If you’ve ever wondered what motivates a certain type of person to lodge a complaint about a good or service and lobby hard to get what they believe to be their due, a new study set to be published this year in the Journal of Consumer Research may shed some light: It appears to correlate with political ideology. Specifically, liberals are more likely to lodge complaints and to dispute the resolution process. Conservatives? Not so much — except when it comes to restaurants.
University of Sydney researchers Kiju Jung, Ellen Garbarino, Donnel Briley and Jesse Wynhausen decided to study how political alignment affects consumer behavior. The trouble is that complainers, as a group, are hard to pin down. Previous research they examined on what makes some people gripe while others seethe silently found that folks complain for all sorts of reasons, ranging from what exactly caused their dissatisfaction to how much success they’ve had from registering complaints in the past.
It makes sense: When you experience a consumer wrong, you probably take a moment to weigh the possible net gain of spending an afternoon on the phone raging on a Comcast rep — if you wait for hours and don’t get an extra penny out of it, you’ve just played yourself.
The motivations for rattling the suggestion box are myriad, too, according to research the authors cite: Some people complain to gain social standing or motivate broader social action. What’s more, people who complain more often about goods and services tend to also see themselves as the sort of people who can get things done, and complaining is a way of acting out this perceived power.
Perhaps more interestingly, previous studies have shown that people with qualities associated with conservatism, such as those who, broadly speaking, “value accomplishment and security,” tend to complain more. So do religious people, who tend to be more loyal to brands that support their values, and will break ties if they don’t feel those values are being met.
But other research has found that the politically conservative are less likely to gripe. Research on non-complainers sheds light on this: Those less inclined to bitch are people who prefer the status quo. In other words, people who don’t want to rock the boat tend not to say anything when they feel they’ve been wronged.
But such research is personality-based; it can’t help us predict consumer complaining. To parse the phenomenon in red and blue terms, the Sydney researchers looked at three large consumer complaint databases: the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Federal Communication Committee. Then they cross-referenced the complaints with 2012 U.S. presidential election voter registration and election polling data across the United States. The result? “Conservative consumers are not only less likely than liberal consumers to report complaints, but also less likely to dispute complaint resolutions,” the researchers write.
What’s this all about? It seems to have a lot to do with something called “system justification,” which New York University psychologist John Jost, who came up with the term, described to Pacific Standard as when “people are motivated to justify and rationalize the way things are.” Roughly, that means conservatives, who are more likely to respect tradition and authority, want to see the system as good and orderly and fair. They’ll justify it even when it screws them over, because they prefer a worldview that aligns with consistency. Complaining implies that the system was wrong, which would create cognitive dissonance.
The Sydney researchers looked at some 400,000 Consumer Financial Protection Bureau complaints — banks, credit cards, student loans, mortgages — and cross-referenced them with 2012 U.S. presidential election voter registration and election polling data. “Even after controlling for socio-demographic and economic indicators, there were more complaints reported from liberal-leaning than from conservative-leaning counties,” the researchers write.
Liberals were 24 percent more likely to file financial-related complaints and about 20 percent more likely to dispute the resolution, specifically with mortgages. This was true across all regions, but was more pronounced in the Midwest and the South than in the Northeast. (The authors suggest that could be be because the products about which consumers complained, such as mortgages, bank fines, or credit issues, could have been more aggressively marketed in those areas.)
The study also looked at complaints about automobile safety-related products (over 1 million complaints between 1995 and 2016) and complaints to the Federal Communications Commission about unwanted calls or billing issues. Liberals were about 11.8 percent more likely to complain than conservatives about vehicles, even after eliminating brand preferences, and about 10 percent more likely to gripe about unwanted calls.
Before we exclaim that liberals are some arguing motherfuckers, it’s worth noting that another lens could be used to suss out what’s going on here. The researchers note that their study controlled for gender, age, race and income, but it’s difficult to imagine that affluence, or lack thereof, isn’t a major player in who among us feels entitled to a certain standard of service and is willing to rumble to get it.
That argument could go two ways: People who tend to fight more over money or goods might be people for whom a little bit of money makes a big difference. Alternatively, the more affluent may feel more entitled to a certain standard of a good or service, and more likely to demand it.
If other studies show the wealthy are more narcissistic and entitled, does that translate to complaining more about perceived consumer wrongs—or not sweating them, because if you’re rich what’s a few extra dollars to Verizon? One study found that those who earn over $100,000 tend to get better customer service when they complained online. Why? “Hypothesis one is that perhaps rich people complain to companies who are more likely to provide an effective response via social media, like an airline or luxury brand,” business consultant Mark Schaefer suggests. Another theory? If companies keep profiles of their customers, they may respond more quickly to the ones they know are loaded. Gross, but highly plausible.
The third idea Schaefer floats is that because rich people expect better service, they may demand it. “The rich expect better service online because they get better service ‘in real life,’ where the trappings of their wealth are more readily apparent to customer service people,” he theorizes. “Having gotten used to a higher level of service, they make it clear they expect a response quickly.”
We sometimes think of Republicans, noted for their love of low taxes, as being wealthier, but recent research shows that while the wealthiest families are Republican, Democrats represent the majority of the richest congressional districts. (It’s not a huge difference: In 2014, the median Democratic district household income was $53,358, compared to $51,834 for Republican districts.)
But one aspect of the research contradicted this picture of the well-off, entitled Democrat — complaining in a service-oriented context. In a separate experiment the researchers conducted, conservatives were more likely to complain at a restaurant. Participants were told to imagine they had a sea-view table reserved, but arrived to find they couldn’t get it because of a first-come, first-serve policy they hadn’t been told about. They were asked to rank the degree to which they’d be likely to speak to a manager or review the place negatively. While this hypothetical would probably irk anyone, regardless of who they voted for — what’s the point of a reservation if it can be bumped by anyone who arrives before you? — it was conservatives who said they were more likely to complain to the manager, and more likely to write a negative review.
For some reason that the study’s authors don’t explain, the conservative desire to keep things exactly as they are went directly out the window when a window seat hung in the balance. It may be that liberals are less willing to complain about the service sector—they are the ones who want to raise the minimum wage, after all. Or maybe they just don’t care that much about where they sit.