One of my great joys in life is eavesdropping. As a psychologist, I have long been interested in people; in what they think and feel and in how they behave. I enjoy watching people’s facial expressions, listening to their word choices, and tracking their emotional tone. Among my favorite venues for people watching is the airport. Unlike restaurants or movie theaters airports are locations where people are placed in close quarters and where I have nothing better to do than listen in to the lives of others.

Unfortunately, a lot of what I overhear are complaints. I hear people gripe about delayed flights and uncomfortable seats. I listen to business people make calls in which they tear down co-workers and competitors alike. I bear witness to a litany of problems: bad weather, wars, poor economic performance, nosy in-laws, and broken bones. You’d think the world was ending.

The psychology of complaining

If complaining is so awful, why is it so prevalent? It turns out that complaining has captured the attention of many of my colleagues. There is a growing body of research addressing complaining: what it is, and when and why it happens. To begin with, complaining is simply expressing dissatisfaction. This usually happens verbally, as in the case of two people on a date commenting on the awful dinner they have been served. For consumers, it can happen through online feedback forms or customer service counters—but consumer complaints are a separate matter.

Complaining usually happens in the wake of a negative situation. Traffic was worse than expected. The movie was disappointing. The contractor did shoddy work. The city council should never have approved that new development. Of course, it is not just situations but also personal factors that are involved. You’ll notice, for example, that some people tend to complain while others hold their tongues. Indeed, there is a “complaint threshold” that must be reached before someone decides to grumble.

This threshold is still being explored but it likely has many facets. One may be “locus of control,” or how much control a person feels she has in a situation. If an airline misplaces your suitcase, for instance, you are more likely to lodge a complaint because you feel that your notification of the problem will help to solve it. There may be other personal factors involved as well such as tolerance for conflict, age, and desire to present one’s self positively.

The flavors of complaint

 CC-BY-SA 3.0 Nick Youngson
Source: CC-BY-SA 3.0 Nick Youngson

It is useful to understand that complaining (and—by extension—complainers) come in types. There are those who never seem to be satisfied. These are known as chronic complainers. They have a tendency to ruminate on problems and to focus on setbacks over progress. Some research suggests that making a habit of complaint can “re-wire” the brain so that those particular thinking orientations become ingrained. It is possible to re-wire this re-wiring to make it more positive, of course, but chronic complainers probably don’t think it would work all that well.

A second type of complaint is the familiar “venting.” Venting is expressing emotional dissatisfaction. It turns out that people who vent have an agenda. They tend to be focused on themselves and their own—presumably negative—experience. By showing their anger, frustration, or disappointment, they are soliciting attention from their confidantes. They can feel validated by receiving attention and sympathy. Venters are particularly likely to discount advice and proposed solutions to their problems. They aren’t looking to solve anything; they simply want validation.

One unfortunate downside to both venting and to chronic complaining is that it can dampen people’s moods. In one series of studies, researchers tracked people’s moods before and after hearing a complaint. As predicted, listening to gripes made people feel worse. What’s more, the complainer also felt worse!

How to complain well

The last type of complaint is known as the “instrumental complaint.” Unlike its wrinkle-nosed conceptual cousins the instrumental complaint is all about solving problems. When you confront your romantic partner about overspending on the credit card, that could be instrumental complaining. Especially if you focus on the impact of the problem, the importance of change, and cooperate to create a plan for change. One study suggests that these types of complaints make up fewer than 25 percent of all complaints.

In one study, researchers found that happy people complain less. They also looked at the evidence that the happy folks in their study were more mindful. They hypothesize that more cheerful folks are likely to complain more mindfully—more strategically, if you will—and with a specific goal in mind. When viewed this way a rough guide for complaining emerges:

  • Avoid dampening your mood by complaining only rarely
  • Complain only in instances where you believe it will effect real and positive change
  • Consider whether affirmation or some other strategy will work instead of complaining
  • Limit your exposure to complaining by limiting your exposure to complainers

References

Alicke, M., Braun, J., Glor, J., Klotz, M., Magee, J., Sederholm, H. & Siegel, R. (1992). Complaining behavior in social interaction. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 18, 286-295.  

Kowalski, R. M. (1996). Complaints and complaining: Functions, antecedents, and consequences. Psychological Bulletin, 119(2), 179-196.

Kowalski, R. M., Allison, B., Giumetti, G.W., Turner, J., Whittaker, E., Frazee, L. & Stephens, J.  (2014). Pet Peeves and Happiness: How Do Happy People Complain? Journal of Social Psychology, 154.

Wojciszke, B., Baryla, W., Szymkow-Sudziarska, A., Parzuchowski, M. & Kowalczyk, K. (2009). Saying is experiencing: Affective consequences of complaining and affirming. Polish Psychology Bulletin, 40, 74-84.

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