To forgive or retaliate? How regulatory fit affects emotional reactions and repurchase decisions following product failures

Gizem Atav (Department of Marketing, James Madison University College of Business, Harrisonburg, Virginia, USA)
Subimal Chatterjee (School of Management, Binghamton University, Binghamton, New York, USA)
Rajat Roy (Bond Business School, Bond University, Gold Coast, Australia)

Journal of Consumer Marketing

ISSN: 0736-3761

Article publication date: 15 June 2021

Issue publication date: 29 June 2021

454

Abstract

Purpose

When a product fails out of negligence on the seller’s part, consumers can either retaliate against the seller, more so if a third party encourages them to do so, or forgive the seller should the seller express remorse. This paper aims to examine how the fit between the consumer’s promotion/prevention regulatory orientation and the promotion/prevention frame of a message of contrition (retaliation), such as an apology from a chief executive officer (CEO) (a class action suit threat by a lawyer), affects such forgiveness (retaliation) intentions in the form of product repurchase decisions.

Design/methodology/approach

In two laboratory experiments, this paper temporally induces a promotion or prevention orientation in the study participants and thereafter ask them to imagine experiencing a product failure and listening to (1) the CEO apologize for the harm (eliciting sympathy/encouraging repurchase); or (2) a lawyer inviting them to seek damages for the harm (eliciting anger/discouraging repurchase). This paper frames the messages from the CEO/lawyer such that they fit either with a promotion mindset or with a prevention mindset.

Findings

This paper finds that, following a message of apology, a frame-focus fit (compared to a frame-focus misfit) elicits sympathy and encourages repurchase universally across promotion and prevention-oriented consumers. However, following a message encouraging retaliation, the same fit elicits anger and discourages repurchase more among prevention-oriented than promotion-oriented consumers.

Originality/value

Although past research has investigated how regulatory fit affects forgiveness intentions, this paper fills three research gaps therein by (a) addressing both forgiveness and retaliation intentions, (b) deconstructing the fit-induced “just right feelings” by exploring their underlying emotions of sympathy and anger, and (c) showing that fit effects are not universal across promotion and prevention-oriented consumers. For practice, the results suggest that managers can lessen the fallout from product failures by putting consumers in a promotion mindset that strengthens the effect of a promotion-framed apology and inoculates them against all types of retaliatory messages.

Keywords

Citation

Atav, G., Chatterjee, S. and Roy, R. (2021), "To forgive or retaliate? How regulatory fit affects emotional reactions and repurchase decisions following product failures", Journal of Consumer Marketing, Vol. 38 No. 4, pp. 397-409. https://doi.org/10.1108/JCM-05-2020-3843

Publisher

:

Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2021, Emerald Publishing Limited


1. Introduction

Product failures, stemming from seller negligence, are common in the marketplace. In the past few years alone, we have seen companies incur significant financial and reputational costs from product failures such as malfunctioning ignition switches (General Motors; Carrns, 2014), sticking accelerator pedals (Toyota; Kim and Krolicki, 2010) and marine oil spills (BP’s Deepwater Horizon; Shultz et al., 2015). Once these failures are discovered, the sellers (henceforth referred to as the transgressor) begin their recovery efforts usually by apologizing to the affected consumers (henceforth victims) and/or offering compensation for pain and suffering (Tsarenko and Tojib, 2015; Yuan et al., 2016). However, very soon, if not concurrently, the victims are also encouraged to bring legal actions against the transgressor (e.g. class action lawsuit; Schwartz, 2017). Such class action suits can create significant financial costs for the firms. For example, despite the formal apologies offered by the chief executive officers (CEOs) of Toyota, GM and BP, the legal costs were more than US$1bn (Martyn, 2017), US$2bn (Storace, 2017) and US$20bn (McLean and Chapple, 2015) for these companies.

Should the victim forgive the transgressor, or retaliate against the transgressor, for the harm done? Whereas forgiveness means that the victim is willing to return the buyer–seller relationship to the original state (Aquino et al., 2001), retaliation indicates that the victim no longer wishes to do so (Bechwati and Morrin, 2003; Grégoire et al., 2010). In two laboratory experiments, we temporally induce a promotion or prevention orientation in our participants and thereafter ask them to imagine experiencing a product failure and listening to (1) the CEO apologize for the harm (eliciting sympathy/encouraging repurchase), or (2) a lawyer inviting them to seek damages for the harm (eliciting anger/discouraging repurchase). We frame the messages from the CEO/lawyer in such a way that they fit either with a promotion mindset or with a prevention mindset, and then test how the focus-frame fit increase/decreases repurchase intentions. We find that, when the victims are encouraged to forgive the transgressor, the focus-frame fit, compared to the focus-frame misfit, makes both the promotion-focused and prevention-focused victims more sympathetic toward the transgressor and more likely to repurchase from the transgressor. However, if the victims are encouraged to retaliate against the transgressor, the focus-frame fit, compared to the focus-frame misfit, makes prevention-oriented victims angrier toward the transgressor, and more likely not to repurchase from the transgressor, compared to promotion-oriented victims.

Past research has studied the impact of regulatory focus on post-transgression behavior in various contexts. They include interpersonal relationships (Santelli et al., 2009; Molden and Finkel, 2010; Winterheld and Simpson, 2011), organizational decision-making (Brebels et al., 2008) and product/service failures (Ran et al., 2016; Wan et al., 2011; Shin et al., 2014; Laufer and Jung, 2010; Das et al., 2020; see the Appendix for a summary). One frequent finding in this research is that a focus-frame regulatory fit makes the victim feel “just right” about their subsequent actions, against that backdrop, we address at least three gaps in this literature. First, whereas past research examines the frame-focus fit on forgiveness intentions (Santelli et al., 2009; Ran et al., 2016), we study focus-frame fit effects not just on forgiving intentions but also on retaliating intentions. Studying both are important given that consumers are just as likely to retaliate against a transgressor for harm done as they are to forgive the transgressor. Second, although past research suggests that a frame-focus fit generates a “just-right” feeling on subsequent actions, it has not been quite explicit on what makes an action feel right. We deconstruct the “just right” feeling by analyzing its emotional underpinnings (e.g. it feels right to forgive because the transgressor deserves our sympathy or it feels right to retaliate because the transgressor deserves our anger). Finally, and third, we believe that we are the first to show that victim’s regulatory focus moderates the regulatory fit effects on forgiveness and retaliation in different ways – whereas the fit-induced sympathy and repurchasing intentions are equally strong among promotion and prevention-oriented victims, the fit-induced anger and disengagement intentions are stronger among prevention-oriented victims.

For practice, our results offer firms two potential avenues to minimize the fallout from product failures. First, to encourage the victims to forgive and reengage, the frame of a firm’s apology should match the predominant regulatory orientation of the culture they operate in (promotion focus in Western cultures and prevention orientation in Eastern cultures). Second, to discourage the victims from retaliation and defecting, firms could temporally induce a promotion-centric mindset in the victims by stressing how they can benefit by reengaging with the company.

2. Theory

2.1 Post-transgression messages and emotions they elicit

Following a transgression, a victim may decide to forgive the transgressor or retaliate against the transgressor for the harm done (Palanski, 2012). Whereas forgiveness implies a process of overcoming resentment and, perhaps, returning the buyer–seller relationship to the original state (Tsarenko and Tojib, 2012), retaliation indicates that the victim wishes to get even and change the buyer–seller relationship (Aquino et al., 2001, 2006). For example, the victim may switch to a rival firm (even if the switch proves to be suboptimal; Bechwati and Morrin, 2003), spread negative word of mouth, complain and/or commit other hostile acts (Grégoire et al., 2010).

What leads a victim to move in one direction or the other? Research suggests that how the transgressor responds to the transgression may have a big role to play. For example, the victim is likely to forgive the transgressor if he/she feels that he/she has been heard and understood (Frantz and Bennigson, 2005), and/or the transgressor appears remorseful, compassionate and responsible (Darby and Schlenker, 1989; Moon and Rhee, 2012; Scher and Darley, 1997). However, if failing one or more of the above, the victim is very likely to retaliate against the transgressor and seek damages. For example, when Equifax offered one-year free credit monitoring and identity theft protection for the victims of their data breach, they initially declined to accept responsibility by inserting a clause that would have the victims agree to forced arbitration and sign away the rights to their day in court (Hembree, 2017). However, a furious consumer backlash forced Equifax to back out of this clause and the victims through their lawyers filed more than 30 lawsuits seeking class action status within days of the data breach (one lawsuit demanding more than US$70bn in damages; Schwartz, 2017).

In this research, we split the desire to forgive or retaliate against the transgressor into an emotional dimension and a decisional dimension. In the case of forgiveness, we will assume that the emotional dimension of sympathy (Eaton and Struthers, 2006; Worthington et al., 2006; e.g. I feel sorry/sympathy for the company) drives the decisional dimension is to return the relationship to what it was before the transgression (e.g. I will buy again from the company). Indeed, past research suggests that the more sympathy the victim feels for the transgressor, the more repentant (deserving of forgiveness) and less malicious/evil (less deserving of punishment), the transgressor begins to look (Darby and Schlenker, 1982; Eaton and Struthers, 2006). In the case of retaliation, we will assume that the emotional dimension of anger (Graham et al., 2011; McColl-Kennedy et al., 2009; e.g. I feel angry with the company) drives the decisional dimension is to terminate the relationship with the transgressor (e.g. I will never buy again from the company). Here, research shows that there is a direct and positive relationship between anger and the likelihood to retaliate (psychologically) against a transgressor in a variety of interpersonal (e.g. friendships, romantic and work relationships; Eaton and Struthers, 2006) and business contexts (e.g. angry consumers spreading negative word of mouth following service failure by a restaurant; Bonifield and Cole, 2007). Indeed, the relationship between anger and retaliation is so strong (Haj-Salem and Chebat, 2014) that some authors have suggested that retaliation’s main purpose is to relieve anger (Zourrig et al., 2009).

In Section 2.2, we present the central premise of our paper, namely, how we frame the focal message (such an apology from a CEO or an invitation from a lawyer to join a class action lawsuit) can intensify these emotions and strengthen the victim’s ultimate decision. As we describe below, we operationalize message frame based on how the contents of the message fit or does not fit with the promotion or prevention orientation of the consumers (Higgins, 1997).

2.2 Regulatory focus, fit and the feeling right mechanism

Regulatory focus theory (Higgins, 1997) proposes that a consumer pursues his/her goals in a way that is consistent with his/her regulatory focus. For example, a promotion-focused consumer seeks to attain idealistic goals and is concerned with advancement and accomplishment. This makes the consumer sensitive to the presence or absence of positive outcomes and prefer an eagerness strategy to accomplish his/her goals (Mourali et al., 2007). On the other hand, a prevention-focused consumer seeks to fulfill his/her duties and responsibilities and is concerned with safety and protection. This makes the consumer sensitive to the absence or presence of a negative outcome and prefer a vigilant strategy to accomplish his/her goals (Mourali et al., 2007).

According to Higgins (2000), a regulatory fit occurs in two ways. First, as described above, fit occurs when a consumer adopts (or is made to adopt) a goal-seeking strategy that is congruent with his/her regulatory orientation. Second and more important to us, fit occurs when the contents of a message match a consumer’s regulatory orientation. For example, when an orange juice offers promotion benefits such as energy and taste, the message frame fits with the regulatory orientation of a promotion-focused consumer but not a prevention-focused consumer. However, when the same juice offers prevention benefits such as preventing cardiovascular disease, the message frame fits with the regulatory orientation of a prevention-focused consumer but not a promotion-focused consumer; Aaker and Lee, 2001).

The occurrence of a frame-focus regulatory fit leads to two important outcomes. First, there is a “feeling right” or process component that make the consumer feel that he/she is going about the decision in a correct manner. Second, there is a “strength of engagement” or evaluation component that makes the consumer more committed to his/her actions (e.g. greater attachment to the chosen brand; Avnet and Higgins, 2006; Freitas and Higgins, 2002). For example, Santelli et al. (2009) investigated the role of regulatory fit within the domain of interpersonal forgiveness, where a transgressor lets a colleague down on an important presentation and then apologizes for his/her behavior. The authors compared two types of apology. A promotion-framed apology attempting to return the relationship to a positive level (i.e. achieve a gain), and a prevention-framed apology trying to prevent the relationship from deteriorating further (i.e. avoid more loss). The authors found that (1) the victim is more (less) likely to forgive the transgressor when the apology frame fits (misfits) with his/her regulatory focus and (2) the frame-focus fit works by making the victim feel that forgiving the transgressor is the right thing to do.

We extend the work of Santelli et al. (2009) in several ways. First, we examine a business-to-consumer context, as opposed to an interpersonal context, where the transgression occurs because of a product failure. There is a close resemblance between how consumers relate to a brand and how they relate to a person. For example, consumers can feel disappointed or hurt by a brand (Plummer, 1984; Tsarenko and Tojib, 2015), but, just as in the case of interpersonal relationships, they are less likely to end their relationship if they are strongly attached/committed to the brand (Sinha and Lu, 2016). Second, in addition to investigating the role of regulatory fit in forgiving the transgressor, we also investigate the role of fit in retaliating against the transgressor. Third, we deconstruct the role of regulatory fit by arguing that the fit strengthens the ultimate decision to repurchase or not repurchase from the transgressor by enhancing the associated emotion of sympathy/anger. Finally, we argue that fit effects on forgiveness/retaliation are conditional on regulatory focus, such that fit effects on sympathy/forgiveness (a positive emotion) are stronger among promotion-focused victim and fit effects on anger/retaliation (a negative emotion) are stronger among prevention-focused victim.

2.3 Role of regulatory fit in enhancing sympathy or anger

The experience of “feeling right” is a non-emotional and non-affective feeling (Cesario et al., 2004). Therefore, when we say that the victim feels right about his/her actions, we do not quite know what makes the victim feel this way. We approach this issue by focusing on the thoughts first, and then asking what emotions such thoughts/reasons elicit in the victims and argue that feeling right emanates from the match between the thoughts and emotions. For example, the victim may feel that it is right to forgive the transgressor because he/she thinks that the transgressor is not at fault and others are treating the transgressor unfairly, and therefore he/she feels sorry/sympathy for the transgressor. As we have discussed elsewhere, literature suggests that feelings of sympathy drive the decision to forgive (Eaton and Struthers, 2006). Therefore, it is likely that if the victim feels that it is just right to forgive the transgressor, he/she also has more sympathy toward the transgressor. Conversely, the victim may feel that it is right to retaliate against the transgressor because he/she thinks that the transgressor is not accepting responsibility and/or blaming others, and therefore he/she feels angry with the transgressor. As the literature suggests, as anger toward the transgressor drives the decision to retaliate (Graham et al., 2011; McColl-Kennedy et al., 2009), it is likely that if the victim feels that it is just right to retaliate against the transgressor, he/she also feels angrier toward the transgressor.

The above discussions imply two things. First, suppose that a transgression causes harm to the victim, and he/she subsequently comes across a message asking him/her to forgive the transgressor (e.g. an apology from the CEO). The victim will feel more sympathy toward, and be more likely to repurchase from, the transgressor if the frame of the apology matches or fits with his/her regulatory focus relative to a situation where there is a misfit or mismatch between the frame and the focus. Conversely, suppose the victim comes across a message encouraging him/her to punish the transgressor (e.g. a lawyer inviting the victim to join a class action suit to seek damages). The victim will feel angrier toward, and be more likely not to repurchase from, the transgressor if the frame of the message matches or fits with his/her regulatory focus relative to a situation where there is a misfit or mismatch between the frame and the focus.

2.4 Moderating role of regulatory focus

So far, we have argued that a match or fit between the (message) frame and the (consumer) regulatory focus strengthens the emotional reactions to a transgression (sympathy versus anger). The final research question is whether such fit effects will differentially affect promotion and prevention-focused victims. One way to address this issue is to compare the valence of the underlying emotion, that is, if it is a positive or negative emotion (Scherer, 1984) and assess the fit of the emotion’s valence with the victim’s regulatory orientation. For example, one could argue that sympathy (and the subsequent inclination to repurchase from the transgressor) is a positive (approach) emotion, and, because promotion-oriented consumers are more sensitive to the presence and absence of positives, fit effects inducing sympathy should be stronger among promotion-focused consumers. Similarly, anger (and the subsequent inclination not to repurchase from the transgressor) is a negative emotion, and, because prevention-oriented consumers are more sensitive to the presence and absence of negatives, it is likely that the fit effects inducing anger will be stronger among prevention-focused consumers.

One caveat, however, is in order. Molden and Finkel (2010) studied offenses in interpersonal relationships and found that both promotion- and prevention-oriented victims were equally likely to forgive the transgressor, but for different reasons. The promotion-oriented victims forgave the transgressor expecting that their trust in their partner will advance or promote their relationship. The prevention-oriented victims forgave their partners expecting that their commitment would prevent their relationship from deteriorating further. The Molden and Finkel (2010) study appears to indicate that fit effects generating sympathy/forgiveness should be equally strong for promotion and prevention-oriented victims. However, as our focus is on a person-to-product relationship and not on a person-to-person relationship, whether the same results will hold remains an empirical question.

Based on the above discussions, we formulate the hypotheses for this paper:

H1.

A regulatory fit between the frame of message seeking forgiveness and a victim’s regulatory focus, relative to a regulatory misfit, will generate greater sympathy for the transgressor, and make the victim more inclined to forgive, and repurchase from, the transgressor. This fit-induced sympathy and repurchase intentions will be stronger among promotion-focused victims relative to prevention-focused victims (Figure 1A).

H2.

A regulatory fit between the frame of message encouraging retaliation and a victim’s regulatory focus, relative to a regulatory misfit, will generate more anger toward the transgressor, and make the victim more inclined to retaliate and not repurchase from, the transgressor. This fit-induced anger and repurchase intentions will be stronger among prevention-focused victims relative to promotion-focused victims (Figure 1B).

3. Study 1

3.1 Procedure

3.1.1 Sample and design

A total of 123 undergraduate students (69 females) from a large private university participated in a 2 × 2 (regulatory focus: promotion and prevention × regulatory fit: fit and misfit) between-subject laboratory experiment.

3.1.2 Stimuli

We ran Study 1 in two parts. In the first part, we induced (temporal) promotion or prevention orientations across participants using a well-established regulatory focus induction protocol (Cornwell and Higgins, 2016; Freitas and Higgins, 2002; Higgins et al., 1994). Participants wrote a short personal essay for about five minutes describing their hopes and aspirations (promotion focus) or their duties and obligations (prevention focus) when they were growing up and now.

In the second part, we asked all participants to imagine that a carmaker has recalled the new car that they have purchased because of some technical faults, and they were now watching the CEO of the car company apologize to their customers on television. We gave participants either a promotion-framed or a prevention-framed message from the CEO, thereby creating a focus-frame fit (promotion-framed message to a promotion-focused participant or prevention framed message to a prevention-focused participant) or a focus-frame misfit (promotion framed message to a prevention-focused participant or a prevention framed message to a promotion-focused participant; see Study 1: Stimuli below). As shown in Study 1: Stimuli below, the promotion-framed message used words/phrases like “I hope that our relationship can move forward,” “I will gain back your trust” and “I want all customers to regain confidence in the company.” The prevention-framed message used words/phrases like “My duty is to repair our relationship,” “I am obligated not to lose your trust” and “I want to ensure that our customers not lose confidence in our company.”

Study 1: stimuli:

  1. Cover story

    • You have purchased a new car from a reputed manufacturer. During your morning commute to work one day, your car breaks down. You cannot start the car and have to call a tow-truck. As a result, you have to miss a very important meeting and cancel all appointments for the day.

    • It is evening now. You are watching television and the news anchor reports that the problem you experienced with your car is not isolated to your model and the carmaker has recalled several other models for the same problem. The news anchor is interviewing the CEO of the company who is apologizing to the customers. You listen to the CEO say:

  2. Frame manipulations

    • Promotion frame: I am so sorry and I have to apologize for what has happened to our customers. I hope that our relationship with our customers can move forward after this. I want all our customers to know that I will strive to do whatever it takes to gain back your trust. I want all our customers to regain their confidence in our company.

    • Prevention frame: I am so sorry and I have to apologize for what has happened to our customers. My duty is to repair our relationship with our customers. I want all our customers to know that I am obligated to do whatever it takes not to lose your trust. I want to ensure that our customers do not lose their confidence in our company.

3.1.3 Measures

The manipulation checks for regulatory focus included three 7-point items measuring how much participants felt (a) happy (as opposed to sad), (b) relieved (as opposed to anxious) and (c) if what they wanted to do felt more important than what they ought to do; α = 0.75). Higher numbers on these items are indicative of a promotion mindset, and lower numbers are indicative of a prevention mindset (Keller, 2006).

Two 9-point agree/disagree items measured how sympathetic participants felt toward the transgressor (I feel sorry for the troubles facing the company, I feel sympathy for the troubles facing the company; α = 0.81). Three 9-point agree/disagree items measured their repurchase intentions (I am likely to return to the company, I am likely to buy from the company again, I am likely to recommend the company’s products to my friends; α = 0.87). A factor analysis on the three items retained a one factor solution (eigenvalue > 1) explaining 91% of the total variance in all three items.

As some consumers are more forgiving than others are in general (Toussaint and Webb, 2005), we measured trait forgiveness for each participant with five 5-point, agree/disagree items (e.g. I can forgive others for almost anything, I have always forgiven those who have hurt me; α = 0.74, Berry et al., 2005). We created a composite trait forgiveness score for each participant and treated it as a control variable in our analyses.

3.2 Analysis and results

3.2.1 Manipulation checks

Manipulation checks for regulatory focus showed that how participants felt (relieved, happy and focused on what they wanted to do) varied in the intended directions and did not interact with the fit manipulations. The composite measure of the three items was significantly higher in the promotion condition relative to the prevention condition (M’s of 5.31 and 4.09, F(1,119) = 48.13, p < 0.001), and this pattern was unchanged across the regulatory fit and misfit conditions (interaction F(1,119) < 1).

3.2.2 Cell means and analysis of variance

Table 1 shows the means for the key measures (sympathy and repurchase intentions) across the four combinations of regulatory focus and fit conditions.

We conducted analysis of variance (ANOVAs) on sympathy and repurchase intentions, with regulatory focus (promotion, prevention) and regulatory fit (fit, misfit) and their interaction as predictors, and trait forgiveness and gender as control variables. In addition to the participant’s trait forgiveness score, we also control for gender given that women are, in general, more forgiving than men (Miller et al., 2008).

As predicted in H1, relative to a focus-frame misfit, a focus-frame fit significantly increased sympathy toward the transgressor (M’s of 4.63 and 3.62; F(1,117) = 9.58, p < 0.01). However, and contrary to H1, regulatory focus did not qualify the fit effect (F(1,117) < 1). Similarly, relative to a focus-frame misfit, a focus-frame fit significantly increased repurchase intentions (M’s of 5.01 and 2.98; F(1,117) = 58.22, p < 0.0001), but it was not qualified by regulatory focus (F(1,117) < 1; see Table 1 for the means across the conditions).

3.2.3 Process tests

Figure 1A implicates a moderated mediation model. However, as the ANOVAs did not show a significant interaction of regulatory focus and fit on the mediator and/or the outcome, we tested for a simple mediation model aggregated across promotion and prevention participants. In our model, regulatory fit affects repurchase intentions by generating more sympathy for the transgressor (Hayes, 2018; Table 2).

As shown in the top panel in Table 2, focus-frame fit increases sympathy for the transgressor (β = 0.97, t = 3.11, p < 0.01) showing the predictor to mediator link. The middle panel shows that sympathy increases repurchase intentions after we have factored into consideration the effects of the focus-frame fit (β = 0.25, t = 3.48, p < 0.001) showing the mediator to outcome link. Finally, as shown in the bottom panel, the indirect effect of the focus-frame fit (0.97 × 0.25; focus-frame fit affecting repurchase intentions by enhancing sympathy for the transgressor) is significant (the 95% bootstrapped confidence interval for the fit effects does not straddle zero).

3.3 Discussion

In Study 1, we show that framing an apology to fit with a victim’s regulatory focus/orientation (e.g. a promotion-framed apology targeted to a promotion focused victim/a prevention-framed apology directed to a prevention focused victim) can increase sympathy and make the victim more inclined to repurchase from the transgressor (compared to a frame-focus misfit). We find that such fit effects are equally strong for promotion- and prevention-oriented victims suggesting that sympathy for the transgressor may be a more universal trait cutting across promotion and prevention orientations than, say, anger, which we study next.

4. Study 2

4.1 Procedure

4.1.1 Sample and design

A total of 123 undergraduate students (57 females) from a large university participated in a 2 × 2 (regulatory focus: promotion and prevention × regulatory fit: fit and misfit) between-subject laboratory experiment. All Study 2 participants were new to the study (i.e. they did not participate in Study 1).

4.1.2 Stimuli

Like Study 1, we ran Study 2 in two parts. In the first part, we induced (temporal) promotion or prevention orientations across participants following the same protocols used in Study 1. In the second part, we asked all participants to imagine that a carmaker has recalled the new car that they have purchased because of some technical faults, and they were watching a lawyer, on television, ask all affected consumers to join a class action lawsuit against the car company. Participants read either a promotion-framed or a prevention-framed message from the lawyer thereby creating a focus-frame fit or misfit between the victim and the message (Study 1). As shown in Study 2: Stimuli below, the promotion-framed message used words/phrases like “the company could have ensured things went right,” “the company did not strive to do everything possible” and “the company could have continued to enjoy your trust.” The prevention-framed message used words/phrases like “the company could have prevented things from going wrong,” “the company did not fulfill their obligations and failed to do everything possible” and “the company could have avoided losing your trust.”

Study 2: stimuli:

  1. Cover story

    • You have purchased a new car from a reputed manufacturer. During your morning commute to work one day, your car breaks down. You cannot start the car and have to call a tow-truck. As a result, you have to miss a very important meeting and cancel all appointments for the day.

    • It is evening now. You are watching television and the news anchor reports that the problem you experienced with your car is not isolated to your model and the carmaker has recalled several other models for the same problem. The news anchor is interviewing a lawyer who is filing a class action suit against the company. You listen to the lawyer say:

  2. Frame manipulations

    • Promotion frame: The company did not adequately test the components before the car went into production. The company could have ensured that everything went right and continued to enjoy the consumer’s trust and confidence. Speaking on behalf of all affected persons, I am sad to note that the company did not strive to do everything possible so that this did not happen. Now the company must answer to, and compensate, consumers like you who have suffered from their negligence.

    • Prevention Frame: The company did not adequately test the components before the car went into production. The company could have prevented things from going wrong and avoided losing the consumer’s trust and confidence. Speaking on behalf of all affected persons, I am sad to note that the company did not fulfill their obligations and failed to do everything possible to prevent this from happening. Now the company can no longer avoid answering to, and avoid compensating, consumers like you who have suffered from their negligence.

4.1.3 Measures

The three manipulation check items for regulatory focus were the same as in Study 1 (relieved, happy and focused on what they wanted to do; α = 0.68). The composite of two 9-point agree/disagree item measured how angry participants felt toward the transgressor (I feel very angry with the company for my troubles, I feel like punishing the company for my troubles; α = 0.93).

A composite of three 9-point agree/disagree items measured how disinclined participants were to repurchase from the transgressor (I am likely not to return to the company, I am likely not to buy from this company again, I am likely not to recommend this company’s products to my friends; α = 0.74). A factor analysis on the three items retained a one-factor solution (eigenvalue > 1) explaining 88% of the total variance in all three items.

Finally, five 5-point, agree/disagree items measured how vengeful the participants were in general (trait vengeance; e.g. I hold a grudge too long, if someone treats me badly I treat him/her the same; α = 0.55; Berry et al., 2005). As in Study 1, we created a composite trait vengeance score for each participant to control for consumer heterogeneity in the inclination to retaliate.

4.2 Analysis and results

4.2.1 Manipulation checks

As in Study 1, the composite manipulation check measure for regulatory focus varied in the intended directions and did not interact with the fit manipulations (M’s of 4.97 and 4.10 for promotion and prevention conditions, F(1,119) = 30.55, p < 0.001).

4.2.2 Cell means and analysis of variance

Table 3 shows the means for the key measures (anger and disengaging intentions) across the four combinations of regulatory focus and fit conditions.

We conducted ANOVAs on anger and disengaging intentions, with regulatory focus (promotion, prevention) and regulatory fit (fit, misfit) and their interaction as predictors, and trait vengeance and gender as control variables. In addition to trait vengeance, we select gender as a control given past research showing that men, in general, are more accepting of retaliation or revenge, compared to women (Cota-McKinley et al., 2001).

As predicted in H2, relative to a frame-focus misfit, a focus-frame fit significantly increased anger with the transgressor (M’s of 6.20 and 5.38; F(1,117) = 6.59, p = 0.01), and the main effects were qualified by regulatory focus (F(1,117) = 5.60, p = 0.02). Among prevention-focused participants, the focus-frame fit significantly increased anger with the transgressor (M’s of 6.79 and 5.22; F(1,57) = 12.12, p < 0.001) but not among the promotion-focused participants (M’s of 5.61 and 5.48; F(1,58) < 1). Similarly, relative to a focus-frame misfit, a focus-frame fit significantly increased the disengaging intentions (M’s of 7.35 and 5.49; F(1,117) = 68.00, p < 0.0001), and the main effect was qualified by regulatory focus that approached statistical significance (F(1,117) = 3.72, p = 0.06). Among prevention-focused participants, the focus-frame fit significantly increased intentions not to repurchase from the transgressor (M’s of 7.69 and 5.39; F(1,57) = 40.64, p < 0.0001) and slightly less so among the promotion-focused participants (M’s of 7.00 and 5.89; F(1,58) = 24.72, p < 0.001).

4.2.3 Process tests

Table 4 shows the process tests results testing Figure 1B (a moderated mediation model; Hayes, 2018).

As shown in Table 4, focus-frame fit affects the mediator (feelings of anger), which in turn affects the outcome (intention not to repurchase), but these effects are conditional on regulatory focus (promotion or prevention). Consistent with H2, the top panel shows that focus-frame fit does not enhance anger toward the transgressor conditional on a promotion orientation (focus = 0; β = 0.06, t < 1) but transitioning to a prevention orientation significantly increases that anger (the interaction is significant; β = 1.31, t = 2.37, p = 0.02). The middle panel shows that anger increases intentions not to repurchase from the transgressor (β = 0.23, t = 3.36, p = 0.001) after we have controlled for any direct effect of focus-frame fit. Finally, as shown in the bottom panel, the indirect effect of focus-frame fir (fit affecting repurchase-intentions by enhancing anger toward the transgressor) is significant among the prevention-focused participants (the 95% bootstrapped confidence interval for the fit effects does not straddle zero) but not among the promotion-focused participants (the 95% bootstrapped confidence interval for the fit effects straddles zero).

4.3 Discussions

In Study 2, we study how exposing victims of a transgression to a message of culpability (e.g. a class action lawsuit claiming that the transgressor is at fault) affects their reactions. We find that prevention-oriented victims get angrier toward the transgressor if the frame of the message matches their regulatory focus (relative to when it does not), which, in turn, increases their intention not to repurchase from the transgressor. On the other hand, the message fit (or misfit) does not affect the anger/repurchase intentions of promotion-oriented victims. Therefore, and unlike Study 1 (which studies fit effects in the domain of forgiveness), the fit effects in the domain of retaliation are qualified by the victim’s regulatory focus.

5. General discussion

Our paper’s main objective is to investigate how regulatory fit between a consumer’s regulatory focus and a message of contrition from a transgressor (or a message holding the transgressor culpable) affects his/her intentions to forgive the transgressor (or retaliate against the transgressor). We make three main contributions. First, whereas past work has shown that regulatory fit between a message of contrition (transgressor’s apology) and the victim’s regulatory focus increases forgiveness in interpersonal relationships (Santelli et al., 2009), we show that the same effects play out in a consumer-to-business context following a product failure and a subsequent message of contrition from the CEO (Study 1).

Second, we extend research from the domain of forgiveness to the domain of retaliation (where the victim gets a message asking him/her to retaliate against the transgressor who is responsible for the product failure). Here, we show that regulatory fit between a message of culpability and the victim’s regulatory focus increases retaliatory intentions, but only among prevention-oriented consumers. This finding has two important implications. First, while ample research has shown the effect of regulatory fit in enhancing positive responses, we show that regulatory fit can be just as effective in enhancing negative responses (Avnet and Higgins, 2006). Second, we show that while sympathy/forgiveness is a universal behavior (same across promotion and prevention victims), anger/retaliation is stronger among (or more specific to) prevention-focused victims.

Finally, and third, we extend research on the “feeling right” mechanism thought to underlie fit effects on forgiveness intentions (Santelli et al., 2009). While feeling right is indeed a primary component of regulatory fit effects, it is a neutral emotion, meaning that some other emotions strengthen this just-right feeling. We examine what makes these intentions (forgiveness or retaliation) feel right. In Study 1 (2), we find that regulatory fit increases consumer sympathy (anger), resulting in greater forgiveness (retaliation) intentions.

5.1 Managerial implications

Our findings carry several implications for practice. First, companies, seeking to recover from a service/product failure, can use these results to match their messages of contrition to the regulatory orientation of the country or culture in which they do business. While individual differences still reside within a country, eastern and collectivistic cultures (e.g. China) are more prevention-oriented, while western and individualistic cultures (e.g. USA) are more promotion-oriented (Higgins, 2008).

Second, recovery attempts usually begin with an apology from the CEO, and while managing these messages are important, the companies should be aware that the victims are exposed to counter messages as well (holding the company culpable for the failure). Here, our results suggest that inducing a promotion mindset (Cesario et al., 2004) may help in keeping the consumer backlash and anger in check. For example, one of the first things that Equifax did following their data breach is offer one-year free credit monitoring (offering a gain) and identity theft protection (protecting against a loss). Thus, Equifax’s response mixed a promotion offer (free credit monitoring) and a prevention offer (theft protection). Our results indicate that embellishing the former could inoculate Equifax against the possibility of future retaliatory actions from the victims.

5.2 Limitations and future research

We end this paper by discussing some of its limitations and suggesting future research directions. First, whereas our laboratory experiments allow us to achieve high internal validity, they might limit the external validity of our results. Thus, future research may use a field experiment or field surveys to replicate our results. Moreover, our research looks at the role of regulatory fit in enhancing motivation to forgive or retaliate in two separate studies. Given that victims get both types of messages simultaneously, real world field settings may enable us to test for their joint effects. Finally, because we use a cross-sectional approach, we are unable to assess any long-term impact of product failure, for example, if anger dissipates over time and what organizations can do to accelerate this process. Future research can use a longitudinal design to compare immediate versus long-term victim emotions/actions.

Second, and along the lines of present versus future effects, product failures may cause little harm in the present but may carry the risk of causing serious harm in the future. In such cases, how perceived risk plays into a victim’s decision to forgive, or retaliate against, the transgressor is an interesting avenue for future research. For example, even if the victims are unharmed at the time of failure, they may still feel themselves to be vulnerable to future negative outcomes (e.g. long-term illnesses from environmental damage). When such perceived risks are high, the victims may focus more on long-term losses (e.g. health problems) and messages emphasizing what they can lose and encouraging retaliation may fit with a prevention mindset. Conversely, if the perceived risks are low, then messages emphasizing the benefits of renewed relationships and seeking forgiveness may fit with a promotion mindset (Lee and Aaker, 2004). Therefore, studying how perceived risk affects a victim’s emotions and actions and how a focus-frame fit may moderate them is a rich avenue for future research.

Third, given the effect of culture on consumer willingness to engage in forgiveness and revenge (Zourrig et al., 2015), future research can explore the role of country-of-origin on the relationships explored in this research. For example, in this research, we focused on the role of anger as it is one of the most common emotions experienced in crisis (Lerner and Keltner, 2001; Lerner et al., 2003; Ran et al., 2016) and a precedent of retaliatory behavior. However, the emotions that lead to retaliation might be different in different cultures. For example, whereas undergraduate students from the United States experienced stronger levels of anger before deciding to retaliate (Folkes, 1984), shame mattered more for their Korean counterparts (Shteynberg, 2005) suggesting that anger is a culturally inappropriate form of self-expression in some cultures (Zourrig et al., 2009). Thus, how shame, in addition to sympathy and anger, can affect the consumer’s intention to forgive or retaliate against a transgressor is a fruitful topic for future research.

Figures

Process models

Figure 1

Process models

Study 1: cell means and standard deviations

Regulatory focus Fit N Intention
to reengage
Feelings of
sympathy
Mean SD Mean SD
Prevention Fit 32 4.94 1.54 4.64 1.60
Prevention Misfit 31 2.79 1.16 3.45 1.61
Promotion Fit 30 5.10 1.59 4.62 1.82
Promotion Misfit 30 3.17 1.43 3.80 1.83

Study 1: process tests

A. Dependent variable: sympatdy
Coefficient Standard error t p LLCI ULCI
Constant 3.1427 0.6750 4.6556 0.0000 1.8060 4.4793
Fit (fit = 1, misfit = 0) 0.9725 0.3126 3.1114 0.0023 0.3536 1.5915
Trait forgiveness 0.1517 0.1950 0.7781 0.4381 −0.2344 0.5378
Gender (male = 1, female = 0) 0.0038 0.3098 0.0121 0.9903 −0.6097 0.6172
B. Dependent variable: intention to reengage with transgressor
  Coefficient Standard error t p LLCI ULCI
Constant 2.2867 0.5770 3.9633 0.0001 1.1441 3.4292
Fit (fit = 1, misfit = 0) 1.5772 0.2555 6.1724 0.0000 1.0712 2.0832
Sympathy 0.2508 0.0721 3.4806 0.0007 0.1081 0.3935
Trait forgiveness 0.0487 0.1537 0.3172 0.7517 −0.2556 0.3530
Gender (male = 1, female = 0) −0.1481 0.2436 −0.6081 0.5443 −0.6304 0.3342
C. Indirect effect of fit on intention to reengage with transgressor
Mediator Effect Boot SE Boot LLCI Boot ULCI
Sympathy 0.2439 0.1079 0.0623 0.4819

Study 2: cell means and standard deviations

Regulatory focus Fit N Intention to
disengage
Feelings of
anger
Mean SD Mean SD
Prevention Fit 31 7.69 0.75 6.79 1.39
Prevention Misfit 30 5.39 1.72 5.22 1.60
Promotion Fit 31 7.00 1.24 5.61 1.85
Promotion Misfit 31 5.59 1.06 5.55 1.45

Study 2: process tests

A. Dependent variable: anger
  Coefficient Standard error t p LLCI ULCI
Constant 3.7422 0.6238 5.9992 0.0000 2.5069 4.9776
Fit (fit = 1, misfit = 0) 0.0566 0.3886 0.1456 0.8845 −0.7130 0.8261
Focus (prevention = 1, promotion = 0) −0.3121 0.3921 −0.7959 0.4277 −1.0887 0.4645
Fit × focus 1.3147 0.5556 2.3664 0.0196 0.2144 2.4150
Gender (male = 1, female = 0) 0.3138 0.2819 1.1133 0.2679 −0.2444 0.8721
Trait vengeance 0.6157 0.1931 3.1887 0.0018 0.2333 0.9981
B. Dependent variable: intention to disengage
  Coefficient Standard
error
t p LLCI ULCI
Constant 3.9235 0.5136 7.6397 0.0000 2.9065 4.9405
Fit (fit = 1, misfit = 0) 1.6645 0.2217 7.5094 0.0000 1.2256 2.1035
Anger 0.2347 0.0698 3.3625 0.0010 0.0965 0.3729
Gender (male = 1, female = 0) 0.3900 0.2202 1.7706 0.0792 −0.0462 0.8261
Trait vengeance 0.0445 0.1562 0.2845 0.7765 −0.2649 0.3538
C. Conditional indirect effect of fit on intention to retaliate
Focus Effect Boot SE Boot LLCI Boot ULCI
Promotion 0.0133 0.1058 −0.1855 0.2491
Prevention 0.3219 0.1518 0.0849 0.6729

Summary of past research on regulatory focus and transgressions

Source Context/topic Method Key findings related to regulatory focus and transgressions
Brebels et al. (2008), Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Impact of regulatory focus on retaliation intentions against unfair treatment in organizational settings Five studies Promotion-focused individuals have heightened self-accessibility and are more likely to retaliate against authority who enacts unfair procedures.
Das et al. (2020), Psychology and Marketing Effect of fit between stimuli arousal level and consumer regulatory focus on consumer reactions to service failures Three studies High (low) incidental arousal‐inducing stimuli raised satisfaction, loyalty and referral for promotion (prevention)-focused individuals following a service failure.
Laufer and Jung (2010), Public Relations Review Impact of fit between product recall communications and consumer regulatory focus on consumer compliance and future intentions to repurchase for promotion-oriented consumers One study Regulatory fit increased intentions to comply but lowered intentions to repurchase.
Molden and Finkel (2010), Journal of Experimental Social Psychology Impact of regulatory focus on motivations to forgive a partner in interpersonal relationships Two studies Trust in a relationship partner predicted forgiveness among promotion-focused individuals, whereas commitment to this partner predicted forgiveness among prevention-focused individuals.
Ran et al. (2016), Frontiers in Psychology Effect of fit between framing of crisis communication and consumer emotion on consumer likelihood to forgive Three studies Guilt framing for promotion-focused angry consumers and shame framing for prevention-focused fearful consumers generates greater “feeling right” and results in higher likelihood to forgive.
Santelli et al. (2009), Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Effect of fit between framing of transgressor's repentance and victim's regulatory focus on forgiveness in interpersonal settings Three studies When there is a match between the victim's regulatory focus and the transgressor's repentance, forgiveness elicits the “just right feeling.”
Shin et al. (2014), Marketing Letters Effect of regulatory focus on intentions to spread WOM following negative (or positive) service experience Two studies where regulatory focus is tested (total three studies) Generation of traditional WOM followed the negativity effect regardless of regulatory focus. The generation of electronic WOM followed regulatory fit such that prevention (promotion)-focused individuals were more likely to post following negative (positive) service experience. These effects were dependent on self-construal such that effects for prevention (promotion) held when inducing interdependence (independence) self-construal.
Wan et al. (2011), International Journal of Hospitality Management The effect of regulatory focus and personal similarity on a witness' response to service failures where a stranger is the victim One study where regulatory focus is tested (total of two studies). Regulatory focus moderates the effects of personal similarity on blame attributions. Prevention-focused individuals are more likely to feel threatened when service failure happens to similar individuals, place more blame on the company and have a poorer perception of service quality.
Winterheld and Simpson (2011), Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Impact of regulatory focus on partner support perceptions, conflict resolution behaviors and emotional experiences in interpersonal relationships Four studies Prevention-focused (promotion-focused) people perceived their partners as more distancing and less- supportive (less-distancing and more supportive) during conflict, displayed only detail-specific (different types of creative) conflict resolution behavior, experienced negative relationship outcomes with more agitation (more sadness).
Current research Impact of regulatory focus-frame fit on emotional reactions and repurchase decisions following product failures Two studies Following an apology, a frame-focus fit (compared to a frame-focus misfit) elicits sympathy and encourages repurchase universally across promotion and prevention-oriented consumers. However, following a message encouraging retaliation, the same fit elicits anger and discourages repurchase more among prevention-oriented than promotion-oriented consumers

Appendix

Table A1

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Corresponding author

Subimal Chatterjee can be contacted at: schatter@binghamton.edu

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