From Rudeness to Road Rage: the Antecedents and Consequences of Consumer Aggression

Randall L. Rose, University of South Carolina
Mandy Neidermeyer, University of South Carolina
ABSTRACT - A trend toward a loss of civility in society has been highlighted recently by the popular press with the greatest notoriety accorded to the Aroad rage@ phenomenon. While road rage may represent an extreme of aggressive behavior emitted by consumers in the use of a product, many less extreme examples have been noted as well. This paper provides a theoretical framework for understanding anger, hostility, and aggression in the marketplace based on prior work in psychology and some limited work in the marketing literature. Qualitative techniques are used to develop a typology of aggressive marketplace behaviors and to suggest possible antecedents and consequences of such behaviors.
[ to cite ]:
Randall L. Rose and Mandy Neidermeyer (1999) ,"From Rudeness to Road Rage: the Antecedents and Consequences of Consumer Aggression", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, eds. Eric J. Arnould and Linda M. Scott, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 12-17.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, 1999      Pages 12-17


Randall L. Rose, University of South Carolina

Mandy Neidermeyer, University of South Carolina


A trend toward a loss of civility in society has been highlighted recently by the popular press with the greatest notoriety accorded to the "road rage" phenomenon. While road rage may represent an extreme of aggressive behavior emitted by consumers in the use of a product, many less extreme examples have been noted as well. This paper provides a theoretical framework for understanding anger, hostility, and aggression in the marketplace based on prior work in psychology and some limited work in the marketing literature. Qualitative techniques are used to develop a typology of aggressive marketplace behaviors and to suggest possible antecedents and consequences of such behaviors.

Most of us are familiar with the phenomenon known as "road rage" that has generated so much publicity recently. However, aggressive behavior while in our automobiles may be but one extreme example of a more general erosion of civility characterizing consumer behavior. Humorist Dave Barry recently satirized this trend in a column about "shopping cart rage" (Barry 1998). The same phenomenon has been referred to as "court rage" in tennis (Whitbourne 1998) and has also been noted in a sales management context (Lawlor 1997). For marketers and affected consumers there is nothing funny about marketplace aggression since the consequences may be as severe as personal injury, loss of business, intimidation, and a general decline in quality of life. Factors such ascrowding, time pressure, waiting time, temperature, color, and background music, just to name a few, are often controllable aspects of the marketplace that may influence the likelihood and severity of aggressive behavior. However, the impact of these potential triggers on aggressive behavior has not received much attention in the consumer or marketing literature.

In our view, one of the more interesting aspects of this work will be the opportunity to test competing theories of the process by which aggression impacts consumer and marketer behavior. In particular, arguments regarding the role of cognitive appraisal in the translation of affect into action are important theoretically and of substantial relevance to consumer behavior. Nyer’s (1997) perspective is perhaps representative of the strongest view of cognition’s role in that consumption emotions are posited to follow cognitive appraisal. The models of Hui and Tse (1996) in the domain of service queues and Hui and Bateson (1991) in the domain of crowding are less specific with respect to the causal roles of affect and cognition than is Nyer, but certain judgments of crowding, control, and waiting time evaluations are viewed as preceding affective responses. However, some type of affective response may also precede cognition in many instances (Berkowitz 1994; Cohen and Areni 1991; Izard 1993; Zajonc and Markus 1982). In effect, it is the initial affective response that is viewed as triggering cognitive appraisal in some situations or affecting behavior directly in others.

While a number of studies have investigated the tendency of aggressive consumers to complain when dissatisfied (e.g., Fornell and Westbrook 1979), it may be more important to study their intent to harm, directly or indirectly, the persons or business entities they blame for their negative experience. For example, a woman who believes she was sold a lemon automobile may be more likely to go back to the dealership, not to complain, but to injure by holding up a sign with an unflattering message. Or, she might run an ad in the paper recounting her negative experience. As Nyer (1997) has pointed out, emotions such as anger, sadness, or annoyance may all reflect dissatisfaction, but their consequences in terms of consumer response may be quite different.

While primarily reporting on a scale development effort, Richins (1983) poses several interesting questions regarding the role of aggressiveness in consumer behavior. She suggests that aggressiveness as a trait may contribute to deviant consumer behaviors such as shoplifting and willful destruction of merchandise, and also raises the intriguing possibility that consumer aggressiveness has important unstudied impacts on other consumers. Importantly, she points out that we really know little about the types of consumer behaviors affected by or driven by aggressiveness, a conclusion that is still valid fifteen years later. What do consumers perceive to be aggressive or hostile consumer and marketer behavior? What are the antecedents of aggressive marketplace behavior? What are the consequences of aggression for marketplace actors? Can aggression be controlled?

The current research takes a broad view of the role of aggression and hostility in the marketplace, beginning with an attempt to explain consumer aggression through theoretical work in psychology and ending with a report of an initial exploratory investigation into the antecedents and consequences of consumer aggression. In response to the questions posed by Richins (1983), empirical work is currently under way to explore and to describe the range of settings in which aggressive behaviors are experienced by consumers, marketers, and other marketplace actors. Qualitative methods are being used to develop a typology of aggressive or hostile marketplace experiences, some of which are reported here. Future research employing experimental and survey methods will test and extend the insights generated by this qualitative work and prior research .


What factors underlie aggressive consumer behavior? Aggression theory suggests some likely causes such as frustration (Dollard, Doob, Miller, Mowrer, and Sears 1939), social learning (Bandura 1973), and the activation of aggressive behavioral scripts (Huesmann 1988). Frustration may result from any person or situation seen as impeding the consumer’s or marketer’s ability to meet important goals. For example, when someone cuts into line at the theater box office, this act may be perceived as an impediment to obtaining rapid service, making the movie on time, and a violation of social norms of fair conduct. An emotional state such as anger is viewed as resulting from this perception of being mistreated. Weiner’s (1986) attribution theory of motivation asserts that anger results from an attributional process through which the cause of mistreatment experienced in the marketplace is perceived to be internal to some entity and under that entity’s control. Social norms may also play an important role in that expectations of treatment by others in the marketplace are, at least in part, socially determined. From this theoretical perspective, marketplace experiences require interpretation or cognitive appraisal in order for valenced emotional responses such as anger to be generated (Nyer 1997; Smith and Ellsworth 1985). The person held responsible for this obstacle to goal attainment may then become the object of anger and aggressive behavior in an attempt to remove the impediment and/or punish the perpetrator.

However, as Berkowitz (1994) has pointed out: "a growing body of evidence, all too often disregarded by most emotion researchers, indicates that anger can arise and emotional assaults take place even when the aroused persons had not been afflicted by controllable events aimed at them personally in a manner contrary to social norms" (p.38). Several exceptions to the attribution view of anger can be offered as evidence that anger can arise without such cognitive appraisal. For example, prior learning of aggressive behavior by kids has been shown to interact with frustration to affect aggressiveness in interactions with other children, even when the frustration could not be attributed to those children (Walters and Brown 1963). It is even possible that certain environmental conditions may elicit anger that is essentially hard-wired. Even infants will exhibit facial expressions consistent with anger when their movement is restricted (Campos, Barrett, Lamb, Goldsmith, and Stenberg 1983). In a similar vein, several studies have investigated the relationship between temperature and violence. The most common conclusion has been that uncomfortably hot temperatures cause people to express hostility and anger and behave more aggressively toward others than those exposed to normal room temperatures (Baron 1977). This effect is observed in the real world as well as in the laboratory as a reliable correlation, not attributable to degree of interpersonal contact, and has been computed between outdoor air temperature and aggressive behaviors such as violent crime and spousal abuse (Anderson 1989). Similar effects have been observed for other noxious environmental stimuli such as foul odors and air pollution. It is not difficult to extend this to others such as noise. The relationship between these noxious stimuli and anger is not easily seen as always dependent on cognitive appraisal, although cognitive appraisal may play an important role under certain circumstances.

A somewhat more cognitive, yet still quite automatic path to aggression is also possible. Standing in the box office line, a consumer is exposed to a familiar situation that shares many characteristics with prior movie attendance episodes as well as other situations where waiting in a queue is common. Having someone cut into line may trigger the retrieval of well-learned behavioral scripts regarding the appropriate response to line-cutters. Reflection on the content of activated knowledge structures and their relevance to a given social interaction is possible but not necessary for a behavioral response to occur. Very well learned cripts may be invoked quite automatically, and the relative accessibility of different scripts may bias an individual toward or away from aggressive responses (Guerra, Nucci, and Huesmann 1994). In the absence of strong social or personal norms against reacting aggressively (cf. Cialdini, Kallgren, and Reno 1991) or in the absence of an external restraint (e.g., a spouse, friend or family member), the activation of such an aggressive script will lead to aggressive action toward the line-cutter.

Personal Influences on Aggressive Behavior

The etiology of aggression has been heavily studied with a strong focus on personality correlates of hostile or violent behavior. Individual differences in aggressiveness have been shown to be discernible in very young children and tend to persist throughout life (Huesmann et al. 1984). Several measures of aggressive tendency have been developed over the years including the Buss/Perry Aggression Questionnaire (AQ) (Buss and Perry 1992) and the Caprara Irritability Scale (CIS) (Caprara, Cinanna, D’Imperio, Passerini, Renzi, and Travaglia 1985). In the consumer literature, Cohen’s CAD Scale (compliant, aggressive, detached) encompasses an aggressive personality dimension (Cohen 1967), but the scale has been criticized as lacking reliability and construct validity (Noerager 1979).

Aggressive personalities have been shown to instill bias in social information processing (Crick and Dodge 1994). This biased processing of social information may be reflected in encoding, comprehension, and retrieval processes. For example, those with aggressive personalities may tend to focus selectively on cues in an interaction that suggest an aggressive response is appropriate. Comprehension is affected in that aversive, but causally ambiguous interpersonal situations are more likely to be attributed to hostile motives. That is, when the reason for mistreatment is not clear, aggressive persons are more likely to attribute the slight to a willful, controllable act of the actor or entity they are interacting with than are less aggressive persons (Dodge 1980). Finally, people with aggressive personalities are more likely to access behavioral scripts that are aggressive in content in response to perceived mistreatment because these scripts are very well learned. Aggressive behavior tends to elicit hostile responses from others and, therefore, over time those with aggressive tendencies see more aggressive behavior and learn it well relative to those who are more passive. Thus, it is not only true that violence begets violence from others, but it is also true that an individual’s practice of aggression over time begets future aggressive behavior on his part.

Dodge and Coie (1987) have further distinguished between two types of aggressive personalities, proactive and reactive. Proactively aggressive individuals are motivated by a desire to dominate and inflict harm on others regardless of cause, while reactively aggressive people tend to respond with aggression only when provoked (Dill et al. 1997). Proactive aggression is behavior that is intended to inflict harm (i.e., is premeditated). Reactive aggression tends to be more affective and spontaneous. Interestingly, Dodge and Coie (1987) found that the aforementioned biased attribution is primarily found in reactive aggressors.

In the marketplace, various consumer (and employee) rages seem most closely related to reactive aggressive personality. Any noxious marketplace or consumption experience may lead to retaliatory aggression. When cut off in traffic, the reactive aggressor attempts to "get back" at the other driver, sometimes with life threatening consequences. In a recent episode of Fox’s "Ally McBeal" the protagonist is annoyed by another shopper’s insistent claim to the last package of a product on the shelf and reacts without thinking about the consequences. As the woman walks away, McBeal trips her in retaliation. After a persistent smoker ignored repeated requests to stop smoking at a football game, one of our informants reported pouring her drink on him. In each o these cases, the consumer feels wronged by the other party and reacts aggressively to punish or eliminate the source of frustration. In each case, the aggressive response places the consumer in a situation fraught with dangerous consequences. The aggressive driver may be killed or injured or hurt someone else. Ally McBeal ended up in court. The drink pourer could have experienced an escalation of aggression with physical harm a real possibility and loss of her right to view the game a near certainty.

Environmental Influences on Aggressive Behavior

There are several rather obvious ways in which the nonsocial environment may impact aggressiveness in the marketplace. Physical aspects of the shopping environment may influence aggressive behavior through emotional responses. In addition to work on temperature and odor effects in the psychological literature, there have been a few studies in marketing that have addressed this issue. For example, crowding in a service environment has been shown to elicit negative affect (Hui and Bateson 1991). This negative affect may subsequently increase the likelihood of aggressive behavior through a process of cognitive appraisal. Hui and Tse (1996) observed that waiting-duration information can reduce the negative affect elicited by waiting in a line and enhance satisfaction with a service encounter. Kellaris and Kent (1992), while not directly addressing aggressive behavior, suggested that music may ameliorate the deleterious affective consequences of environmental variables such as crowding or waiting. It also seems likely that music that is disliked could exacerbate these negative responses. In a laboratory study, Nyer (1997) demonstrated that highly involved subjects who experienced anger as a result of poor product performance reported more negative word-of-mouth intentions. Studies addressing the direct impact of these and other environmental factors, as well as their interactions, on a broader range of aggressive behaviors are clearly needed.

Especially welcome would be studies that go beyond the focus on affect to specify the varied impacts of the environment on behavior. The most commonly studied environmental factor has been music in retail environments. In the retail studies, behavioral variables are typically assessed (e.g., Milliman 1986), but the focus has been on time in store and amount spent. Other behavioral responses that could be classified as aggressive are not generally measured. For example, the negative emotion experienced during a loss in a college basketball game may be expressed through destruction of public or private property or even violence against people. Crowding in a supermarket may lead consumers to toss goods aside on the aisle or even shoplift as a means of punishing the retailer. Long waits and inattentive service in a restaurant may lead consumers to deface the public restrooms, steal property such as cups, glasses, or eating utensils, or simply leave without paying. Similarly, the angry consumer may be the littering consumer. Ineffective crowd control may also lead to conflicts among those waiting in line for service. The possible aggressive responses to environments that are perceived to be aversive are quite varied and little studied, although these behaviors may be quite costly to both consumers and marketers.

Because aspects of shopping environments may trigger the activation of aggressive behavioral scripts, it is important to consider the aggression cues that may be present when designing marketplaces. Aspects of the environment such as lines may be strong cues for the retrieval of aggressive scripts. Solutions to waiting that avoid queuing may be preferred to the usual system of waiting lines. Examples include the use of vibration-pagers, intercom call systems, and number systems that allow consumers to leave the immediate service area. Avoidance of crowds in lines may also minimize consumer-on-consumer aggression as well. Firms such as Disney are very interested in these issues for what should be obvious reasons given the usual crowds and waits at theme parks during peak season.

Baker and Cameron (1996) have suggested that retailers should attend to store design factors that minimize the attribution of responsibility and control for service delays to the store and enhance the facilitating aspects of the presence of store employees and other customers. Their review and the work of social facilitation researchers suggests that waiting in groups need not be a bad thing from the consumer’s perspective, and may even be better than isolated waiting. Various arguments have been advanced for this position including a distraction effect (Maister 1985) and a social facilitation effect. It should be noted that a social facilitation explanation requires that interacting with others be viewed as a positive by customers and that those in the crowd abide by norms of conduct in such situations regarding smoking, loud talking, swearing, cutting line, etc. If these normative expectations, or others such as acceptable social distance or standards of personal hygiene, are violated, negative affect may ensue, thereby increasing the likelihood of aggression.

One powerful cultural institution alleged to affect aggressive tendencies is the media in its various aspects. Considerable research effort has been invested in testing the relationship between media depictions of violence and the development of aggressive tendencies, especially among children, with mixed results (Freedman 1984). Movies, television programs, and music videos may impact children through the learning of norms of conduct and aggressive scripts. Adults may be influenced by the ability of media depictions of violence to cue retrieval of aggressive scripts, rehearse them, and therefore increase the likelihood of subsequent activation in interpersonal settings. Less studied, but very interesting, is the notion that commercial content on television also contributes to aggressive behavior. Caprara, D’Imperio, Gentilomo, Mammucari, Renzi, and Travaglia (1987) have suggested that advertisements can provide a concentrated dose of aggression cues capable of priming associative networks of concepts, feelings, and behavioral tendencies related to aggression. They may also affect perceptions of the normalcy of aggressive conduct by their very pervasiveness.

In sum, aggression is a largely unexplored topic in the consumer behavior and marketing literatures. The increased public concern with such behaviors, at least as reflected by media and political attention to sensational examples, suggests that the topic is timely. As Richins (1983) has noted, it is not clear how pervasive aggressive behavior is in typical exchange and consumption settings, nor has the relevant range of such settings been identified. For these reasons, it is appropriate to begin with exploratory work designed to provide a typology of the marketplace contexts in which aggression is experienced by consumers or marketers. This work is currently under way using interview and open-ended questionnaire methods. An additional objective of this qualitative research stage is to provide some initial insights into the antecedents and consequences of marketplace aggression from the consumers’ and marketers’ perspectives. Some preliminary findings from this qualitative work are presented next.


An initial qualitative study gathered information from 21 interviews. Three graduate students conducted these five to ten minute interviews and the entire interview was captured on audiocassette. The purpose of these interviews was to provide a list of aggressive incidents in the marketplace. First-hand information from consumers was used to identify specific antecedents, incidents, and consequences of aggressive exchanges.

In addition to the interviews, 87 self-administered open-ended questionnaires were collected (18 of which are included in the analysis presented below). Of particular importance from the additional open-ended questionnaires were to responses the question concerning exaples of situations likely to lead to aggressive behavior in the marketplace. The remaining 69 respondents (65% female), ranging in age from 15 years old to 67 years old, mentioned 89 situations which made them mad in the marketplace. The two situations mentioned most often were waiting in check-out line and rude and/or discourteous employees. The complete list of situations likely to lead to aggressive behavior is detailed in Table 1.

The authors independently coded the transcriptions of the 21 in-depth interviews and 18 of the open-ended questionnaires. The respondents from these two survey methods were 51% female and ranged in age from 18 to 74 years old. Rule, Taylor and Dobbs (1987) served as the coding framework for the aggressive episodes described by each informant.

In order to adapt this coding scheme to match the incidents elicited from the marketplace rather than the previous psychological application, slight modifications were introduced to the coding scheme. Specifically, the authors coded the context of each incident mentioned (both the situation and the parties involved) and the other antecedents (i.e., mood, personality, etc.) of each incident, if any. These two categories were absent from the Rule et al. (1987) coding framework. Additional detail was also added to the existing categories of frustrators and consequences. The frustrators category included aspects such as goal blocking (e.g., out of stock, waiting, failure to perform), disagreements, misinformation (e.g., confusion, misunderstanding, deception), violation of norms (e.g., cutting line, personal hygiene, behavior deviations), and proactive aggressive acts by others. Consequences included the categories of emotional states (e.g., anger, fear, sadness), emotional expressions (e.g., gestures, facial expressions, hand signals), verbal aggression, direct physical aggression, and indirect physical aggression (e.g., littering, defacement, stealing).



Initial inter-coder agreement was 86% for the 39 respondents included in the present analysis. All disagreements were resolved by discussion. The descriptive nature of this exploratory study yielded simple frequencies of aggressive incidents, antecedents, and consequences (see Table 2). Specifically the majority of the aggressive acts were between consumer-consumer or marketer-consumer in a service encounter or shopping environment. The context of this aggressive episode most often included the frustrators of a goal blockage or a violation of norms. The most frequently mentioned consequences were emotional states and verbal aggression. This finding is of particular significance as these consequences are either self-inflicted (i.e., internal anger, internal rage, etc.) or under some form of self-control (i.e., bouts of shouting, yelling, etc.). Cognitive appraisals of these episodes would be an interesting topic to study in future research.


Answers to the questions raised in this paper are important theoretically, but also are relevant to marketers and consumers. From a marketer’s perspective, an understanding of how aggression is instigated should lead to marketplace designs that minimize aggression triggers. Similarly, consumers may avoid the deleterious consequences of aggressive behavior by recognizing the situations in which aggressive responses are likely to be exhibited by others and also by practicing cognitive control strategies that minimize their own aggressive behavior.

The initial results from the exploratory study reported here lay the foundation for future investigations of consumer aggressiveness. The specific antecedents, incidents, and consequences of aggressive episodes from this research will be used to build a more comprehensive empirical study.




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