Are Antecedents of Consumer Dissatisfaction and Consumer Attributions For Product Failures Universal?

ABSTRACT - This paper assesses the cross-cultural generalizability of the consumer dissatisfaction process to determine whether consumers in different countries form their levels of dissatisfaction in a similar fashion. This paper examines two theories from social psychology that play an important role in explaining dissatisfaction in a consumer behavior context: equity theory and attribution theory. Cross-cultural differences in these theories are analyzed and the marketing implications of these differences are discussed.


Daniel Laufer (2002) ,"Are Antecedents of Consumer Dissatisfaction and Consumer Attributions For Product Failures Universal?", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, eds. Susan M. Broniarczyk and Kent Nakamoto, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 312-317.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, 2002     Pages 312-317


Daniel Laufer, University of Cincinnati

[I would like to acknowledge and thank Susan Broniarczyk and three anonymous reviewers for their comments on an earlier version of the paper.]


This paper assesses the cross-cultural generalizability of the consumer dissatisfaction process to determine whether consumers in different countries form their levels of dissatisfaction in a similar fashion. This paper examines two theories from social psychology that play an important role in explaining dissatisfaction in a consumer behavior context: equity theory and attribution theory. Cross-cultural differences in these theories are analyzed and the marketing implications of these differences are discussed.


An important issue for researchers is determining whether our understanding of how consumers become dissatisfied is universal. Do consumers in different countries determine their levels of dissatisfaction in a similar fashion or are there cross-cultural differences in consumers’ evaluations of satisfaction? The disconfirmation of expectations paradigm has been widely used in the marketing literature in explaining how consumers reach dissatisfaction decisions (Churchill and Surprenant 1982; Oliver 1980; Oliver and Desarbo 1988). The concept underlying the disconfirmation of expectations paradigm is that consumers reach satisfaction decisions by comparing product or service performance with prior expectations about how the product or service would or should perform. These expectations relate to both the symbolic as well as the functional uses of the product or service. Expectations will differ across cultures depending on the histories of advertising, marketing and consumption/use of the product or service in different countries. If erformance fails to meet expectations, dissatisfaction results. It is worth noting that causal attributions for disconfirmation will mediate customer satisfaction. Causal attributions are what people perceive to be the causes for the disconfirmation. Research in both consumer behavior as well as psychology has found that before a consumer determines his or her level of dissatisfaction, he or she will diagnose the causes of disconfirmation and depending on the perceived nature of the causes, the level of dissatisfaction may be modified (Oliver and Desarbo 1988; Folkes 1988; Weiner 1986).

This paper will examine the universality of two theories from social psychology which play an important role in explaining satisfaction in a consumer behavior context: equity theory and attribution theory. The objectives of this paper are therefore as follows: (1) describe equity theory and attribution theory; (2) discuss whether the theories are applicable cross-culturally; (3) review the theories’ application in the consumer behavior literature as they relate to dissatisfaction and product failure and (4) discuss the marketing implications of the cross-cultural differences in equity theory and attribution theory. In order to achieve these stated objectives I begin the paper by briefly describing the universality of theories in consumer behavior and the required conditions for the existence of universality. In the following sections of the paper I examine equity theory and attribution theory and finally conclude with a number of observations regarding the universality of these theories.


Most theories in consumer behavior are supported by empirical evidence from Western cultures, primarily from the United States (Aaker & Maheswaran 1997). Many of these theories are borrowed from other disciplines such as social psychology and applied in consumer behavior. An important issue to address is whether these theories have universal applications or are culture bound. Pepitone & Triandis (1987) propose that most theories of social psychology are culture bound because the theories do not meet any one of three stated criteria for universality which are theories: 1) tied to biological processes; 2) based on common ecological features; and; 3) based on social structures that exist in all societies. Perhaps for this very reason only a small percentage of hypothesis-testing research in social psychology involves drawing samples from two or more cultures (Pepitone 1981).

Many theories would appear to violate Pepitone & Triandis’ universality criterion that theories should include constructs which are based on social structures that exist in all societies. A large body of research in psychology has demonstrated the many implications of individualism-collectivism and distinction for social perception and social behavior (Markus & Kitayama 1991, Triandis 1995). The concept of individualism-collectivism relates to whether one’s identity is defined by personal choices and achievements or by the character of the collective groups to which one is more or less permanently attached (Hofstede 1980). [Individualism-collectivism is one of four dimensions of national culture identified by Hofstede in a landmark study on work-related values conducted in the national subsidiaries of a multinational company (IBM) in the 1970's. The others include power distance, uncertainty avoidance and masculinity-femininity. Hofstede=s dimensions have been used by many marketing researchers to explain national cultural differences in marketing phenomena (For a recent study see Steenkamp et al 1999). It is worth noting however that a number of researchers suggest using caution in applying Hofstede=s measures and findings. For a discussion of some of the limitations of using Hofstede=s measures and findings see Sondergrand (1994) and Hofstede (1990).] Recognizing the importance of this social structure distinction for consumer behavior, Aaker & Maheswarans’ (1997) study on persuasion found that the effectiveness of advertising appeals depended on whether the consumer was from an individualistic or collectivistic society.

In examining whether equity theory and attribution theory are universal, primary focus will b placed on whether the theories include constructs that implicitly assume that similar social structures exist in all societies and assessing the validity of this assumption. Whereas the salience of individualism-collectivism is strong evidence for the lack of universality, other constructs that violate the common social structures assumption required for universality will also be suggested. The resulting limitations on the explanatory power of equity and attribution theories cross-culturally will then be discussed.


Equity theory refers to a need mechanism in the individual that is activated when the ratio of resources received (rewards, etc.) to investments made by the individual is not equal to the ratio for others in the exchange relationship (Adams 1963). Inputs are defined as "the participant’s contributions to the exchange which are seen by the participant or an observer as entitling him to rewards" and outcomes are defined as "the positive and negative consequences that a participant or observer perceives a participant has incurred as a consequence of his relationship with another"(Walster et al 1973 p. 152). The activated need for equity stimulates behavior that is aimed at creating a more equitable distribution, that is, one in which investment/rewards ratios are equal. Adam (1963) also suggests that the state of perceived inequity creates tension which an individual wishes to reduce. Methods of reducing perceived inequity might include changing one’s inputs into the relationship, changing one’s perception of one’s outcomes from the relationship, or leaving the relationship (Walster et al 1973). A number of researchers suggest however that instead of an intraindividual need, equity can be viewed as a shared cultural value, a norm that prescribes the way resources ought to be distributed, and we may find variation across cultural samples in the following areas (Pepitone & Triandis 1987):

1) the relative priority of equity among other distribution values, and in the conditions that affect its priority - in some groups, for example, allocations are based on the need of the recipients;

2) the conditions that activate, stop, and govern the critical magnitudes of equity and inequity- for example groups may differ in the degree of disparity tolerated before distribution behavior is affected;

3) the ways people try to make the distributions equitable;

4) the criteria that count as investments;

5) the measurements of rewards.

According to Marin’s review (1985) of experiments involving the distribution of resources (usually money), the equity role (equality of investment to reward ratio) holds up as a determinant of resource allocation in the individualistic societies of North America and Northwest Europe, but less well in the collectivistic societis of Latin America and East Asia, at least when rewards are allocated to family, coworkers, and others of the "in group". Cross-cultural research on equity indicates that individualism and collectivism may influence resource distribution, that is, determine the extent to which equity is used, in an indirect way by affecting the definition of the relationship. Thus, where individualism dominates, a greater range of relationships tend to be defined in exchange terms, while collectivists’ relationships are more seen as in-group or communal and not of the exchange type (Clark and Mills 1979).

Equity Theory in Consumer Behavior

Much of the literature in equity theory in consumer behavior focuses primarily on issues relating to product dissatisfaction and Oliver & Swan (1989) view equity as an antecedent of satisfaction. When a person perceives inequity, it is thought that a sense of dissatisfaction or other emotional state might occur, such as resentment, anger or guilt, thus motivating the individual to restore equity or balance. This may cause the consumer to switch brands (Fornell & Wernerfelt 1987), complain (Oliver & Swan 1989), or generate negative word of mouth communication (Richins 1983). According to equity theory, the consumer evaluates his/her inputs and outcomes and compares them to the perceived inputs and outcomes of the seller in an effort to assess the equity of the transaction (Lapidus & Pinkerston 1995). Huppertz et al (1978) for instance investigated the effect of manipulated levels of patronage frequency (a consumer input) with service received/price levels (a merchant input or outcome) on the inequity felt when dealing with a campus store. Oliver & Swan (1989) distinguish between traditional equity theory where the consumer compares his/her outcomes with the merchants’ outcomes and contemporary equity theory which assumes multidimensional inputs and outputs which have to be translated into common units by the consumer and merchants in order to draw conclusions regarding the equity of the exchange. Cultural differences however may affect equity perceptions in the following ways:

1) The relative priority of equity B Not all transactions are perceived as exchanges and in collectivistic societies ties are considered more of the communal type (Clark and Mills 1979). For example in a collectivistic society a communal type relationship would be more likely to develop between the owner of a neighborhood store and the store’s consumers than in an individualist society. This is because the store owner and the consumer are more likely to have close social ties outside of the store context and more likely to consider each other as part of the same in-group. In this type of setting equity would not play a major role in evaluating a transaction. The implication for marketers is that consumers in collectivist societies would be more loyal to distribution channels. They would be more tolerant of poor service and less likely to switch to another distribution channel because the nature of the relationship between the customer and the store owner extends beyond the realm of the exchange. This would suggest that companies entering into a new market would have a hard time creating new distribution channels for their products. A better alternative would be perhaps to acquire existing distribution channels in collectivistic societies.

2) Conditions that activate, stop, and govern the critical magnitudes of equity and inequity - In societies with relatively high levels of power distance inequity may be tolerated and not considered unacceptable (Hofstede 1980). In high power distance societies, consumers accept hierarchical relations and inequity. In these cases equity theory may not have an impact on consumers. The implication of this for marketers is that consumers won’t necessarily compare inputs and outputs in determining whether they are satisfied. Therefore consumers may accept situations where the product or service is of lower quality and/or a higher price than a society where there is lower power distance. For example, a monopoly in a high power distance society may be perceived by consumers as legitimately being more powerful than the consumer and despite high prices and low quality dissatisfaction is not experienced because the consumer realizes and accepts the fact that he or she is in an inferior position in the exchange and therefore equity is not an issue.

3) The criteria that count as investments/outcomes and the measurement of the investments/outcomes B Different cultures may value investments/outcomes differently. Functional equivalence, which involves determining whether the concepts, objects or behaviors have the same role or function in all countries studied, can be difficult to find. For instance Green & Alden (1988) found that gift giving in Japan and the United States are functionally different. Gift giving in Japan was found to serve an important affiliation function and was a more common occurrence compared with the United States where gift giving was less crucial to reinforcing an individualistic self-concept. The lack of functional equivalence therefore can impact the perception of equity because functionally different inputs and outputs are valued differently in different countries and thereby impact the evaluation of the exchange cross-culturally. For example consumers in a particular culture may perceive searching in a mall for a product as an enjoyable activity whereas in another culture it may be viewed as an unpleasant task. Searching in a mall is considered a consumer input and the nature of the activity (whether it is viewed as pleasant or unpleasant) has an impact on the assessment of equity in the exchange. Outcomes may also be perceived differently in various cultures. For instance, some cultures may view wrapping a gift as an extra effort whereas in others wrapping may be viewed as something expected and not out of the ordinary. This has important implications for marketers. In the case of gift-wrapping being viewed as an extra effort the marketer can charge a premium for gift-wrapping. On the other hand, in the case of gift-wrapping viewed as something expected and not out of the ordinary the marketer would not be able to charge a higher price since gift-wrapping would not be perceived as a reward to be factored into the equity equation.

The previous section focused on how consumers determine whether performance fails to meet expectations. Equity theory provides a framework to understand how this happens however as the section suggests equity theory is culture bound. Another important theory borrowed from social psychology and applied to explain how consumers reach dissatisfaction decisions is attribution theory. Attribution theory becomes salient after a disconfirmation occurs and the consumer seeks an explanation for performance failing to meet expectations. The follwing section describes attribution theory and discusses whether the theory is culture-bound or universal.


Attributional style refers to the way people explain the causes of specific events and problems in their lives and in the lives of others. An event can range from other people’s misfortunes to one’s own emotions (Park & Dimigen 1997). The most important causal agent for generating attributional processing is the disconfirmation of expectations (Pysznski & Greenberg 1981). In other words, events which do not conform to expectations are thought to trigger the search for an explanation to the event. Early attribution theory was purely cognitive, that is, locus of causality or causal responsibility was the result of a logical inference process performed on information concerning the actor and his or her behavior (Kelly 1967). Heider (1958) referred to two types of explanations that are given to explain the causes of events by people: 1) External attribution where the individual attributes the causes to environmental factors or 2) Internal attribution where the causes are attributed to dispositional factors. Heider (1958) found that people tend to overestimate an individual’s personal liability for his/her behavior and to underestimate social and economic pressures that may contribute to it. This tendency has been defined as the fundamental attribution error (Ross 1977).

In contrast to the findings from the early studies on the fundamental attribution error, a number of recent studies outside of the United States have shown that the predominant tendency of observers to attribute personal or internal causes of an actor’s behavior does not replicate. When describing themselves or others, studies have shown that Asians make more contextual references and fewer dispositional references than Europeans or Americans suggesting a more contextualized theory of behavior (Choi, Nisbett & Norenzayan 1999). For example Miller (1984) found that Indian middle-class adults primarily attribute the causes of deviant behaviors to external features of the social environment, the reverse pattern of that shown by a comparable sample of adults from the United States. In addition, in a recent review of studies comparing North American and East Asian perceivers, researchers concluded that the sharpest differences in attributions for the cause of an individual’s behavior lie in the weight accorded to the contexts of constraints and pressures imposed by social groups (Choi, Nisbett & Norenzayan 1999). Choi, Nisbett & Norenzayan (1999) suggest that different thinking styles between Asian and Western cultures may explain some of the differences in attribution. Westerners use analytic thinking, paying attention primarily to the object, categorizing it on the basis of its attributes, and attributing causality to the object based on rules about its category memberships (Lloyd 1990). In contrast, Asians perceive and reason holistically, attending to the field in which objects are embedded and attributing causality to interactions between the object and field (Choi, Nisbett & Norenzayan 1999).

Another possible reason for cross-cultural differences in attribution styles is differences in levels of locus of control. Gilbert (1995), for example, suggests that dispositional attributions provide people with a sense of control whereas attributing a cause to the situation implies that the individual does not exert control over hi or her situation. This of course assumes a culture with high levels of locus of control such as the United States (Cote & Tansuhaj 1989). In countries with low levels of locus of control we would not expect the fundamental attribution error to occur since individuals do not expect to have much influence over the situation.

Finally whereas early attribution theory was purely cognitive "neoattribution theory" takes into account certain noncognitive "biases". Weiner (1986) for example linked emotional responses to outcomes and attributions and distinguished among three dimensions of attributions (locus of control, stability and controllability). Weiner’s model incorporates a cognition-emotion-action process. In the first stage the individual evaluates the outcome and typically experiences happiness or sadness depending on the outcome. In the next stage the individual makes an attribution for the outcome (for instance effort or luck) which results in further emotions that are attribution dependent (pride, guilt). Weiner also suggests that the different outcomes, attributions and emotions lead to different behavioral consequences.

Attribution Theory in Consumer Behavior

Recently the use of attribution theory in consumer behavior has primarily focused on post-purchase issues such as customer satisfaction or word of mouth behavior (Folkes 1988). When a product or a service does not fulfill a need, the consumer will attempt to find an explanation. Studies of attribution in consumer post purchase behavior have shown a significant influence of attribution on complaints, redress seeking, word of mouth activity, expectations of change, satisfaction and future intentions. However more limited evidence is available for the generation of emotions such as anger (Oliver 1997). Most attribution studies on product failure in the marketing literature apply Weiner’s (1986) three causal dimensions of attribution: stability, locus of control and controllability to explain how a consumers attributes blame:

1) Stability B This dimension signals whether the same problem can be expected in the future or whether the event was perceived as a coincidence and not likely to recur in the future. Most of the previous studies of this dimension have been in the context of product failure (Oliver 1997). Bitner (1990), for example, found that customers were less dissatisfied in a service encounter when the failure could be blamed on the employee rather than the organization. Bitner attributes this finding to the perception of the consumer that the employee’s behavior is less stable than the organization’s since the next time another employee may perform the service.

This dimension therefore indicates whether the cause of the event is perceived as temporary or permanent. The concept of temporary and permanent however can differ in various countries. The example previously highlighted of the worker as being perceived as temporary and the organization being viewed as a more permanent entity may be more characteristic of the culture of the United States where job turnover is relatively high. In Asian countries such as Japan, job security is more cmmon so an employee’s actions may not be interpreted as a temporary action (compared to the organization).

2) Locus of Control B This dimension is similar to the dispositional/situational distinction described in early attribution theory which attributed outcomes to either something within the person or to some outside agent such as a manufacturer or retailer in a consumer behavior setting. A number of studies have found that the greater the degree of external attribution, the more consumers complain. For instance when a product failure is firm related, customers feel that they deserve a refund and an apology (Folkes 1984). Consumers may also experience anger towards the firm and generate negative word of mouth behavior (Folkes 1988). On the other hand, the greater the number of self-attributions, the more likely consumers will do nothing when dissatisfied (Oliver 1997).

In a marketing context this dimension therefore refers to whether the customer believes that the cause for the event is marketer or customer related. Causality in different cultures, however, may differ for other reasons as well. Pepitone & Triandis (1987), for example, suggest that in some cultures causation is determined based on mystical beliefs. This could cause consumers in these cultures to attribute causality to neither marketer nor customer sources.

Another reason to expect cross-cultural differences in the locus of control dimension is the lack of universality of the fundamental attribution error phenomena, whereby dispositional factors are assumed over situational factors in explaining events. As previously discussed the fundamental attribution error has been disproved in mostly collectivistic Asian cultures where situational factors are favored. This has important ramifications for a company in attempting to avoid blame in a product failure situation. The results from the recent cross-cultural studies of the fundamental attribution error phenomena suggest that in collectivistic societies companies may have an easier time in limiting the damage resulting from a product failure because consumers are more likely to consider situational vs. company related factors as the cause of the failure thereby reducing the negative consequences associated with blaming the company such as dissatisfaction, complaining, switching brands and engaging in negative word of mouth behavior.

3) Controllability BThis dimension reflects the power available to the consumer or other parties such as the manufacturer or retailer in the situation to alter the result. The issue is whether any of the actors has control over the variables that caused the situation to occur. If consumers attribute a disappointing service experience to an external, uncontrollable cause, they will probably assess less blame to other entities such as the manufacturer or retailer. However when failures are viewed as controllable, blame is targeted to the perceived entity that had control. For example Folkes (1984) found that when product failure is under the control of the firm, consumers feel angry and a desire to hurt the firm’s business.

The issue of controllability may be viewed as a culturally determined variable as opposed to an individual-based characteristic. Different societies have different levels of locus of control and fatalism (Hoover, Green & Saegert 1978; Cote & Tansuhaj 1989) and the belief that all events are predetermined by fate may influence the customer’s perception of whether he or she or the seller has control over events such as product failure.

As previously mentioned, in addition to the cognitive aspect of the model the role of emotion plays an important part in Weiner’s model. The model assumes for example that the individual makes an attribution for the outcome (for instance effort or luck) which results in further emotions that are attribution dependent (pride, guilt). This generation of emotions however would probably not replicate cross-culturally. Culture plays a role in shaping the emotional experience which is not taken into consideration in Weiner’s model. Emotional meaning is a product of social life (Averill 1980; Lutz 1988), so the reaction to an attribution will not necessarily be universal and will be dependent on how the attribution is perceived in the particular cultural context. Construal of the self has been shown to impact emotions. For example emotions such as anger, frustration and pride are ego focused and relate to an individual’s internal attributes. These emotions typically result from the blocking, the satisfaction or the confirmation of one’s internal attributes and are therefore related to Weiner’s model. Ego-focused emotions have been found to be frequently expressed and experienced by individuals with independent selves (Markus & Kitayama 1991). Those with interdependent selves, on the other hand, are less likely to experience ego-focused emotions and the intensity of these emotions is likely to be lower. For example, the Japanese try to avert anger in order to prevent a disruption of the harmony of the social situation (Markus & Kitayama 1991). This would suggest that in a consumer behavior context dissatisfaction and its consequences (complaining behavior, switching brands and engaging in negative word of mouth behavior) may occur less frequently in a collectivistic society compared with an individualistic society because anger and frustration, emotions associated with dissatisfaction, are less likely to be experienced.


As discussed in the previous sections, equity theory and attribution theory do not meet Pepitone & Triandis’ universality criterion which specifies that theories should include constructs that are based on social structures that exist in all societies. Whereas the constructs of individualism and collectivism play a prominent role in the lack of universality of these theories, other constructs such as power distance, uncertainty avoidance and locus of control point to additional cross-cultural differences resulting partly from different social structures.

Equity theory has been suggested as an important antecedent to consumer dissatisfacton. However a central assumption underlying equity theory is that consumers strive to achieve equity. The cultural dimension of power distance would suggest that this need for equity is by no means universal. In high power distance societies, for example, consumers accept hierarchical relations and inequity. In these societies consumers are more likely to accept situations where the product or service is of lower quality and/or higher price than a society where there is lower power distance. Therefore, dissatisfaction may not be a byproduct of inequity in high power distance cultures. Another assumption implicit in equity theory is that transactions are viewed by people as exchange relationships. This assumption is perhaps characteristic in individualistic societies however transactions in collectivistic societies are viewed as more communal in nature. This would suggest that equity would not be as central a factor in a transaction occurring in a collectivistic society so an imbalance in inputs and outputs would not necessarily trigger dissatisfaction as it would in an individualistic society.

Attribution theory also incorporates assumptions which are biased toward individualistic societies. The fundamental attribution error whereby dispositional factors are preferred over situational factors in explaining events has been disproved in mostly collectivistic Asian cultures where situational factors are favored. This suggests that consumers in individualistic societies may be more likely to attribute product failures to a company whereas consumers in collectivistic societies may be more likely to consider situational factors unrelated to the company. In more recent work on attribution theory, individualistic bias also exists. For example in Weiner’s attribution theory emotions are generated by attributions. These emotions impact the formation and intensity of consumer dissatisfaction. Emotions, however, have been shown to differ in individualistic and collectivistic societies. In collectivistic societies people with interdependent selves are less likely to experience ego-focused emotions such as anger and frustration and the intensity of these emotions is likely to be lower. Therefore levels of consumer dissatisfaction in individualistic and collectivistic societies are likely to differ as a result of a product failure of equal magnitudes due to these differences in the generation of emotions cross-culturally.


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Daniel Laufer, University of Cincinnati


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29 | 2002

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