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Who complains more as customers: liberals or conservatives?

Uncovering the ideology of “Karens” and “Kens.”
A woman's head is cut in half, eliciting diverse thoughts with a blue and red background.
Ana Kova / Big Think
Key Takeaways
  • We’ve all witnessed individuals berate service and hospitality workers and complain about products to customer service workers.
  • Researchers have explored whether liberals or conservatives are more likely to complain in customer settings. The studies are mixed, with conservatives tending to complain more when they felt they’ve been wronged in service settings, but liberals tending to complain slightly more overall.
  • Overall, complaining as a customer is more closely linked to factors like entitlement, wealth, and belief in free will.

In recent years, “Karens” have become common characters in American popular culture. These entitled, irritating women frequently and publicly complain to service workers and take other annoying actions born out of their inflated sense of self-importance. Not to be left out, men who fall under this description are often called “Kens” or “Kevins.”

One thing people want to know about these individuals is who they vote for. Are “Karens” and “Kens” more likely to be liberal or conservative? Writers have offered numerous takes while internet commenters debate, but here, like in most instances, science can offer better guidance.

Karen’s ideology

Various studies have explored how ideology is correlated with customer satisfaction and the likelihood of complaining in consumer settings. In 2017, researchers from the University of Sydney looked at the issue through a wide lens — poring through three large consumer complaint databases from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and the Federal Communications Commission — to see whether more complaints originated on average from areas that voted Democrat or Republican in the 2012 presidential election. They found that conservatives were both less likely to complain and less likely to dispute resolutions to their grievances. The authors theorized that conservatives’ proclivity to defend overarching institutions, organizations, and norms, and to perceive their policies as fair, reduced their propensity to complain.

Four years later, an international team of marketing researchers discovered more evidence that liberals are more prolific complainers than conservatives. Running nine experiments, probing both real-world and hypothetical behaviors, they found that conservatives tended to be more satisfied than liberals with the products and services they consume. The reason?

Conservatives (vs. liberals) are more likely to believe in free will (i.e., that people have agency over their decisions) and, therefore, to trust their own decisions,” the authors theorized. In other words, since conservatives tend to be more confident in their choices, they are more likely to view positively the products and services they purchase.

While these two studies hint that liberals are likelier candidates to be “Karens” and “Kens,” a third, recently published study suggests otherwise.

Entitled customers

Steven Shepherd, an associate professor in the School of Marketing and International Business at Oklahoma State University, presented research subjects recruited via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk with various hypothetical situations in service settings and asked them how likely they would be to complain or express dissatisfaction in that situation. In one restaurant hypothetical, subjects were told to imagine that their meal wasn’t cooked to their liking. In another, they were told that their food delivery was delayed by more than an hour but were being offered a coupon to make amends for the wait. In both scenarios, conservatives were slightly more likely than liberals to say they would complain.

In the experiment, Shepherd and his colleague also measured subjects’ levels of entitlement via an earlier questionnaire. They found that conservatives tended to be more entitled than liberals, and this accounted for their higher likelihood to complain.

“Entitlement is characterized by the ‘pervasive sense that one deserves more and is entitled to more than others’,” Shepherd and his co-authors wrote. “This includes wanting special treatment and having exaggerated expectations. Entitled customers believe that ‘the customer is always right,’ and expect special treatment and automatic compliance from firms.”

There is an alternative explanation to Shepherd’s findings, however. In both of these hypothetical scenarios, the restaurant made an apparent error: poorly cooking the food or not having enough delivery drivers. In keeping with prior research showing that conservatives are more likely to believe in free will, they might be more likely than liberals to ascribe any service error to incompetence or negligence of the business’ employees. Liberals, on the other hand, might be more inclined to blame factors outside of the business’ control. This means that in situations where a product or service has no obvious fault, conservatives might complain less frequently than liberals.

All of this research, of course, is subject to the usual pitfalls of psychological science, including self-reported data, confounding variables, and potential researcher bias. Taken together, these studies cannot conclusively resolve whether liberals or conservatives are more likely to complain, leaving Karen’s ideology in the eye of the beholder.


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