The Psychology of Why People Complain

By Bon Miller

If you ask anyone who is working in customer service what they enjoy most about their profession, they will quickly respond, “It’s the people.” Customer service is a people industry, and there is no better area of customer service to learn about the greatest (and worst) parts of human emotions than complaints handling.

This poses several thought-provoking considerations for people responsible for managing an organisation’s reaction to consumer complaints. Firstly, what are the different types of complaints? Secondly, what motivates people to complain? Last but not least, how do you handle these complainers?

The Three Types of Complaints

It’s beneficial to recognise that complaints (and, by extension, complainers) come in various types. 

  1. Chronic complaints

Certain individuals never appear to be satisfied. These individuals are referred to as chronic complainers. They have a proclivity for ruminating on problems and focusing on setbacks rather than progress. According to some research, developing a habit of complaining can “rewire” the brain in such a way that those particular ways of thinking become ingrained. Of course, it is possible to rewire this rewiring to make it more positive, but chronic complainers are unlikely to believe this would work very well.

  1. Venting

The second type of complaint is commonly referred to as “venting.” Venting is the process of expressing one’s emotional dissatisfaction. It turns out that those who vent do so for a reason. They are frequently consumed by their own — presumably negative — experiences. They solicit attention from their confidantes by expressing their anger, frustration, or disappointment. They can obtain a sense of validation through receiving attention and sympathy. Venters are prone to disregard advice and suggested solutions to their problems. They are not seeking resolution; they are seeking validation.

One unfortunate side effect of both venting and chronic complaining is that they tend to lower people’s moods. Researchers tracked people’s moods before and after hearing a complaint in one series of studies. As predicted, listening to complaints exacerbated people’s feelings. Additionally, the complainer felt worse!

  1. Instrumental Complaining 

The final kind of complaint is called “instrumental complaint.” In contrast to its wrinkled-nosed conceptual cousins, the instrumental complaint is entirely concerned with resolving issues. Confronting your romantic partner about credit card overspending could be considered instrumental complaining. Mainly if you concentrate on the problem’s impact, the critical nature of change and collaborate to develop a plan for change. According to one study, these complaints account for less than 25% of all complaints.

What motivates people to complain (or not)?

In an article, Professor Robin Kowalski discussed his research on the relationship between happiness, personal attitudes, and the purpose of complaining. Her research has examined the relationship between complaint and personality type, employing well-established psychological profiling tools such as Costa and McCrae’s ‘Big Five’ personality traits.

According to Kowalski’s research, people’s propensity to complain is related to their personality type. In short, whether someone is ‘the type of person who complains’ is determined by their self-esteem and perceptions of positive outcomes.

Richins established a link between an individual’s attitude toward complaint and their actual complaint behaviour in 1982. Individuals who have a favourable attitude toward complaining are more likely to file complaints. However, we also know that only about 5-10% of dissatisfied customers file a complaint.

The risk to your organisation is that non-complainers will switch to a competitor — and will do so without providing you with the feedback necessary to improve your business’s performance.

In the public sector, keep in mind that customers rarely have the option of switching, which results in frustration and anger as limited options trap complainants.

What to Know about the Psychology of Complaining

There are three things you should understand about the psychology of complaining to handle these situations more effectively.

  1. The customer is likely to point the finger at you.

According to the Attribution Theory, when something goes well, we have a tendency to associate success to internal factors such as our talent, ability, or effort. Nevertheless, when something goes wrong, we tend to blame external factors such as bad luck, another person’s actions, or the difficulty of the task. 

Not only that, customers are more critical of technology-mediated interactions than they are of face-to-face interactions. That is, when an issue arises during an online interaction, customers are especially likely to place the blame on the service provider.

Make an effort to get rid of the possibility of any problems occurring in the first place, particularly online. Spending time improving the design, testing and retesting various types of interactions, and foolproofing the process pays off handsomely.

  1. The customer is not always paying attention to what you say.

The confirmation bias phenomenon states that we are more likely to notice evidence that confirms a prior belief than evidence that contradicts it. When confronted with ambiguous information, our natural tendency is to interpret it in ways that confirm our preexisting beliefs.

For example, customers may react strongly to reports of similar problems but fail to notice that those problems occurred years ago, with an older version of the product, or under different management, etc. That is why some businesses remove negative reviews from online communities and product review websites.

This bias is extreme when the customer has an emotional attachment to the purchase, when individuals favour retribution, and when we believe that the harmful behaviour is widespread and largely unchecked.

Allow customers to directly contact you and respond promptly to minimize the likelihood that dissatisfied customers will vent online. Offer sympathy (e.g., I understand that this was a tough day for you) and do not treat all complaints uniformly. You must first comprehend the individual making the complaint and their perceptions and motivations.

  1. The customer’s decision is extremely difficult to reverse.

According to blame theory, once a negative episode occurs, and the customer determines that it was your fault, the customer’s mind becomes preoccupied with deciding whether you did it on purpose (intentionality) or by accident (negligence).

Even if the information gathered at this point is unrelated to the previous conclusion, it may be used to reinforce it (i.e., that it was your fault).

For instance, discovering that you failed to obtain a safety check for a completely unrelated aspect of your business may make the customer think that you were negligent and that this contributed to the complaint’s main issue.

Additionally, the further a customer’s train of thought travels down a particular path, the more difficult it is to reroute it due to cognitive and emotional costs. Cognitive costs refer to the cost of repeating the reasoning process, processing new information, accumulating new evidence, and so forth. The emotional costs refer to the ramifications of admitting our errors, such as losing face or accepting our incompetence.

Respond promptly to complaints and be aware of the costs of being incorrect. When a complaint is lodged, consider offering some form of repair or compensation, even if the problem was not your fault.


While complaints are inevitable in any business, it is always a good idea to understand why such exists. Knowing what motivates people to complain sets a new perspective for you to look to help address their concerns appropriately.

Hearts Agency has a team of excellent community managers who can help you with various complaints concerning your business. Contact us for more details.