What our negative reviews and consumer complaints on social media reveal about us

A supermarket starts offering hot rolls just after Christmas. A cling film brand moves its serrated cutter bar from the base of the box to the inside of the lid. Chocolate maker M&M’s is changing its marketing. Each time, people take to social media to complain.

Why are people so angry at things that seem so insignificant?

We looked at the issue of consumer anger on social media because, as marketing scholars, we are interested in how companies deal with the excessive toxicity that accompanies business engagement on social media. But our research also helps to explain the causes of this culture of complaint.

Our results indicate that this behavior fulfills two fundamental psychological needs.

First, complaint is a social connection mechanism.

Second, it’s an opportunity to boost self-esteem through what psychologists call “downward social comparison.” Since social media feeds can be filled with opportunities to feel inferior, complaining about brands is an easy way to feel better about yourself.

How we did our research

To understand why people complain so much on social media, we analyzed negative posts on Facebook about brands caught up in media controversies at the time.

We focused on six businesses: a clothing brand, a supermarket, an airline, an e-commerce store, a department store, and a beverage company.

Each had a Facebook page with over a million followers. Controversies included allegations of employee mistreatment, unethical business practices, poor customer experiences and a poorly received advertising campaign. We analyzed hundreds of comments posted on the pages of these companies. We followed up with interviews with 13 social media users who said they use Facebook at least daily and interact with brands on social media at least once a week.

We asked these 13 people what they posted and why. We also asked them to speculate on other social media posts about the same brands. This allowed us to draw our conclusions.


Complain to bond with others

The most common reason for complaining online was to pay for something that didn’t happen or somehow didn’t work out. This was our least surprising finding.

More surprising was the number of people who joined in posting negative comments, without any first-hand experience. We’ve seen this complaint used as a hookup mechanism, with users tagging family or friends in posts about faulty equipment with questions like, “Did this happen to yours?”

Complaining has long been “a pervasive and important form of social communication,” as psychology professor Mark Alicke and colleagues noted in a 1992 study, published before most people had even heard of it. ‘Internet.

Social media has amplified this, allowing us not only to complain to friends, but also to create a type of social connection with strangers. We could give you dozens of examples from our research, but you can probably cite many from your own experiences.

Read more: Does social media make us more or less alone? Depends on how you use it

The people we studied enjoyed debating with strangers, especially when they felt they had the upper hand. One interviewee told us:

I like that, because it shows that at least I have an impact. If I talk about something that someone is so mad at that they rewrite something, at least we have a conversation.

Such answers speak to the social dilemma of social networks. Our increasingly digital existence contributes to social disconnection from the real world. To compensate, people crave all the attention they can get on social media, including complaining and arguing.

Downward social comparison

The second major psychological reward of complaining on social media was boosting their self-esteem. As one participant told us:

It’s kind of this negative thing, but it’s more into a funny, sarcastic, trolling negative thing.

This reward came to fruition strongly when we asked our respondents to speculate on the complaints of others. “Maybe they are bored and lonely at home,” said one. “The fact that he obviously looks down on people elevates his position,” said another.

Read more: New research shows trolls don’t just like hurting others, they feel good about themselves too

Boosting self-esteem by looking down on others is known as “downward social comparison”. This idea was formulated by American social psychologist Leon Festinger in 1954, who suggested that humans were programmed by evolution to compare our value to that of others.

Leon Festinger's 1954 article,
Leon Festinger’s 1954 paper, “A Theory of Social Comparison Processes”.
Human Relations, CC BY

Generally, we look for comparisons with people like us. Upward social comparisons (with higher-status individuals or groups) are bad for our self-esteem, while downward comparisons (with lower-status targets) can boost our self-esteem.

Research over the past decade suggests they amplify our need to find things we feel superior to, precisely because they are so effective at making us feel inferior, with social media feeds typically subjecting us to “highlight pinwheels” from other people’s beach vacations, job promotions, romantic dinners and so on.

One study, for example, found that spending more time on social media is associated with a greater likelihood of believing that others are happier and have a better life.

Looking down on companies and brands can be an easy and relatively socially acceptable way for us to feel smarter and superior.

Read more: How social media affects children at different ages – and how to protect them

Manipulating our love to complain

Some complain is a good thing. It shows companies that we are ready to hold them to account.

But the extent to which complaints are made to eliminate the psychological itch complicates the use of social media. Indeed, some companies are now deliberately courting controversy to exploit our love of complaint.

One example is British breakfast cereal maker Weetabix, which in February 2021 tweeted an image of Weetabix topped with baked beans. It is not an important question. But it generated enough controversy on social media to spill over into a dozen legacy media reports as well.

Weetabix baked beans on Weetabix tweet

TwitterCC PER

Whenever you see a brand come out with a weird flavor, it’s probably not because the company executives have lost their minds. It’s more likely that their marketers are deliberately trying to trick people into expressing either joy or disgust about it.

So if you find yourself complaining online, be aware of the social and psychological factors that lurk below the surface.

Just as you can take advantage of a brand to make yourself feel better, it’s possible for a company to fuel controversy to take advantage of you.

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