A Consumer Complaint Strategy Model: Atecedents and Outcomes

ABSTRACT - This paper presents a conceptualization of the complaining process that focuses on factors influencing consumers complaint strategies, and the impact of complaint strategy on complaint response. Elements of both the dissatisfaction experience and situational factors are hypothesized to influence the manner in which a complaint is presented. In turn, complaint presentation is hypothesized as a predictor of complaint success.


Robert E. Krapfel Jr. (1985) ,"A Consumer Complaint Strategy Model: Atecedents and Outcomes", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, eds. Elizabeth C. Hirschman and Moris B. Holbrook, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 346-350.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, 1985      Pages 346-350


Robert E. Krapfel Jr., University of Maryland


This paper presents a conceptualization of the complaining process that focuses on factors influencing consumers complaint strategies, and the impact of complaint strategy on complaint response. Elements of both the dissatisfaction experience and situational factors are hypothesized to influence the manner in which a complaint is presented. In turn, complaint presentation is hypothesized as a predictor of complaint success.


The major thrust of behaviorally oriented research in the consumer complaint area has been on the identification of factors predictive of propensity to complain (Richins 1982). At the same time, legal scholars have focused on institutional alternatives available for resolution of consumer disputes (Ray 1983). Very recently, attention has been drawn to the complaint process by investigations of complaint letters (Resnik and Harmon 1983) and consumer interaction styles (Richins 1980). These latter efforts signal a need to broaden the perspective on complaining by focusing on responses to complaints (outcomes) and the effects of complaint process variables on these outcomes. It is necessary to develop a better understanding, not only of factors that motivate consumer complaining initially, but also of those factors that determine how consumers will complain, and with what result. The paper first reviews the literature on propensity to complain and then proposes a broader, complaint strategy model of complaining. Finally the research and public policy implications of the model are discussed.


There is no mystery in the basic motivation for consumer complaining, and numerous descriptive studies have catalogued the types and relative frequencies of various problems that give rise to complaints. Best and Andreasan (1977), Day and Ash (1979), Grainer, McEvoy and King (1979), and Ladinsky and Susmilch (1983) are examples. Furthermore, it is generally accepted that consumers fall into three broad categories in terms of response to dissatisfaction; some do nothing, some take private action (curtail purchase/patronage), while some take public action - negative word of mouth communications or complaining (Richins 1983b). identification and elaboration of correlates of complaining, and other post-dissatisfaction behaviors, remains a topic of interest. Specifically, factors thought to be predictive of propensity to complain have received particular attention and are briefly summarized below.

Viewing dissatisfaction as an emotion of variable intensity, Woodruff, Cadotte and Jenkins (1983) suggest a monotonic relationship between expectation disconfirmation and dissatisfaction. Reasoning by analogy, greater dissatisfaction intensity should lead to greater likelihood of complaint, and in fact, Richins (1983b) found greater likelihood of complaint with greater problem severity. In addition, it is thought that consumers will complain only if they have the necessary resources to expend in the complaint effort and have expectations of net positive outcomes. Gronhaug and Zaltman (1981) described three models of complaining, namely the resource, learning and personality models. The resource model focuses on access to time, money and power as determinants of complaining, the learning model suggests that experienced, better trained consumers will complain more since they are more aware of their rights, and finally the personality model argues that complainers tend to be more self-confident and aggressive than noncomplainers.

Coates and Penrod (1980-81) and Krishnan and Valle (1979) have focused on attribution of blame as a causal factor. External attributions, i.e. the manufacturer or reseller at fault, were found to be necessary for complaining to occur. Bearden and colleagues (1979, 1980) examined attitude toward complaining, social and personal moral norms, self-confidence, perceived risk, self-monitoring and past satisfaction with purchases in the product class. All but social norms and self-monitoring were found to be correlates of complaint behavior. In a follow-up study (Bearden and Crockett 1981), attitudes toward complaining and personal moral norms were found to be the best predictors of complaining.

Finally, Richins (1982) investigated the role of complaint costs, perceived business responsiveness to complaints, expectation of societal benefits, personal-moral norms, and affective reaction to the act of complaining. Personal moral norms and positive benefit/cost ratio were both found to be correlates of propensity to complain. The results of this series of studies is summarized in Table 1, Influences on Propensity to Complain.



There exists at this point neither an overall integrative framework that encompasses all, or even a significant portion, of these factors, nor have any of the competing models emerged as generally, or even situationally, better in explanatory power. A common threat running through several of them is that complaining is an act designed to o; cain economic redress for the individual and to a lesser extent, improve marketing system performance. This perspective is also common among legal scholars and consumer advocates who have studied complaining e.g. Best (1983). Viewing marketplace exchanges in economic terms motivates a focus on redress in complaining that fails to capture the richness of the dissatisfaction/complaint experience. Even when abetted by concerns for societal benefits, the economic redress perspective is somewhat sterile.


Marketplace encounters involve both economic value exchanges and social interaction. Going into the marketplace, consumers have two sets of expectations, relating to both aspects of the encounter. The first set revolves around dimensions of product/service performance. in addition to dissatisfaction, performance failures can give rise to emotions of frustration, hurt and anger. Consumers may feel that they have been cheated in some way, or taken advantage of. The second set of expectations are social in nature. These same feelings of frustration, hurt and anger may arise from the treatment the consumer receives from marketing representatives, for example, in a retail store. In their dealings with these representatives, consumers receive both verbal and non-verbal cues that have the potential to either bolster or diminish their sense of self-worth. Consumers not only expect products to work, they expect to be treated fairly, and with a modicum of respect. When consumers feel they have been wronged, either by a product failure or by a marketing representative's treatment, their dominant response to that perceived injury may be driven by hurt and anger, even more so than by the desire to be made economically whole. The belief that "I'm just as good as the next person" produces in those perceiving an insult the desire to recover self-esteem. For some, perhaps many, complaining serves dual functions. It is a vehicle to recover economic loss and also a means to rebuild self-image. For those consumers who do not complain, factors discussed earlier, such as lack of resources or self-confidence, perceived cost, risk of embarrassment, and so on, override the desire to complain. However, consumers' desire to restore self-esteem is likely to be no less strong. What differs is the instrumentality by which this is achieved. Consumers have the option of private actions, e.g. the withholding of patronage. Hirschman's(1970) cogent discussion of exit and voice suggests that threat of exit may be more beneficial to the consumer than actual exit in obtaining economic redress, nevertheless the "I'll show them" decision not to patronize is still a form of meting out punishment that can rebuild self-image. More directly, the consumer can engage in negative word of mouth communication whose clear objective is to denigrate the manufacturer or retailer, but which also serves to mitigate the psychological impact of the dissatisfaction experience.

Models of propensity to complain proposed thus far have not adequately considered the role of emotions and the desire to restore self-image. In addition, exclusive focus on propensity to complain as the dependent variable can be considered short sighted. Consumers complain to achieve objectives. Attention must be given to complaint outcomes, and the dimensions of the complaint process that determine them.


Economic redress is now viewed as the primary complaint objective. Adding restoration of self-esteem as a second major objective not only enhances understanding of propensity to complain, but suggests insight into the issues of complaint strategies, appeals, styles and outcomes. Before proceeding further it is important to define what is meant by complaint strategy, appeal, style and outcome. Complaint strategy may be described as the consumer's action plan in response to a dissatisfaction experience. The strategy may involve taking no action, taking private action, negative word of mouth, or complaining. If a decision to complain is made, the complaint strategy will also embody a choice of who to complain to, what appeal(s) to use. and what style to employ. It should be noted that while the term strategy connotes a cognitive, pre-meditated view of complaining behavior, it is recognized that often the decision to complain is instantaneous and fundamentally emotional.

Appeal refers to the message content of the complaint. It is the consumer's rationale for why the marketer should comply with the complaint request, and perhaps, what the consumer thinks the marketer should do about it. Much of the information contained in the appeal is designed to enhance perceived legitimacy, which was the focus of the Resnik and Harmon study (1983). Proof of purchase, warranty coverage, evidence of defect, etc. may all be supplied in support of the complaint. An interesting facet of many complaint appeals is that they may be categorized in terms of the French and Raven (1959) bases of social power. That is, an appeal that embodies a threat to go to a third party to resolve a dispute is an appeal that rests on coercion. An appeal that promises continued patronage, or threatens its withholding, depends on reward power. A request for compliance based on terms of a warranty is fundamentally an appeal based on legitimate power, i.e. the legal contract.

On the other hand, complaint style refers to how the complaint is presented. Assertiveness and aggressiveness have been used as complaint style descriptors (Richins 1983a), but complaint style more accurately involves an underlying dimension of forcefulness or intensity. That is, non-assertiveness, assertiveness and aggressiveness are labels that serve to make discrete and tangible an underlying continuum of affective intensity that is reflected in observable behavior. Thus, behaviors are described as relatively passive, timid or apologetic at one end of the scale, while physical assault anchors the other end. Variables such as eye contact, vocal loudness, vocal fluency, and message intensity have been employed to operationalize behavioral intensity in studies of assertiveness and attitude change in persuasive communication (Burgoon and Stewart 1975, Hull and Schroeder 1979 and Norton-Ford and Hogan 1980).

Finally, for the purposes of this discussion, complaint response or outcome is viewed from the consumer's point of view. The response dimension that is of greatest immediate interest is relative favorableness. That is, the degree of compliance with the complaint request.

Overall, the complaint strategy model proposes that the degree of favorableness of outcome (COMPLIANCE) is a function of the APPEAL and STYLE employed by the complainant, which in turn, are a function of the STRATEGY. More specifically, an individual's complaint strategy is likely to be a function of the relative dominance of desire for economic redress or self-esteem restoration. A dominant desire to obtain economic redress should motivate a complaint appeal that is factual, reasonable and forthright if perceived legitimacy is thought to be a major determinant of success. This appeal may be accompanied by any of several complaint styles, however consumers have been urged to be assertive, i.e. moderately intense, but not aggressive.

In contrast, when the principal objective is to restore self-image because one's feelings or pride has been hurt, it is more likely that more threatening appeals and aggressive complaint styles will be employed, since the objective of the complaint will be accomplished through the act itself, even if redress is not obtained. (Yelling at somebody makes me feel better.) Greater message intensity, vocal loudness and verbal hostility can be expected because the dissatisfaction experience has escalated from one of economic loss only to one involving loss of self-esteem as well. It should be noted that this view of comPlaint stole is somewhat at variance with that presented by Richins (1983a). Instead of viewing assertiveness solely as a relatively stable, personality linked, behavior pattern, the view being advocated is that complaint style is also situationally determined. While it is likely that most persons do have a modal pattern of interaction, as Richins suggests, it is also plausible that this pattern embodies a range of emotional and behavioral intensity, narrower in some and broader in others, and that intensity of complaint within that range is situationally triggered. Richins notes that a prevalent complaint style is one that starts out as assertive, but then moves to aggressive if the assertive approach does not succeed. This behavioral sequence is also consistent with a situation focused view. That is, a consumer whose principal objective is economic redress may initiate the complaint in a factual, calm manner. However, if the initial request is refused, this rejection may be internalized. If so, the rejection itself stimulates an affective response and an escalation to a more aggressive complaint style. Thus, aggressiveness is a situationally evoked response, reflecting a shift in the relative importance of complaint objectives, i.e. from economic redress to self-esteem restoration. This shift may be quite temporary, for if the complaint receiver then acts to soothe the complaint sender, the remainder of the complaint episode may de-escalate to a less hostile interaction level.

It is probable that the particular combinations of appeals and styles used by consumers are in part a reflection of a complaint strategy formulated prior to presenting the complaint, and in part due to strategy changes resulting from affective responses to situational cues. Consumer complaining antecedents and process descriptor constructs may be modeled as follows:



where STRATEGY captures the consumer's action plan in response to the dissatisfaction experience, OBJECTIVES are the two major complaint objectives, i.e., economic redress and self-esteem restoration, CONSTRAINTS are objective or perceived limitations on the consumer's ability to achieve objectives, CUES are situational stimuli that may modify objectives, APPEAL is the message content of the complaint request, and STYLE is the behavioral intensity with which the comPlaint is Pressed.

Assuming a decision is made to complain, the type of complaint that will be made is a function of relative dominance of complaint objectives, which may change due to situational cues. The consumer's complaint strategy is then operationalized through the particular appeal(s) and styles(s) chosen. Note that the proposed mechanism of action for situational cues is one of cue-induced change in objectives, rather than a direct linkage between cues and either style or appeal.

In turn, complaint appeal and style should influence complaint response. While the influence of message characteristics on attitude and behavior change has received widespread attention (Fishbein and Ajzen 1975), space does not permit discussion of the influence of appeal type on compliance. Resnik and Harmon (1983) discussed perceived legitimacy of appeal but did not explicitly test for relationships between perceived legitimacy and favorableness of marketer response. They did note a tendency towards compliance by marketing representatives, even when the complainant's suggested remedy was obviously unreasonable, speculating that this may have been the result of a desire to avoid a confrontation. The impact of the power base from which the appeal derives, e.g. legitimate vs. coercive, on response to consumer complaints has not been investigated at all, and may prove fruitful ground for future exploration.

Holding appeal factors constant, the impact of complaint style on response can be assessed. Recalling that complaint style descriptors embody an underlying continuum of behavioral intensity, two alternative formulations are appealing. The first suggests that favorableness of response is a monotonically increasing function of intensity. This hypothesis is consonant with the view, noted in Resnik and Harmon (1983), that marketing representatives may wish to avoid or quickly defuse confrontations with consumers through compliance. The more confrontational and aggressive the consumer's complaint style is, the greater the likelihood of compliance. The outcomes Portion of the model is given by:


where Compliance is the degree of favorableness in the marketing representative's response to the complaint, and STYLE and APPEAL are defined as before. One variety of monotonically increasing function is the linear model, given by:

COMPLIANCE = bo + b1 (STYLE) I APPEAL     (4)

where bo and b1 are empirically derived parameters.

An alternative hypothesis is that the response function is curvilinear, specifically taking on an inverted U-shape. The argument favoring this version is that very weak or timid complaint styles invite rejection, whereas excessively aggressive complaint styles stimulate a defensive reaction instead of compliance on the part of S the marketing representative. This of course would be i dysfunctional from the consumer's point of view. Such curvilinear response functions have been observed in 0 other situations involving persuasive communication and attitude change, most notably with fear appeals (McGuire 1968, 1969). McGuire posited a two-factor explanation for the U-curve, in which facilitating and inhibiting dimensions of fear interacted to produce the shape of the response curve. Support for this view and an application to segmentation were provided by Ray and Wilkie (1970). The curvilinear form of the model, derived from McGuire's model. is given by:

COMPLIANCE = bo + b1 (STYLEf) (STYLEi) I APPEAL    (5)

where COMPLIANCE is as defined before, STYLEf represents the facilitating effects of behavioral intensity, STYLE represents the inhibiting effects of behavioral intensity, and APPEAL is also as before. Figure 1, Alternative Response Models, depicts the differing response curves corresponding to the two competing hypotheses.




The model presented in this paper serves two functions. First, it provides an organizing framework for the propensity to complain literature. Instead of considering a collection of correlates with propensity to complain individually, the complaint strategy model suggests that any perceived injury in the marketplace that produces sufficient dissatisfaction will yield a desire to obtain redress. This desire may be one, or both, of two types; the desire for economic redress and desire for restoration of self-esteem. Certain factors may facilitate a complaint strategy that involves complaining, including past success with complaining in similar situations. Other factors, such as lack of resources or perception of low benefit/cost ratio may constrain complaining behavior when economic redress is the primary objective. However, marketing representatives' behavior may provoke complaints, even when the expected probability of obtaining economic redress is low.

Second, the model suggests several empirically testable hypotheses, which have both theoretical and public policy implications. For example, the following alternative hypotheses derive from the input side of the model:

H1: Consumers whose primary response to a dissatisfaction experience is a stated desire to obtain economic redress will be more likely to express an intention to use appeals high in perceived legitimacy than those whose stated objective is self-esteem restoration.

H2: Consumers whose primary response to a dissatisfaction experience is a stated desire to restore self-esteem will be more likely to express an intention to use a more intense complaint style than those whose stated objective is economic redress.

From the output side of the model the following may be tested:

H3: Complaint response compliance is a monotomically increasing function of perceived complaint style.

H4: Complaint response compliance is an inverted U-shape function of perceived complaint style.

Relaxing the constraint that appeal type is held constant permits investigation of a series of possible interactions between complaint style and appeal, including the perceived legitimacy and power base category of the appeal. Two of the many possible testable hypotheses are:

H5: Complaint response is most favorable when very aggressive complaint styles are coupled with complaint appeals low in perceived legitimacy.

H6: Complaint response is most favorable when non-assertive complaint styles are coupled with appeals based on legitimate power.

While the corresponding null hypotheses have not been stated, and issues such as possible research designs, construct operationalization, and measure validation have not been considered, the preceding does give some guidance as to potential research directions. Furthermore, other factors are also likely to have an impact on complaint outcomes, and these may be incorporated in a broadened version of the model. The formal complaint resolution policies of the marketing organization may be formulated to give the customer the benefit of the doubt, or vice versa. The informal reward structure in the organization, regardless of formal policy, may punish those marketing and customer service representatives who appear to take the complainant's side against the organization. Finally, especially in face to face complaint situations, the perceived similarity-attraction paradigms suggest that the marketing representative's response to the complaint may be more favorable when perceived similarity with, and attraction to, the complainant is high.

If validated, the model poses some interesting questions to consumer advocates and public policy makers. Many who have written advising consumers how to complain, for example Calistro (1984), Federal Trade Commission (1983), and Knauer (1982) have focused almost exclusively on the informational content (appeal) of complaint letters. Implicit in their instructions is an untested assumption of a positive causal relationship between an appeal's perceived legitimacy and response favorableness. Complaint style issues have been skirted in many of the instructional pieces, although some writers have explicitly urged moderately intense (assertive)complaint styles in preference to styles either very low (timid)or very high (aggressive) in intensity (Mooney 1986). None of the instructional articles cited acknowledge the possibility that different situations may call for differing combinations of appeals and styles, e.g. face to face complaints in retail stores vs. complaint letters to manufacturers. Contingent upon the actual results achieved in validating empirical work, those who wish to advise consumers how to complain should consider a broader range of factors that likely contribute to the relative success of a complaint.


This paper has presented a model of consumer complaint strategy that focuses on factors that determine both whether and how a complaint will be made. The model also considers the impact of the behavioral manifestations of complaint strategy on favorableness of response to complaints. It is argued that the previous focus on propensity to complain has produced an overly narrow perspective on complaining and that greater attention should be given to the motivating role of the affective dimensions of the dissatisfaction experience. Finally, suggestions are made for testing of hypotheses derived from the model, and consideration given to the public policy implications of the possible results of that testing.


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Robert E. Krapfel Jr., University of Maryland


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12 | 1985

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