Related Theories of Compexity in Information Processing

Carolyn L. Costley, University of North Carolina
ABSTRACT - In recent years the information processing perspective has been integrated into Piaget's concept of stages of cognitive development to explain age differences in children's responses to advertising. The types of processing purported to be associated with the different stases of cognitive development bear remarkable resemblance to the kinds of processing associated with levels of involvement as set forth by Greenwald and Leavitt (1984). Those two frameworks seem to be reflecting the same underlying concept, that processing of information progresses through hierarchical levels of complexity. This paper examines the similarities between these frameworks and notes some unique aspects of each which suggest interesting avenues for future research. Research exploring the relationship between knowledge and involvement. for instance, could provide some useful insights into information processing by both children and adults.
[ to cite ]:
Carolyn L. Costley (1986) ,"Related Theories of Compexity in Information Processing", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, eds. Richard J. Lutz, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 18-22.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, 1986      Pages 18-22


Carolyn L. Costley, University of North Carolina

[Sincere thanks are extended to Merrie Brucks and David Plumlee of the University of North Carolina for their reviews of earlier drafts of this paper. Thanks also to tho anonymous ACR reviewers for their insightful comments.]


In recent years the information processing perspective has been integrated into Piaget's concept of stages of cognitive development to explain age differences in children's responses to advertising. The types of processing purported to be associated with the different stases of cognitive development bear remarkable resemblance to the kinds of processing associated with levels of involvement as set forth by Greenwald and Leavitt (1984). Those two frameworks seem to be reflecting the same underlying concept, that processing of information progresses through hierarchical levels of complexity. This paper examines the similarities between these frameworks and notes some unique aspects of each which suggest interesting avenues for future research. Research exploring the relationship between knowledge and involvement. for instance, could provide some useful insights into information processing by both children and adults.


As researchers examined the issue of advertising directed at children, they relied increasingly on Piaget's concept of stages of cognitive development to explain age differences in children's responses, (Blatt, Spencer, & Ward 1971; Rubin 1974; Wackman & Wartella 1977; Ward 1972; Ward, Wackman, & Wartella 1977). While in more recent years, children's responses have been discussed from an information processing perspective, stages of cognitive development have continued to be relied upon to explain differences. (Wackman & Ward 1975; Roedder 1981a; Roedder 1981b). The types of processing purported to be associated with the different stages of cognitive development bear remarkable resemblance to the kinds of processing associated with levels of involvement as set forth by Greenwald ant Leavitt (1984). Although dealing with very different time frames, these two frameworks seem to be reflecting the same underlying concept, that processing of information progresses through hierarchical levels of complexity. This paper examines the similarities between those frameworks and discusses the notion of complexity of processing.

Complexity of Processing

The hierarchy of processing complexity is recognized in both the involvement literature (Greenwald & Leavitt 1984) and in the developmental literature (Kail 1984). "Complexity" is used here as it is defined in the New Webster's Dictionary to mean "intricacy." In each discipline the first level in the hierarchy is one of "no processing." It is a state of monitoring one's environment. When a stimulus captures attention (for reasons of novelty or importance) or when the infant's experience with monitoring has prepared it for more extensive processing, level two is entered and active processing begins. In this second level, the individual selectively attends to some perceptual aspect of the message. Attention may be focused, for example, on the physical appearance of the source while tuning out the context of the message. Comprehension of the message occurs in level three when the meaning and structure of the words or stimulus are processed. the greatest complexity of processing is reached when self relevant elaboration takes place. At this level the individual adds to the message and reformulates it in terms of personal relevance.

The concept of progressively complex levels of processing has been developed independently with respect to involvement and regarding cognitive development. An individual examination of each of these areas follows, along with highlights of the similarities and differences between them.


Greenwald and Leavitt (1984) identify four levels of involvement relevant to the concepts of attention and levels of processing. These levels are characterized by increasingly abstract and complex processing of message content. Messages processed at greater levels of complexity are associated with greater durability of memory. The concept of attention is a key one in their framework, also, and they note its limited nature. Some processing is sufficiently complex to demand allocation of capacity to the extent that other processing may be neglected.


The preattention level of involvement acts as a sensory buffer and uses little attentional capacity. At this level, an individual is in a state of monitoring the environment for stimuli which stand out against the background. Such stimuli attract attention and orient the individual toward them. For instance, when one is in a room full of people at a party and hears one's name mentioned in a nearby conversation, one suddenly "tunes in" and likely turns or looks to see who is speaking. With regard to advertising, an individual may be paying "no" attention to the ads on the radio or television until one mentions something of interest. This orienting response amounts to the elicitation of focal attention.

Focal Attention

Focal attention is characterized by the selective centering of attention on one message source and its sensory content. Perceptual information may be encoded categorically, but not elaborated. This level is representative of Krugman's conception of low involvement (1965). The receiver doesn't think very much about it at the time. The impact of a persuasive communication processed at this level is outlined by Ray (1973). Awareness and affective value can increase through repeated exposure and focal processing. Behavior is likely to change next (after recognition of the product in the store) followed by attitude change.


Message-based persuasion is possible when processing is done at the comprehension level. At this level of involvement, semantic processing is taking place in which analysis of speech, the words and structure of the communication, results in a conceptual understanding of the message. This allows for persuasion based on the content of the message. In terms of the hierarchies developed by Ray (1973), comprehension implies the standard learning hierarchy under which belief change and affect change precede behavior change.


Elaborative processing is characteristic of what is traditionally called high involvement. The greatest amount of processing capacity is allocated to the situation.

In this condition, processing goes beyond simple analysis of the message. Elaboration entails abstract thinking and associations between the message and information stored in one's memory. These associations are the "bridging experiences" identified by Krugman (1965). The results of these connections may elicit counter arguments if a discrepancy is found, support arguments if commonalities are found, or source derogation responses if the source is felt to be biased (Wright 1973). These cognitive responses and the comparisons from which they were generated are assimilated, become part of the message as it is stored in memory. To the extent that these self generated additions to the communication agree with the original message, persuasion may occur as intended. However, to the extent that these cognitions disagree with the original message, persuasion might actually be in the opposite direction. Thus, the message stored can have a meaning considerably different from that intended.

According to Greenwald and Leavitt (1984) the progression of processing through the levels of involvement is sequential. For a message to be analyzed at an upper level of involvement, it must have already been analyzed at all lower levels. In a similar vein, as we grow, we cannot skip a stage of cognitive development.


It has been noted in research on memory development that as children grow older, they progress through levels of increasing processing complexity (tail 1984). They seem to develop the ability to process information in a more complex manner. Two explanations have been proposed to account for this increased ability. Either processing capacity is increased with age (Pascual-Leone 1970, 1978) or efficiency of processing due to practice allows them to process more (tail 1984). Under the second hypothesis, children improve their cognitive stills with practice. This increased efficiency makes capacity available for greater complexity of processing. Efficiency may also be associated with greater complexity of cognitive structure making more thorough associations easier. Greater complexity may be achieved in the addition of relationships accomplished through repeated processing, i.e. practice. Increases in children's processing complexity are associated with the stages of cognitive development as defined by Piaget (Piaget & Inhelder 1969).

Although Piaget's theory has been strongly criticized, it is useful in a descriptive sense. It provides a sort of description of information processing in the developmental context. The similarity of this description to involvement theory deserves attention. Following is a brief description of Piaget's theory.


During tho sensorimotor stage of cognitive development (ages 0-2) children familiarize themselves with the world. Through motor and sensory experiences and observation of behavior patterns, children begin to assess causality and become aware of the distinction between self and world. This is the stage during which the environment is monitored and attention is not yet focused. Responses are physiological as they tend also to be in the preattention level of involvement.


The preoperational stage of cognitive development (ages 2-7) is characterized by selective attention (centration) and sensory processing of dominant stimuli (perceptual boundedness). Regarding centration, Piaget found that children in this stage perceive the world in accordance with their own point of view, rather than with respect to actual relationships. Attention is bound to information which is directly observable and focused on the most visually dominant attribute. Because the child is considered incapable of reasoning beyond the physical, perceptual information is encoded but not elaborated.

In accordance with this perceptual processing, children in this stage seem to discriminate commercials perceptually rather than conceptually (Blatt, Spencer, & Ward 1971). They are able to distinguish the commercial from the program because of the visual break in the action and change of image. However, they exhibit some confusion in conceptualizing the difference between the product and the commercial itself. Due to this emphasis on sensory aspects of stimuli, recognition responses may be expected to be more prevalent than recall or cognitive elaboration.

Concrete Operational

In the concrete operations stage of cognitive development, the development of conceptual organization allows a child to think in categorical terms and to understand a complete message. Because this more complex processing capability means that a complete message can now be stored in memory, better recall of commercials is expected. Categorization accounts for the findings that children at this age are aware of the functional differences between programs and advertisements as well as the selling intention of commercials (Blatt, Spencer, & Ward 1971; Robertson & Rossiter 1974).

The description of this stage implies that elaboration does not occur. If this is true, then even though they understand the intent to sell, semantic processing of the message with no cognitive elaboration may lead children to accept the message at face value. The absence of elaborative processing would indicate that a message would be stored in a more-or-less unaltered form. Message-based persuasion would thus be a possible outcome. Enlightenment on this issue may come from future investigations.

Formal Operational

It is only in the formal operational stage of cognitive development that children are considered able to think abstractly, make self relevant comparisons, take the role of the other person, and understand the gestalt. More importantly, the ability to make self relevant comparisons, to extend incoming information by relating it to existing knowledge, is realized at this stage. This indicates, of course, that elaborative cognitive responses are possible as defenses against persuasion.

That children progress through stages was observed in the early work dealing with advertising directed at children. In these descriptive studies, it was observed that children's reactions to ads differed across ages. For instance, Ward and Wackman (1973) found that the attention of children who were more perceptually bound (younger) was influenced more by the perceptual characteristics of commercials. Likewise, the attention of children less perceptually bound (older) was more influenced by the content of the communication.

In terms of the evolution of processing complexity, as attentional capacity is available to process more complexly (the comprehension level of processing is reached), the content of the message has more effect. This is comparable to what the levels of involvement notion predicts for adults. Researchers also found that older children wore more likely to base their attitudes toward specific commercials on message characteristics rather than on attitudes toward the product. This also reflects the progress from focused processing to the more complex semantic processing.

In marketing, Roedder (1981a) has integrated some of these findings and descriptions regard differences in children's information processing. She offers an alternative approach to Piaget by emphasizing the influence of knowledge factors on these differences. She identified three groups of processors, based on age, which differ in processing efficiency. The more efficient processors were able to learn the main information content of a message while those less efficient learned incidental material, but not the "whole." Although Roedder offers a knowledge related alternative to Piaget, she does not look at involvement theory. This remains for investigation.


Each of the streams, cognitive development and involvement, has conceptualized a framework of four levels that is characterized by the notion of increasing complexity of mental processing. Bach has outlined the kinds of processing and the kinds of responses typical of each level. In each orientation, the first level is one of '-no processing-' during which the environment is monitored and responses are physiological. The next stage is that of focused processing. Attention is centered on some dominant aspect of the stimuli. Recognition, a relatively low complexity response, is associated with this simple processing.

Semantic processing, the third stage, is a more complex mental activity. Processing the words and context of a message lead to comprehension. Acquisition of this ability to conceptualize the whole is observed in children around age seven or eight. Since processing is more complex, individuals are expected to be able to recall the message. In both orientations, the fourth and highest level identified is characterized by elaboration of incoming information. Connections made to knowledge in memory can elicit counter arguments, support arguments, and source derogation responses and thus reformulate the message for storage in memory.

Top-Down and Bottom-Up Processing.

Greenwald and Leavitt (1984) identify the direction of processing as a control for manipulating the level of involvement in an experimental situation. In bottom-up processing information is analyzed at ever-increasing levels of complexity, each level proceeding from the results of the previous level (Norman 1976). This is data driven. A complementary system is conceptually driven or top-down. Conceptualizations and expectations of the input influence the output at successively lower levels (Glass and Holyoak 1986). Although progression through the stages of involvement or of cognitive development is sequential, the procedure for information processing at any stage is both from the top down and from the bottom up. In cognitive development theory, the complementary processes of accommodation and assimilation are believed to describe the process of adaptation to new information (Flavell 1985). The relationship is much the SD as the relationship of top-down and bottom-up processing to the processing of new stimuli.

Accommodation is like bottom-up processing in that it is data driven. One accommodates or adjusts one's cognitive structure to the data as it is presented. On the other hand, one has certain expectations and uses existing structure to interpret incoming information. Like top-down processing, assimilation plies incoming information to fit into existing structures.

Accommodation and assimilation are felt to be indissociable from each other (Flavell 1985). In like manner, top-down and bottom-up processing rely on each other. Both conceptualizations are considered to be simultaneous (or at least rapidly iterative). However, at any given level of processing, one direction seems weighted more heavily than the other. For instance, the monitoring stage principally utilizes a bottom-up approach. Concepts and expectations have not been activated. At the other extreme, in the elaboration stage, top-down processing is weighted more heavily. expectations due to context and prior knowledge are the driving forces in processing. Input is modified to fit these expectations and thus elaboration occurs. Processing complexity, then, seems to be characterized by this dichotomous process of adaptation.

In conclusion, the similarities between the two frameworks are many. However, it is the findings unique to each field which may serve to benefit the other. These offer suggestions for avenues of future research which will be discussed in the following section.


Suggestions for Research with Children

The involvement framework suggests differences in the process of "persuasion" depending on the highest level of processing complexity utilized to process persuasive communications. For example, the results of processing at low levels may first lead to behavior change and later to changes in attitudes and beliefs. On the other hand, message-based processing, at the level of comprehension, may result in a change in beliefs and attitudes followed by behavior change. This suggests that younger children may form attitudes after behavior and that older children may first change their attitudes ant beliefs in response to persuasive communication. This is an example of a subject for future research in the children's information processing area which is suggested by work done related to involvement.

The comparison of levels of cognitive development and levels of involvement may seem to imply that young children cannot be highly involved in a message. When involvement is defined in terms of the kind of processing evidenced (Batra and Ray 1983; Krugman 1965) this would appear to be so. However, this suggestion would be disputed by most parents who take "involvement" to mean emotional excitement.

If involvement is interpreted as an emotional or motivational state which leads to different levels of processing (Mitchell 1981), then involvement is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for complex processing. Elaboration demands knowledge. Petty, Cacioppo and Schumann (1983) note that in their Elaboration Likelihood Model, motivation is but one element. She ability to process information is also an important variable. Ability can indicate both procedural knowledge, as investigated by Roedder (1981a) and declarative knowledge (Brucks, Armstrong, and Goldberg 1985; Costley 1985; Sanft 1986).

Involvement, therefore, can lead to different processing results depending on the levels of these two kinds of knowledge. A deficiency in declarative knowledge say moderate the effects of involvement because the cognitive structure against which a message is interpreted doesn't have many links and thus associations are not made. Absence of the capability for higher levels of abstract thought (procedural knowledge deficiency) may also hinder the influence of involvement. She less complex cognitive structure of younger children say mean that a great variety of information is not likely to be accessed and that any analysis requires much of the available capacity, thus inhibiting the activation of other analyses. It may be that when children scrutinize messages in a high involvement state and no counter arguments result, it is merely because the limited complexity of their cognitive structures presented this with no discrepancies. Alternatively, the procedures for retrieving that information may not be fully developed. Investigation of the developmental factors mediating the effects of involvement might prove in interesting.

Suggestions for Involvement Research

The results of work by cognitive researchers point strongly to the importance of knowledge in the processing of information. An intriguing experiment by Chi (1978) found that children knowledgeable of a subject (in this case, chess) performed better on a recall task than did novice adults. In terms of complexity of processing, those with knowledge of the subject were able to comprehend and to elaborate on the information presented, while those just as highly involved but ignorant in the subject lacked the ability to process as complexly. Thus, knowledge and involvement may interact in inducing elaborative processing. Both must be considered in making predictions.

Both frameworks imply differences in storage of information resulting from different levels of processing. This suggests that retrieval of information will differ depending on how it was processed. Greenwald and Leavitt (1985) employ this notion in their discussion of levels of representation, levels of involvement, and advertising impact. From simple to complex, the levels of representation are features, categories, propositions, and conceptual interpretations. They say that if the audience involvement level is low, such that an ad elicits only focal attention, the impact of the message will be in terms of category representations. Repeated exposure to the ad should result in representations at higher levels.

In contrast, time series research on children has found retrieval of information to be dependent on mental development at the time of retrieval rather than at the time of storage (Piaget and Inhelder 1973). These results suggest for involvement theory that involvement at the time of retrieval may be the key to the level of representation retrieved. The level of processing complexity operative at the time of retrieval may reorganize what is stored in memory. Research along these lines can help determine if this phenomenon also functions with respect to involvement in the context of advertising or if this denotes an important difference between the two contexts.


The research streams in marketing and in developmental psychology have independently arrived at very similar organizations for the complexity of information processing. Each, however, offers some unique aspects which can benefit the other. me notion of differing hierarchies of effects depending on the complexity of processing of a persuasive message could prove useful in research on children. Tho interaction between knowledge and involvement in impacting information processing is an interesting avenue for exploration suggested by the analogy between levels of involvement and stages of cognitive development. With respect to information processing, this paper has pointed out the many similarities between involvement theory and cognitive development theory. In addition, it has identified some unique findings from each discipline and made suggestions for future research based on these.


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