Who are you more likely to rent from? An attractive, well-kept nurse with a gleaming smile? Or a sleazy, sweaty-looking dude with patchy facial hair and ambiguous shirt stains?
We're judgmental creatures, especially when it comes to sleeping in a stranger's bed. That's why new research has come to a surprising conclusion about Airbnb. According to a new paper in Tourism Management, when guests decide where to stay, their choice is heavily influenced by how "trustworthy" the host looks in his or her profile photo. So much so that these upstanding hosts can actually charge more than competitors who look like lying liars. Even stranger, the hosts' review scores have no effect on a guest's decision to stay with them.
The authors began by showing 600 research participants personal photos of Airbnb hosts. After evaluating their first impressions of the hosts' trustworthiness and attractiveness, the authors combined this data with a price analysis model that estimated the extent the photo's trustworthiness had on affecting the property's price.
For their second study, the researchers presented participants with fake Airbnb profiles, featuring photos of actors. From this methodology, the authors conclude that the more trustworthy a photo looks, the higher the chance a seller has of being chosen, regardless of price. (The authors didn't elaborate on what specific features participants did or didn't find trustworthy.)
Also, the authors believe that exaggerated reviews have neutralized the effect of review scores on a seller's reputation. This visual-based trust effect is so strong in fact, that participants weren't even aware of its influence on their choice.
Let's apply these findings to a real-life scenario. You're looking at Airbnb, planning a trip to Tristan da Cunha. There are two places to stay, both one-bedroom cottages. The first profile shows a photo of a nun, but it has all 1 star reviews. One says that the walls were covered in dried blood, and the bed was infested with lice. The second profile's photo is a screenshot from Henry Rollins' "Liar" video. But those reviews are all 4 stars, with glowing reviews about his clear communication and cleanliness. According to the research above, you're more likely to rent a cottage from the nun, even if she's charging more than the other host.
The whole thing may seem odd for an academic study, but the authors argue that the rise of the sharing economy requires investigations like this into the trust mechanisms that fuel that market. With more people seeking low-cost alternatives for services, results like these could benefit sellers and buyers alike.
At least until every seller catches on and the profiles are full of photographs of nurses and ship captains.