. “This intimacy ultimately leads us to be more forgiving of the provider. It also leads us to feel a sense of guilt to our host for letting us stay at their place because the only association we have with this type of stay is out of generosity, which is rooted in being indebted to another. Hotel, restaurant, or Uber — we are paying for a service and feel deserving due to the association.”

“Similarly,” he added, “If an Airbnb has a high rating, the user is less likely to break the pattern to “play it safe” and allows the social pressure to anchor their higher rating and justify mediocre experiences they had.”

And it’s not just guests inflating reviews. Airbnb superhost Christine Vanderkaap says that when she has a bad guest, she usually doesn’t review them. 

“Sometimes I feel guilty when I don’t leave a bad review. It’s like, have I just let other hosts down?” she says. “I just know from personal experience that bad reviews should not be taken lightly because they can really affect someone’s business or experience as a traveler, and so I am hesitant to leave them.”

Cognitive dissonance

Another reason guests might be leaving a great rating for a less-than-great-experience is cognitive dissonance, or the idea that our actions need to match our beliefs, Christina Scott, professor of social psychology at Whittier College told The Escape Home. 

“When a low-ticket item, such as an Uber ride or a meal, doesn’t match our expectations, I think we’re pretty quick to say ‘no, this wasn’t right, this wasn’t what I expected’” she said. “But when you go to an Airbnb, you’re looking at like $250 a night. So there can be this sense of ‘well, this is a higher ticket item and I’ve spent all this money on it. I believe that I make good purchases, I believe that I looked at all the reviews and I chose the best place to stay. If I don’t like where I stayed in some sense, then does that make me question my own judgment?’ We see this in social psychology when people make larger purchases. They don’t want to feel bad, they don’t want that buyer’s remorse, whether it’s your car, whether it’s buying a house, whether it’s an expensive vacation. You don’t see most people say, ‘oh, I took this cruise, and it absolutely sucked.’”

Sometimes, a bad experience = no review 

Often when people have a mostly meh experience, they skip the review process altogether.

According to Jeroen Meijerink, associate professor at University of Twente in the Netherlands and author of “Why are online reviews in the sharing economy skewed toward positive ratings? Linking customer perceptions of service quality to leaving a review of an Airbnb stay,” there are a variety of reasons for this.

“What we found is that those who have a bad experience either with a host or with the property that they rented, they’re less likely to leave a review in comparison to those who had a positive experience. There are multiple ways to explain this,” he said. “One reason for this is that other studies have shown that negative reviews tend to be much longer than positive reviews. So put differently, it takes quite some effort to write a negative review, and that is likely to be a barrier for dissatisfied renters. In the case that they had a bad experience, they don’t want to waste any more time. Airbnb also offers other means to voice your concern when you have a bad experience. So, for instance, you can claim your money back rather than writing a negative review, which doesn’t really make up for the bad experience.”

And then there is the role of the aforementioned positivity bias.

“Because you spend more time with an Airbnb host than, say, an Uber driver, which is 15 minutes or half an hour of interaction, this notion of reciprocity is much stronger, which explains why people are less likely to leave a review when they had a negative experience. They don’t want to not reciprocate the “efforts that the host made,” Meijerink added.

Many people opt to leave no review in lieu of a bad review. Photo by Hans Isaacson

What Airbnb has to say

For more than a month I corresponded with an Airbnb communications person, trying to get the company to comment on the complaints of review inflation. Airbnb requested the reservation details of the people I spoke to for this article. Ethically, that is not something I would provide them, and my request for an interview was denied.The spokesperson instead sent me a statement that didn’t answer my questions. It included the following: 

“Authentic two-way reviews are core to building trust within our community, and have helped enable more than 1.5 billion guest arrivals to 220 countries and regions. To help protect the integrity of this system, we only allow reviews between guests and hosts who have a booking with each other and give guidance on leaving relevant feedback about what was great and opportunities for improvement.”

So where does that leave you, Airbnb user?

Instead of relying on the star ratings, Vanderkaap said, you need to focus on what people actually write. For example, in my 5-star review of the disappointing mother-in-law unit, I focused on how nice the hosts were and the central location, making a quick mention of the train tracks, but nothing about the Airbnb itself. As of last November, Airbnb allows you to sort reviews from lowest to highest or vice versa, and the former is an easy way to glean insight into a listing’s less desirable attributes. So, knowing what I know now — had I missed something during my research process, distracted by the listing’s “guest favorite” status and the lush greenery on display in the photos? I went back and scoured the reviews that came before mine. The thing is, they were almost identical to mine: friendly hosts, great location — and not much else. “Pay attention to what is and isn’t said in a written review,” Vanderkaap added. “It will be a much more accurate reflection of the Airbnb listing, as opposed to the number of stars it has.” 

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