Psychology of Complaining Reasons why People Complain

An average person is said to complain nearly 15-30 times a day! Hence, as much as we might want to believe that complaining is something that only others are guilty of, the truth is that we are all complainers. It is possible that some of us are just not aware of it.

Despite having definite negative connotations, complaining can actually be a feel-good factor for the complainer. So, what are some of the reasons why whiners whine? Will Bowen, author of ‘A Complaint Free World’, lists five main reasons why people complain.

– To start a conversation or establish camaraderie: People use complaining as a way to inspire rapport. There is a basic desire in human beings to connect with one another. In a closed space like an elevator, many of us look for a way to open a conversation. And how do we do that? By starting with something like “It’s really hot out there today!” When strangers complain about the weather in order to initiate a conversation, or when passengers in the departure lounge complain about their flight delay, it helps build solidarity.

– To avoid taking action by shirking responsibility: How often have we come across the person who comes to you and complains about a problem; and no sooner you suggest a solution to their problem, they find fault with your suggestion and complain about that too! Their grumble then is “There are too many problems and no solutions!” Which translates as “Whatever I do is not going to make a difference, so I won’t try.” In other words, they do not want to change the situation or find a solution. All they want to do is to avoid taking action by griping about it.

– To brag about their superiority: Examples: “I hate it when people don’t use their signal blinkers when driving!”  “People don’t drive the way I think they should.” Complaints here are cries of superiority, implying that the complainer knows better than others do. In a way, the braggers here are saying that they have high standards that are not being met by other people.

– To control others: Complaining is also used as a way to incite others to switch loyalties. Example: “Don’t listen to him. His ideas are lame.” Mudslinging and smear campaigns are made up of this type of complaining. You find it in corporate life. You find it in politics. The idea is to get your listener to switch his point of view, control him and build clout by focusing on the ‘assumed’ wrongdoings of the opponent.

– To pre-excuse poor performance, behavior or inaction: Kowalski of the Department of Psychology, Western Carolina University, opines that many complaints are uttered for self-presentational motives. For example, complaining about the traffic as you enter the office is a way to justify your tardiness. Or, a lady about to sing before a small audience might complain that she is having an itchy throat to lower their expectations, should she not sing well. Or, a wife saying to her husband:“I’ve been busy all day!” implying that she forgot to call his mother to wish her on her birthday.

Noted novelist D H Lawrence used to be known for his chronic complaining. His idea was to unburden his burden of frustrations onto others. Through his constant and often exaggerated complaining, Lawrence often succeeded in making others feel his negativity for him. The term in psychology for that is ‘projective identification’, according to Ilana Simons, a literature professor at The New School in New York. Simons, in her blog on the Psychology Today website, writes: “A complaint can be a way to force other people to carry some of your negative feelings. You flex a muscle in the form of an argument, without making changes, and so unload your frustration onto others.”

Then, there is that evergreen stereotype that women complain more than men. In a journal article that addresses this stereotype, researchers suggest that this stereotyping could be a result of the different discourse styles of the two genders. For example, what, for women, constitutes commiserating is viewed by men as whining. Women use indirect complaints as a way to garner support, while men complain directly and get confrontational.

Be it chronic or intermittent, direct or indirect, the reasons for complaining, as we saw, can be many. Sometimes, as the journal study claims, the same complaint may serve multiple functions simultaneously. There is still a lot left to be understood about the habit of complaining and its acquisition. Could there, for instance, be a link between culture and complaining? How might ethnicity interact with gender and complaining? How about the impact of upbringing and childhood experiences?


– Bowen W, A Complaint Free World: How to Stop Complaining and Start Enjoying the Life You Always Wanted, 2007

– Wolfe J & Powell E, Gender and expressions of dissatisfaction: A study of complaining in mixed-gendered student work groups, Women and Language, September 22, 2006