Evaluative Conflict and Information Search %N the Adoption Process

James W. Harvey, University of Maryland
ABSTRACT - Much research is currently devoted to improved understanding of information search and processing. Much of this literature focuses on information load, information format, attention, memory, information integration schema, etc. The present paper, however, focuses on two neglected aspects of external search behavior: (a) understanding of why people search for information, and (b) the cognitive structural conditions which mediate both level and type of external search.
[ to cite ]:
James W. Harvey (1979) ,"Evaluative Conflict and Information Search %N the Adoption Process", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 06, eds. William L. Wilkie, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 209-213.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 1979      Pages 209-213


James W. Harvey, University of Maryland

[Preparation of this paper was supported, in part, by a grant from the General Research Board of the University of Maryland and has benefited from the comments of Jerry C. Olson.]


Much research is currently devoted to improved understanding of information search and processing. Much of this literature focuses on information load, information format, attention, memory, information integration schema, etc. The present paper, however, focuses on two neglected aspects of external search behavior: (a) understanding of why people search for information, and (b) the cognitive structural conditions which mediate both level and type of external search.


Nearly a decade of research attention to information search and processing behavior has produced a significant literature stream (e.g., Bettman, 1970; Newell and Simon, 1972; Wright, 1973; Simon, 1974; Bettman and Jacoby, 1975; Wilkie, 1975; Bettman, 1977; Olson, 1977; Scammon, 1977; Olson, 1978). Two major limitations to this research exist, however. First, inadequate conceptual and empirical attention has been directed at the role external search behavior plays in the overall decision process. Most of the studies in this research tradition examine subprocesses without sufficient attention to larger processes. Second, these studies tend to emphasize the "human limits" to information acquisition (i.e., overload and format) rather than the psychological and motivational situations which may "signal" the individual to search for more or less information (e.g., Burnkrant, 1976; Harvey, 1977). Clearly, the relevance of the "quantity" and "format" types of research is understood more fully when one considers that frequently the individual may perceive little need to search externally for information. The consumer welfare and decision quality implications of this observation seem obvious (Jacoby, 1977).

Therefore, the purpose of this paper is to explore, conceptually, a hypothetical construct, Evaluative Conflict, which is postulated to mediate external information search behavior. Care is taken to integrate this search into a significant decision process conceptualization, adoption theory, as well as other related literature streams, namely cognitive structure and attitude formation. The major thrust of this work, however, is to discuss the nature of Evaluative Conflict, its underlying determinants, modes of conflict resolution, and of primary importance, how Evaluative Conflict provides a "signal" to the individual to search, externally for information.


Adoption theory provides rich insight into the likelihood of success or failure of new products, services, and ideas (Rogers, 1962; Rogers and Shoemaker, 1971). High product failure rates persist, which contributes to renewed interest in and challenges for adoption theory (Rogers, 1976; Crawford, 1977).

Theories of adoption are generally concerned with the behavioral, social structural, information search, and cognitive processes in which the individual engages as one psychologically moves toward acceptance or rejection of an innovation. The overall process of adoption is generally conceptualized to subsume a number of other distinct and measurable subprocesses or "stages," each one of which, presumably, the decision maker "passes through." Robertson (1971) indicates that eight such subprocesses combine to form the overall adoption process: (a) problem recognition, (b) awareness, (c) comprehension, (d) attitude, (e) legitimation, (f) trial, (g) adoption, and (h) dissonance.

While much of adoption theory is devoted to conceptual and empirical examinations of the various stages which comprise the overall process, another, less well known aspect of this literature stream is one which emphasizes the dimensions which define, perceptually, any innovation. For example, Rogers (1962) contends that five perceptual dimensions exist, each of which presumably mediate the likelihood and rate of acceptance of an innovation: (a) relative advantage--the extent to which the innovation is perceived to be superior to what it super-cedes or competes against; (b) compatibility the consistency the innovation is perceived to have with established norms and values; (c) complexity--the degree of difficulty in understanding or using the innovation; (d) divisibility--the extent to which the innovation can be tried on a limited basis; and (e) communicability--the extent to which the innovation can be easily and clearly discussed with others. Each of these perceptual dimensions can be represented, however, in cognitive structure. Therefore, significant insights into acceptance of innovations is offered by such a cognitive structural orientation.

Cognitive Structure Conceptualization of an Innovation

Two important theoretical affirmations of this paper are: first, that any innovation can be cognitively represented by beliefs (Fishbein, 1963) and that the resultant cognitive structure mediates behavioral response (McGuire, 1964; Wright, 1974). Any product, service or idea can be viewed as possessing attributes or related concepts which serve to define that stimulus for a consumer. Individual subjective feelings of association of attributes or concepts to the innovation are called beliefs. Each of the attribute beliefs within an individual's cognitive structure is either positively, negatively, or neutrally valued.

From a cognitive structure perspective, the decision process, or more precisely, the formation of a strong purchase intention (either positive or negative), may be thought of as a process of determining and comparing the presence and/or absence of both positive and negative aspects of the product. Since most innovations are perceived to possess both positively- and negatively-valued attributes, which are represented cognitively as positively- and negatively-valued beliefs, the process leading to trial is based on finding "adequate" positive reasons for purchase while discounting, depreciating, or disparaging the negative aspects of purchase (e.g., cf. Bilkey, 1951, 1953; Kotler, 1976, p. 86).


When the decision maker is confronted with a choice situation perceived to contain both positive and negative attributes, that person can be thought of as being in a situation of Evaluative Conflict brought about by perceived evaluative inconsistency (Fishbein and Ajzen, 1975, p. 144). That is, because both positive and negative attributes are believed linked to the same object, the individual is faced with the problem of reconciling the inconsistent evaluative (positive-negative) components of one's cognitive structure.

As summarized in Figure 1, the magnitude of Evaluative Conflict present in a given decision process is postulated to be a function of the number and strength of the positively- and negatively-valued beliefs thought to be linked to the stimulus object--i.e., a function of the level of perceived evaluative inconsistency. Maximal Evaluative Conflict is predicted when the strengths of these two categories of beliefs (a) approach equality (b) at a relatively high level. Therefore the level of Evaluative Conflict can be considered to be less than maximal whenever the strengths of either the positively-or negatively-valued beliefs differ in absolute value or whenever their strengths are low. Low overall strengths of beliefs would result in an overall feeling of indifference toward the object. Note carefully, that this discussion is based on the individual's perceived overall strength of the good and bad, not the number of beliefs.



Ample evidence exists that small quantities of negative information is "weighted" quite heavily in decision processes (e.g., Kanouse and Janson, 1971).

This conceptual discussion suggests that the level of evaluative conflict can be measured by the formula:


While this method of measurement may have face validity no construct validity exists for the formula. Others have suggested that the ratio of the number of positively- (or negatively-) valued beliefs to the total number of beliefs measures the "consistency" of one's attitude (Fishbein and Ajzen, 1975, p. 100).

Given that Evaluative Conflict exists at greater and lesser levels, the key question to be addressed is its effect on human behavior, vis-a-vis the adoption process. Conceptually rich literature from the tradition of cognitive consistency theory provide several key insights into this question (Abelson, Aronson, McGuire, Newcomb, Rosenberg and Tannenbaum, 1968).


Two scholars provide exceptionally fruitful insights into the social psychology of Evaluative Conflict (Kelman and Baron, 1968; Kelman and Baron, 1968a). The two major contributions provided by these researchers are (a) that the presence of cognitive conflict serves as a "signal" to the individual which directs one toward specific behaviors and (b) that those behaviors may provide conflict resolution strategies for the individual. The behavior of primary importance to the present research is external information search.

Evaluative Conflict as a Behavior Signal

The position taken by the authors is that Evaluative Conflict serves as a signal to the individual that either that person must cope with or confront the evaluative inconsistency (Kelman and Baron, 1968a). While coping with the inconsistency suggests that one fairly distinguishable set of behaviors is invoked by the individual, a different set may be employed when confronting such situations. Using the terminology of a related field of inquiry, although it appears evident that the presence and absence of Evaluative Conflict represents different task environments, the modes of resolution employed (i.e., coping or confronting) by the individual may also be thought of in a similar way (Newell and Simon, 1972). The analysis of such different task environments, therefore, represents important inquires into human problem-solving behavior. Kelman and Baron (1968a) explain that while the presence of such inconsistencies serve to motivate the individual to employ one set of resolution behaviors or another, an understanding of the various modes deserves careful attention.

Resolution Behaviors

The researchers suggest that the resolution of situations involving Evaluative Conflict may be described in terms of the two dimensions which are postulated to "define" such inconsistencies (Kelman and Baron, 1968). First, the individual can choose either to avoid or confront the inconsistency. This is referred to as the process of conflict resolution. Second, the conflict situation can either be resolved or maintained. This is referred to as the outcome of conflict resolution. That is, in the process of either avoiding or confronting the dilemma, strategies are used by the individual which either provide a basis for "living with" (maintaining) the inconsistency or a "real" resolution (confronting). The two main elements, process (avoid or confront) and outcome (resolve or maintain), serve as descriptive dimensions for the Kelman and Baron paradigm. Since both the process and outcome elements of the paradigm have two possible subelements (avoidance or confrontation for process, and reduction or maintenance for outcome), the researchers' notion of conflict resolution can be expressed as a four-cell matrix, as shown in Table 1. The strategies listed in each cell represent potentially measurable behaviors which presumably exemplify the process and outcome combination in question. The following summary of the Kelman and Baron framework is devoted to explaining the meaning of the various strategies (reduction, maintenance, avoidance, and confrontation combinations) which may occur in resolving the existence of Evaluative Conflict.



Kelman and Baron explain that inconsistency reduction (the first row of Table 1) involves a refusal on the part of the individual to accept or tolerate the inconsistency with which he is presented. Inconsistency reduction processes may occur in one or two forms--first, the individual may avoid (column 1, Table 1) the inconsistency by perceiving the situation such that the inconsistency is not recognized. Alternatively, the individual may confront (column 2, Table 1) the inconsistency and then eliminate it by changing one or both of the incompatible elements.

Kelman and Baron explain that inconsistency maintenance (the second row of Table 1) is based on the proposition that the individual may be able to deal with the inconsistency by reducing the tension from the inconsistency without, however, eliminating the inconsistency itself. Inconsistency maintenance processes may take one of two forms--first, the individual may avoid (column 1, Table 1) the inconsistency by maintaining "mental distances" between the discrepant element, thus avoiding a "sharp" or direct confrontation. Second, the individual may confront (column 2, Table 1) the inconsistency and cognitively restructure the mental context within which the inconsistent elements are "placed."

In summary, Kelman and Baron suggest that four broad types of strategies exist to deal with cognitive inconsistency: (a) reduction/avoidance--where the inconsistency is "dealt" with be a perceptual recoding of the inconsistent elements; (b) reduction/confrontation--where the inconsistency is actively confronted by changing one or both of the inconsistent elements; (c) maintenance/avoidance--where the inconsistency is "dealt" with by keeping "mental distances" between the discrepant elements; and (d) maintenance/confrontation--where the discrepancy is confronted by cognitively restructuring the context of the inconsistency. The resulting four-cell matrix serves as a conceptual taxonomy of behavioral strategies for dealing with cognitive inconsistency. No additional major conceptual insights are provided by a discussion of the definitions of the various specific strategies within each cell; thus, these are omitted. The interested reader will refer to the original source.

Logically, the next major issue concerns the conditions under which specific inconsistency resolution strategies are likely to occur. For this, Kelman and Baron suggest that goals analyses provide the needed insight. That is, depending on whether the inconsistent beliefs are linked to the same or different goals, either reduction or maintenance outcomes will occur.

A single-goal situation is one in which the discrepant elements are inseparably tied to the same goal state. In this situation, since the elements cannot be "dislodged'' from the same goal, Kelman and Baron suggest that reduction-type outcomes (i.e., "real" reduction in conflict) are likely to occur.

The two-goal situation is one in which the inconsistency is linked to two different goals. Since these conflict situations are ones where "dislodging" the inconsistent elements may be done more easily, the researchers suggest that maintenance-type outcomes (i.e., "living with" conflict) are likely to occur.

Concerning the process dimension of the conflict reduction paradigm, the remaining question is whether avoidance or confrontation-type strategies will occur. On this issue, Kelman and Baron offer little basis for prediction. First, the authors contend that the occurrence of either avoidance or confrontation-type processes is largely determined by the principle of "least effort." For example, some inconsistencies are relatively easy to deny or misperceive because the inconsistent element is associated with a "weak" or ambiguous stimulus. Similarly, information from a source perceived to lack knowledge, social status or attractiveness may be easily derogated. In other situations, the individual may be more sharply confronted with the inconsistency and be "forced" to grapple with it more actively and directly.

A second insight into the issue of process is offered by Kelman and Baron. To the extent the inconsistency raises questions about the achievement of short-term goals for the decision maker and the person is concerned about preserving the status quo, avoidance-type processes are likely to occur. To the extent that the inconsistency raises questions about the achievement of long-term goals and the person is concerned with preparing for future actions and interactions, confrontation-type process are likely to occur. The antecedent conditions suggested by Kelman and Baron are summarized in Table 2.




Because of considerable financial, performance, social and safety risk perceived to be associated with most innovations, the problem-solving task for these products, services or ideas can likely be categorized as single-goal decisions which raise questions about one's central values and future opportunities. Seemingly, one could label such task environments as being characterized by high ego-involvement. Therefore, Reduction/Confrontation resolution behaviors can be expected to dominate decision processes for innovations. The issue of significance to management and public policy decision makers is a clear understanding of the nature of this resolution strategy. To achieve this insight, attention is directed to the cognitive structural conceptualization of an innovation proposed earlier in this paper.

The decision-making process for an innovation which is perceived to possess both positively- and negatively-valued beliefs will result in a psychological situation of high Evaluative Conflict. This state will "signal" the individual, therefore to resolve the conflict. This signal will serve to mediate external information search since memory sources would already be "accounted for" in the perception of levels of evaluative inconsistency. Consequently, high levels of Evaluative Conflict will lead to high levels of information search. Furthermore, this information search will include larger information search from trusted sources (i.e., non-propagandistic) since the perceived negativity in the decision process will also result in high perceived risk. This process is summarized in Figure 2.

The significance of this conceptual development is clear. Improved understanding of why decision makers search for information and the cognitive structural conditions which mediate the level and type of search provide important insight into marketing management and public policy decision making. With this understanding, for example, prospective adopters of innovations can be induced to search for more or less information. Furthermore, the need for more or less trusted sources of information can be predicted.

Once a cognitive structural measure of Evaluative Conflict is accomplished for a specific innovation, analysis of that structure will offer insight into level and type of information search. Through this analysis, traditional communication programs can be created to alter this cognitive structure which will lead to a modification of Evaluative Conflict and therefore, a directly proportional need to search for information from external sources.




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