Study Finds Restaurant-Goers Care More About Authenticity Than Hygiene

New research data indicates that, at least in Los Angeles, County, California’s Chinese restaurants, customers care far more about whether the experience is authentic than whether it’s actually violating health codes.

Stanford Professor Glenn Carroll, UVA’s David W. Lehman, and the University of Lugano, Switzerland’s Balázs Kovács remembered a story from the 1980’s about customers objecting when health code crackdowns forced Chinese restaurants to stop hanging ducks by their necks. They then set out to figure out whether people had a tendency to disregard logic — and potentially their own physical well-being — in the name of authenticity. Spoiler alert: yes. Yes, people did (at least according to the criteria they used):

In the latest research, Carroll and his colleagues posited that consumers apply one of two social-based codes when forming opinions about a restaurant. One code is rational and scientific, known as an imperative code. The other, known as an interpretative code, is context-based. In the case of restaurants, the imperative code is found in the establishment’s compliance with local health regulations. The interpretive code is more concerned with if and how a restaurant conforms to cultural norms, making it “authentic.”
In the case of the Chinese restaurants, two social codes conflicted—hygiene and authenticity. Carroll and his colleagues wondered if that was true more broadly and which code, hygiene or authenticity, held the most sway with consumers.

Obviously, this is a pretty subjective thing to test for, so Carroll and his team had to come up with a way to account for that. How, then, to test this hypothesis? They analyzed online restaurant review data from “a popular online restaurant review website”* and compared it to health inspection data from the LA County Department of Public Health — in all, 9,734 restaurants qualified for the research sample. They then used keywords to assign star ratings to both authenticity and cleanliness by combing through the reviews and comparing them to DoH inspection ratings.

What they found was interesting: if a restaurant seemed authentic enough, reviewers tended to ignore the fact that it also wasn’t very hygienic. The same did not apply if it didn’t seem authentic, though: restaurants were graded much more harshly for relatively similar cleanliness conditions in that case. Ultimately, the disconnect only occurred when there was a conflict between authenticity and hygiene, at which point a majority of reviewers tended to apply one and completely ignore the other.

Obviously, a lot of this needs to be taken with a grain of salt before attempting to apply it to a broad spectrum. It’s unknown whether this applies to all restaurants, or just Chinese restaurants in the Los Angeles area. There don’t appear to be any studies pertaining to whether Chinese restaurants have a higher average number of health code violations than, say, Italian or Mexican restaurants,** or whether restaurants in LA county have more violations than other major metropolitan areas.

So as it stands, this is all somewhat subjective. Still really interesting, though.

* I’m assuming Yelp. The article doesn’t say, and I’m not dropping $30 to get access to the study to check which website they were using. Sorry.

** If this study does exist, someone please point me to it.

ETA: This post originally contained a vague, badly-worded statement that appeared to question the validity of social sciences. I don’t consider social sciences invalid, the statement was in error, and I regret the mistake. A link to the study was also added after the fact.

Image via Terrance Emerson/Shutterstock.

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