(Watchara Piriyaputtanapun via Getty Images)
(Watchara Piriyaputtanapun via Getty Images)

When it comes to where Americans place their trust as they gather information before making an important decision, a big majority (81%) say they rely a lot on their own research – many more than say they rely a lot on friends and family (43%) or professional experts (31%), according to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey. Some 15% also say they rely on their own research “a little” as they make major decisions.

The 96% of those in the survey who said they rely on their own research a lot or a little were asked to explain in their own words what they mean by “doing their own research.” In answering this open-ended question, they cited a host of sources that often start – but do not end – with searching on the internet. Overall, 46% explained they turned to digital tools, while 25% said they turned to other people for advice. Less commonly cited strategies for self-conducted research included people relying on their prior education or life experiences (11%), reading print media (8%), and consulting religious wisdom (4%). For some, it meant letting their instincts and “gut” inform their decision. Many reported using multiple strategies when seeking advice, often depending on the type of decision they are trying to make.

Several themes stood out as Americans explained in writing the way they do their own research when they make big decisions (responses edited for punctuation, spelling and clarity).

This post draws on a survey of 10,618 U.S. adults conducted Nov. 27-Dec. 10, 2018, for a report on “Trust and Distrust in America.” Everyone who took part is a member of Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel (ATP), an online survey panel that is recruited through national, random sampling of residential addresses. This way nearly all U.S. adults have a chance of selection. The survey is weighted to be representative of the U.S. adult population by gender, race, ethnicity, partisan affiliation, education and other categories. Read more about the ATP’s methodology.

Here are the questions used for this report, along with responses, and its methodology.

The internet is a starting point, but often not the endpoint:

“I rely on information on the internet, e.g., a move to another city made me look up geographical information, cost of living, and also info from residents of the new area and also input from friends of long standing, using their experiences.” – Woman, 77

“If I were to change jobs, enter college, etc., I would conduct research on the internet. I would search for news articles, seek out publications that evaluate the choices, and try to talk directly to experts or people with relevant experiences.” – Man, 54

“First, I will do a fairly rigorous web search, comparing multiple sources of information for both content and reliability. Afterward, I will follow up with books and other resources from the library.” – Man, 45

I try to use multiple sources:

“All available: Web, reviews, leg work, asking questions, reviewing with my family, finding people who had the same decision to make and get their take on it.” – Man, 54

“Internet, books, articles and others’ experiences. Whatever medium contains information that is relevant and deemed reliable by me.” – Male, age 45

My guides are my gut and my searches:

“My instincts. My wisdom. Google …. My gut feelings.” – Woman, 60

“I research and read up on everything and everyone involved. I use the internet and research what is available, but I trust my instincts when making decisions.” – Woman, 54

Experts can be found easily online:

“Authoritative sources on the internet written by experts on the subject, primarily.” – Man, 48

Feedback loops matter:

“Talk to my parents and grandparents. I then talk to a friend who’s a subject matter expert if available. I finally move to internet research and research heavily on the internet. If any questions remain I circle back to the beginning and loop through again.” – Man, 26

I rely on people who have been through the same experience:

“Discussions with people who have been in the same situation. Professional advice from doctors, pastors, counselors. Do research on my own via the internet.” – Woman, 72

Religion sometimes matters:

“[I do] online research; asking friends (or persons I respect) their advice. Prayer is a key factor in any decision I make. Also, what the Bible has to say that might apply to my situation.” – Woman, 53

“Major decisions are always led with a conversation with husband. Talking with professional and going online to look at options mentioned by professional plus other alternatives. Is it in line with my faith or scripturally sound? Talking with a trusted friend.” – Woman, 65

Libraries can help:

“Look for resources at the library and I love YouTube because it provides more a personal resource.” – Woman, 39

“Google and library.” – Woman, 20

In a wrap-up comment, a 93-year-old woman respondent to the survey wrote, “I have a few [major decisions] ahead of me. Internet and children assist.”

Reviews and ratings help people in their research

The rise of digital resources on the web and apps has occurred at a time of decreasing trust in institutions like the government, news media and higher education. The move by people to do their own research online is also taking place as the internet is allowing crowds of people to post reviews, ratings and comments of the things they purchase and experience. This internet-enabled, crowd-based activity has been described as distributed trust.

The 2018 survey also asked questions about people’s use of online reviews and ratings. An overwhelming majority (93%) of Americans report reading customer reviews and ratings at least sometimes when buying a product or service for the first time.

By and large, Americans have confidence that reviews and ratings can be beneficial: Majorities say reviews have at least a somewhat positive effect on consumer confidence (88% think they help a lot or some), product safety (80%) and company accountability (78%).

Note: Here are the questions used for this report, along with responses, and its methodology.

Erica Turner  is a former intern at Pew Research Center.
Lee Rainie  is director of internet and technology research at Pew Research Center.