Consumer Complaining: Attributions and Identities

Cathy Goodwin, Georgia State University
Susan Spiggle, University of Connecticut
ABSTRACT - This paper uses an attribution perspective to investigate consumer complaining in a service context. Two pilot studies are conducted. Study I indicates that attributions which individuals make of others' complaining are related to others' sex and whether the behavior is d fined as complaining or informing. Study II investigates self definitions of complaining and defines three types of individuals-those who embrace a complainer self definition, those who reject such a definition, and those whose complaining is situationally driven.
[ to cite ]:
Cathy Goodwin and Susan Spiggle (1989) ,"Consumer Complaining: Attributions and Identities", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, eds. Thomas K. Srull, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 17-22.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, 1989      Pages 17-22


Cathy Goodwin, Georgia State University

Susan Spiggle, University of Connecticut


This paper uses an attribution perspective to investigate consumer complaining in a service context. Two pilot studies are conducted. Study I indicates that attributions which individuals make of others' complaining are related to others' sex and whether the behavior is d fined as complaining or informing. Study II investigates self definitions of complaining and defines three types of individuals-those who embrace a complainer self definition, those who reject such a definition, and those whose complaining is situationally driven.


Research on consumer complaint behavior has focused largely on factors which influence the consumer's decision to provide negative feedback to the marketer, as opposed lo remaining silent or generating negative word-of-mouth. Some researchers have identified consumer characteristics which may affect complaining decisions, such as demographics (Moyer 1984; Masson and Himes 1976; Warland et al. 1975; Best and Andreasen 1977); culture (Villareal-Camacho 1983); personality (Fornell and Westbrook 1979); and general attitudes toward complaining (Richins 1983). Other studies have identified situational influences, such as dissatisfaction with product or service (Bearden and Teel 1983); problem severity (Richins 1983; Bearden and Mason 1984); availability of alternatives (Fornell and Didow 1980); cost of complaining (Richins 1981; Bearden and Oliver 1985); expected provider responsiveness (Bearden and Mason 1984); and attribution of blame (Krishnan and Valle 1978; Folkes 1984).

A consumer's self-definition as a complainer may also exert influence as an enduring characteristic, while the act of complaining may take on various meanings to the consumer in the context of specific situations. In making a complaint, the consumer takes on the role-identity (McCall and Simmons 1978) of "complainer." People tend to incorporate positive identities into their self-definitions, but distance themselves from strongly from negative identities, such as a "violator" apprehended by the police after running a red light (Sykes and Brent 1983). Similarly, we may hear disclaimers of the complainer identity ("I don't like to complain," or, "I'm not usually a complainer"), suggesting a reluctance to include this identity as a part of one's "self."

Complaint behavior represents a particularly observable social activity, as compared to information search, alternative evaluation and choice, which may be purely cognitive processes. Search, for example, may take place through anonymous window-shopping, activation of long term memory, or perusing advertisements. Complaints, on the other hand, are witnessed by marketers receiving them and often by other customers and clients if present. These special characteristics suggest that behavioral meaning will affect complaint behavior more than the less visible, less social consumer behaviors.

This issue has relevance for researchers who ask consumers for complaint behavior self-reports, as consumers may under-report such behavior if they reject the "complainer" identity. There is additional relevance for marketers seeking consumer feedback, as consumers attempting to avoid the "complainer" identity may be reluctant to communicate negatively to the marketer.

This paper uses an attribution theory framework to examine the meanings attached to the "complainer' identity as well as the connotations of the term "complain." Two pilot studies examine the meaning of complaint behavior in a service context, where complaining requires direct confrontation with a person who provides the service. Study I addresses the way observers evaluate people who provide negative feedback to marketers. Study II explores the components of the complainer identity as well as the way that identity is shaped by anticipated attributions of others.

Attribution Theory

Attribution theory can be applied generally to "processes whereby people attribute characteristics, intentions, feelings and traits to the objects in their social world" (Kanouse and Hanson 1972). Jones and Davis (1965) identify two types of attributions-dispositional and intentional. People make intentional attributions directly from observed behavior; observers begin to make sense of their world by speculating about why others perform certain actions. These speculations often include situational factors, e.g., "He complained because the repair work was poorly done, and he wanted his money back."

In turn, Jones and Davis (1965) suggest, intentions offer cues to dispositions, the more stable, underlying components of the actor's personality which persist across a variety of situations. These dispositional attributions often take the form of ascribing to the observed individual a set of "broad" traits, "despite the scant empirical evidence for their existence" (Jones and Nisbett 1972).

While the Jones and Davis (1965) model and Shaver (1983) posit a sequence of inferences from intention to disposition, Reeder (1985) argues that people often make dispositional attributions directly from observed behavior, without making inferences about intentionality of the behavior. Dispositional attributions have been found to have relatively little relevance to marketing (Folkes 1988); however, we would expect that people will be reluctant to accept the complainer role-identity if they anticipate that observers attribute negative personal traits to people who complain, e.g., he is an aggressive person." Howard and Levinson (1985) suggest that attributional processes may be related to social labeling; thus, in an extreme case, negative attributions about complainers may lead consumers to see complaint behavior as somewhat deviant and to feel stigmatized w hen they complain.

Even the words "complain" or "complainer" may serve as negative labels for the consumer who offers negative feedback. Kanouse (1972) suggests that connotations of meaning affect causal attributions, noting that the verb "detest" has more active connotations than the verb "abhor." The -findings of Kehret-Ward and Yalch (1984) suggest that labelling a person will not only affect his or her product choices, but "increase the availability of positive versus negative attributions.'' Therefore, we would expect that labelling an action "complaining' will evoke different attributions than labelling the action more neutrally as "informing."

Considerable research suggests that people not only make attributions about others, but also respond to attributions they expect others to make. Mills (19:10, p. 908) makes this point early in the literature: "We influence a man by naming his acts or -imputing motives to them--or him."

People can be influenced not only by anticipated attributions of observers who are physically present, but also by imagined attributions of absent or even imaginary others (e.g., Schlenker 1980; Goffman 1959). A recent empirical study by Baldwin and Holmes (1987) suggests that the experience of "self," as expressed by responses to reading controversial passages of literary works, can be affected by imagined responses of salient others.

Calder and Burnkrant (1977) apply this perspective of "imagined others" to a marketing context, suggesting that consumers, as social actors, are subject to and influenced by observation as they carry out consumption activities. Moreover, they suggest, the consumer's "attributional sensitivity" may depend not on observers but on the actor's own self-perceptions, or even "from vicarious exposure to attributions manifested by fictitious observers." In a complaint context, the consumer who imagines negative attributions may be as reluctant to complain as the consumer who actually hears negative statements .

Complainer Characteristics

Attribution research has shown that inferences about the stimulus person are strongly influenced by physical features, gender and such artifacts as clothing (summarized in Schneider et al. 1979, Chapter 2). For example, McKee and Sherriffs (1957) found that both males and females perceived men to be more informal, calm, logical, ambitious, boastful and reckless, while women were perceived as more sophisticated, tactful, lovable, religious, fearful, shy and frivolous. Qualities associated with males tend to be more supportive of complaint behavior than those associated with females. Therefore, we would expect female complainers to be regarded more negatively than male complainers.

A series of studies summarized by Deaux (1976) found that both (a) men and women attribute male success to competence, female success to luck or effort and (b) male tasks axe more difficult than female tasks. To the extent that complaining about poor service may be likened to accomplishing a task, we would expect observers to perceive complaint behavior as requiring more effort on the part of the female, more social skill on the part of the male.

Research Questions and Hypotheses

A number of research questions emerged from this framework. Does behavior defined as "complaining" generate more negative attributions about the actor than behavior defined more neutrally, using such words as "inform?" Do observers make more positive attributions about males who offer negative feedback to marketers than about females performing the same action? Do expectations about observers' attributions shape individual's complaining behavior? Do individuals differentially embrace the role of complainer and do variations in self definition of complaining shape how individuals behave when dissatisfied?

It was hypothesized that:

H1 Those who were defined as informing would more likely described by adjectives associated with positive valences and social skills than those who were defined as complaining.

H2 Male, whether defined as complainers and informers, would be credited with more social skills as well as more positively-valenced adjectives than females.

H3 Females, whether defined as complainers and informers, would be assigned more adjectives than males in the "effort" category.

H4 Individuals who reject the role definition of complainer will experience more negative attributions when they complain than those who embrace a complainer identity.


Study I: Labeling Complaint Behavior

This pilot study was designed to test Hypotheses 1, 2 and 3.

Data was collected from 100 MBA and undergraduate students (64 from an urban southern university, 36 from a northeastern rural university, 6090 male), who volunteered to participate. Subjects averaged 25 years of age, 3 years of full-time work experience, and 3.5 years part-time work experience; 67% reported eating out 2 or 3 times a week. As results did not differ significantly when data was analyzed separately by region, the data sets were joined for analyses reported here.

Four vignettes were designed to manipulate description of observed behavior (complain vs. inform) and gender of observed consumer (male or female). Each subject read one of the four: "You are having dinner with friends in a nice restaurant. You notice a man (woman) about 25 years old at the next table. He (she) is complaining to (informing) the waiter, 'My steak was served cold.' Based only on this incident, list 5 adjectives to describe this person." As a check on the salience of the words "complain" or "inform," subjects were asked to summarize the incident on the following page without looking back. Over 80% of the "complain" group used the word "complain" in their summaries; over 78% of the "inform" group did not.

Adjectives were coded into three categories, selected on the basis of literature search and pretests. Valence was intended to capture evaluative aspects of the adjective based on ordinary standards in the American culture. For example, the adjectives "good" and "cost-conscious" have positive valences, while adjectives "bad" and "ugly" have negative valences. The social skills category was intended to differentiate adherence to social norms from disruptive behavior; thus "cooperative" and "self-confident" suggest a socially skilled individual, while "rude" and "overbearing" carry connotations of ineptitude or disruptiveness. These categories overlap but are not identical; for example, "timid" suggests a lack of social skill but has a neutral or valence; "admirable' people are approved but not necessarily socially skilled. A final category, effort was intended to elicit connotations of overcoming obstacles, such as "hardworking," while adjectives coded effortless include "calm" or "peaceable."

Adjectives were evaluated by two coders working independently. Intercoder reliability rate was 85%; coding differences were reconciled by a third party (the first author).

Results supported the first hypothesis--that those defined as informing would have more positive valence and social skills than those defined as informing. A chi-square test (complaint/ inform vs. high and low social skills) was significant (chi square = 5.30, p < .02); when complaint/inform was compared to positive and negative valence, chi-square = 6.245, p < .01. No significant differences were found for gender (p > .65 for both analyses). Over 75% of the adjectives were identified as "high effort," suggesting that people may not find it easy to provide negative feedback to a service provider, whether they label this feedback as complaining or informing.

Interaction effects were not significant. In direct contradiction to hypotheses, male complainers tended to receive the fewest positive-valenced adjectives (p < .08) as well as the fewest adjectives connoting social skill (p < .06). However, the lack of significance suggests the need for further research to identify differences in meanings attached to male and female complaint behavior.

This study suggests that consumers may associate negative personal traits with the complainer identity and further suggests that consumers generate more negative attributions in response to the word "complain" than to the word "inform." This study carefully controlled the environment surrounding the complaint behavior in order to assess the impact of the difference in stimuli; as in most experimental treatments, this control was obtained at the cost of generating artificial conditions for consumer response. Study II attempted to uncover the complainer identity in real-life applications.

Study II: An Exploratory Study of Complaint Episodes

This study applied an experiential research approach to the area of complaint behavior. This approach has been applied to such consumer behaviors as impulse buying (Rook 1987) and materialism (Belk 1982). While Study I explored attributions people make about complainers, Study II explored the meanings people attach to the complainer identity and how those meanings are affected by anticipated observers' reactions to complaining behavior.

The data were collected using a questionnaire that asked a series of open-ended questions from 58 undergraduates enrolled at a Northeastern university. To increase salience of recent actual complaining, respondents were asked to remember a service incident in which they complained as well as one in which they chose not to complain. Among the questions asked, two were specifically intended to elicit the meanings which respondents attached to complaining. For the incident in which they complained, they were asked, "What do you think the person you complained to thought of you?" Additionally, respondents were asked to describe their general orientation toward complaining. Coding categories were established a priori based on pilot tests and a literature review. Coding was performed by the first author and a PhD student; coding interreliability was 95% with differences reconciled by coders.

Results of Study II

Asked to recollect instances of reporting negative feedback, 78% of subjects reported problems that involved interaction with the service provider, such as rudeness or speed of service, rather than such functional problems as badly cooked food or clothing ruined by dry cleaners. Fifty-seven percent of the incidents had short-term consequences; blame was attributed to the contact person by 23% of the respondents, to the establishment or management by 63%. Despite this attribution of blame, 41% chose to voice negative feedback to the contact person, 19% to the establishment. Seventy percent expected restitution as an outcome; 57% reported obtaining restitution as an outcome. Interestingly, no one reported anticipating negative consequences from complaining, but 11 respondents (22%) reported negative consequences such as, "he was irritated with me."

Respondents clearly were aware of providers' reactions to their complaints. Reactions were coded in multiple categories, so that a single answer could fall in more than one category. Twenty-eight respondents (50%) checked one or more negative category; 22 respondents (40%) checked one or more positive category. Fourteen respondents (25%) anticipated attributions of negative personal qualities, such as "stupid," 25% expected that providers would attribute disruptive altitudes, such as rudeness, to them; and 8, or 14%, believed providers were responding to them in terms of such status characteristics as "young," "college boy," or "brat." On the other hand, 34% of the respondents indicated that the provider seemed to grant legitimacy to their complaint; 5 (9%) indicated that provider doubted that the complaint was justified.

Coding of responses to the question about their orientation to complaining resulted in categorizing respondents into three well defined, nearly equal sized groups: those who reject the complainer role-identity, those who accepted the complainer role-identity and those who emphasized situation rather than self-definition as influencing the decision to complain. Coding categories indicating dissociation with complaining behavior included 'dislikes complaining' and "empathy with the provider." and "rational." Responses in all three categories indicate a reluctance to complain and a distancing from the complainer label. The first two categories suggest inner-directed orientations, while those in the "rational" category complain reluctantly, but want to maintain an appearance to others of being calm and rational.

Categories associated with embracing the complainer identity included "likes to complain" and "consumerist orientation." Responses in the former category indicate an active embracing of a confrontational identity, while those in the latter define themselves as having a duty to complain for the benefit of other consumers. Thus, different underlying motivations result in acceptance of the complainer identity. Those in the "situational" category indicated "cost-benefit" and other "situational" determinants as shaping their actions, rather than a stable self definition either embracing or rejecting a complainer identity.

A comparison of orientations to complaining with whether provider's imagined attributions were positive or negative revealed some interesting results (chi-square = 12.8. p =.047). Of the 19 respondents who reject the complainer identity nearly half reported either no complaining incident (2) or did not believe the provider attributed clearly positive or negative labels to them. Over forty percent reported negative attributions and only ten percent reported positive attributions. In comparison, of those embracing the complainer identity forty percent experienced positive attributions, 35 percent experienced negative attributions, while only 15 percent did not infer that the providers had made a positive or negative attribution. Nearly half of those whose orientation toward complaining is dependent on the situation thought providers made positive attributions of them, and just under 30 percent thought they made negative attributions .

Thus, orientation toward complaining appears to be related to the attributions which those who complain perceive others to make of their behavior. Whether this relationship can be explained by the different interactional approaches taken by those with different orientations toward complaining, or some other factors is yet to be explored.

Study II suggests individuals can be categorized n the basis of their orientation towards complaining and that these orientations parallel the dispositional versus intentional dimensions described earlier. People describe themselves in terms of either inherent dispositions that affect their behavior in a variety of situations--"In general I always (rarely) complain"-- or :hey described themselves as responding to situations, complaining in order to achieve goals of restitution


Kassin and Baron (1985) identify two limitations to attribution research which uses verbal self-report data as the dependent variable

First, this method represents a modification of a "naturally- occurring process," by forcing subjects to invent responses, generating the Nisbett and Wilson (1977) effect; secondly, by ignoring nonverbal responses to observed behavior, the method understates competencies to extract information.

Limits to accuracy of self-attribution have also been identified in the literature. As discussed by Nisbett and Wilson (1977), the verbal explanatory system which provides access to internal states will rely on representativeness and availability heuristics Tversky and Kahneman 1974) and will generate inferences about one's feelings based on plausibility or cultural acceptability (Wilson 1985; Hochschild 1979).


This study suggests that consumers may attach different meanings, often with negative connotations, to complaint behavior as well to the word "complain.' Furthermore, observers seemed extremely salient to respondents.

When listing adjectives to describe complainers, respondents tended to make more negative attributions about people who were defined as complaining than about those were defined as informing the provider. They tended to generate action-oriented words, connoting effort, rather than passive descriptors. Furthermore, they seemed to see complaining behavior as disruptive, at best as an indicator of weak social skills. If people make negative attributions about others who complain, we would expect them to anticipate that their own complaining behavior would be subject to similar negative reactions from observers. In recalling their own complaints, subjects clearly expected providers to make attributions about themselves.

Finally, in evaluating their own complaining "styles," a number of people indicated that they did not want to be associated with complaining; they spontaneously wrote such phrases as,"In general, I don't complain." A number were particularly concerned with making a scene and appearing calm and rational to the provider, again suggesting the importance of observers' attributions.

On the other hand, some respondents actually embraced the complaining identity. This group requires further study, as it was not clear whether they (a) didn't care about observers' attributions; (b) enjoyed generating negative reactions as they played a rebel role, or (c) anticipated positive reactions to well-justified complaints. Based on these pilot results we are designing a study to understand the genesis of complaint orientations and how these orientations shape complaint episodes, others' attributions, and outcomes.


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