What's the use of complaining? A researcher intends to find out

March 28, 1995|By Elizabeth Leland | Elizabeth Leland,Knight-Ridder News Service

Your landlord won't fix the leaking faucet? Your wife works too much? Your taxes are too high?

Tell Robin Kowalski. You'll probably feel better. She'll not only listen to your complaints, she'll study them. She's taken the great American pastime of complaining and turned it into a university research project.

Ms. Kowalski is an assistant psychology professor at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C., up in the mountains where it snows a lot -- but don't get her started. She hates the cold and it's one thing she's not afraid to complain about. In fact, she's pretty good at it.

Ms. Kowalski hopes to make a name for herself by figuring out why we complain and what good it does.

She's already found:

* Infrequent complainers feel better after complaining, as if they'd taken a load off their shoulders. But the people listening to them usually feel worse, as if they'd taken on that load.

* Nothing seems to satisfy habitual complainers, not even TC ready ear. They complain for other reasons -- to attract attention or to impress. (A person might complain about the wine at a restaurant to show she knows something about wine.)

"My theory on that is a lot of things on any given day may make us unhappy, but we bite our tongues and get over it," Ms. Kowalski said. "If we complain all the time, there's no weight to be lifted off our shoulders."

* Most complainers feel worse if listeners disagree or don't respond.

So how did a 30-year-old assistant psychology professor who likes mystery novels and Buffalo Bills foot ball end up with a job like this? "I wanted my own area of study," Ms. Kowalski said. "It's fun. All of it's new."

"I complain a lot."

It seems she complained so much to Wake Forest University Professor Mark Leary that she couldn't find a professional niche, Mr. Leary finally blurted out:

"That's it."

"What?"

"Complaining. You're so good at it, why don't you investigate it?"

And so she is. She wrote a paper, reviewing existing research on complaining -- there isn't much -- then began her research. Her guinea pigs: 191 students at Western Carolina.

In one study, she and two graduate assistants asked students to think about something that made them unhappy. They asked half the group to complain in writing. They asked the others to write about what they did the day before.

"We wanted to see if, when we allowed people to vent, they felt better about it, and they did," Ms. Kowalski said. "The people who were allowed to complain felt better than the control group."

Topping the list of complaints are the kind of things you might expect from college students: not enough on-campus parking, too much homework, inconsiderate roommates, bad weather, poor health.

Ms. Kowalski said most people complain about other people's behavior.

John Hancock, a radio talk show host at WBT in Charlotte, N.C., didn't need Ms. Kowalski to come up with the same conclusion. Mr. Hancock whines a lot over the radio -- it's his way of provoking listeners to call in.

"It's the sport of the '90s," Mr. Hancock said. "Sometimes those closest to you won't put up with your complaining, so you call John Hancock, or tell a person at work."

Mr. Hancock shrugs off complaints. But Ms. Kowalski said many people don't do that. "It sets up a contagion of complaining. If someone complains to me, I feel bad and I go and complain to somebody. That sets up a snowball effect."

Now before anyone starts complaining about why good money is being spent at a public university so that Ms. Kowalski can study complaining, hear her out:

"One value of the research is to understand a phenomenon we all engage in," she said. " . . . It has some implications for relationships. If I had a partner complaining to me all the time and it made me feel bad, it might set up negative feelings, negative interactions."

Her research shows no difference in the amount of complaining between men and women -- just the types of complaints. She plans to study the effect complaining has on health and relationships.

While other psychologists might investigate more serious topics, such as sexual aggression or racism, Ms. Kowalski already is attracting national interest.

Connie Chung wants to interview her. So does the "Today" show.

Ms. Kowalski isn't complaining.

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