History and Future of Consumer Satisfaction Research

ABSTRACT - This paper discusses the possible future of consumer satisfaction research by evaluating its historic development and existing attempts to understand the construct. Based on a review of the historic notion and definition of satisfaction, its theories and models as well as satisfaction research traditions in industrial psychology, economics, sociology, and public health, the paper identifies some weaknesses in existing satisfaction research. We propose future research effort in this area should channel to 1) study the distinction between satisfaction and other behavioral constructs, 2) link satisfaction to other constructs and 3) investigate into the satisfaction process.


David K. Tse and Peter C. Wilton (1985) ,"History and Future of Consumer Satisfaction Research", in SV - Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives, eds. Jagdish N. Sheth and Chin Tiong Tan, Singapore : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 251-256.

Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives, 1985     Pages 251-256


David K. Tse, University of British Columbia

Peter C. Wilton, University of California, Berkeley


This paper discusses the possible future of consumer satisfaction research by evaluating its historic development and existing attempts to understand the construct. Based on a review of the historic notion and definition of satisfaction, its theories and models as well as satisfaction research traditions in industrial psychology, economics, sociology, and public health, the paper identifies some weaknesses in existing satisfaction research. We propose future research effort in this area should channel to 1) study the distinction between satisfaction and other behavioral constructs, 2) link satisfaction to other constructs and 3) investigate into the satisfaction process.


The ways consumers interact with products and services can be classified into processes before, during and after their choice behavior. As an area of investigation, consumer behavior is designed to study consumers' consumption behavior (that is, post-choice behavior) in addition to their roles as buyers. Yet after eight years of intense research activity, important issues in consumer post-choice behavior are only now beginning to exert a major impact on consumer research. Many basic issues remain unresolved within the area.

This paper focuses on outlining important future research directions needed on consumer satisfaction and post-choice behavior. The proposed directions are based on a review of the historical development of satisfaction research, and existing conceptualization in the area. Existing theoretical approaches to understanding the satisfaction construct, and post-choice process models are discussed. Research on satisfaction and post-choice behavior in other disciplines including industrial psychology, economics, sociology and public health will also be briefly described.


Consumer satisfaction has recently emerged as an important area of consumer research. In this part of the paper we briefly discuss the development of the satisfaction literature from a number of directions. We hope these directions will introduce the major developments within this area to those unfamiliar with this area. For those who are well acquainted with this research field, the summary should help to pinpoint gaps for future research.


Although not explicitly mentioned, for decades the notion of satisfaction has been implied by most work aimed at understanding human behavior. At times, satisfaction was labeled to be a premise of human life such as needs, desires, etc., and at other times, it was regarded as the goal - from now and here to an eventual future state - of human needs such as happiness, joy, life fulfillment, etc. The Pareto optimum, people's welfare were some of the more noticeable examples.

The notion of satisfaction became more obvious and specific subsequent to the birth of modern social science. In particular, economists in their postulate of how rational man behaves proposed that an individual aims to maximize his satisfaction in his consumption decisions within the macro interactions of supply and demand characteristics.

Satisfaction is also important in the development of modern marketing thought. It was used as a marketer's goal for meeting consumer needs and wants (e.g., Duddy and Revzan 1947). In all basic marketing texts, consumer satisfaction has always been defined as the means through which marketers can achieve their organizational objectives (c.f. Kotler 1972).

The birth of consumer behavior as an independent field of study in the fifties and its foundation in the sixties marks another era for the notion of satisfaction. In the classic consumer behavior models (e.g., Nicosia 1966, Howard and Sheth 1969, and Hansen 1972) the importance of satisfaction was recognized within the consumption processes subsequent to a consumer's purchase activity. A number of classic studies in satisfaction (e.g., Cardozo 1965, Anderson 1973) were launched in the same period.

But the rebirth of interest in satisfaction came some ten years later in 1976 when Day (1977) and his colleagues began a modern tradition of research efforts to understand satisfaction and related post-choice constructs. Since then, many researchers have been attracted to investigate and understand the satisfaction construct.

After some eight years of continued exploration and conceptualization, the essence of the modern notion of consumer satisfaction appears to be taking form, although many important conceptual and measurement issues remained unresolved. Satisfaction is defined as a consumer's responsive process subsequent to a particular consumption experience which is evolved through a discrepancy between some form of pre-experience performance standard with the actual performance of the product as perceived by the consumer. (Day 1984). But some modifications in this definition are emerging. First, empirical findings by Churchill and Surprenant (1983), Wilton and Tse (1983), Tse (1984) suggested that in addition to expectation disconfirmation, perceived product performance is an important construct in understanding satisfaction processes. All these studies found that perceived product performance exert more significant influence on a consumer's satisfaction level then the disconfirmation score.

Second, Nicosia and Wilton (1984) suggest that satisfaction process is not limited to postconsumption experience.

Table I summarizes the evolution of the satisfaction construct through time.

Theories and Models of Consumer Satisfaction

A variety of theoretical orientations to explain the emergence and changes of consumer satisfaction level (that is, a consumer's rating on a satisfaction scale at a particular time slice) have been proposed in the literature. These approaches have mostly been adapted from social psychology theories. They include dissonance theory (assimilation and contrast effect c.f. Oliver 1977, Andreson 1973), comparison level theory (LaTour and Peat 1979), two factor theory (Swans and Combs 1976, Maddox 1981), cognitive processing theory (Oliver 1980), experience norm theory (Woodruff, Cadotte and Jenkins 1983), and congruity theory (Sirgy 1984). Figure 1 summarizes the various theoretical approaches and studies that support these theoretical approaches in the determination of consumer satisfaction level. Many of these theories and models have recently been compared. In a pioneering attempt Tse and Wilton (1985) found that a consumer=s satisfaction level is best determined by the consumer's perceived product performance, perceived disconfirmation and pre-experience expectation level.

These approaches have enriched the satisfaction literature by isolating the antecedent variables influencing a consumer's satisfaction level. Nonetheless, since consumer satisfaction attracted the renewed attention of consumer behavior researchers in the mid-seventies, a variety of authors (Day 1977; Tse 1984; Nicosia and Wilton 1984) have called for an understanding of the satisfaction construct which focusses not only upon the antecedents to satisfaction level, but upon the set of psychological and overt activities following a particular usage experience and leading up to the decision to repurchase; i.e., as a continuous process of interactions through time. Within this context, the set of overt activities following a particular consumption experience (e.g., complaining, repeat purchase patterns, attitudinal shifts, etc.) has been considerably more extensively researched than the less readily observable set of psychological activities and processes which might mediate them. Only recently have researchers begun to explore the variety of post-choice feelings (e.g., either positive or negative stress), mediation processes (e.g., attribution), and indirect coping behaviors (e.g., trade-offs between time and money) implied by a truly comprehensive process model of consumer satisfaction (see, for example, Richins 1979; Hunt 1979; Wilton and Tse 1983).

The post-choice process models provide valuable insights to the understanding of the consumer satisfaction processes. Nonetheless many of these models lack a coherent theoretical foundation for integrating underlying the different stages of the post-choice process. As a result, it is difficult to understand why a certain stage should emerge or terminate. To compensate for this, Tse (1984) has developed a three stage stress-emergence and reduction model. According to this model, a consumer will experience psychological stress once (s)he finds his/her pre-experience expectation is disconfirmed. Depending on the level of the emergent stress the consumer is motivated to engage in attribution processes to identify the causal factors for the disconfirming experience. Motivated by the emergent stress and directed by the result of the attribution process, the consumer engages in internal (e.g., change his/her attitude and/or purchase intention) as well as external means (e.g., complain) to reduce the stress.


The satisfaction construct has long been used to understand human nature in other life contexts. As a result, satisfaction research in other disciplines including industrial psychology, economics, sociology and public health has a long and possibly rich tradition for consumer researchers to explore. In this section which follows, we briefly review some of these traditions.

Industrial psychologists have built a rich tradition in their work on job/worker satisfaction. By 1977, almost 2,600 papers in this area has been published (c.f. Locke 1977). More recently, industrial psychologists have also explored the processes subsequent to the feeling of satisfaction/dissatisfaction. These studies have investigated how job/work satisfaction affects the workers' defiant behavior such as turnover, absenteeisms, and change in productivity, etc.

Economicsts (e.g., Handy and Pfaff 1975, Pfaff 1977) have applied consumer satisfaction scores in a macro exchange context - assessing the efficiency of the overall market system along different product categories. In addition, some economists have begun to use satisficing as an alternative paradigm to explain the behavior of the consumer beyond the idea of rational man. This paradigm recognizes a consumer does not strive to maximize his/her satisfaction in every purchase decision. Instead, a large proportion of consumption behavior is geared towards meeting some range of acceptable pre-consumption standards - that is, satisficing rather than maximizing satisfaction.

Sociologists, especially those who are interested in the elderly and retired, have explored the underlying causes of life satisfaction and its relation to different ingredients of life such as health, financial status, social status, etc. (e.g., Medley 1976). Almost every issue in the Journal of Gerontology within the last five years contains at least-one paper relating to the satisfaction construct.

Patient satisfaction is also a key research area within public health. A recent review paper (Rascoe and Attkison 1981) has reported more than three hundred papers in this area. A recent study demonstrated that a patient's satisfaction towards the health clinic strongly influenced his/her future clinic visit behavior.

Two major observations can be noticed in the above brief discussion. First, satisfaction process is important across various contexts. These contexts may exhibit structural differences from our usual consumer contexts. Yet insights on construct measurement and research design can be derived for future development in consumer satisfaction research. Second, the ways the satisfaction process are conceptualized in these discplines will be useful for developing theories and models to explain the consumer's satisfaction process.


After almost twenty years of thought and effort, with the recent eight years being most intensive, it is time to rethink the status or the lack of status of satisfaction research within consumer psychology. In doing so, we may identify potential areas for improvement.

Since 1976 a growing number of articles on consumer satisfaction have appeared in the major academic journal of the marketing discipline. While this growth is encouraging, when one considers the fundamental, conceptual importance of satisfaction construct to all marketing theories and practices, together with the abundance of research opportunities in the area, the construct share of attention in the literature appear disproportionately small. Some possible reasons for this imbalance are discussed below.

a) The Research Effort is Spread too Thin

Although more than two hundred papers have been presented or published in satisfaction since 1976, these studies span a wide variety of issues and topics including conceptualization, measurement, theories and models, empirical studies, etc. As a result, only limited effort has been focussed on each issue or topic area. The level of effort is totally inadequate. For example, the definition of consumer satisfaction level is still not well established. Some characteristics of satisfaction have been suggested (c.f. Day 1984), yet little effort has so far been devoted to validating these characteristics. The determinants of a consumer's satisfaction level remain unclarified despite substantial effort.

This criticism may appear harsh given the brief research history in consumer satisfaction. However, if satisfaction research is to continue to impact consumer research instead of being seen as overattending to issues of secondary importance, additional effort directed towards carefully designed research of basic issues within the area is needed. A number of satisfaction researchers such as Oliver, Bearden and Teel, (on models of consumer satisfaction), Westbrook (on the nature of satisfaction), and Day (on complaint processes) are exceptional examples. Rather than providing a theory a week on satisfaction, their work and continue interest contribute to the field's development most consistently.

b) The Lack of Empirical Verification

Accompanying the renewed interest in consumer satisfaction is the substantial diversity in theorizing and modeling satisfaction. For example, at least five different satisfaction process models can be identified in the literature. However, effort to validate and/or replicate these various approaches lags far behind. Some of these theories (e.g., cognitive process theory) have been verified and replicated, yet others are either in need of replication (e.g., two factor theory, congruity theory) or have not been examined empirically (e.g., performance norm model).

The satisfaction process models have remained largely untouched empirically. Although various researchers have begun, often seemingly unintentionally, to incorporate components of a process perspective to satisfaction research in their explorations (see Nicosia and Wilton, 1984 for specific studies), there appear to have been very few attempts to explicitly capture the postchoice feelings, responses, activities and feedbacks over time implied by such process perspectives. The works by Wilton and Tse,(1983, 1985) and Tse (1984) represent the only notable exceptions to this criticism.

c) The Inadequate Process Paradigms

As discussed in Nicosia and Wilton (1984), existing studies to investigate the consumer satisfaction process used mostly two stage pre- and post- experience surveys over a single-usage occasion. These studies (e.g., Oliver 1980, Bearden and Teel 1983, LaBarbera and Mazursky 1983) can observe shifts in attitude, purchase behavior patterns, and complaint behavior following a single usage experience. However, the rich set of post-choice feelings, activities, and feedbacks remain largely uncaptured by such studies. The criticism can be directed towards a large class of satisfaction studies which attempt to survey consumers after a one-time product experience in a cross-sectional design (e.g., Churchill and Suprenant 1982). With these designs, consumer satisfaction processes, especially for high involvement purchases which may include storage, repair and maintenance, discard or replacement (Nicosia and Mayer 1976), cannot be adequately studied. Similarly, many of the postchoice coping processes subsequent to the emergence of stress (i.e., satisfaction/dissatisfaction) such as attribution of failure (Folkes 1984), and other compensatory behavior (e.g., complain to retailers, etc.) remain unobservable with existing operationalization of the process paradigm.


After pinpointing a number of possible reasons for the lack of status of this research area within consumer psychology, this section of the paper presents some of the more urgent needs in the future development of satisfaction and post-choice behavior.

1) Satisfaction as a Distinct Behavioral Construct

Existing literature has contrasted satisfaction with other closely related constructs, in particular post-choice attitude (see, for example, Day 1984, Tse 1984). Satisfaction is conceptualized as experience specific (Wilton and Tse 1983), emotion loaded (Oliver 1981, Westbrook 1983), emerged subsequent to a comparison of perceived product performance with some pre-experience performance standards (Cardozo 1965).

Though it appears straight forward, the task of distinguishing satisfaction from attitude is likely to be difficult. It is well argued in dissonance theory and classic consumer behavior models that satisfaction will feedback to change a consumer's post-choice attitude. Because of this, satisfaction and attitude will likely to be strongly correlated and hence difficult to prove that measures for satisfaction and attitude capture two distinct behavioral constructs.

More important, however, we believe that increased conceptual understanding as to why and under which conditions these two constructs are likely to diverge is required before this distinction can be explored empirically. This research direction is important in two ways. First, it will help to establish the identity of satisfaction research. Second, it will provide a base from which to build future satisfaction paradigms.

2) Linking Satisfaction to Other Constructs

When viewed as a continuous series of interactions, satisfaction may offer considerable insight into the purchase behavior of individuals over time. In particular, satisfaction scores may be a key to offer behavioral meaning to brand switching coefficients in existing stochastic brand loyalty models.

Within the last few years, consumers' decision processes have been broadly classified into high- versus low-involvement purchases. Since this development, our knowledge of consumer behavior, especially on low involvement purchases, has substantially increased. Yet how and why some high involvement purchases become low involvement (or routinized) purchases has not been understood nor studied. It is likely that satisfaction is a key mediating process.

3)-Investigating the Satisfaction Process

Though satisfaction has been recognized as a process construct, (every paper in satisfaction now use satisfaction process to play safe), the majority of studies reported are content to study consumers' response up to the point where consumer are able to 'say' they are satisfied/dissatisfied. With a few exceptions (e.g., Day and Ash 1977, Day and Bodur 1977, Wilton and Tse 1983, Tse 1984) these studies can only describe how consumers behave up to the point of evaluation of the usage experience. Satisfaction as a process thus appears incompletely, or incorrectly, conceptualized and measured. The richness of satisfaction research lies beyond the emergence of a satisfaction state in the conceptualization of how consumers feel, attribute the disconfirmation of expectation or engage in subsequent-actions, including the feedback of these activities and subsequent feelings.


The present effort in satisfaction research represents a small, but significant, step towards understanding a consumer's post-choice processes. As suggested throughout this paper, many opportunities for further enhancing this understanding remain. Tn particular, with a growing but fragmented literature, it now seems appropriate to take stock of the diversity of conceptual and measurement approaches presented and to begin to synthesize some theoretic or empirical commonalities which might distinguish satisfaction from other, more traditional measures of the purchase and consumption experience such as attitude. The challenges presented by this search are to move beyond the product-performance interactions implied through an expectancy-disconfirmation paradigm to develop understanding of the dimensions of a process view of consumer satisfaction. Discovery of these dimensions is certain to present consumer behavior modelers with yet a greater challenge of developing research designs which adequately capture the diversity of their effects. Although these developments are not likely to come quickly, they will serve to focus the efforts of consumer satisfaction researchers towards questions which are fundamental to our understanding of the behavior of consumers during the interval between product purchases. In this way, the actual choice behavior consumers will itself undoubtedly become better understood.






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David K. Tse, University of British Columbia
Peter C. Wilton, University of California, Berkeley


SV - Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives | 1985

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