Academic journal article Journal of Consumer Satisfaction, Dissatisfaction and Complaining Behavior

The Role of Surprise in Satisfaction Judgements

Academic journal article Journal of Consumer Satisfaction, Dissatisfaction and Complaining Behavior

The Role of Surprise in Satisfaction Judgements

Article excerpt


Empirical findings suggest that surprise plays an important role in consumer satisfaction, but there is a lack of theory to explain why this is so. The present paper provides explanations for the process through which positive (negative) surprise might enhance (reduce) consumer satisfaction. First, the arousal that is part of the surprise reaction can contaminate subsequent positive affective reactions or emotions about the product or service. Second, the surprise reaction allows for a strong focus on a single product or service aspect. This will create more accessible knowledge that may have a disproportionate effect on memory-based satisfaction judgements. In addition, several possible moderators of the surprise-satisfaction relationship are described. Finally, the managerial implications of the proposed processes and moderators are discussed.


It has been argued that merely satisfying customers is not enough: "businesses need to move beyond mere satisfaction, to customer delight" (Rust et al. 1996, p. 229). Delight is considered to be the highest level of customer satisfaction and translates into better outcomes (e.g. higher customer retention) than can be achieved through other levels of satisfaction (Oliver et al. 1997; Rust et al. 1996). Theoretically, it has also been suggested that positive surprise is a necessary condition for consumer delight (e.g. Oliver et al. 1997; Rust et al. 1996). The very idea that surprise and delight are related was already suggested by the empirical work of Plutchik (1980). This author found that delight results from a combination of two firstorder emotions: surprise and joy. Westbrook and Oliver (1991; Oliver and Westbrook 1993) also report some indirect evidence for the "positive surprise-satisfaction" link. Using cluster analysis on the emotions consumers experienced during products/services consumption, both of these studies brought to light a cluster with high scores of surprise and joy ("pleasantly surprised consumers"). Further analysis of satisfaction scores showed that these pleasantly surprised consumers were more satisfied than the consumers from any other group. An exploratory study by Oliver et al. (1997) may also be considered as support for the "positive surprise-- satisfaction" link. The authors found a causal path "arousal -> positive emotions -> satisfaction." However, a closer look at the way they measured "arousal" reveals that their study actually supports the "surprise -> positive emotions -> satisfaction" path. Arousal was measured with two items which are two of the three items of the DES scale (Izard 1977) for surprise.

The studies mentioned above all suggest that surprise plays an important role in consumer satisfaction. However, these studies have not provided definitive empirical support for the surprise-satisfaction relationship. Some of these studies use methods that do not provide results to determine causal relationships, and all of the studies are based on events that were surprising in retrospect. In addition to these methodological issues, no conceptual framework exists that allows for predictions about the effect of surprise on satisfaction. This is because, as yet, no theory has been developed about the possible psychological processes involved in the surprise-satisfaction relationship. Some authors have asked that surprise be investigated in a marketing context (Derbaix and Pham 1989) and complained about the lack of a theoretical framework for the emotion of surprise (Oliver et al. 1997; Westbrook and Oliver 1991). Recently, a few attempts have been made to look at the role of surprise in a marketing context (e.g., Derbaix and Vanhamme 2000; Vanhamme 2000; Vanhamme et al. 1999). The present paper elaborates on this scarce literature, and also provides a theoretical framework about the possible psychological processes through which consumer satisfaction may be enhanced by surprise.


Based on, for example, Charlesworth (1969), Ekman and Friesen (1975), Izard (1977) and Plutchik (1980), most recent studies carried out on surprise (e. …

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