Negative Information: Perspectives and Research Directions

Marc G. Weinberger, University of Massachusetts/Amherst
Chris T. Allen, University of Massachusetts/Amherst
William R. Dillon, University of Massachusetts/Amherst
ABSTRACT - The topic of negative information encompasses a variety of research areas which heretofore have been considered as distinct and separate from one another. The literature from each of these unique research perspectives is reviewed here and then related to the broader scope of negative information effects. Finally, possible directions for negative information research are suggested.
[ to cite ]:
Marc G. Weinberger, Chris T. Allen, and William R. Dillon (1981) ,"Negative Information: Perspectives and Research Directions", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 08, eds. Kent B. Monroe, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 398-404.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 8, 1981      Pages 398-404


Marc G. Weinberger, University of Massachusetts/Amherst

Chris T. Allen, University of Massachusetts/Amherst

William R. Dillon, University of Massachusetts/Amherst


The topic of negative information encompasses a variety of research areas which heretofore have been considered as distinct and separate from one another. The literature from each of these unique research perspectives is reviewed here and then related to the broader scope of negative information effects. Finally, possible directions for negative information research are suggested.


Though consumer researchers have had a long tradition of interest in the impact of information on consumer decision-making, relatively little effort has been devoted to examining the effect of negative consumer information. This absence of concentrated study prevails despite dramatic growth in the amount of negative information in the marketplace. Today's manager is confronted with a hostile and often uncontrollable external information environment. Negative information offered for public consumption can be traced to consumer and environmental groups, to regulatory agencies, and even to competitors. In other instances the unfavorable information takes the form of untraceable rumor. The strength and longevity of effects of these unfavorable cues on an individual's perceptions, attitudes, and behavior are of obvious potential interest and importance to both the marketing academic and practitioner. Moreover, the impact of negative information in the marketplace would seem salient to those who study the relationships among major societal institutions because there is potentially a cumulative effect of a profusion of negative information cues on consumers' general attitudes towards business practices and institutions.

Definitionally negative information about people, products, issues or companies represents the presentation of input which somehow denigrates the object of the message. Issues such as person perception, personnel evaluation, fear appeals, rumor, product recall, counter advertising, comparison advertising, product recall reports, corrective advertising, affirmative disclosure, and self-denigrating product information all involve some aspect of negative information that may be confronted, subsequently placed in short or long-term memory, and potentially withdrawn to be used in a current or future decision. In all instances an attempt is made to either discourage some behavior or attitude and focus on establishing a new attitude or behavior.

To date research about negative information has been scattered under diverse areas in psychology, sociology and marketing. As a result micro research traditions related to negative information issues have developed within each discipline with little recognition that they relate to a common theme. The major intent of this paper is to first review some of the major paradigms and conceptual foundations which have been applied to the study of negative information. Secondly. this paper will examine empirical findings from a variety of disciplines which relate to negative information effects. Finally, some suggested directions for future research in this area will be outlined. In general, what is labeled here as negative information is not novel but the vision of the related component issues under a common rubric is new.


Different experimental paradigms and theoretical constructs have emerged in generating and testing specific hypotheses concerning negative information. The simplest and most widely used research paradigm has been impression formation. In its most primitive cause and effect form a stimulus triggers some belief, attitude or action in a subject population. The impact of mediational factors such as anxiety, susceptibility to social influence, receptivity and so on are not of primary concern. In most impression formation studies unfavorable adjective descriptions or scenarios have been the stimuli employed with the target object being a known and/or unknown individual or group. Variations in the amount and intensity of negative and positive stimuli have been gauged using simple paper and pencil measures of liking, behavioral intention and so on. The advantage of this approach to studying negative information has bean the ability to retain very tight internal control over the experimental setting.

A more complex extension of impression formation is attribution theory where the individual is viewed as a being who perceives a situation, examines it for key elements of information, and subsequently makes an inference about a stimulus object (Kelley 1973). To date attribution theory has served as an explanation for negative informational effects rather than as an empirical paradigm. Using an attributional framework Kanouse and Hanson (1971) suggest that negative information has the strong impact that it does because it stands out more than positive information and in Kelley's terminology would therefore have more distinctiveness. This apparently results from the fact that there are more positive cues in the individual's social environment. As a result, negative cues attract more attention and are therefore more heavily attributable to the stimulus object. This underestimation of important contextual factors is an attributional phenomenon observed in both a laboratory setting (Jones and Nisbett 1971) and at the societal level (Lazer 1980).

A more mediational view of negative information effects might be taken with both assimilation-contrast theory or threat-compliance models. Both are conceptual approaches that help explain the situational effects of an incoming stimuli in relationship to some sec of individual predispositions. Assimilation - contrast theory (Sherif, Sherif and Nebergall 1965) posits that prior experience or attitude of the receiver and its relative position to that advocated in the message will determine whether it is drawn closer into the receiver's sphere (assimilated) or expelled further outside the receiver's position (contrasted). Thus, negative information consistent with the receiver's beliefs would be assimilated and that which is incompatible would be contrasted and rejected with subsequent low compliance. Since individuals bring to a setting some set of predispositions which affect their perceptions, the ability to assess these relevant predispositions might help predict the impact of negative information.

In a similar mediational vein McGuire (1968) developed a threat - compliance model where the impact of a message on opinion change is a function of one's predisposition to receive a message (receptivity) and yielding. Without considering receptivity one might expect that greater anxiety arousal would lead to greater yielding to an influence attempt. When receptivity is factored in as a potential mediator, a negative relationship between anxiety and persuasion is expected. Receptivity adds a non-monotonic dimension to McGuire's threat - compliance analysis and emphasizes the need to consider predispositional factors like receptivity. Since much of the negative information in the consumer context represents a threat of varying magnitude, this conceptual approach might be attractive in dealing with the situational complexities of many negative information circumstances.


Negative information has been investigated most often using impression formation as its basic paradigm focusing on the subareas of person perception and personnel decisions.

Person Perception

Psychologists have examined the impact of negative and positive information in the context of forming inferences or impressions about people. For example, Goodman (1950) found that trait words such as "cold" were more powerful in influencing impressions than positive trait words such as "warm." Similarly, Osgood. Succi and Tannenbaum (1957) found that, contrary to their proposed congruity principle, equally polarized positive and negative information did not have a balancing effect on impression formation; rather, in every instance of a reported error the direction of influence favored the negative information.

In 1965 Anderson found that negative adjectives seem more powerful than positive adjective sets in affecting overall evaluations. Similarly, Feldman (1966) and Richey, McClelland and Shinkunas (1967) found that the weight given negative adjectives exceeded weight given to positive adjectives when several must be combined into one overall evaluation.

Others have attempted to identify the situational variables that affect person perception. The strong impact of negative information occurred when the target person was a female rather than a male (Richey and Dryer 1970), and when s variety of different personality variables were tested (Briscoe, Woodyard and Shaw 1967). In an examination of situational message variables Cusumano and Richey (1970) manipulated order and intensity factors and Richey, Koenigs, Richey, and Fortin (1975) varied amounts of negative and positive information. In both studies, negative information was more salient than would be predicted using a simple averaging theory. In the latter study, one piece of negative information effectively neutralized five positive behaviors. The generalizability of negative information effects receives support in a cross-cultural study conducted in Denmark where Bernadette Gray-Little (1978) found that Danes, like Americans, evince a disproportionate negative weighting scheme. Despite the Danish norms of cooperation and tolerance it appears that Danes, like Americans, are prepared to believe the worst about others.

Personnel Decisions

In the more applied context of employment and personnel decisions the impact of unfavorable information in impression formation has also been studied. Bolster and Springbett (1961) indicated that interviewers tended to give more weight to unfavorable information and subsequently these findings were replicated by Webster (1964). With a contrary note Hollman (1972), using a unique methodology, found that rather than overweighing negative information, interviewers tended to underweight positive information. The accumulated research in person perception and personnel evaluation strongly indicates that in evaluating others, negative information is more influential than positive information.


Rumor study represents a special type of impression formation dealing with the diffusion of positive or negative information about some commercial or non-commercial entity. From a marketer's perspective derogatory rumors present a challenge to public relations activities. Here the absence of substantive fact or the inability to establish the original source make it the most insidious type of information. Negative rumor is particularly problematic in a business context where individuals in this age of consumerism often are predisposed to believe the worst about companies and often are ready to absorb unfavorable information.

Allport and Postman (1947) suggested that the dynamics at work in the birth of a rumor were drives toward perceptual simplicity, orderliness and completion. Researchers believe, that the amount of rumor activity is a function of situational ambiguity and thematic importance. In this vein Rosnow and Fine (1976) present results which suggest that a combination of uncertainty and anxiety set the stage for rumor.

Similarly, Shibutani (1966) purports that the level of suggestibility derived from anxiety, tension, frustration. or lack of trusted information sources will play a role in affecting the readiness of a group to accept rumor. In his view rumor must be plausible and fit with persons' beliefs and inclinations. The fact that embarrassing rumors are seriously entertained, then. is an indication that many people are already predisposed to believe them.

The response to negative rumor is typically a denial. Denial by a trusted source of an absurd rumor is effective according to Shibutani, but usually denial is ineffectual because people often confuse the denial with the charge or those who have not heard the charge many find the denial unconvincing. Lasswell (1933) insists that the only really effective defense against propaganda is promotion favoring some alternative program.

Tybout, Calder and Sternthal (1979) examined in an experimental setting strategies that might be employed to combat rumor, Their results indicate as suggested by others that direct refutation is ineffective. Alternatively, the authors suggest two other strategies based on information processing theory which attempt to link rumor with some other object (storage strategy) or highlight features or services not implicated in the rumor (retrieval strategy). These two approaches had a significant impact on subjects' purchasing attitudes and behavior.

Fear Appeals

A negative information message involves an attempt to discourage some belief, attitude, preference, or behavior and therefore encourage some alternative set of ideas or actions. Fear appeals as studied by social psychologists and marketers, though not historically viewed in the context of generalized negative information, present a classic case of an attempt to discourage and in turn encourage some alternative viewpoint or action.

Hovland, Janis and Kelley (1953) viewed fear as anxiety arousal leading to a tension reducing response such as a change in one's attitudes, opinions or behavior. Janis and Feshbach (1953) concluded from their research that low levels of fear were most effective because a great deal of fear provokes defensive reactions and interferes with yielding. Powell (1965) found that high fear produces more opinion change than mild fear when the communication was focused on a loved one, attributed to either a highly credible source or a source independent of the content. Capon and Hulbert (1973) found that the results of mild versus high fear messages vary with a delay in post-measurement and Sigall and Helmreich (1969) purport that the context of the fear message can have a marked moderating impact on the effect of fear provoking communication. It has also been shown that the personal variables of self-esteem, perceived vulnerability, and coping style mediate the strength of fear appeals (Highbee 1969; Leventhal 1965; Ray and Wilkie 1970).

The controversy in the fear literature regarding a monotonic versus curvilinear fear - yielding relationship and the evidence of situational influences is potentially a microcosm of the broader negative information setting. As such, the fear literature should offer insight in the design of negative information research programs.


In a general sense negative consumer information focused on products has been examined on a very limited basis. Arndt (1968) studied the effects of negative word-of-mouth information about a new brand of coffee and found that high risk perceivers were influenced more than low risk perceivers no matter what type of information was received. In particular though, the high risk perceivers were most strongly affected by negative word-of-mouth information while the low risk perceivers were not. Thus. it seems that risk perceptions affect receptivity to information generally and especially to negative information.

Wright (1974) focused a study on decision time and the use of information. The results indicated that as decision time compressed subjects placed a greater reliance upon unfavorable product information perhaps as a means of simplifying their task environment.

In a study using Consumers Union as the source and a detergent as the focus Lutz (1975) found that negative information had greater impact than positive information on cognitive structure and attitude. He suggests that the result might be due to the novelty and consequent higher information value of negative information.

In two studies Weinberger and Dillon (1980) and Weinberger. Dillon and Allen (1980) found strong effects of negative information. In the first study housewives were given either positive or negative ratings for a set of unbranded goods and services. Strong main effects for negative versus positive information, and product type (goods/services) were found. Significant interactions for source and rating type were uncovered where the independent rating source was a significantly stronger source of negative information then either a trade source or other housewives.

Weinberger, Dillon and Allen (1980) demonstrated the impact of negative product news information. An actual negative news story about an automobile was imbedded in a network news broadcast and its effect was assessed. Strong effects on opinions, beliefs and intentions were demonstrated in immediate and two week delayed responses, Direct rebuttals by the impacted firm had little neutralizing effect. Notably the laboratory effects conform to a sharp drop in sales that followed the actual airing of this news story.

Most negative information studies in a consumer context have not been of as general a nature as those described in the preceding section. Rather, they have focused on issues of comparative, counter and corrective advertising, self-denigrating information and product recall. The research in each of these areas will be discussed very briefly.

Comparative Advertising

Comparative advertising as negative information is distinguished by the source (competitor), format (advertising) and the typically low key intensity of messages. Lincoln and Samli (1979) reviewed the literature and found that denigrating s competitor has highly equivocal implications. For the advertiser, some consumers felt that such an approach to advertising was offensive, in some cases less believable, and in general were skeptical of claims. High intensity comparisons were found to be less informative.

Self-Denigrating Information

In most circumstances the marketer is concerned about the impact of negative information from external or uncontrollable sources. At times, however, the source of negative information might be the firm itself. This latter situation might arise from Federal Trade Commission requirements for affirmative information disclosure of certain information, corrective advertising to rectify a previous deception. or voluntary recall action. Alternatively. a firm might intentionally give some negative information about itself to enhance its overall believability.

Corrective Advertising.  Corrective advertising orders have been issued by the Federal Trade Commission for the past decade in an effort to force advertisers to rectify misimpressions that develop from deceptive product claims.

Research studying the impact of corrective advertising in remedying false claims or deceptions has been mixed. Hunt (1972) and Mazis and Adkinson (1976) found that corrective ads can dissipate false claims whereas Dyer and Kuehl (1978) showed that limited exposure to corrective ads did not resolve misimpressions brought about from false ads.

Source and message intensity have been the major situational variables studied in conjunction with corrective advertising. Mazis and Adkinson (1976) found no source effects between company or the FTC while Dyer and Kuehl (1978) in a series of investigations revealed that the FTC was more effective than a company source for print media though the same effect did not occur in broadcast media.

A number of studies examined whether alternative levels of specificity produce different effects on falsely held impressions. Hunt (1974) found no significant effects of supported and unsupported ads while Dyer and Kuehl (1974) and Hunt (1973) found that high intensity correctives were more effective than low intensity messages in dispelling false impressions.

Clearly the format (advertising context), and the generally low intensity and weak dominance of the corrective message distinguish it from more blatant forms of negative information. These inherent factors might help explain the less dramatic impact of corrective advertising as a form of negative information.

Affirmative Disclosure.  One strategy which the FTC used in attempting to prevent deception by advertisers has been to call for presentation of certain information which by its absence might be misleading. "May cause nausea or vomiting", "Batteries not included" and other such shreds of information are for the most part unfavorable from the advertisers perspective. To date there is no substantive empirical work indicating whether disclaimers of this type have any impact on consumers.

In a study related to the affirmative disclosure concept, Settle and Golden (1974) conducted an experiment in which they varied the amount of negative disclaimer information which an advertiser might voluntarily include in an ad. Though their theoretical conceptualization and interpretation of results have been challenged (Hansen and Scott 1976) their findings do suggest that some negative information about oneself in the context of expected positive information might enhance claim and source credibility. Golden and Settle's findings provide evidence that unfavorable information need not have an inherently deleterious effect and that in some contexts to give such information about oneself in mild forms may even enhance credibility.

Counter Advertising

A form of communication which has been suggested as a remedy for deceptive advertising is the counter commercial. Here a spokesperson offers counter arguments to information set forth by an advertiser or group of advertisers. Reactions to commercials about heavily sugared cereals or automobiles with poor safety records might be permitted but to date none of the counter commercials have appeared on network TV. Because the doctrine of counter advertising has not been accepted little empirical investigation of the phenomenon has been undertaken. One notable exception is Hunt (1972) who reports a significant decrease in affective attitude after exposure to such counter advertising. These results occurred whether government, consumer or original sources were employed.

Product Recall

The product recall unlike corrective or comparative advertising involves an infusion of negative information typically separate from the usual format of commercial advertising. The issue of recall results from a company marketing a product deemed to be unacceptably hazardous either by an outside agency or the company itself. Experimental work in a non-product context (Walster 1966; Shaver 1970; and Schroeder and Linder 1976) indicates that the more severe a possible injury, the more responsibility will be attributed to the person potentially at fault.

In a series of studies Mowen (1980; 1980a; 1980b) manipulated severity of injury, voluntary or coercive nature of recall, number of recalls and order of presentation of company information about the recall. In the first study Mowen (1980) found main effects for severity, coerciveness of recall, and number of prior recalls. In a follow-up investigation (Mowen 1980b), however, the company conducting a voluntary recall was surprisingly perceived as having greater responsibility for the problem than companies forced to conduct a recall. The third study in the series (Haven 1980c) attempted to determine if the order of information released in a recall would differentially affect perceptions of the company. Results indicate that the company was perceived most favorably when they provided the most severe possible outcome first and later released reported effects at moderate levels.

Investigation of product recall is in its early stages and the dimensions which mediate its impact are still largely speculative. Based upon actual market share data presented by Wynne and Hoffer (1976) it appears however, that this form of negative information has a direct relationship to product sales and is thus an important area for future research.


The divergent literature dealing with negative information tells us a great deal about its effects and its situational determinants. In circumstances where the negative information is the major input, studies in person perception, rumor, product perception and counter advertising indicate that there are powerful negative effects which can offset disproportionate positive input. In addition person per-caption results have been shown to hold up in a cross-cultural environment.

The precise effect of the negative information is moderated by message, source, target, receiver and company response. The literature reviewed in the previous pages can be briefly summarized with respect to these factors:

Message.  The message effects of negative information are situational as found in the message intensity studies in the fear literature. Corrective advertising and product recall research reveal that message intensity, dominance and severity of the problem play a role in determining informational impact. In addition, the context of the message including time pressure on the individual to make a decision plays a role in enhancing the deleterious effects of the unfavorable information.

Source.  The empirical evidence indicates a clear interaction between negative information and message source. In the fear appeals area a credible source independent of the situation evokes the greatest effects. In a consumer context, the neutral spokesperson has been shown as a powerful source in several settings though with corrective advertising source effects research is more equivocal. In the case of comparative advertising where a competitor is the source, the impact of the unfavorable information is less powerful reflecting a potentially ineffective competitor source inherent in the comparative form of advertising.

Target.  The target of the negative message can influence the impact of the information, When a loved one is the focus, when the theme is important, and when the target is s service rather than a tangible product, the impact of negative information is enhanced. One study revealed that when the negative information was about relatively unimportant features of the target and given by the firm itself the negative information could have an opposite effect and enhance the credibility of an advertiser denigrating itself.

Receiver.  As suggested by McGuire (1968) the receptivity of the receivers and their predispositions can play a role in predicting informational effects. The fear literature tells us that self-esteem, vulnerability and coping styles are important mediators in accepting unfavorable input; rumor research finds that anxiety and frustration are key factors; and a word-of-mouth marketing communication study reveals that risk perception is critical. By whatever mechanism is operative these personal factors apparently impact on the receiver's receptivity and subsequent willingness to assimilate negative information.

Response.  Concern for the proper response to negative information is common to several research areas. The product recall literature reveals contrary to popular belief that a voluntary recall may lead to perceptions of greater fault. Additionally, the order of company press releases of product problems giving the mild, moderate and severe recall scenarios is important. Rumor research asserts that denials tend to be ineffective and this finding has been supported in a marketing context with automobiles and hamburgers. Alternatively, response strategies focusing on storing and retrieving diversionary information have been found effective in offsetting negative rumor information.

In general this review reveals that we have limited insight into the effects of negative information in a consumer context and even less guidance for the marketer in combating negative information. The next section provides some potential research directions which are necessary to more fully explore negative information issues.


While there is considerable evidence for a "negative information effect", in comparison and corrective advertising contexts, the effects are mild, and with self-denigrating messages negative information has a positive effect. The implication is there may be a number of factors which qualify the impact of negative information and research is needed which examines these factors. There has not been enough experimental research wherein a variety of situational factors have been controlled or manipulated for conclusions about the potency of negative versus positive information to be unequivocally draws, Studies manipulating message source and content along with information valence are needed. Techniques such as functional measurement where the value of units of information are indirectly determined using efficient within subject designs might be a reasonable approach to such a task.

One of the more compelling arguments for a "negative information effect" in the American marketplace is furnished by Lutz (1975). He argues on the basis of Brock's commodity theory that negative information is more potent than positive because of its relative scarcity. If true, one should be able to demonstrate that a given bit of negative information in a particular setting or cultural environment where there is a more equal balance between negative and positive information, should have less information value and subsequently less impact. This suggests possible cross-cultural or laboratory settings where informational norms or expectations vary and where research could be conducted. Such theory based empirical investigations are essential if a systematic study of negative information effects is to be accomplished.

The fact that in prior research consumers have been exposed to negative information in a confrontational as opposed to a search (Beckman 1978) mode raises some interesting questions concerning consumers' processing of negative information. For instance, do individuals consider the valence of information as they search for it? Are some individuals more motivated to seek out negative information about a product before purchase than others? Are there particular product categories for which negative information is more actively sought prior to purchase?

It might be argued that from the consumer's viewpoint negative information is received at random time intervals and thus the heavy emphasis on the confrontational mode in past research is appropriate. An important question concerning the processing of negative information in this mode involves how and where negative information is stored in memory. Are consumers more prone to retain negative as opposed to positive information? Are individuals more apt to process and store factual information about products when it is negative? This latter question might be examined using thought listing methodologies to establish whether or not consumers are more likely to rehearse negative as opposed to positive factual information. It may be that negative information is stored in the form of a generalized negative affect about a brand. It may also be that the carryover effects of negative information are stored in non-brand-specific dispositional constructs such as consumer alienation from the marketplace (Allison 1978). An emphasis on the confrontational mode may be appropriate in studying negative information effects: however, research dealing with this mode of information processing should certainly stress delayed measurement to establish the strength and nature of the carry-over effects of negative information. In addition, knowing the secondary effect of negative word-of-mouth spread from a person in the confrontational mode to other persons in a similar or more decision oriented mode represents an important research issue.

The effects of negative information on targeted product attributes is certainly of concern to the marketer, but other types of effects are also of potential interest. Kanouse (1971) suggested that negative information might have a kind of general negative halo effect on one's enjoyment of the product as a whole. The extent of such secondary effects would provide additional evidence concerning the potency of negative information.

On a more macro level the cumulative effects of negative information in the market on basic dispositions like alienation or consumer discontent (Lundstrom and Lamont 1976) raises important public policy issues. In a comparative study of alienation in the U.S. versus Sweden Schewe et al. (1980) found alarmingly strong perceptions of normlessness in business practices among U.S. consumers. If a potential trend toward increased consumer alienation and discontent can be linked to growth in negativity of the consumer's information environment, research regarding methods for neutralizing the cumulative effects of negative information would seem desirable.

Anomalies in the effect of negative information such as the weak effects of comparative advertising, the extent of reverse effects of some self-denigrating information, and boomerang effects of some negative information disclosures all merit investigation. Why might a ban on saccharin as a cancer causing ingredient trigger consumer hoarding of saccharin based products? Is it due to a source effect or the fact that the deleterious effects are long-term? Is it an avoidance reaction? Or is it simply the threat of withdrawal leading to greater desire as predicted by reactance theory?

It is, of course, probable that individuals will differ in their receptivity to negative information. A useful stream of research might attempt to isolate variables that are effective for identifying persons who are more or less receptive to negative information. The theoretical constructs of the assimilation-contrast/threat-compliance paradigms offer a firm basis from which to study receptivity and predispositions to receive and yield to negative messages. It would be valuable for a firm to know what type of person is going to be most influenced by negative information. Subsequent neutralizing strategies might be targeted if groups of such individuals could be isolated and their receptivity better understood.

Finally, there iz the very practitioner-oriented issue of what type of communication strategies are effective in neutralizing the effects of negative information. Past studies indicate that strategies which attempt direct refutation are ineffective (Tybout, Calder, and Sternthal 1979; Weinberger, Allen, and Dillon 1980). Empirical research is needed to test other alternatives. Tybout, Calder, and Sternthal (1979) suggest a pair of response strategies for offsetting rumor effects they developed through application of an information processing conceptualization to the problem. This theory-based approach may be employed to derive other candidates for empirical evaluation in this process of identifying strategies for neutralizing the influence of negative information.


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