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Journal of
CONSUMER
PSYCHOLOGY
Journal of Consumer Psychology 21 (2011) 324 – 337

The contrasting effects of negative word of mouth


in the post-consumption stage
Haksin Chan a,⁎, Selina Cui b
a
Department of Marketing, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shatin, Hong Kong
b
Arkadin (HK) Ltd., 2402, Citicorp Centre, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong

Received 12 January 2010; revised 16 November 2010; accepted 23 November 2010


Available online 30 December 2010

Abstract

We explore the effects of negative word of mouth (NWOM) from worse-off or similar others in the post-consumption stage. In four
experiments, we show that the ramifications of NWOM are more complex than portrayed in the literature. Specifically, we demonstrate that
attribute-based NWOM has a negative (i.e., aggravating) effect on dissatisfied consumers, whereas experience-based NWOM has a positive (i.e.,
alleviating) effect. Thought-listing data reveal distinct processes underlying the contrasting effects. On one hand, these results are consistent with
the predictions of attitude polarization and downward comparison research. On the other hand, they are explainable in terms of the disconfirmation
model.
© 2010 Society for Consumer Psychology. Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Keywords: Word of mouth; Post-consumption; Dissatisfaction; Attitude polarization; Social comparison; Self-enhancement

Consumers are increasingly sharing product information and or could've been cleaned…There was a microwave,
consumption experiences with each other. With the prolifera- refrigerator & TV which were all plugged into one
tion of online communities and social media, consumers may extension cord which…we're sure the Fire Marshal
conveniently share their experiences or opinions and, at the would not appreciate seeing.”1
same time, be easily exposed to word-of-mouth (WOM) Consumer B “I [used] a Clinique sample from one of those free
influence (Wheat, 2010). This exposure, whether intentional gift things...I used a very small amount and it
or incidental, has enormous implications for all stages of actually made my skin feel great…and [last night]
decision making (Schindler & Bickart, 2005). In particular, the I used it again. On this application, almost
growing opportunities for WOM influence have the potential to instantaneously I noticed red blotches forming
transform the post-consumption processes. on my skin which soon turned to rash like
Consider the following excerpts from two Internet consumer bumps…When I woke up this morning my face is
forums. bright red over my whole cheeks and most of my
forehead feels like I have been badly sunburnt.”2
Consumer A “The hotel was obviously old but it could've been
cleaner. The room had a musty smell; the furniture How would such postings influence other disgruntled guests
was broken & should not have been in the room of the hotel and consumers allergic to Clinique products?
since it obviously needed to be replaced. The carpet Would these consumers be more displeased because they are
was stained & sticky; it also needed to be replaced more convinced that the hotel/Clinique products are bad (per

⁎ Corresponding author. Fax: +852 2603 5473. 1


http://travel.yahoo.com/p-hotel-376105 (accessed July 15, 2010).
2
E-mail addresses: hchan@cuhk.edu.hk (H. Chan), s.cui@arkadin.com http://forums.vogue.com.au/showthread.php?p=4280911 (accessed July 15,
(S. Cui). 2010).

1057-7408/$ - see front matter © 2010 Society for Consumer Psychology. Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
doi:10.1016/j.jcps.2010.11.005
H. Chan, S. Cui / Journal of Consumer Psychology 21 (2011) 324–337 325

attitude polarization research), or would they feel better exposure to, deliberation on, and/or communication about
knowing that they are not the only victims of a service/product attitude-congruent information (Abelson, 1995; Eagly &
failure (per downward comparison research)? Chaiken, 1993). For example, a voter who opposes a public
The WOM literature is silent on these intriguing questions. policy typically becomes more opposed to it after reading an
Prior research on WOM influence has focused on the pre- article against the policy; a consumer who has a favorable
purchase stage, documenting strong WOM effects on product opinion of a product typically becomes more favorable after
involvement (Giese, Spangenberg, & Crowley, 1996), brand hearing positive comments about it.
attitude (Herr, Kardes, & Kim, 1991; Laczniak, DeCarlo, & The attitude polarization effect is most evident when group
Ramaswami, 2001), purchase intention (Gilly, Graham, discussion is involved. Not only does group discussion facilitate
Wolfinbarger, & Yale, 1998), and purchase behavior (Brown the exchange of persuasive arguments among individuals, but it
& Reingen, 1987; Liu, 2006). Nonetheless, the impacts of also motivates individuals to adjust their positions in order to
WOM on other consumers in the post-consumption stage meet or exceed the perceived norm (Eagly & Chaiken, 1993).
remain largely unexplored. These two types of influence—informational and normative—
Interestingly, two bodies of social psychological literature— often occur in combination to produce the polarization effect
one on attitude polarization and one on downward comparison— (Isenberg, 1986).
point to opposite effects of negative WOM (NWOM) on other A number of other conditions also contribute to attitude
dissatisfied consumers. Given the distinct processes that underlie polarization. Evaluating new information, even that which is
attitude polarization and downward comparison, we propose and mixed or inconclusive, can cause an attitude to become more
demonstrate that NWOM (from worse-off or similar others) may extreme (Lord, Ross, & Pepper, 1979), and mere exposure to
aggravate or alleviate dissatisfaction, contingent on message the attitude positions of like-minded others is sufficient for
content—which may trigger one process versus another. As we normative forces to exert their polarizing influence (Myers,
will discuss, both the aggravating effect (per attitude polarization 1978). In fact, attitude polarization can be induced by sheer
research) and the alleviating effect (per downward comparison intrapersonal processes such as thinking about an attitude object
research) are conceptually linked to the disconfirmation model of (Tesser, 1978) and repeated expression of an attitude (Downing,
consumer (dis)satisfaction. Judd, & Brauer, 1992). In a broader framework, these
A general framework of message content is lacking in the intrapersonal processes may be conceptualized “as involving
WOM literature, although recent studies have recognized the imagined or anticipated interaction with like-minded indivi-
complexity (Laczniak et al., 2001) and adaptability (Schellekens, duals, thus implicating the same mediating mechanisms as in
Verlegh, & Smidts, 2010; Sengupta, Dahl, & Gorn, 2002) of group polarization” (Abelson, 1995, p. 29). Regardless of the
WOM content. As conceptualized in this article, attribute-based varied theoretical perspectives, attitude polarization is a robust
WOM highlights the product—what it is and how it performs, phenomenon that manifests itself under a variety of conditions,
whereas experience-based WOM highlights the consumer—what interpersonal or otherwise.
happens as a result of purchase and consumption. This distinction
draws on Gutman's (1982) conceptualization that products Attitude polarization among consumers
possess attributes but consumers experience the consequences
of product attributes. As anecdotal examples, consumer A's Previous research has confirmed consumer susceptibility to
posting is attribute-based and consumer B's posting is experience- informational and normative influences (Bearden, Netemeyer, &
based. Teel, 1989; Lascu, Bearden, & Rose, 1995). In particular, the
In short, our research investigates the effects of attribute- polarization effect as a result of group interactions has been shown
based and experience-based NWOM (from worse-off or similar to be pertinent to different aspects of consumer behavior. In their
others). The results of four experiments reveal an aggravating study of sorority women in the naturalistic environment, Ward
effect on dissatisfaction when the message is attribute-based and and Reingen (1990) found interesting patterns of polarization for
an alleviating effect when the message is experience-based. The consumer beliefs and choices. They further observed that group
evidence also suggests that the contrasting effects are driven, characteristics may promote or inhibit polarization. On the basis
respectively, by a product-evaluative and a social-comparative of experimental data, Rao and Steckel (1991) verified that a
process. Moreover, these effects seem to reach beyond decision model that incorporates the polarization effect outper-
dissatisfaction and contribute to corresponding changes in forms models that do not. Recently, Bohlmann, Rosa, Bolton, and
repurchase intent. Note, however, that message context and Qualls (2006) demonstrated that satisfaction judgments of both
experience comparability create boundary conditions for these individual consumers and organizational buyers are susceptible to
NWOM effects. Before presenting the empirical work, we lay the polarizing influence of group interactions—a phenomenon
out the theoretical foundations for the opposite effects of they labeled as “escalation.”
NWOM on consumer dissatisfaction.
The aggravating effect of NWOM
Attitude polarization
A large amount of WOM occurs in the context of group
Attitude polarization refers to a social psychological discussions with family and friends (Ward & Reingen, 1990),
phenomenon in which an attitude becomes more extreme after colleagues (Bohlmann et al., 2006), and strangers (Schlosser,
326 H. Chan, S. Cui / Journal of Consumer Psychology 21 (2011) 324–337

2005). When dissatisfied consumers exchange NWOM infor- 1981, p. 245). For example, consumers stuck in a slow-moving
mation in a group setting, dissatisfaction should be escalated. queue may derive some comfort from the long line behind them,
Apart from group discussion, other forms of NWOM commu- even though they cannot do anything to improve the situation.
nication may also be conducive to dissatisfaction escalation. The In support of this view, Zhou and Soman (2003) demonstrated
polarization literature suggests that a NWOM message would in a series of experiments that the number of people behind has
have an aggravating effect on the attitudes and judgments of a positive influence on the experience of waiting and the
other dissatisfied consumers, as long as the message conveys likelihood of staying in the queue. Their research provides solid
negative opinions and/or arguments in support of such opinions. evidence that knowing about the existence of less fortunate
Depending on the format of communication (e.g., face-to-face, others enhances consumer affect and increases consumer
telephone, email, Internet forum, etc.), different factors may be tolerance. By the same token, NWOM from less fortunate others
responsible for the aggravating effect. These variations aside, the may have an alleviating effect on consumer dissatisfaction.
polarization literature generally points to an aggravating effect
of NWOM on consumer dissatisfaction. The alleviating effect of NWOM

Downward comparison It is common for dissatisfied consumers to experience


negative emotions ranging from disappointment to distress
In a review and synthesis of social psychology literature, (Westbrook, 1987; Westbrook & Oliver, 1991). According to
Wills (1981) convincingly argues that stress and negative affect downward comparison theory, these negative emotions are
evoke a self-enhancement motivation to compare downward relieved to some extent by the realization that “things could be
with worse-off targets. In contrast to Festinger's (1954) classic worse.” Therefore, dissatisfied consumers may feel better about
theory of social comparison, which concerns the evaluation of their own situation when they learn that others have worse
abilities and opinions, downward comparison theory highlights experience. In other words, NWOM may have a positive effect
the enhancement of subjective well-being. Specifically, the on dissatisfied consumers; namely, the alleviation of dissatis-
favorable comparison between the self and less fortunate others faction. Buunk et al.'s (2001) research on relationship
enables a person to feel better about an unpleasant situation. satisfaction lends support to this argument. For individuals in
In essence, the use of negative information about others to stable relationships, Buunk et al. found a satisfaction-enhancing
enhance subjective well-being is a learned “cognitive” strategy effect of downward comparison. In their analysis, engaging in
for coping with stress and negative affect (Wills, 1981). It may downward comparison helps “buffer” against relational discon-
involve a passive process (i.e., taking advantage of available tent by creating a lower reference point.
downward targets) or an active process (i.e., finding or creating
downward targets). The role of message content
Downward comparison theory has received support across
qualitative, experimental, and correlational studies. In an Our literature review suggests opposite effects of NWOM
influential field study, Taylor, Wood, and Lichtman (1983) (from worse-off others) on consumer dissatisfaction: (1) an
found widespread evidence of downward comparison among aggravating effect based on attitude polarization research, and
breast cancer patients, some of whom even compared (2) an alleviating effect based on downward comparison
themselves with hypothetical downward targets. The self- research. This apparent contradiction can be resolved by
enhancing effects of downward comparison were subsequently recognizing the different thrusts of the two streams of research.
confirmed in lab experiments (e.g., Buunk, Oldersma, & de Specifically, the former concerns how others' viewpoints may
Dreu, 2001; Gibbons & Boney McCoy, 1991). Moreover, influence the evaluation of an issue or an object, whereas the
surveys of individuals with physical or emotional problems latter concerns how others' experience may influence the
have generally reported a positive relationship between standard against which a personal situation is compared. We
subjective well-being and the extent to which one's situation argue that a NWOM message would produce an aggravating
is perceived as better than those of others (e.g., Dias & Lobel, effect if it triggers a product-evaluative process, and would
1997; Helgeson & Taylor, 1993). Overall speaking, the produce an alleviating effect if it triggers a social-comparative
downward comparison phenomenon and the resulting allevia- process. In terms of (dis)satisfaction theory, these effects and
tion of negative affect are well-documented (Buunk & Gibbons, the underlying processes are in line with a popular view of (dis)
2007). satisfaction formation—the disconfirmation model.
Attitude polarization research emphasizes the deliberation
Downward comparison among consumers process—the evaluation of arguments and evidence offered by
others—and the beliefs and opinions thus formed (Abelson,
Stress and negative affect are “endemic” to consumption 1995; Eagly & Chaiken, 1993; Sunstein, 2002). It is no
(Duhachek, 2005). Therefore, the downward comparison coincidence that the polarization effect is often investigated in
phenomenon is likely pervasive among consumers. The the context of social and political issues (e.g., Downing et al.,
motivation to engage in downward comparison is particularly 1992; Lord et al., 1979; Myers, 1978). The deliberative/
high in situations where “frustration or misfortune has occurred evaluative focus is also evident in pertinent consumer research,
that is difficult to remedy through instrumental action” (Wills, which has verified the polarizing influence of “evaluative
H. Chan, S. Cui / Journal of Consumer Psychology 21 (2011) 324–337 327

beliefs” (Ward & Reingen, 1990), “preference evaluations” consumer's perception of product performance and (2) the
(Rao & Steckel, 1991), and “product performance evaluations” standard or reference point adopted by the consumer (Oliver,
(Bohlmann et al., 2006). In a post-consumption NWOM 1997). Attribute-based NWOM exerts an influence on the first
context, the exposure to negative evaluations of salient product variable by heightening dissatisfied consumers' negative
attributes likely prompts dissatisfied consumers to deliberate on perceptions of product performance (thus increasing dissatis-
the performance of these attributes. Given informational and faction). This influence of NWOM is consistent with prior
normative influences, the result would be a negative shift in research that views consumer perceptions of product perfor-
performance perceptions and increased dissatisfaction. mance as malleable (Deighton, 1992) and sensitive to social
In contrast to attitude polarization research, downward factors (Fournier & Mick, 1999). On the other hand,
comparison research involves a process that is subjective/ experience-based NWOM exerts an influence on the second
instinctive rather than deliberative/evaluative. The latter stream variable by creating a lower reference level for dissatisfied
of research documents various psychological benefits (e.g., consumers (thus decreasing dissatisfaction). As proposed by
stress reduction, mood improvement, and increase in satisfac- Woodruff, Cadotte, and Jenkins (1983), WOM communica-
tion) derived from a favorable comparison between the self and tions constitute one important type of “experience-based
worse-off others (Buunk & Gibbons, 2007; Wills, 1981). In a norms” that consumers may use as a frame of reference for
post-consumption NWOM context, negative experience shared disconfirmation judgments.
by worse-off others likely prompts dissatisfied consumers to In summary, a synthesis of attitude polarization and
draw such a comparison. Given a self-enhancement motivation, downward comparison literatures suggests contrasting effects
the exposure to a salient downward target would contribute to of attribute-based and experience-based NWOM on dissatis-
decreased dissatisfaction. faction. The contrasting effects are also grounded in a major
To recapitulate, the contrasting effects of NWOM on framework of post-consumption behavior. Formally, we
dissatisfied consumers are driven, respectively, by a product- advance the following hypothesis.
evaluative process (that focuses on product attributes) and a
social-comparative process (that focuses on consumer experi- Hypothesis 1. (a) Attribute-based NWOM from a worse-off
ence). It follows that the relative strengths of these effects are a other will increase dissatisfaction. (b) Experience-based
function of the salience of attribute information versus NWOM from a worse-off other will decrease dissatisfaction.
consumer experience in the NWOM message. When attribute
Besides these contrasting effects, the literatures on attitude
information is salient (e.g., when a consumer enumerates the
polarization and downward comparison also point to distinct
clumsy features of a software product), attitude polarization
processes. As discussed above, a product-evaluative process is
research suggests an aggravating effect. When consumer
largely responsible for the aggravating effect of NWOM,
experience is salient (e.g., when a consumer recounts the
whereas a social-comparative process is at the core of the
damage done by a defective software product), downward alleviating effect of NWOM. We expect to find corresponding
comparison research suggests an alleviating effect.
process evidence to accompany the hypothesized effects
We refer to the first type of NWOM as attribute-based and
associated with attribute-based and experience-based NWOM.
the second type as experience-based. Specifically, attribute-
Hence, we propose a second hypothesis.
based NWOM highlights the product (i.e., what the product is
and how it performs) whereas experience-based NWOM Hypothesis 2. Attribute-based (vs. experience-based) NWOM
highlights the consumer (i.e., what happens to the consumer from a worse-off other will elicit (a) more product-evaluative
as a result of purchase and consumption). This conceptualiza- thoughts and (b) fewer social-comparative thoughts.
tion parallels Gutman's (1982) classic distinction between
attributes and consequences—that products possess attributes Pilot experiment
but consumers experience the consequences of product
attributes. Both types of NWOM have been featured in The pilot experiment provided a preliminary test of
previous research. Schlosser's (2005, Experiment 1) NWOM Hypotheses 1 and 2 and led to some refinements in
manipulation exemplifies attribute-based NWOM: “While a methodology. In this experiment, the 60 participants (45%
well done claymation, it seems to lack the ability to tell its male) first rated their experimentally induced, pre-NWOM
viewer what it is about until the end. The preceding parts of the dissatisfaction (T1-D) with a bank before receiving either
show are barren and oblique, as the setting, and in my opinion, attribute-based or experience-based NWOM from a worse-off
unnecessary.” In contrast, Herr et al.'s (1991, Experiment 2) other. After a brief delay, they reported their post-NWOM
NWOM condition is mostly experience-based: “It's the worst dissatisfaction (T2-D) and performed a thought-listing task.
car he's ever had. It seems like it's always in the shop being Consistent with Hypothesis 1, dissatisfaction increased in
repaired. I think he's spent more to keep it running than it the attribute-based condition (MT1-D = 7.49, MT2-D = 8.24,
originally cost him.” t = 5.82, p b .001) and decreased in the experience-based
The contrasting effects of attribute-based and experience- condition (MT1-D = 7.32, MT2-D = 6.86, t = −2.79, p b .05).
based NWOM are also explainable in terms of a major theory However, there was only partial support for Hypothesis 2.
of (dis)satisfaction. According to the disconfirmation model, As predicted by Hypothesis 2(a), participants in the attribute-
(dis)satisfaction reflects the discrepancy between (1) the based condition reported more product-evaluative thoughts
328 H. Chan, S. Cui / Journal of Consumer Psychology 21 (2011) 324–337

than did those in the experience-based condition (MAttr = 1.77, Experiment 1


MExp = 1.27, F(1, 58) = 4.61, p b .05). But there was no
support for Hypothesis 2(b), despite the 7 to 13 ratio of Method
social-comparative thoughts in the attribute-based condition
versus the experience-based condition (MAttr = .23, MExp = .43, One hundred and twenty one undergraduates (56% male)
F(1, 58) = 2.08, p N .10). participated in a “consumer study” in exchange for a small gift.
The lack of statistical support for Hypothesis 2(b) was, for They were randomly assigned to a 2 (message context: product-
the most part, due to the small number of social-comparative focused, people-focused) × 2 (message content: attribute-based,
thoughts reported (20 out of 135 overall). In retrospect, the experience-based) × 2 (time: T1, T2) repeated-measures design.
thought-listing task might have elicited only a small portion of At the onset of the experiment, participants were instructed to
these thoughts. As Wills (1981, p. 265) suggests, there is a imagine themselves waiting inside a bank before they read a
general tendency “to keep [downward] comparison private and baseline scenario depicting understaffed and slow service.
implicit” because it is considered less than admirable. To Participants then rated their pre-NWOM dissatisfaction (T1-D)
circumvent this problem, we introduce a new variable— toward the bank. Following a brief distractor task, participants
message context—in Experiment 1. Arguably, contextual cues were instructed to imagine themselves conversing with friends
that draw attention to others' experiences would facilitate the at a dinner gathering before they read a manipulation-embedded
reporting of social-comparative thoughts. scenario containing a NWOM message about the same bank.
Message context was manipulated with a boldfaced sentence
The role of message context describing the conversation as either focusing on “some low
quality products and services on the market” (product-focused)
Previous research evinces powerful effects of contextual or “some unpleasant experiences that you and your friends had
cues on consumers' encoding and retrieval of information encountered” (people-focused). Message content was manipu-
(Meyers-Levy & Tybout, 1997). The influence of a message is lated by presenting either an attribute-based or an experience-
generally context-dependent, with message processing biased based NWOM message (refer to Appendix A for the baseline
by different types of contextual information (Tormala & and NWOM scenarios). A pretest confirmed that the manipula-
Clarkson, 2007). tions were successful (see Manipulation checks).
Typically, NWOM is received in the context of other After the manipulations, participants reported their post-
messages. If these messages are focused on a particular topic, NWOM dissatisfaction (T2-D) and performed a thought-listing
that could create a facilitative or inhibitive context for the task (which asked them to “write down whatever feelings or
processing of the NWOM message. As far as the thought-listing thoughts” they had upon receipt of the NWOM message). The
task is concerned, a people-focused context (i.e., a context that dissatisfaction items were shuffled to reduce the impact of
focuses on individuals and their experiences) makes social short-term memory. Participants also rated the scenarios on
information salient, thus facilitating social comparison and the realism and comprehensibility. All the above items were
reporting of social-comparative thoughts. In this context, we measured with 10-point Likert scales (1 = strongly disagree,
expect to obtain clear evidence for Hypothesis 2(b). On the 10 = strongly agree). Finally, participants provided demographic
other hand, Hypothesis 2(a) should hold up well in a product- data and tried to guess the purpose of the study (at which none
focused context (i.e., a context that focuses on products and succeeded). Appendix B contains all the measures and their
their evaluations). reliability statistics (where applicable).
Moreover, crossing message context (product-focused vs.
people-focused) with message content (attribute-based vs. Results
experience-based) provides a stronger and more nuanced test
of the contrasting effects of NWOM on dissatisfaction. Since a Manipulation checks
product-focused context draws attention to product attributes, it A pretest (n = 80) provided the context, content, and
should strengthen the impact of attribute-based NWOM (and negativity checks. The context manipulation was assessed
possibly weaken the impact of experience-based NWOM). with a two-item context measure capturing the extent to which
Conversely, since a people-focused context directs attention to the NWOM context was people-focused versus product-focused
others' experiences, it should strengthen the impact of (such that a higher score would indicate a stronger people focus
experience-based NWOM (and possibly weaken the impact of and a weaker product focus). A 2 (message context) × 2
attribute-based NWOM). Hypothesis 3 summarizes the joint (message content) ANOVA on the context measure yielded
effects of message context and message content on consumer only a significant main effect of message context (MProd = 5.16,
dissatisfaction. MPeop = 7.39, F(1, 76) = 75.06, p b .001), thus validating the
context manipulation. The content manipulation was assessed
Hypothesis 3. (a) In a product-focused (vs. people-focused) with a two-item content check measuring the salience of
context, attribute-based NWOM from a worse-off other will consumer experience relative to product attributes in a NWOM
increase dissatisfaction to a greater extent. (b) In a people-focused message (such that a higher score would indicate a stronger
(vs. product-focused) context, experience-based NWOM from a emphasis on consumer experience relative to product attri-
worse-off other will decrease dissatisfaction to a greater extent. butes). A 2 (message context) × 2 (message content) ANOVA
H. Chan, S. Cui / Journal of Consumer Psychology 21 (2011) 324–337 329

on the content measure yielded only a significant main effect Table 1


of message content (MAttr = 4.06, MExp = 7.55, F(1, 76) = 59.59, Summary of mediation analysis (Experiment 1).
p b .001), which indicated that the content manipulation was NWOM effect Step Dependent Independent Estimate t-statistic
successful. Moreover, both NWOM scenarios were perceived variable variable
as more negative than the baseline scenario (ps b .001), and at Dissatisfaction (D) 1 ΔD Message content 1.45 7.60 a
the same time equivalent in terms of negativity (F b 1). Realism 2 Thought Message content −.61 −3.91 a
type
and comprehensibility ratings taken during Experiment 1 were
3 ΔD Message content 1.20 5.89 a
high (Ms N 7.30) and equivalent (Fs b 1). Thought type −.42 −2.75 b
a
p b .001.
b
p b .01.
Hypotheses tests
Dissatisfaction data were analyzed with a 2 (message
context) × 2 (message content) × 2 (time) repeated-measures NS; social-comparative thoughts: MAttr-Peop = .50, MExp-Prod = .33,
ANOVA. The ANOVA revealed a context × time inter- NS).
action (F(1, 117) = 8.67, p b .01) and a content × time interaction Further analysis illuminated the mediating role of thought
(F(1, 117) = 16.62, p b .001). No other effects were significant. type in the message-congruent contexts. To perform mediation
Since the baseline scenario induced equivalent levels of T1-D analysis, we constructed a thought type variable which captured
(F b 1), these interactions were indicative of the relevance of the salience of social-comparative thoughts relative to that of
both message variables to NWOM influence. product-evaluative thoughts.3 Following Baron and Kenny's
Hypothesis 1 received support when the data were collapsed (1986) recommendations, we performed a series of regressions
across message context. As predicted by Hypothesis 1(a), there involving message content (attribute-based = 1; experience-
was an increase in dissatisfaction from T1 to T2 in the attribute- based = 0), thought type, and change in dissatisfaction (ΔD).
based condition (MT1-D = 7.37, MT2-D = 7.92, t = 2.19, p b .05). We first demonstrated significant effects of message content on
Conversely, dissatisfaction decreased in the experience-based ΔD and also on thought type. Then we included both message
condition (MT1-D = 7.42, MT2-D = 7.12, t = −3.38, p b .01), thus content and thought type in the regression model for ΔD. A
supporting Hypothesis 1(b). significant Sobel test (Sobel's z = 2.25, p b .05) verified the
A more nuanced pattern emerged when the message- mediating role of thought type. Table 1 presents the step-by-step
congruent and message-incongruent contexts were analyzed mediation analysis.
separately. Specifically, the aggravating effect of attribute-
based NWOM and the alleviating effect of experience-based
NWOM were significant in the message-congruent contexts but Discussion
not in the message-incongruent contexts. The presence of an
aggravating effect of attribute-based NWOM in a product- Experiment 1 establishes that NWOM from a worse-off other
focused context (MT1-D = 7.27, MT2-D = 8.15, t = 5.84, p b .001), may heighten or dampen dissatisfaction. The findings support
coupled with its absence in a people-focused context (MT1-D = both the aggravation hypothesis for attribute-based NWOM and
7.47, MT2-D = 7.68, NS), supported Hypothesis 3(a). Likewise, the alleviation hypothesis for experience-based NWOM. In
Hypothesis 3(b) was supported by an alleviating effect of addition, the evidence suggests that a message-congruent (vs.
experience-based NWOM in a people-focused context (MT1-D = message-incongruent) context strengthens the impact of
7.50, MT2-D = 6.93, t = −4.96, p b .001) and by the absence of NWOM and a message-incongruent context can render
this effect in a product-focused context (MT1-D = 7.33, MT2-D = NWOM ineffective.
7.31, NS). Notably, the augmented effects of attribute-based NWOM in
Thought-listing data provided a glimpse into the underlying a product-focused context and experience-based NWOM in a
processes. Two independent judges coded the verbatim data people-focused context provide indirect evidence for the
into three categories: product-evaluative thoughts (e.g., “The process hypotheses—that the aggravating effect is driven by a
bank needs to improve its service ASAP”), social-comparative product-evaluative process and the alleviating effect is driven
thoughts (e.g., “I was more lucky than my friend”), and other by a social-comparative process. The main purpose of a
thoughts (e.g., “I would never wait in a long queue”). Interjudge message-congruent context is, however, methodological; name-
agreement was 94%, and discrepancies were resolved through ly, to facilitate the reporting of thoughts in connection with a
discussion. NWOM message. With the help of message-congruent
In support of Hypothesis 2, attribute-based NWOM in a contexts, the thought-listing data confirm that the two types
product-focused context elicited more product-evaluative of NWOM trigger distinct psychological processes in line with,
thoughts (MAttr-Prod = 1.84, MExp-Peop = 1.23, F(1, 59) = 7.57, respectively, attitude polarization and downward comparison
p b .01) and fewer social-comparative thoughts (MAttr-Prod = .19, research. Mediation analysis further confirms that these
MExp-Peop = .87, F(1, 59) = 13.45, p b .001) than experience-based
NWOM in a people-focused context. By contrast, there was no 3
For each participant, thought type was 1 if the thoughts were social-
support for Hypothesis 2 in the message-incongruent contexts comparative, 0 if the thoughts were mixed, and −1 if the thoughts were
(product-evaluative thoughts: MAttr-Peop = 1.90, MExp-Prod = 1.57, product-evaluative.
330 H. Chan, S. Cui / Journal of Consumer Psychology 21 (2011) 324–337

processes are, in turn, responsible for the contrasting NWOM is known as the “all in the same boat phenomenon” (Shulman,
effects. 2006).
Notwithstanding the promising results, Experiment 1 is In light of this evidence, we predict an alleviating effect for
limited in several respects. Theoretically, downward compar- experience-based NWOM from a similar other. This prediction
ison is a “cognitive” strategy to enhance subjective well-being is consistent with recent findings that dissatisfied consumers do,
(Wills, 1981). But the experience-based NWOM scenario that as a coping strategy, turn to those with similar experiences
was found to elicit this cognitive strategy contains affective (Duhachek, 2005). In terms of the disconfirmation model, the
details (e.g., “I was really frustrated”) as well as objective rationale for this prediction lies in the lowering of the
information (e.g., “I was kept waiting for over 40 minutes”). comparison standard. By definition, dissatisfaction implies the
Although emotions are a natural part of consumer experience, use of a relatively high standard. It follows that experience-
the emotional content in the scenario might have triggered based NWOM from a similar other conveys a substandard
extraneous psychological processes such as emotional conta- experience. That helps create a lower reference point, which
gion (Hatfield, Cacioppo, & Rapson, 1994).4 Besides this contributes to dissatisfaction alleviation by virtue of more
potential confound, a narrow scope constitutes another favorable disconfirmation outcomes.
limitation of the experiment, which deals with a rather In the case of attribute-based NWOM from a similar other,
restrictive case of NWOM influence—the influence of we predict an aggravating effect on dissatisfaction. As
NWOM from a worse-off other. The use of facilitative contexts polarization research consistently demonstrates, an initial
also weakens the generalizability of the results. tendency is strengthened by exposure to judgments and
These limitations are addressed in Experiment 2, a evaluations similar to one's own (Abelson, 1995; Eagly &
longitudinal study disguised as a pilot test of an investment Chaiken, 1993). In terms of the disconfirmation model,
service. As compared with a NWOM message on waiting time attribute-based NWOM exerts its polarizing influence by
during a single bank visit, a NWOM message on investment heightening dissatisfied consumers' negative perceptions of
return over a period of time should be more conducive to the product performance. A negative shift in performance percep-
reporting of social-comparative thoughts. This is especially the tions results in dissatisfaction aggravation by virtue of less
case when the comparison involves a similar (rather than worse- favorable disconfirmation outcomes.
off) other. To present a more comprehensive picture of NWOM
influence, Experiment 2 also examines the opposite effects of Hypothesis 4. (a) Attribute-based NWOM from a similar other
NWOM beyond dissatisfaction. The lateral comparison litera- will increase dissatisfaction. (b) Experience-based NWOM
ture provides the theoretical basis for the experiment. from a similar other will decrease dissatisfaction.

Lateral comparison Repurchase intent is a natural consequence of dissatisfaction,


and an inverse relationship exists between the two variables
According to Wills (1981), enhancement of subjective well- (Oliver, 1997). Given the hypothesized effects of NWOM on
being can be achieved through downward comparison with dissatisfaction, a corresponding pair of predictions regarding
worse-off others or lateral comparison with similar others. Like repurchase intent is in order.
downward comparison, lateral comparison allows individuals to
gain comfort through the realization that “I'm not the only Hypothesis 5. (a) Attribute-based NWOM from a similar other
victim” or “someone else also suffers.” Evidence for the self- will decrease repurchase intent. (b) Experience-based NWOM
enhancing effects of lateral comparison abounds in counseling from a similar other will increase repurchase intent.
and social work. For example, the therapeutic effects of self-
help groups (i.e., groups of individuals helping each other work As with Hypothesis 2 (which concerns NWOM from a
on common issues or concerns) are partly attributable to worse-off other), we expect to find evidence of the processes
comparison with similar others (Schiff & Bargal, 2000; underlying the hypothesized effects. The following is an
Weinberg, Uken, Schmale, & Adamek, 1995). Not surprisingly, extension of Hypothesis 2 to NWOM from a similar other.
the finding that distressed individuals report higher subjective
well-being after discovering that others are in similar situations Hypothesis 6. Attribute-based (vs. experience-based) NWOM
from a similar other will elicit (a) more product-evaluative
4
A reviewer suggested another potential confound. Namely, since the thoughts and (b) fewer social-comparative thoughts.
information in the attribute-based NWOM condition (e.g., closed counters and
slow clerks) is consistent with what is portrayed in the baseline condition, it
might be conducive to stable attributions which could lead to an aggravating
Experiment 2
effect. But the experience-based NWOM condition also contains information
(e.g., a long wait) that is consistent with the baseline condition. So any impact Method
of this potential confound would likely be small. Moreover, the stability
dimension of attribution theory typically concerns whether or not the same Eighty one part-time MBA students (39% male) participated
consumer has “stable negative experiences with the brand across times and
situations” (Laczniak et al., 2001; p. 59). This is different from the focus of our in Experiment 2, which involved a 2 (message content:
research, which concerns how one consumer is influenced by another attribute-based, experience-based) × 2 (time: T1, T2) repeated-
consumer's NWOM. measures design. Experiment 2 was disguised as a pilot test of
H. Chan, S. Cui / Journal of Consumer Psychology 21 (2011) 324–337 331

an innovative financial service named AiAA. Participants were negative (MAttr = 7.46, MExp = 7.20, F b 1). Furthermore, emo-
recruited at the end of a lecture on market research methods. As tionality was low and equivalent (MAttr = 3.41, MExp = 3.08,
one of several “hands-on learning opportunities,” participation F b 1).
in the ostensible market research was voluntary.
The main feature of the fictitious financial service was a
state-of-the-art asset allocation technology that would generate Hypotheses tests
customized portfolios for “small investors” according to their Both dissatisfaction and purchase intent data were analyzed
personal situations and investment goals. Participants played with a 2 × 2 repeated-measures ANOVA. For dissatisfaction, a
the role of an investor who had just opened a US$15,000 content × time interaction emerged (F(1, 67) = 15.48, p b .001).
account with the company. They attended a briefing session and No other effects were significant. Given equivalent levels of
provided the information (e.g., target return, investment T1-D (F b 1), the interaction indicated that T2-D differed across
horizon, risk tolerance, etc.) required for a customized portfolio. the message conditions. As predicted by Hypothesis 4(a), there
In the four weeks that followed, participants received weekly was an increase in dissatisfaction after exposure to attribute-
email updates on portfolio valuation and return. They were based NWOM (MT1-D = 7.07, MT2-D = 7.68, t = 3.30, p b .01).
instructed to send a reply after reading each update and to abide Hypothesis 4(b) also received support, as dissatisfaction
by the no-communication rule (i.e., refrain from disclosing the decreased in the experience-based condition (MT1-D = 6.95,
“proprietary information” in the email updates). MT2-D = 6.53, t = −2.27, p b .05).
All participants received identical email updates. Weekly For purchase intent, only a content × time interaction was
returns of the purportedly “customized” portfolio were mixed: significant (F(1, 67) = 16.57, p b .001). Given equivalent levels
−2.06%, 1.45%, −2.78%, and 2.22%—mirroring but under- of T1-PI (F b 1), this indicated that T2-PI differed across the
performing the MSCI AC World Indices. There was a net loss message conditions. Supporting Hypotheses 5(a) and 5(b),
of US$187.80 (−1.25%) for the four-week period. purchase intent decreased in the attribute-based condition
The fourth and last email update included a feedback survey, (MT1-PI = 3.88, MT2-PI = 3.48, t = −2.08, p b .05) and increased in
which established both T1-D and pre-NWOM purchase intent the experience-based condition (MT1-PI = 3.75, MT2-PI = 4.31,
(T1-PI). A second survey was email-administered five days t = 3.95, p b .001).
after the first survey was returned. The second survey was As in Experiment 1, thought-listing data were coded into
ostensibly to compensate for the limitations caused by the no- three categories (interjudge agreement = 91%). There were more
communication rule. Participants were provided with the verbal product-evaluative thoughts in the attribute-based condition
feedback of “a fellow participant” whose response was than in the experience-based condition (MAttr = 1.25, MExp = .66,
“representative of quite a few people.” This constituted the F(1, 67) = 7.35, p b .01). In contrast, the number of social-
manipulation of message content: the verbal feedback was comparative thoughts was higher in the experience-based
either attribute-based or experience-based (see Appendix A). A condition than in the attribute-based condition (MAttr = .18,
thought-listing task immediately followed the content manip- MExp = .64, F(1, 67) = 10.38, p b .01). The pattern was consistent
ulation. Thereafter, measures of T2-D and post-NWOM with Hypothesis 6. As in Experiment 1, we performed further
purchase intent (T2-PI)—the same measures used for T1-D analysis on the mediating role of thought type. Mediation test
and T1-PI—were taken. The survey closed with an open-ended results showed that thought type mediated the effects of
question on the purpose of the research (to which none of the NWOM on dissatisfaction (Sobel's z = 2.57, p b .01) and
answers came close). purchase intent (Sobel's z = −2.19, p b .05). Table 2 contains
Manipulation checks were conducted in a pretest. In addition details of the mediation analysis.
to the revised content and negativity measures, there was a new
check (adapted from Moore & Homer, 2000) on the
emotionality of the two NWOM conditions. The pretest as
Table 2
well as experimental items were anchored by 1 (strongly Summary of mediation analysis (Experiment 2).
disagree) and 10 (strongly agree). Appendix B contains the
NWOM effect Step Dependent Independent Estimate t-statistic
measures and their reliability statistics (where applicable).
variable variable
Twelve participants failed to complete one or more of the
Dissatisfaction (D) 1 ΔD Message content 1.02 3.93 a
aforementioned tasks and their data were not analyzed. Of the
2 Thought Message content −.66 −3.73 a
69 participants in the final sample, 33 were in the attribute- type
based condition and 36 were in the experience-based condition. 3 ΔD Message content .64 2.41 c
Thought type −.58 −3.51 a
Results Purchase intent (PI) 1 ΔPI Message content −.95 −4.07 a
2 Thought Message content −.66 −3.73 a
type
Manipulation checks 3 ΔPI Message content −.67 −2.75 b
A pretest (n = 57) confirmed that the experience-based Thought type .41 2.71 b
message scored higher on the content measure than did the a
p b .001.
attribute-based message (MAttr = 3.18, MExp = 8.34, F(1, 55) = b
p b .01.
245.57, p b .001). Both messages were perceived as equally c
p b .05.
332 H. Chan, S. Cui / Journal of Consumer Psychology 21 (2011) 324–337

Discussion comparability is high (i.e., the same attributes drive the experience
of the dissatisfied consumer and that of the NWOM communi-
In one of the few experimental studies on lateral comparison, cator), we expect the social-comparative process to prevail and a
we show that experience-based NWOM from a similar other, significant alleviating effect to emerge—as in the foregoing
like that from a worse-off other, has an alleviating effect on experiments. If experience comparability is low (i.e., different
dissatisfaction. This, along with the aggravating effect of attributes drive the experience of the dissatisfied consumer and
attribute-based NWOM from a similar other, upholds the that of the NWOM communicator), we expect the product-
moderating role of message content. Note that the opposite evaluative process to intensify relative to the social-comparative
effects of NWOM extend beyond dissatisfaction. We document process. The result would be an attenuation of the alleviating
a pattern of repatronage intentions that dovetails with the pattern effect. The above rationale applies to downward as well as lateral
of dissatisfaction ratings. The behavioral intention data confirm comparison. However, since Experiment 3 only concerns lateral
the far-reaching impacts of the two distinct types of NWOM. comparison, we state the following hypotheses in terms of
Moreover, we obtain clear evidence—without the help of experience-based NWOM from a similar other.
facilitative contexts—that attribute-based NWOM triggers a
product-evaluative process and experience-based NWOM Hypothesis 7. (a) When experience comparability is high,
triggers a social-comparative process. Mediation analysis experience-based NWOM from a similar other will decrease
lends further support to our theoretical explanation of NWOM dissatisfaction. (b) When experience comparability is low, the
effects. effect of (a) will be attenuated.
Experiment 2 also addresses a methodological issue in
Experiment 1: the lack of control for emotional content in the Hypothesis 8. (a) When experience comparability is high,
NWOM conditions. With this potential confound removed, it is experience-based NWOM from a similar other will increase
gratifying that the results are consistent with all the hypothe- repurchase intent. (b) When experience comparability is low,
sized effects and processes. Two other methodological the effect of (a) will be attenuated.
improvements—the longitudinal design and the real-life Hypothesis 9. When experience comparability is low (vs.
facade—add credence to the robustness of our results.
high), experience-based NWOM from a similar other will elicit
(a) more product-evaluative thoughts and (b) fewer social-
Experience comparability
comparative thoughts.
The provocative finding that NWOM can alleviate dissatis-
faction hinges on a social-comparative process triggered by the Experiment 3
salient negative experience of a worse-off or similar other.
However, consumer experiences are, by definition, driven by Method
product attributes (Gutman, 1982). It is natural to associate
negative consumer experiences with inferior product attributes. Fifty four undergraduates (44% male) participated in
Indeed, thought-listing data of the foregoing experiments Experiment 3 for extra credit in an introductory marketing
indicate that product-evaluative thoughts are prevalent even in course. They were randomly assigned to a 2 (experience
the experience-based NWOM condition. This raises an comparability: high, low) × 2 (time: T1, T2) repeated-measures
interesting issue that merits further investigation: Would some design. The experiment was similar to Experiment 1, except for
experience-based NWOM messages induce sufficient product- a new set of scenarios, a longer distractor task (which lasted
evaluative thoughts to attenuate or eliminate the alleviating approximately 20 min), and an additional dependent variable
effect? (purchase intent). The baseline scenario depicted a 15-minute
So far, we have designed the experiments such that the same service delay at a restaurant. Prior to the comparability
attributes are responsible for the negative experience of the manipulation, participants were instructed to imagine them-
dissatisfied consumer and that of the NWOM communicator. selves visiting an Internet forum “designed for consumers to
With consumer experiences directly comparable, the social- share their negative experiences.” The manipulation involved a
comparative process predominates. Nevertheless, negative “posting about the same restaurant” from someone who
experiences such as loss of time (Experiment 1) and loss of experienced a 15-minute service delay in either a high-
money (Experiment 2) can be driven by a variety of attributes. comparability or a low-comparability condition. Appendix A
For example, a long wait in a restaurant may be due to the wait contains all the scenarios and Appendix B contains all the
staff or kitchen staff, and being overcharged may be the result of measures and their reliability statistics (where applicable).
human or machine error. The comparison of consumer
experiences becomes more difficult when different attributes Results
are involved. In addition, the product-evaluative process may
intensify because the NWOM message now points to new Manipulation checks
inferior attributes. A pretest (n = 47) confirmed that the baseline scenario was
Hence, we identify experience comparability as a moderator of perceived as more comparable to the NWOM scenario in the
the alleviating effect of experience-based NWOM. If experience high-comparability condition than in the low-comparability
H. Chan, S. Cui / Journal of Consumer Psychology 21 (2011) 324–337 333

condition (MHigh = 8.04, MLow = 4.79, F(1, 45) = 56.50, p b .001). Table 3
Hence, the comparability manipulation was successful. More- Summary of mediation analysis (Experiment 3).
over, both NWOM conditions scored high on the content NWOM effect Step Dependent Independent Estimate t-statistic
measure (MHigh = 7.70, MLow = 7.52, F b 1) and low on the variable variable
emotionality measure (MHigh = 3.74, MLow = 3.49, F b 1). In Dissatisfaction (D) 1 ΔD Message content .68 2.68 a
terms of negativity, both were rated as similar to the baseline 2 Thought Message content −.63 −3.30 a
type
scenario (Fs b 1). Realism and comprehensibility ratings taken
3 ΔD Message content .40 1.52
during Experiment 3 were high (Ms N 7.60) and equivalent Thought type −.44 −2.49 b
(Fs b 1). Purchase intent (PI) 1 ΔPI Message content −.67 −2.43 b
2 Thought Message content −.63 −3.30 a
Hypothesis tests type
3 ΔPI Message content −.43 −1.46
A 2 × 2 repeated-measures ANOVA on dissatisfaction
Thought type .38 1.93
revealed a comparability × time interaction (F(1, 52) = 8.53, a
p b .01.
p b .01). No other effects were significant. Since the baseline b
p b .05.
scenario induced equivalent levels of T1-D (F b 1), the
interaction indicated a significant T2-D difference between
the comparability conditions. In support of Hypothesis 7(a), also experienced a 15-minute delay) does not necessarily have
dissatisfaction decreased from T1 to T2 in the high- an alleviating effect. If different attributes (e.g., reservation
comparability condition (M T1-D = 6.85, M T2-D = 6.38, t = system and order system) are responsible for the respective
−2.35, p b .05). This effect was almost reversed in the low- delays, the alleviating effect could be eliminated altogether.
comparability condition (MT1-D = 6.98, MT2-D = 7.23, t = 1.74, In the downward/lateral comparison research tradition, the
p b .10), which clearly supported the attenuation prediction of focus is on the severity of one's negative experience relative to
Hypothesis 7(b). that of another person. The theory predicts an alleviating effect
Purchase intent data were analyzed in the same way. The as a result of a favorable comparison with a worse-off or similar
2 × 2 ANOVA yielded only a comparability × time interaction other. Experiment 3 contributes to this theory by illuminating
(F(1, 52) = 5.91, p b .05). Given equivalent levels of T1-PI the role of experience comparability while holding experience
(F b 1), the interaction indicated that T2-PI differed across the severity constant. Note that we define experience comparability
comparability conditions. As predicted by Hypothesis 8(a), in terms of whether the experiences of different consumers are
purchase intent increased from T1 to T2 in the high- driven by the same attributes. Future research may explore other
comparability condition (MT1-PI = 4.04, MT2-PI = 4.52, t = 2.23, forms of comparability such as experience quantifiability (e.g.,
p b .05). Hypothesis 8(b) was also supported, with purchase loss of time or money vs. loss of comfort or esteem).
intent virtually unchanged in the low-comparability condition
(MT1-PI = 3.89, MT2-PI = 3.70, t = −1.10, NS). General discussion
As before, thought-listing data were coded into three categories
(interjudge agreement = 95%). Consistent with Hypothesis 9, the Previous research is unequivocal about the negative
low-comparability condition elicited more product-evaluative influence of NWOM (for a notable exception, see Laczniak
thoughts (MHigh = 1.44, MLow = .89, F(1, 52) = 5.51, p b .05) et al. [2001]). In four experiments, we demonstrate that the
and fewer social-comparative thoughts (MHigh = .37, MLow = .82, ramifications of NWOM are more complex than portrayed in
F(1, 52) = 6.20, p b .05) than did the high-comparability the literature. Specifically, NWOM from a worse-off or similar
condition. Mediation tests verified that thought type mediated other can have a negative (i.e., aggravating) or positive (i.e.,
the effects of NWOM on dissatisfaction (Sobel's z = 1.98, p b .05) alleviating) effect on dissatisfied consumers. Consistent with
and, to a less extent, on purchase intent (Sobel's z = −1.66, p b .10). attitude polarization research, an attribute-based message
Table 3 details the mediation analysis. triggers a product-evaluative process and results in dissatisfac-
tion aggravation. In contrast, as downward comparison research
Discussion suggests, an experience-based message triggers a social-
comparative process and results in dissatisfaction alleviation.
Experiment 3 identifies an important boundary condition for These findings are corroborated by behavioral intention data,
the alleviating effect of experience-based NWOM. The results and more important, explainable in terms of the disconfirmation
suggest that this effect is significant only under high experience model of (dis)satisfaction. On the other hand, message context
comparability and it disappears when experience comparability is and experience comparability serve as boundary conditions to
low. Thought-listing data and mediation analysis largely support these findings.
our theoretical explanation—that the product-evaluative process Our investigation calls attention to a neglected dimension of
intensifies relative to the social-comparative process under the WOM research; namely, the influence of WOM in the post-
latter condition (when the NWOM message points to new inferior consumption stage. The phenomenal growth of consumer-
attributes). generated media (e.g., discussion forums, blogs, social
To a dissatisfied restaurant customer (who experienced a 15- networking sites, etc.) has allowed consumers to easily compare
minute delay), a NWOM message from a similar other (who experiences. A cursory review of consumer discussion forums
334 H. Chan, S. Cui / Journal of Consumer Psychology 21 (2011) 324–337

indicates that dissatisfied consumers often go to great lengths to message, which emphasizes the product rather than the consumer,
describe their miserable experiences. According to ethnograph- triggers a product-evaluative process that leads to the aggravation
ic research, experiences as well as opinions are widely shared in of dissatisfaction. In general, this finding is in line with the view
these forums (de Valck, van Bruggen, & Wierenga, 2009). that performance perceptions are susceptible to influence
Experience-based stimuli are commonly used as NWOM (Deighton, 1992). In particular, it meshes with research on the
manipulations. Consider these NWOM fragments from prior biasing effects of post-consumption advertising (Braun, 1999). In
research: “I think he's spent more to keep [his car] running than addition to Braun's memory-based account, our research suggests
it originally cost him” (Herr et al., 1991), “The regular Ben and that interpersonal influence is another reason why performance
Jerry's was so rich it made me sick” (Giese et al., 1996), and “It perceptions can be changed retrospectively.
just seemed like every time I boot [my computer] up I have Overall, our research highlights the pivotal role of message
some kind of a problem” (Laczniak et al., 2001). Sharing these content in triggering distinct processes that lead to the
experiences would probably deter consumers in the pre- contrasting NWOM effects. To date, there has been very little
purchase stage. As we demonstrate, however, it could also effort toward conceptualizing the content of WOM. The void is
alleviate the dissatisfaction and increase the repurchase intent of especially evident in experimental research, which largely
those in the post-consumption stage. manipulates WOM content in terms of valence (e.g., Giese
Arguably, the alleviating effect of experience-based NWOM is et al., 1996; Herr et al., 1991) and captures WOM behavior as a
pronounced when solid reference points or standards do not exist, probability (e.g., Frenzen & Nakamoto, 1993; Ryu & Feick,
as with new technologies. Fournier and Mick's (1999) study on 2007). In this regard, the differentiation between attribute-based
technology consumption reveals that standards do emerge and and experience-based messages is a step toward a more nuanced
evolve over time. Our research highlights the influence of understanding of WOM communication.
NWOM in this evolution process. The downward comparison It is worth mentioning that Dichter's (1966) research on
explanation also resonates with Fournier and Mick's view that WOM motivations suggests a third dimension of message
coping is an integral part of technology consumption. As a simple content beyond the dichotomy proposed in this article. Apart
yet effective coping strategy, downward comparison may be from “product-involvement” (which likely prompts the sharing
pervasive among technology consumers. of attribute information) and “self-involvement” (which likely
More generally, our research points to a new, psychosocial prompts the sharing of personal experience), Dichter also
perspective on NWOM influence. Previous research typically identifies “other-involvement” as an important WOM motiva-
conceptualizes NWOM influence in terms of product evaluations tion. This motivation directs attention to the WOM recipient(s)
and choice in the pre-purchase stage. In this article, we show that a and likely prompts the sharing of purchase and consumption
social-comparative, rather than product-evaluative, process may advice. Such advice may be highly influential in the
predominate in the post-consumption stage, as dissatisfied marketplace, as some consumers are known to act on advice
consumers find relief in the realization that someone else has a without acquiring attribute information (Olshavsky & Granbois,
similar or worse experience. This finding is consistent with classic 1979).
experiments that demonstrate a stress-affiliation tendency There is a growing consensus that WOM can be leveraged as
(Schachter, 1959) and also recent studies that identify social a marketing tool. Recent research, for example, offers
support seeking as a major category of consumer coping strategies suggestions on how to manage online forums (Godes &
(Duhachek, 2005). In fact, Duhachek's research indicates that Mayzlin, 2004) and referral programs (Ryu & Feick, 2007). A
consumers often make a conscious effort to manage their negative richer, multidimensional conceptualization of the WOM
experience. This being the case, some dissatisfied consumers may construct may inform this line of research, which has abstracted
actually seek out NWOM in order to relieve stress and anxiety. away the content of WOM (by focusing on variables such as
Self-enhancing social comparison may involve a passive or an volume, valence, and likelihood). In particular, the main thesis
active process (Buunk et al., 2001; Wills, 1981). Dissatisfied of this article—that experience-based NWOM can have an
consumers may take the passive approach by attending to horror alleviating effect on dissatisfied consumers—offers new
stories from other consumers. They may also create self- insights for conceptualizing WOM management. The finding
enhancing opportunities by seeking out similar or worse-off that contextual factors can strengthen or weaken the influence of
others. This is a viable strategy for self-enhancement because NWOM also sheds useful light on the topic.
“everyone is better off than someone as long as one picks the right Some limitations of our experiments point to avenues for
dimension” (Taylor et al., 1983, p. 30). In this cyber era, the further research. First, the focal issues of dissatisfaction (i.e.,
myriad consumer discussion forums and complaint sites provide waiting time and return on investment) are quantitative. This
ample opportunity and an unobtrusive way for self-enhancement. makes for easy comparison with others. Conceivably, qualitative
A recent ethnographic study confirms that much of online forum issues (e.g., comfort and hygiene) could hinder the comparative
behavior is indeed social in nature, driven by a variety of process and diminish the alleviating effect of NWOM. Second,
motivations other than information search (de Valck et al., 2009). we contrast the pure forms of attribute-based and experience-
Despite the self-enhancement motivation, NWOM from a based NWOM. More often than not, NWOM is a mix of product
similar or worse-off other does not always result in dissatisfaction information and personal experience. Further research is needed
alleviation. The alleviating effect occurs only when consumer to determine the impacts of mixed messages. Finally, we
experience is salient in the NWOM message. An attribute-based ascertain immediate effects of NWOM, but it is not clear how
H. Chan, S. Cui / Journal of Consumer Psychology 21 (2011) 324–337 335

long these effects would last. Would one effect dissipate more A.3. Experiment 3
quickly than the other? What variables might influence the
robustness of these effects? Answers to these questions await Baseline scenario:
further research. You make a dinner reservation with a new restaurant. You
arrive at the restaurant on time. Your table is not ready. You end
up waiting 15 min before you are seated.
Acknowledgments High-comparability NWOM condition:
Later that day, you visited an Internet forum designed for
The authors thank Alan Wong for his assistance in literature consumers to share their negative experiences. You noticed this
research and data collection, and Lisa Wan for her assistance in posting about the same restaurant:
data analysis. They also appreciate the guidance of the editor “I had a bad experience at this new restaurant. I booked a
and associate editor, as well as the helpful comments of two table for dinner one day in advance. But I had to wait like
anonymous reviewers. 15 minutes after I got there on time!”
Low-comparability NWOM condition:
Later that day, you visited an Internet forum designed for
Appendix A. Manipulations consumers to share their negative experiences. You noticed this
posting about the same restaurant:
A.1. Experiment 1 “I had a bad experience at this new restaurant. I ordered extra
food to take home when I placed my dinner order. But I had to
Baseline scenario: wait like 15 minutes after I paid the check!”
You wait in line at a bank to make an important payment.
You expect to spend only a few minutes. There are a number of Appendix B. Measures
people ahead of you. The service is very slow. You notice that
only 4 of the 7 counters are open. You end up waiting 20 min B.1. Experiment 1
before you are served.
Attribute-based NWOM condition: Context check:
You had dinner with a group of friends later that day.
[Message context manipulation] After you told them what 1. The conversation at the dinner was mainly about unpleasant
happened at the bank, one of your friends had this to say about personal experiences.
the same bank: 2. The conversation at the dinner was mainly about low quality
“They did it again. Last time many people were waiting but products and services. (R)
the bank only had 2 of the 7 counters open. The clerks were Note. (R) = reverse coded; r = .75
extremely slow. The service was really inefficient. They should
Content check:
definitely hire more people and train them better!”
Experience-based NWOM condition: 1. Your friend's message focused more on the bank's
You had dinner with a group of friends later that day. performance than on personal experience. (R)
[Message context manipulation] After you told them what 2. Your friend's message focused more on personal feelings
happened at the bank, one of your friends had this to say about than on evaluations of the bank.
the same bank: Note. (R) = reverse coded; r = .84
“You are not alone. My experience was worse. Last time
many people were waiting and I was kept waiting for over Negativity check:
40 minutes. I was late for an appointment because of that. I was
1. This scenario/message describes a serious problem of the
really frustrated. I feel terrible about this experience!”
bank.
2. This scenario/message portrays a very unpleasant consump-
tion experience.
A.2. Experiment 2
Note. r = .79
Attribute-based NWOM condition: Dissatisfaction measure:
“The performance of AiAA is not very good. They are actually
losing money. Their technology has generated negative returns in 1. I feel unhappy about my experience with the bank.
two of the past four weeks. The market has been a little volatile, 2. I am dissatisfied with the bank's performance.
but their technology is supposed to produce good results.” 3. I am not pleased with the bank's performance.
Experience-based NWOM condition: Note. α = .89
“My experience with AiAA is not very good. I am actually
losing money. My investment has given me negative returns in Realism check:
two of the past four weeks. The market has been a little volatile,
but I would like to see my investment increase in value.” 1. The scenarios described above are realistic.
336 H. Chan, S. Cui / Journal of Consumer Psychology 21 (2011) 324–337

Comprehensibility check: Emotionality check:

1. The scenarios described above are easy to understand. 1. This message is filled with emotion.
2. This message contains references to specific feelings.
B.2. Experiment 2 Note. r = .82

Content check: Dissatisfaction measure:

1. The focus of this message is on the person rather than on 1. I feel happy about my experience with the restaurant. (R)
AiAA. 2. I am satisfied with the restaurant's performance. (R)
2. This message emphasizes AiAA's performance over the 3. I am not pleased with restaurant's performance.
person's experience. (R) Note. (R) = reverse coded; α = .91
Note. (R) = reverse coded; r = .92
Repurchase intent measure:
Negativity check:
1. I will consider visiting the restaurant again.
1. The tone of this message is negative.
2. This message is unfavorable to AiAA. Realism check:
Note. r = .80
1. The scenarios described above are realistic.
Emotionality check:
Comprehensibility check:
1. This message is filled with emotion.
2. This message contains references to specific feelings.
Note. r = .86 1. The scenarios described above are easy to understand.

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