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Research: Let Your Fingers Stroll Down Yellow Pages' Listings


OK, let's turn now to our social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam, who joins us to talk about a job you definitely cannot do by telecommuting - plumbing.


GREENE: Right?

VEDANTAM: That's exactly right, David. This is new work by an economist, Ryan McDevitt, at Duke University, and he analyzed plumbing firms that offer services in Illinois a few years ago. And he finds that especially in the city of Chicago, a whopping 15 percent of companies choose names that start with lots of A's or with a number.

GREENE: Like AAA Amazingly Awesome Plumbing Services or something to probably get higher up in the phone book.

VEDANTAM: That's exactly right. So the reason these companies choose these names is that it ends up being alphabetically listed first in the Yellow Pages. And there's a psychological phenomenon called a primacy effect. We talked about it some time ago on the show. It basically suggests that when you have a list, people are more likely to pay attention to the first thing than things that are lower down. So, of course, when it comes to these plumbing companies, you're more likely to be drawn to a name that's at the top of these lists, which is why these companies are choosing those names. McDevitt analyzes the ratings of these companies in terms of consumer complaints filed with the Better Business Bureau. And he finds that firms whose names start with the later A or with a number are generally likely both to charge more money and receive more complaints than firms that have other names.

GREENE: What? That's kind of crazy.

VEDANTAM: It is kind of crazy. Now one possibility, of course, is that these companies just have more volume of business, and that's why they're receiving more complaints. McDevitt controls for this. One of the things he does is he analyzes the ratings that these companies get on services such as Yelp or Checkbook, and he finds again that companies whose names start with the letter A are systematically likely to get lower ratings than companies that start with other names.

GREENE: So why would starting with the letter A or possibly wanting to be at the top of the phone book list - why would that lead to a different kind of service or charging more?

VEDANTAM: Well, McDevitt thinks that it goes back to really how this primacy effect works. If you have a relatively minor plumbing job or you're a relatively lackadaisical homeowner, you're not going to spend a lot of time researching who the best plumber is for the job. You just go to the Yellow Pages, and you pick a company that's essentially at the top of the list. The plumbing companies, in some ways, are exploiting the fact that many customers think like this. And for these companies, the customers are not someone with whom they're trying to build a long-term relationship. They're planning to go in, do a quick job. They're able to get away with charging a higher price, and as McDevitt is finding, their service might be more problematic.

GREENE: But fewer and fewer people are using the phone book these days, right? I mean, they're Googling and searching online. Does that mean this problem goes away?

VEDANTAM: Yeah, you know, that's a really interesting question, David. You would think that as the Yellow Pages go away, this problem would go away. But McDevitt actually finds that companies that also advertise more on Google so they pop up when you do Google searches for plumbing - these are also companies that likely to receive more complaints and lower ratings from customers.

GREENE: Modern version of the same problem.

VEDANTAM: Exactly.

GREENE: Thanks, Shankar.

VEDANTAM: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.