An Exploratory Study of Assertiveness, Aggressiveness, and Consumer Complaining Behavior

ABSTRACT - Authority, self-denial, personal quilt, and aggressiveness are embedded in traditional Western culture. This paper takes the position that these things inhibit effective communication and constructive criticism among members of society. The assertiveness model developed in Counseling Psychology is described and translated into a consumer context. The relationship between assertiveness/aggressiveness and consumer complaining is examined with some interesting implications for consumer policy.


Claes Fornell and Robert A. Westbrook (1979) ,"An Exploratory Study of Assertiveness, Aggressiveness, and Consumer Complaining Behavior", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 06, eds. William L. Wilkie, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 105-110.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 1979      Pages 105-110


Claes Fornell, Northwestern University

Robert A. Westbrook, University of Arizona


Authority, self-denial, personal quilt, and aggressiveness are embedded in traditional Western culture. This paper takes the position that these things inhibit effective communication and constructive criticism among members of society. The assertiveness model developed in Counseling Psychology is described and translated into a consumer context. The relationship between assertiveness/aggressiveness and consumer complaining is examined with some interesting implications for consumer policy.


For the consumer, complaining is a means of making one's feelings known when unfair seller practices are encountered, when disappointment with a product arises, and when disapproval of business conduct more generally occurs. Yet the significance of consumer complaining behavior reaches considerably beyond these verbal expressions of dissatisfaction with the marketplace or its offering of goods and services. From an economic perspective, consumer complaints complement purchase choices as signals to producers to adjust the allocation of society's limited resources. From a managerial perspective, complaints represent potentially valuable information to guide marketing strategy. And from a public policy perspective, complaints may aid the development and targeting of consumer protection and market regulatory programs.

Despite the significance of consumer complaining behavior, it has only recently begun to receive attention in the literature. Empirical studies have focused mainly on determining the incidence of consumer complaining and its variation across demographic groups (Warland et al., 1975; Liefield et al., 1975; Best and Andreasen, 1977; Pfaff and Blivice, 1977). There have also been attempts to relate complaining behavior to consumer perceptions of unfair selling practices (Kraft, 1977, Zaltman et al., 1977). While progress has been made in identifying selected relationships, it is evident that much remains to be learned about the determinants of consumer complaining.

Complaint behavior is often thought to be related to personality (Landon, 1977), but empirical studies have rarely addressed this issue. Moreover, available evidence is inconclusive. Zaichkowsky and Liefield (1977), for example, attempted to differentiate consumers who had written letters of complaint to a government agency from non-complainers using Cattell's Sixteen Personality Factors battery. Only very modest relationships were found, and the authors concluded that complaint letter writers were not acting primarily on the basis of inherent personality type was prone to complaining. In contrast, Wall, Dickey, and Talarzyk (1977) found that propensity to complain was related to a personality-like factor extracted from a set of ad-hoc AIO statements.

In neither of the preceding studies were the expected relationships between personality constructs and complaining explicitly conceptualized and tested; rather, relationships were sought from large general personality inventories. Jacoby (1969) and Kassarjian (1970) have demonstrated the deficiencies and pitfalls in such an approach. Jacoby's criticism from a decade ago is equally valid today regarding the research on personality and consumer complaining. His point was that most investigators operated without theory and with no a priori thought as to how and why personality should be related to the aspect of behavior under study. Not only did this result in little understanding, according to Jacoby, but as he showed by reanalyzing a classic study of the personality differences between Ford and Chevrolet owners, there was also a risk of drawing erroneous conclusions.

In one of the few other studies presenting evidence on the relationship of consumer complaining to personality, Faricy and Mazis (1973) developed a measure of complaint tendency as part of the overall construct of consumer dissatisfaction and found it related to Rokeach's dogmatism scale. They failed to find complaint tendency related to locus of control, however. This latter finding was supported by Zikmund and Miller (1974); though their measure of complaining was participation in a retail boycott.

Further study of consumer complaining behavior and its relationship to personality constructs is clearly warranted. In contrast to previous studies, greater theoretical conceptualization should precede attempts to relate personality measures and complaining. Moreover, the explanatory potential of other promising personality constructs should be examined. This paper describes such an exploratory study of the relationship between complaint tendency and the personality traits of assertiveness and aggressiveness.


Responses to Dissatisfaction and Frustration

The study of how people react to problems that arise when their ways of achieving satisfaction is prevented or interrupted is a major field of Personality Psychology. It is sometimes claimed that this is indeed the essence of personality, since it deals with the ways in which people cope with the barriers of goal-directed behavior and the frustration that result when expectancy is violated.

Frustration occurs when goal-directed behavior is blocked or interrupted before its completion (Mischel, 1971). Inasmuch as consumer behavior is goal-directed, frustration develops when the goal actually attained is something less than the goal sought, or when the goal sought requires more resources (money, time, energy) than the consumer is able, willing, or expecting to spend in order to achieve the goal. Frustration will also occur when the means of achieving satisfaction, including the resources as well as the goal-object (e.g., a product or a brand), are reduced or removed. Consequently, frustration can develop in both post-purchase and pre-purchase situations.

One of the earliest conceptualizations of frustration reactions was the frustration-aggression hypothesis (Dollard et al., 1939) stating that aggressive behavior not only assumes frustration, but also increases in probability with the occurrence of frustration. More recent developments, mast notably in Learning Theory (Bandura and Walters, 1963; Berkowitz, 1969), have proven this hypothesis to be of questionable validity. Aggression is not seen as an inherent or "natural" reaction to frustration according to these theorists. Instead, aggression is viewed as learned response patterns. Furthermore, in the past few years there has been an increasing interest in the concept of assertion and the distinction between assertion and aggression (Galassi and Galassi, 1977; Alberti and Emmons, 1974; Jukobowski, 1973). Concomitantly, there has been a growing interest in assertive training among the general public and, perhaps most notable, among women's groups. The purpose of such training is to help people communicate more effectively their feelings and opinions in all kinds of social and professional settings. There is also a rapidly expanding literature on the effects of assertive training.

According to Wolpe (1969), assertive training will help persons who have unadaptive responses. The training programs essentially include the following steps: (1) situation appraisal to determine what the rights and responsibilities are of the various parties involved and the probable consequences of various courses of action; (2) experimentation with new behaviors and attitudes in practice situations; (3) behavior evaluation to determine experienced anxiety, verbal content and delivery of message, and overall performance; and (4) behavior implementation (Galassi and Galassi, 1977).

The Assertiveness Model

Assertive behavior has been defined as "that complex of behaviors emitted by a person in an interpersonal context which express that person's feelings, attitudes, wishes, opinions or rights directly, firmly and honestly while respecting the feelings, attitudes, wishes, opinions, and rights of other persons." (Galassi and Galassi, 1977, p. 233.) According to these writers, assertion does not involve an undue or excessive amount of anxiety or fear. It represents the standing up for one's legitimate rights without violating the rights of others.

Mental health researchers of today appear to be in accord that assertive behavior is (a) learned and (b) situationally specific (Alberti and Emmons, 1974; Galassi and Galassi, 1977; Hersen et al., 1973; Jukobowski, 1973). As perhaps first suggested by Andrew Salter in his book Conditioned Reflex Therapy (1949) and now empirically demonstrated (Hersen et al., 1973), assertive training has the capability to reciprocally inhibit anxiety. Also, it is clear that assertiveness depends on the situation as perceived by the individual. The situational non-asserter may be cognizant of the appropriate course of action, but for one reason or another may choose to ignore it.

The person who impels his desire for self-assertion to excessive proportions by expressing his opinions in a hostile, threatening, or assaultive manner is aggressive. The aggressive person shows little or no consideration for the rights of others. The person who behaves aggressively does not recognize the potential consequences of his action and does not assume responsibility for them. It is for these reasons that aggressive behavior often results in unfavorable consequences for the aggressor as well as for the object of aggression. By contrast, assertive behavior is expressed with consideration of mutual rights and the possible outcome that may follow. Accordingly, the assertive person has a better chance of obtaining satisfactory remedy in a situation where expectancy has been violated.

Research on the effects of assertive training has reported increased self-esteem, increased positive reaction from others, and reduced anxiety in social situations for persons having gone through a training program. However, most research has dealt with treatment for sexual deviations (Stevenson and Wolpe, 1970; Edwards, 1972; Lazarus, 1971), marital problems (Fensterheim, 1972), socially anxious college students (Hedquist and Weinhold, 1970), and chronic schizophrenics (Weinman et al., 1972), which are areas that may be difficult to generalize to a consumer context. Although Alberti and Emmons in their highly influential work (1974) describe some consumer situations among what they refer to as typical situations in which assertive behavior is called for, there has to our knowledge only been one published research study on assertiveness in a buyer-seller context. McFall and Marston (1970) assessed the effects of an assertive training program by having subjects treated experimentally and exposed to telephone calls where a "salesman" (experimenter) used several "high pressure" sales tactics to persuade subjects to subscribe to magazines. The differences between control and experimental groups were found to be relatively weak but in the expected direction.

Making the transition to a consumer dissatisfaction context, drawing upon the model of assertive behavior developed in Psychology and Mental Health and generalizing from the positive results of assertive training, what can be said about consumer complaining behavior? For one thing, it would be expected that the dissatisfaction experienced by a non-assertive consumer will produce undue anxiety so that the range of available remedy options becomes restricted. Since brand shifting, purchase or patronage termination, or total inaction are responses that do not require intercommunication, one would expect that complaining, which is an intercommunication initiated by the consumer, to be less likely a response of the non-assertive consumer. This is in contrast to the assertive individual who would not let possible unpleasantness prevent him from complaining to a company, if he thought that complaining was the appropriate course of action. According to the assertiveness model and the definitions of assertiveness/aggressiveness, the reactions to frustration would be based on different considerations for different individuals:

Response of an assertive individual = f (available alternatives and probable outcomes)

Response of a non-assertive individual = f(the amount of anxiety associated with the alternatives)

Response of an aggressive individual = f(the magnitude and intensity of frustration)

Only in assertive behavior are the consequences of the action fully considered beforehand. The aggressive person is more apt to consider the consequences after the action is taken, and the non-assertive person's main concern is to find a response with a minimal amount of intercommunication and anxiety. Consequently, one would expect that both assertive and aggressive individuals would be more likely than non-assertive individuals to complain to a company if dissatisfied with the product or service. If this is correct, it suggests some interesting implications for consumer policy. The purpose of this study was, then, to examine the relationships between assertiveness, aggressiveness, and consumer complaining.


One hundred nineteen undergraduate students at a major private university participated in the research study by completing a self-administered questionnaire. Respondents were chosen selectively to represent all class levels and both sexes. The exploratory nature of the study, convenience, and economy were important but not the only considerations in determining the restriction of the sample to college students. The homogenous nature of the student population at this university substantially reduces the variability of potential exogenous influences beyond the scope of study. Moreover, the focus was on the relationships between relative scores rather than their absolute levels as descriptive of a total consumer population. It is difficult to find a priori reasons why the relationship between assertiveness, aggressiveness, and complaining behavior would be any different between students and the general population.

Except from the benefits of having a pre-specified model guide analysis and selection of measurement items, the methodology used follows the pattern of the numerous studies on life-style and psychographics, utilizing factor analysis and regression. Respondents were administered the following instruments: (1) a set of measures concerning consumer complaint behavior and (2) a battery of items to assess individual assertiveness/aggressiveness. The differences in the possible sources of consumer dissatisfaction and targets of complaint communications suggested that several dependent measures of complaining be used. In this study, the following different complaint behaviors were examined:

1. Complaining to the manufacturer when the product fails to meet prior expectations.

2. Complaining to the retail store when a product fails to meet prior expectations.

3. Complaining to the manufacturer when a favorite product is discontinued.

4. Complaining to the manufacturer when a favorite product deteriorates in quality.

In order to reduce the influence of differences in product type, all of the preceding situations were limited to grocery-store items. Respondents indicated the extent of their agreement or disagreement on a six-point scale with each of the above situations.

While there is consensus in the literature on the conceptualization of assertiveness and its acquisition through learning/ there is no similar agreement on measurement. Self-reports, behavioral responses, as well as physiological measures have been used with varying degrees of success (Hersen et al., 1973). Little has been done in terms of formal validation. In the present study, subjects were asked to indicate to what extent they agreed or disagreed with nineteen selected statements of assertiveness/aggressiveness, again on a six-point scale. The statements were taken from Alberti and Emmons (1974) and Evans (1977). Following factor analysis of the items, the factor scores were used as explanatory variables in regression analysis.


All nineteen assertiveness/aggressiveness variables were submitted to a principal components analysis. Inspection of the distributions for each individual item did not reveal any abnormally skewed variables. A minimum eigenvalue criterion of 1.0 led to a seven-factor solution accounting for 61.9% of the variation in the original variables.

Although assertive behavior is clearly distinct from aggressive behavior according to the model presented, it does not follow that the two behaviors represent completely independent personality traits. We are not talking about dichotomous constructs -- it is possible to be assertive with some amount of aggressiveness included. In the final analysis, it is up to the subjective judgment of each party involved to determine whether or not a specific act is to be considered assertive or aggressive. Hence, the purpose of the principal components analysis was to minimize the cross-products of the factor loadings on the reference axes in order to obtain simpler factor structures without the restriction of orthogonality. Therefore, the factors were rotated to a fairly oblique terminal solution. The results are summarized in Table 1. Setting the obliqueness parameter (Harman, 1967) equal to zero yielded relatively low factor correlations: over half were less than .10 and only one reached an r of .20.

Examination of the factor pattern in Table 1 suggests that Factor I represents a dimension of "submissiveness," a definite form of non-assertiveness. Interpreted with consideration to directionality, the most cogent variables are (1) avoidance of people for fear of embarrassment, (2) finding it hard to say "no" to salesmen, and (3) having difficulty maintaining eye contact in a conversation. Factor II appears to capture "vociferousness'' or aggressive self-assertion: a tendency to assert oneself in an aggressive or belligerent manner. This interpretation is suggested by the following high weights: (4) being openly critical of others; (5) calling unfair behavior to the attention of the offender; (6) showing anger by name-calling or obscenities; and (7) speaking out in protest when someone takes one's place in line. Factor III includes what appears to be "congeniality" or "high regard for human beings" but is difficult to interpret when the whole set of weights is considered. The three variables most closely associated with Factor III are (8) having no difficulty complimenting or praising others, (9) finding no difficulty maintaining eye contact in a conversation, and (10) disagreeing with the statement that bullfight watchers would be given a taste of the suffering of the bull. However, (13) feeling at times so angry that one could resort to physical assault is also represented by the factor. Inspection of the structure matrix of correlations (not reproduced here) yielded similar results and did not provide any additional guidance. While this factor represents a mixture of variables that complicates its interpretation, on the whole, it does not include much assertiveness nor aggressiveness. Factor IV includes aggression with undertones of violence, based on fear rather than assertiveness. Its associated variables are: (11) believing that there should be a gun in every home; (12) viewing man as a dangerous and aggressive animal which is slowly becoming civilized; and (13) feeling at times so angry that one could resort to physical assault. Factor V displays a high weight (.88) in connection with only one item, (14) favoring strict enforcement of all laws. In considering the total structure as well as the pattern of this factor, it seems to lean slightly toward the non-assertive side of the continuum. Factor VI is closely associated with two items, (15) believing that slow drivers are not a greater menace than fast drivers, and (16) feeling that the U.S. would not be better off without "freaks." This pattern is suggestive of a dimension of tolerance versus intolerance. Factor VII finally appears to represent extent of "shyness," as distinct from "submissiveness" (factor I). The relevant variables of this factor are (17) being reluctant to speak up in a discussion, (18) not being the first to start a conversation with a stranger, and (19) feeling uncomfortable expressing opinions to an authority figure.

Table 2 presents classification of the factors according to their portrayal of aggressiveness and assertiveness. Some of the factors (F2, F7) include high or low levels of both traits, while one factor (F5) does not seem to represent either one. Using the assertiveness model as a criterion of construct validity, F1 and F4 come out ahead. Although the assertiveness model does not postulate completely dichotomous traits, it clearly distinguishes between assertive and aggressive behavior. F1 and F4 are the only factors that include either aggressiveness or assertiveness, but not both.

The results of the regressions, using the factors as explanatory variables, are found in Table 3. R2's varied from .08 to .16, a reasonable result in view of the numerous studies on personality and behavior reporting similar or lower ratios of explained variance. Just as in other aspects of consumer behavior, there are of course many variables other than certain personality traits that affect complaining behavior.





Factor 1, which reflects "submissiveness," is also one of the factors in which more confidence of validity is placed (Table 2). It is significantly related to all complaint situations. Factor 4 (also with a high validity score), which was interpreted as "aggressive self-assertion," is significant in two of the regressions; all, however, show a positive relationship. Among other explanatory variables, it is worth noting that factor 6, which seems to capture a "tolerance" dimension and also scores relatively high on the validity criterion, is represented in two of the regressions. Factor 5, which does not include assertiveness nor aggressiveness, and thus has a low validity, does not contribute much to the variance across the complaint measures.




The regression results indicated that the factor labeled "submissiveness" was the strongest inhibitor of complaining. This finding was consistent across all situations examined. The a priori notion that the non-assertive consumer is less likely to resort to a complaint action as a means of alleviating frustration is thus supported by the data. Some other minor relationships suggested by the regression equations are more difficult to interpret, however. The fact that as many as seven factors, some of which are hard to label, emerged from a principal components solution only reiterates the fact that the assertiveness construct does not yet have the benefit of a well-developed measurement methodology. In the absence of rigorous validity assessment, which was beyond the scope of this investigation, the results are tentative and should be regarded as exploratory. In particular, this is the case for the minor facets of the relationships whose interpretations do not relate to the assertiveness model. For example, why is complaining to a manufacturer when a favorite product is discontinued "better explained" by aggressiveness and assertiveness than are other forms of complaining? Both aggressiveness and assertiveness account for more of the variation in situations of satisfaction blockage due to product unavailability, than they do when frustration is caused by product failure in meeting expectations. Contrary to what might have been expected, complaining to retail store displayed the weakest relationship to the assertiveness/aggressiveness variables. In view of the uncertainty regarding the amount of variance due to the instrument of measurement, it seems best to refrain from interpreting these relationships. To do otherwise would involve excessive conjecture.

Further inquiry into the interrelationships between the ways in which consumers struggle with frustration and the personality traits of assertiveness and aggressiveness is called for. If we want to learn mere about the grass-root dimensions of consumerism, the reasons why and the conditions under which some consumers voice their dissatisfaction, while others passively seem to accept or adjust to deficiency or injustice, we have to go beyond such surface variables as socioeconomic characteristics, political commitment, and consumer awareness of unfair practices and of channels for redress. More attention has to be given to the covert mental processes and the more or less enduring personality traits that affect frustration response. Even though consumer dissatisfaction is a case of interrupted or obstructed goal achievement, and several studies have examined how consumers deal with it, only fragmented attempts have been made to establish the link between frustration response and personality in consumer research. While the results of this first attempt to relate assertiveness to consumer complaining behavior posit a relationship that is static, direct, and linear, it seems likely that future studies may better depict the relationships involved using more complex arrays of associations. In the context of consumer behavior, assertiveness may be conceived of as an intervening variable whose function is to moderate the effects of other influences such as level of dissatisfaction, importance of problem, and awareness of remedy channels (cf. Nakaniski, 1972), and which probably interacts with these variables as well.


Since assertiveness constitutes a learned behavior (as demonstrated in the psychiatric and psychological literature), and if non-assertive individuals consciously limit their remedy options by avoiding complaining (as suggested by the assertiveness model and the empirical results reported in this study), it follows that consumers can be taught through assertive training to better handle conflicts with sellers and manufacturers. This applies to the aggressive as well as non-assertive consumers.

It is well known that consumer policy cannot solely rely on consumer information (i.e., factual information about brand and product characteristics). It has to be complemented with consumer education (i.e., instruction on where to get and how to use available information) in order to have some impact. When both these methods fail to accomplish the desired goals, there are often calls for more consumer protection or market regulation. The assertiveness model suggests yet another way of improving the consumer's position in the marketplace. Its implication is that even well-informed, educated consumers may fall to effectively articulate their grievances because of undue aggressiveness or non-assertiveness. In such cases, it is clear that consumer information and education policies do not suffice, and protection and regulation may miss the mark. Since most consumer dissatisfactions are not voiced, and research has shown that about one in every five purchases results in some form of consumer problem (Best and Andreasen, 1977), assertive training for consumers may be a viable addition or alternative to current consumer programs. Assertive training for consumers does not mean expensive psychological counseling. Although there is, to our knowledge, no programs that are specifically tailored to consumers, many universities now offer courses in assertive training in their extension programs. There are also "do-it-yourself" manuals available.

Authority, self-dental, personal guilt, and aggressiveness are parts of traditional Western culture. They constitute some of the building material of our social structures and relationships, including the institutions and transactions in the marketplace. The assertiveness model highlights some of the negative consequences caused by too close an adherence to such values and suggests a way for emancipation. To further refine the role of assertiveness in a consumer context should be an interesting task.


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Claes Fornell, Northwestern University
Robert A. Westbrook, University of Arizona


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 06 | 1979

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