How to Solve Problems That Don't Matter: Some Heuristics For Uninvolved Thinking

John Deighton, Dartmouth College
ABSTRACT - What are the cognitive consequences of low involvement? A set of heuristics are identified which are hypothesized to be used in inferences on topics that do not matter. How might advertising influence this kind of inference? Three occasions are identified in the context of a model of heuristic-driven inquiry.
[ to cite ]:
John Deighton (1983) ,"How to Solve Problems That Don't Matter: Some Heuristics For Uninvolved Thinking", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 10, eds. Richard P. Bagozzi and Alice M. Tybout, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 314-319.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 10, 1983      Pages 314-319


John Deighton, Dartmouth College

[Support from the Center for Marketing Strategy Research, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, is acknowledged with appreciation.]


What are the cognitive consequences of low involvement? A set of heuristics are identified which are hypothesized to be used in inferences on topics that do not matter. How might advertising influence this kind of inference? Three occasions are identified in the context of a model of heuristic-driven inquiry.


Involvement is a concept with immediate intuitive appeal to man! marketers. It seems to mark out one of the fundamental distinctions in consumer behavior. It is curious, then, that the concept has been associated with so few managerially significant insights in the time it has been in use.

In the long history of the concept, the thrust of empirical work has been to contrast the consequences of high and low involvement. Zeigarnik (1932) for example found less recall of interrupted tasks that were involving than those that were not. Involvement has been invoked as a mediator of source effects (Petty and Cacioppo 1979), of argument order effects (Hovland, Janis and Relly 1953) and of the effect of warning an audience of a persuader's intent (Apsler and Sears 1968). Ray (1973) proposed alternative hierarchies of response to persuasion for uninvolved and involved audiences. Thus the field has amassed a reasonably large body of research which treats involvement as a dichotomous or, at least, bipolar variable that mediates in a variety of contexts.

By contrast, little research has been done with the concept of low involvement as a state variable, tracing its antecedents and consequences. This focus holds, perhaps, ,lore potential interest for marketing management than does work which simply articulates the high/low involvement distinction. Marketing, more than most disciplines, is concerned with the ordinary, the unimportant and the inconsequential in human behavior. Progress in understanding the structure of uninvolved thinking bears directly on some fundamental marketing concerns. One such concern is the problem of accounting for advertising's influence on consumers who have no active-interest in the topic of the advertising.

This paper's focus is not the high/low involvement distinction, but rather the low involvement state. It is concerned with the cognitive consequences of low involvement. It proposes that inference under low involvement can be described by a limited number of well-defined heuristics which, while often yielding reasonably valid outcomes, are sometimes vulnerable to significant and predictable biases.

In particular, this paper hypothesizes a set of heuristics claimed to guide the uninvolved consumers' diagnostic inferences under the influence of advertising.


I use inference to refer to the kind of thinking that moves from beliefs to revised expectations in response to evidence. Inference includes reasoning as a special case, but embraces also those modes of thinking that are not accessible to introspection. Diagnostic or inductive inference is distinguished from deduction or fantasy by its use of evidence from sources exogenous to the inferior. Casual diagnostic inference is the thinking that accompanies the revision. of expectations that have no important consequences for the thinker.

Hammond (1978) has drawn attention to the range of modes of inquiry that people use. He classified by the degree to which manipulation of variables is possible, identifying six strategies from formal experimentation through quasi-experimentation to unaided inquiry. Our domain is this latter end, where "interdependent variables must be disentangled sheerly by cognitive activity, that is, by reaching a judgment about what the results of disentanglement might be" (Hammond 1978). Brehmer (1980) has also noted the fact that, in the environment of everyday life, learning is complicated by multicollinearity. He observes that the reason we often do not learn from experience is that experience often gives us very little to learn from. The world seldom presents itself to us in the form of an experimental design, so that a given outcome will support many hypotheses.

These citations suggest an image of the consumer as a naive scientist, and suggest that the high and lows involvement modes of inquiry may be represented by good and poor scientific practice. At one extreme the cognitive processes are those of the rigorous scientist: conceptualize, hypothesize, test by disconfirmation and hold beliefs tentatively and with consciousness of the evidence that supports them. The other extreme will be called schematic inquiry. The schematic thinker classifies by stereotypes, invokes interpretive schemas, makes schema-consistent inferences and then acts on them. Beliefs are--supported by recall of the schema, not the evidence. that supports them.

The image of social cognition as naive science is not new (Piaget 1954; Heider 1958; Kelley 1972) nor have the shortcomings of the layman scientist gone unreported (Fischoff 1976; Ross 1977; Slovic, Fischoff and Lichtenstein 1977; Brehmer 1980; Nisbett and Ross 1980). The contribution of this paper is to suggest that the short cuts of the naive scientist are points at which advertising operates.

Before the nature of that operation is set out, it is necessary to define what is meant by a naive theory or schema.


The audience for mundane advertising is seldom on the brink of buying. A model of advertising's effect therefore requires a view of how "ordinary" knowledge accumulates and is stored for later use. The schema theory of knowledge has some desirable properties in that regard.

The notion of a schema is long-established. It can be traced to Head (1920) and Piaget (1926), but its contemporary use is most compatible with Bartlett's (1932). Bartlett needed to explain the errors that occur in the recall of prose and drawings. He proposed that recall is reconstructive and quite inventive, drawing on a schema, "an active organized on of past reactions, or of past experiences, which must always be supposed to be operating in any well-adapted organic response."

The term has been adopted by a number of cognitive researchers to describe abstract knowledge structures, including Cantor and Mischel (1979), Kelley (1972), Neisser (1976), Rummelhart and Ortony (1977), Taylor and Crocker (1981), Tesser and Leone (1977) and Tversky and Kahneman (1977). A caper by Hastie (1981) distinguishes among the interpretations given to the term.

My use of the term owes most to Rummelhart and Ortony (1977) and Tesser (1978). In this view a schema is like an informal, unarticulated theory of the nature of eVentS, objects or situations in the world. Info at the most concrete, perceptual level is organized into higher-order structures that form a hierarchy of schemata. Understanding, then, is finding a schema that fits the stimulus to be understood. and then using it to predict.

Schematic thinking begins with the adoption of a schema. The schema guides search and directs attention to certain features of the stimulus. It interprets ambiguous features. It directs the reconstruction of the stimulus in memory. It inserts default options in inference. The benefit of schematic thinking is that it makes the environment readily comprehensible and predictable. The cost is the risk of erroneous interpretation, inaccurate expectations and inflexible modes of response.

Schema theory has not provoked much empirical work on attitude change and persuasion. An interesting exception is Tesser's work on self-generated attitude change reported in Tesser (1976) and Tesser and Leone (1977). The hypothesis was that merely thinking about a proposition will intensify attitudinal judgments if a well-developed schema exists to direct thought. Where no such schema exists, thought will not polarize judgment. One .est of this hypothesis required a mixed-sex group to think about stimuli from the domains of women's fashions and football plays while another group were distracted from thinking after the stimuli were shown. A prediction was that women, having well-developed schemata for fashion but none for football plays, would polarize their attitudes to the fashions but not to the football plays, and only when permitted to reflect on the stimuli. Men were predicted to polarize on football plays but not on fashion, and only when reflection was allowed. Both predictions occurred, providing evidence that the process or attitude polarization may be directed by schemata.



In Tesser's study, however, well-formed schemata were found where one might have expected involvement to be highest. What, then, is the relevance of a schema to low involvement thinking? One answer lies in consumers' misapplication of schemata. .ks the next section or this paper will show, an interesting case occurs when an uninvolving choice is resolved by the use of a schema from some more involving domain.


The central thesis of this paper is that low-involvement advertising -- that which seeks to influence the outcomes of decisions of small consequence -- does not work by offering compelling argument. Rather it channels inference in self-serving directions.

Effective advertising is sensitive to the heuristics that abound in everyday casual inference. It influences the path of thinking so that the consumer reaches a desired understanding with no sense that inquiry was exogenously directed.

Advertising's opportunities to influence the path of inference can be recognized at three points (see figure 1):

1. Advertising first may determine which interpretive schema is invoked to comprehend the problem that the consumer is addressing (the Adoption phase).

2. Next advertising may relate a self-serving proposition or hypothesis to the adopted belief structure or schema (the Assimilation phase).

3. Finally the induced expectations may be tested against experience, a process which is vulnerable to a predisposition to confirm (the Confirmation phase).

The discussion that follows will expand on these three elements of advertising-directed inquiry.

1. Adoption of a Schema

I shall begin with an illustration of the capacity of choice among schemata to exert a persuasion -- like influence on decisions, reported by Gilovich (1981). One of his experiments required students of political science to decide, on the facts given in a fictional scenario, whether the USA should intervene to defend a hypothetical small country against aggression from a large neighbor. Two conditions of the scenario were used. In one, terms and phrases evocative of Vietnam were used, while the other used terms more associated with Munich. The manipulations were confined to trivial details, quite irrelevant to the question posed. For example in one scenario minorities were fleeing in boxcars, and in the other they used small boats. Respondents who read the Munich manipulation favored intervention significantly more often than those who read the Vietnam manipulation. Respondents denied subsequently that the allusions to past events had influenced at all their appraisal of the facts in the cases they had reviewed.

Similarly irrelevant but schema-evoking information influenced judgments in a study by Langer and Abelson (1974). They had professional therapist subjects listen to a recording of two men talking. One group was told the discussion was a job interview and another was told it was a psychiatric intake interview. The latter group judged the incidence of pathology in the interviewed person t S conversation to be significantly higher than the former.

In a stimulus recognition study, Bruner and Potter (1964) found that subjects who were induced to form a false hypothesis about an out-of-focus visual cue took longer to identify the configuration when it was slowly brought into focus than subjects given either no hypothesis or the correct one.

In all three studies, the subjects made inferences that depended on information other than that contained in the data. The direction of that 'going beyond the information given' (Bruner, Goodnow and Austin's (1959) definition of cognition) was set by inducing the subjects to choose one schema rather than another. Once chosen, the schemata filled several roles: they supplied default values for questions not answered in the data, they interpreted ambiguities and they directed attention within the data. These studies suggest that choice of the schema within which to make an inference is central to the outcome of thinking.

In going beyond the information in a problem ,o reach a solution, there is some interesting evidence .hat mere transient availability in memory of one or another schema is sufficient to secure its use. While this idea is not directly supported in the work of Tversky and Kahneman (1973), it is tested in some subsequent studies. Higgins Rholes and Jones (1977) influenced subjects' interpretation of a personality profile by manipulating subjects' prior exposure to adjectives in an ostensibly unrelated memory test. Hornstein, Lakind, Frankel and Manne (1975) influenced behavior in a prisoner's dilemma game by manipulating the content of a simulated radio-program overheard before the game was played.

I am asserting that advertising does what the experimenters did in the studies just cited. It offers schemata within which consumers may pursue inquiry, for example, to predict future product performance or to diagnose the causes of past performance. Effective advertising determines the questions that are posed, even before it seeks ,o influence the answers that are found.

2. Assimilation to a Schema

What has been proposed thus far might be stated colloquially as 'advertising reminds the audience of what it believes'. Virginia Slims advertising reminds smokers that they believe smoking by women is liberating; Now cigarettes remind them about the hazards to health.

The advertiser, however, goes further. He chooses a schema so as to lend plausibility to a proposition which the advertiser seeks to establish either as the product of the consumer's inquiry or as a crucial intermediate conclusion. The proposition's face validity is inferred from its assimilation to the schema, just as an hypothesis is plausible if it can be deduced from a well-founded theory.

Consider how the idea that Michelob is a premium beer emerges from an advertisement in which four young men set it up as the prize in a game of tennis ("would four friends really go at it this hard just for a beer?"). To the extent that a viewer of the commercial comes to treat Michelob as a premium beer, he behaves as if the incident really happened. If a jury found an accused guilty because the prosecutor had him act out the crime, one would be surprised. Why should the manufacturers of Michelob expect this vignette to be more persuasive?

The explanation offered here is that assimilation in schematic thought is a less rigorous process than deduction in scientific thought. In particular, it fails to preserve the distinction between natural and symbolic events (Worth and Gross 1974). A symbolic event, in this conceptualization, is one whose meaning is inferred with full recognition of an intention to communicate. A natural event has meaning attributed to it without allowing for communicative intent. With the advertiser's motive discounted, Michelob's claim to be premium beer depends on inference from the "fact" that the beer served as a prize in a game, not on attribution of the advertiser's motive is-simulating the event.

Is there evidence to support the idea that communication may be processed as a natural and not symbolic event? Langer (1978) argues that a good deal of social interaction is mindless. The mindless actor "interacts with the environment in a passive reactive fashion and fails to ask questions about the environment, fails to reconsider preformed categories and fails to seek new distinctions among stimuli" (Langer and Imber 1980).

In one of her experiments (Chanowitz and Langer 1979) subjects were shown reports about two fictitious perceptual disorders. Mindfulness was induced by suggesting the disorders were present in 80 percent of the population, or by asking for strategies to cope with the problems. To induce the mindless condition, the disorders were described as rare and there was no urging to think about them. The subjects were tested for the disorders and "found" (falsely) to suffer from the vision deficiency. In a follow-up test, those who had been mindless during exposure to the reports exhibited the suggested symptoms significantly more than those who had been mindful. The explanation offered by the authors for this result was that information for which an audience has no immediate use is processed mindlessly. It is accepted without question and accorded the cognitive status of a well-tested truth: there is premature cognitive commitment. If the information later becomes relevant, it is used as if it were true.

Elsewhere, Langer, Blank and Chanowitz (1978) suggest that mindless behavior may be directed by well-learned scripts. If scripts are intended as a subset of schemata, (of Abelson 1981), then this research provides the concepts for a model of the assimilation of advertising. Mindlessness is likely to be a relatively frequent condition for reception of advertising when the topics are banal, the consequences of choice are trivial, and the audience has no urgent use for the communication at the time it is received. In attributing meaning to the communication, its communicative intent will be disregarded. The advertised hypothesis will take its place within the schema suggested by the advertising without the critical thought that accompanies mindfulness. Virginia Slims will be understood as an appurtenance or liberation, without having supported the claim by any method other than "vivid" (Taylor and Thompson 1989) assertion.

3. Confirmation

The influence of advertising would be slight if it induced expectations that were not supported by experience. There is strong evidence, however, that naive inquiry is biased toward fulfillment of expectations. Two factors in particular favor this result: a bias toward confirmation and an insensitivity to covariance.

The confirmatory bias hypothesis claims that the naive investigator has a predisposition to confirm rather than to disconfirm: that evidence supporting an expectation increases the subjective probability of the expectation's truth by more than equal evidence contradicting the expectation will diminish it.

Strong evidence for this claim comes from Lord, Ross and Lepper (1979). Subjects previously classed as strongly for or against capital punishment were shown two contradictory studies on the topic. Belief in their positions was strengthened by the confirming study, but little affected by the disconfirming study. The effect was that mixed evidence, far from reducing confidence in opinions, polarized them.

While this study dealt with a strong conviction, there is evidence of confirmatory tendencies in search and recall for topics of lesser consequence. Bruner, Goodnow, and Austin (1956) referred to a "thirst for confirming redundancy" in standard concept attainment experiments to describe the way subjects persisted in constructing confirmatory tests of hypotheses where disconfirming tests would have been more efficient. The same tendency has been found by Wason (1960) for a simple game, by Mynatt, Doherty and Tweney (1977) in a simulated research environment and by Snyder and Cantor (1979) in job assessment. Recall of confirming rather than disconfirming evidence was found by Rothbert, Evans and Fulero (1979) in memory for personalities and Hamilton and Rose (1980) found confirming information was recalled as having occurred more often than disconfirming.

For illustration, consider advertising which asserts that a cigarette's recessed filter tip eliminates the taste of tar. A confirmation test might be to ask whether the cigarette does taste of tar. If the smoker set out to disconfirm, he might rather ask whether other brands with the same tar level taste more of tar. Confirmatory tests foster an unjustifiably strong belief in the contribution of a recessed filter tip to eliminating the taste of tar.

One reason for the tendency for confirming diagnosis is given by Einhorn and Hogarth (1978): consumers in general will limit trial to those products they expect to do well. When they do so, provided that there is any correlation at all between the hypothesized cue and the outcome, they increase the proportion of successful outcomes above that which random trial would yield.

The second characteristic likely to impede naive inquiry is insensitivity to covariance. Beliefs depend on judgments about variance: causal statements imply covariation between causes and effects. Descriptive statements imply covariation among attributes, or low variance in repeated measures of one attribute. Whereas the attribution literature suggests in the main that people perform analysis of variance well, there is another research stream that points to predictable and substantial biases.

The basic work on the ability of subjects to recognize covariation was done by Smedslund (1963), Jenkins and Ward (1965) and Ward and Jenkins (1965) for 2 x 2 tables. The conclusion was that subjects measure covariation by counting joint occurrence of positive instances of an outcome and a cue. Thus what is perceived as covariation may be statistical independence or worse.

This kind of performance would be poor if there were no ambiguity in nature -- if truth were manifest as it is in a paired associate learning test (c.f. Brehmer 1980). The situation is worse, however. We do not know what cues to attend to: we infer them. The consumer, armed with a seriously flawed sense of covariation, must decide not only whether great checkups really are related to Crest's kind of fluoride, but whether fluoride is the cue to use at all. Not only will the consumer ten I to fail to make appropriate diagnoses. More seriously, he will fail to recognize that inferences ostensibly drawn from experience actually derive from schema-induced expectations. Exogenously-induced persuasion will feel like learning from experience.


Barthes (1972), making a distinction similar to that in Worth and Gross (1974), observes that "what allows the reader to consume myth innocently is that he does not see it as a semiological system but as an inductive one."

This paper has attempted to elaborate that point into a perspective on the process of influence by advertising under low involvement. In this view, advertising first invokes a particular set of our beliefs (adoption), next relates an hypothesis to the adopted belief structure (assimilation) and finally (confirmation) depends on habits of inference to lead us to decide that what was plausible is in fact truth.


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