Information Acquisition and Transmission

Mary C. Gilly, University of California, Irvine
ABSTRACT - The process of information acquisition and transmission was the focus of four papers. A framework for the study of this topic is presented and the papers are discussed in terms of their contributions to the understanding of the information acquisition process.
[ to cite ]:
Mary C. Gilly (1983) ,"Information Acquisition and Transmission", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 10, eds. Richard P. Bagozzi and Alice M. Tybout, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 630-632.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 10, 1983      Pages 630-632


Mary C. Gilly, University of California, Irvine


The process of information acquisition and transmission was the focus of four papers. A framework for the study of this topic is presented and the papers are discussed in terms of their contributions to the understanding of the information acquisition process.


Each of the four papers presented focuses on issues related to the information acquisition process. Zeithaml and Graham studied consumers' knowledge of price information for professional services and their sources for this information. Hoyer and Jacoby, in a laboratory study, looked at information acquisition for contraceptives. Feick, Herrmann and warland modeled search for nutrition information. Hudson and Brown considered consumer socialization in acquiring preventative health care information and behavior.


It is useful to place the four papers within a theoretical framework for the study of information acquisition processes to identify what the studies add to knowledge in this area and what future research is needed (see Figure 1). The framework portrays consumer characteristics, product characteristics and information characteristics as influencing the information acquisition process. Three of the papers fit within this model.

Consumer Characteristics

The Zeithaml and Graham article looked at consumers who had little in the way of product knowledge (students). The sample was homogeneous in terms of demographic characteristics so these were not analyzed. Hover and Jacoby studied consumers with varying degrees of product knowledge, but again, similar demographic characteristics (i.e., students). Feick, Herrmann and Warland also studied consumers with varying product knowledge levels and somewhat different demographics 'women aged 20 - 59). None of the studies addressed the issue of risk aversion as relating to information acquisition.

Product Characteristics

The three studies each looked at a different kind of product: goods (contraceptives), services (dental, medical, legal), and ideas (nutrition). Contraceptives are high in performance and social risk, professional services are high in economic and performance risk and nutrition is a low risk item. These studies covered the product characteristics issue very thoroughly.

Information Characteristics

The Zeithaml and Graham paper looked at acquisition of price information for professional services, information not readily available prior to purchase. Hoyer and Jacoby considered information relating to product attributes which was made readily available for fictional contraceptives. Feick, et. al., considered all types of information. None of these studies directly looked at the issue of inaccurate information, although Zeithaml and Graham looked at the accuracy of consumers' perceptions of price.

The Information Acquisition Process

In terms of the information acquisition process, all three studies investigated the types of sources consumers used. Only Hoyer and Jacoby looked at the number of sources used and the order of information acquisition. None of the papers considered the duration of the process.

The Hudson and Brown paper does not fit into this framework, Rather, the framework fits within their model of preventative health care consumer socialization. Information acquisition would be a part of the learning processes of consumers.


The Zeithaml and Graham paper addresses an issue that is important for several reasons. First, professional services represent a unique situation because price information for these services is not readily available prior to purchase. As the authors point out, the nonstandardization of these services, the professional associations' bans on price advertising, and the availability of insurance for many professional services contribute to the consumers' lack of price knowledge. Further, this area is of interest because of the changes taking place regarding advertising of price for professional services. While the authors placed their study within the theoretical framework of the pricing literature, it fits equally well within the framework of information acquisition.

In the paper, senior undergraduate marketing students were asked to estimate prices for fairly routine medical, dental, and legal services. The authors stressed the importance of having "inexperienced" consumers: however, it was not clear why this characteristic was desirable. Certainly, purchasers of these services should be used in future research. Another sample related limitation exists due to the fact that students were asked to estimate prices of the services in the college town, while any experience they may have had would be in their home towns where prices might be different.

Zeithaml and Graham compared students' estimated prices to average actual prices for those services in the college town and found a great deal of inaccuracy in the price estimates. The standard deviations of actual prices were not given, although the presenting author did indicate that these were small. It is interesting to note that in some cases, such as the cost of an initial legal visit, the means of the students' estimates were very close to the actual means while the percent error was very large (259% for the initial legal visit). Apparently, respondents were both greatly overestimating and greatly underestimating prices for these services. The authors did point out that for half the professional services, reference prices were higher than actual prices. However, if it is broken down into the types of services, slightly more overestimating took place for medical services. This finding has interesting implication for the advertising of price info ma ion for professional services, considering the greater amount of price advertising for legal and dental services.



The authors found that respondents expressed only low to moderate certainty about the accuracy of their price estimates. However, this finding could be due to the way the question was phrased. Respondents could have been interpreting "accuracy" as accuracy "to the penny." Asking the question in terms of how close they thought their prices were to actual prices could have resulted in a greater expression of certaintY.

The finding that, at least for dental and medical services, respondents would wait for the bill to find out price is an interesting one and deserves further investigation. Do they have so much confidence in the integrity of these professionals that they do not believe they will be cheated? Or has medical and dental insurance made consumers unconcerned with price? The finding that, for legal services, respondents called ahead for prices rather than wait for the bill could be due to the lack of insurance for these services.

Future research should compare "naive" consumers to experienced consumers of these services. Further, these findings should be compared to consumers' accuracy of price estimates for infrequently purchased goods, such as refrigerators or automobiles, for which price information is readily available.


The paper by Hoyer and Jacoby describes a new methodology for the investigation consumers' information acquisition processes using computer technology. A further contribution of this study is that it investigates information acquisition for a health-related product.

In the study, female students accessed different kinds of information about three hypothetical contraceptives from various sources using computer terminals. The purpose of the study was to find what kind and how much information was accessed. what the sources were and in what order the pieces of information were requested.

Two points should be made about the sample. First, the authors did not state why only female students participated in the study. Males are certainly involved in the contraceptive question and would have made an interesting comparison sample. Further, the student!teacher relationship involved could bias answers, particularly for such a Personal product.

The authors' discussion of the limitations of the study was very complete, but a re-emphasis of a few points is needed. First, the laboratory setting presents an artificial situation for studying information acquisition particularly for the product chosen. While the researchers cautioned the subjects to consider the "costs" involved if the information were actually obtained (e.g., costs of a visit to a physician), the time and money costs were not actually felt by the subjects. Further, the different sources did not provide contradictory information about a particular contraceptive, a situation that probably would not exist outside the lab. In future studies, it might be interesting to have sources give contradictory information and see which sources are more credible.

Another weakness of the study was the researchers' definition of "published literature" as an information source. Any printed material was included here, from medical brochures to articles in women's magazines. These should certainly be broken out. Further, advertisements were not included as an information source.

The authors found that most of the subjects indicated they would consult a medical source for this information. However, one could question how much of this answer was linked to being the "socially acceptable" response. Additionally, two of the three fictional contraceptives required a doctor's prescription. Subjects' emphasis on the health aspects of the different contraceptives may be due to the fact that experience is the best indicator of the effects on pleasure. Subjects could use information search to assess the health risks and use trial to judge pleasure considerations. Interestingly, no strong relationship was found between level of previous experience and search.

A future study might try to assess knowledge and see if this variable is related to the amount of information search undertaken.


The paper by Feick, Herrmann and Warland looked at information acquisition about an idea -- nutrition. It makes a contribution by bringing together constructs found important in other work to build a model of search for nutrition information

Some comments on the model itself are warranted. First, it would be useful to put the model into some kind of structural representation. This would make the relationships among the variables clearer and would give the reader some feeling for the process of information acquisition related to nutrition. Also, the model does not include demographic variables that would likely be related to search for nutrition information, such as education. age. or income.

While recognizing the restrictions placed on the study by the funding agency, a more diverse sample including men and senior citizens as well as women, age 20 - 59 would have provided greater insight into the nutrition information acquisition issue. However, the study did have the advantage of a large, national random sample.

The regression analysis revealed a good fit, with significant variables reflecting the benefits of search, a history of search, and involvement with food preparation. The single greatest contributor to explaining search was consumers' assessment of their own nutrition knowledge. However, the direction of the causal arrow must be questioned. People who search for nutrition information should think they know a great deal about nutrition. The research design here cannot address the issue of causality. further, Hoyer and Jacoby found no relationship between experience and search and the possibility of an inverted U-shaped relationship (Bettman and Park, 1980) was not investigated. The authors' also stressed the importance of a person's interest in or involvement with food preparation, but what may be important is a person's perceived responsibility for the family's nutrition.


The Hudson and Brown article presents a broad framework for looking at the preventative health care issue. I makes a contribution by providing d check-list of considerations for people involved in promoting various healthful behaviors. Such a model is needed, but for a reason not mentioned by the authors. A separate model is needed because preventative health care does not fit into traditional consumption models because of the lack of d "problem recognition" stage. No pain is felt by the consumer to motivate them to seek preventative care, such as d medical or dental check-up. Other factors must be considered and the Hudson and Brown paper seeks to identify them.

The authors identify several antecedent variables which they call "social structural variables", "life cycle position", and "previous socialization." The first two types appear to be nothing more than demographic variables. Further, the use of the term "life cycle position" is confusing. Is this family life cycle or age? "Cycle" implies ups and downs of preventative health care interest which the authors do not identify. However, their application of Hirschman's (1980) idea that a change in role can bring about greater acceptance of a change in behavior is a good one.

Hudson and Brown then describe the learning process in terms of agent-learner relationships. They discuss three types of learning: modeling, reinforcement and self-regulation. However, the last two appear to both be reinforcement, by others and by self. Further, classical conditioning is not included as a learning process. For example, advertisements attempt to associate d happy family life with taking high blood pressure medication -- "do it for the loved ones in your life."

The agent-learner relationship is not stressed enough by the authors. Their examples of previous socialization (the grandchild telling the grandfather not to eat refined sugar and the young nurse showing the mother of four how to-bathe a baby) are really better seen as examples of inappropriate agent-learner relationships. Further investigation of this issue is needed in terms of antecedent variables for both agent and learner.

The authors describe learned outcomes, including health care attitudes, skills, knowledge, and behavior. Brim (1966), who also mentions habits and beliefs as outcomes of consumer socialization, is cited, but these variables are not included In the model. Related to this is the issue of the permanence of these outcomes. The American Cancer Society sponsors the Great American Smoke-Out where people are encouraged to quit smoking for a day, but how long does this behavior last?

The authors provide a very good discussion of the implications of their model. The facilitation issue deserves greater attention, however. Gelb and Gilly (1979) found inertia to be the greatest stumbling block to getting people to come in for regular preventative dental care. A further issue not addressed is the relative weights that should be attached to the variables in the model. Hypotheses could be developed and tested in future studies.


The four papers looked at very different aspects of the information acquisition process and all contribute to understanding in this area. The subject is an important one, particularly in the health care area, because of the changes occurring in the availability, sources, and importance of this information


Bettman, J.R. and Park, C.W. (1980), "The Effects of Prior Knowledge and Experience and Phase of the Choice Process on Consumer Decision Processes: A Protocol analysis", Journal of Consumer Research, 7 (3), 234-248.

Brim, Orville G. and Wheeler, Stanton (1966), Socialization After Childhood: Two Essays, New York, New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 3-49.

Gelb, Betsy D. and Gilly, Mary C. (1979), "The Effect of Promotional Techniques on Purchase of Preventative Dental Care", Journal of Consumer Research, 6 (3), 305-307.

Hirschman, Elizabeth C. (1980), "Innovativeness, Novelty Seeking and Consumer Creativity", Journal of Research, 7, 283-295.