The Self-Reference Effect in Persuasion Implications For Marketing Strategy

Kathleen Debevec, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Harlan E. Spotts, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Jerome B. Kernan, University of Cincinnati
ABSTRACT - The role of the self in information processing and persuasion is reviewed. The ways in which social psychologists and consumer researchers have operationalized self-referencing are discussed in terms of present and potential marketing strategies. It is suggested that the effectiveness of many strategies that marketers use intuitively can be explained by the self-reference effect. Methods for testing the effectiveness of persuasion strategies based on self-referencing are offered.
[ to cite ]:
Kathleen Debevec, Harlan E. Spotts, and Jerome B. Kernan (1987) ,"The Self-Reference Effect in Persuasion Implications For Marketing Strategy", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, eds. Melanie Wallendorf and Paul Anderson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 417-420.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, 1987      Pages 417-420


Kathleen Debevec, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Harlan E. Spotts, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Jerome B. Kernan, University of Cincinnati


The role of the self in information processing and persuasion is reviewed. The ways in which social psychologists and consumer researchers have operationalized self-referencing are discussed in terms of present and potential marketing strategies. It is suggested that the effectiveness of many strategies that marketers use intuitively can be explained by the self-reference effect. Methods for testing the effectiveness of persuasion strategies based on self-referencing are offered.


Consumer researchers and social psychologists have provided evidence that the "self", specifically the way individuals perceive themselves, is an important determinant of their perceptions, attitudes, and behavior. The behavioral compliance strategies of labeling, foot-in-the-door,. and door-in-the-face, for example, are based on the premise that the self influences individuals' processing of incoming information ant, thus, the outcome of attempts to persuade them.

Since 1977, many researchers have been studying the "self-reference effect", that is, the impact of self-referent judgments on recall (Bower and Gilligan 1979; Keenan and Baillet 1980; Kendzierski 1980: Kuiper and Rogers 1979; Rogers, Kuiper, and Kirker 1977), attitudes (Shavitt and Brock 1985; Yalch and Sternthal 1985), and ultimately, on persuasion. The purpose of this paper is to examine self-referencing in information processing and persuasion its theoretical basis, how the effect has been operationalized and measured, and what implications this research might hold for marketing strategy. Both existing and potential uses of the self-reference effect are discussed.


Self-referencing has been described as a cognitive process whereby individuals associate self-relevant incoming information with information previously stored in memory (one's self-concept) in order to give the new information meaning (Bellezza 1981, 1984; Kuiper and Rogers 1979; Markus 1977, 1980; Rogers 1981). In a marketing context, a target audience may be motivated to relate an advertising message to personal information stored within the structure of the self-concept (Yalch and Sternthal 1985). Individuals who self-reference information are more likely to remember that information (it becomes meaningful to them) and respond to it in a favorable way. Studies have documented that self-referencing results in enhanced recall, learning, and memory (Bellezza 1981, 1984; Bower and Gilligan 1979; Keenan and Baillet 1980; Kendzierski 1980; Kuiper and Rogers 1979; Lord 1980; Rogers et al. 1977), each of which is important in marketing communications.

The self-reference effect has been traced to theories of the self structure in memory. The self is thought to represent an elaborate and organized network of associations in memory (Bower and Gilligan 1979; Greenwald 1981; Greenwald and Pratkanis 1985; Markus 1977, 1980; Rogers et al. 1977). Consequently, it affects the encoding and retrieval of relevant stimulus information and potentially individuals' evaluative judgments in a persuasion context (Cacioppo and Petty 1979).

The self has been described by Markus (1977, 1980) as a schema which affects one's judgments and memory. It provides meaning to incoming stimuli if those stimuli fit one's knowledge structures in memory. Markus classified individuals as schematic for a trait (if the trait was judged as self-descriptive) or aschematic (if it was not) and found that schematics made self-relevant trait judgments more rapidly than aschematics. Schematics also made judgments on relevant traits faster than judgments on irrelevant traits. Lord (1980) acknowledges that individuals have many schemas in memory but that the self is the most easily remembered one because it has the most complex structure .

In addition to the self's cognitive component, Rogers (1981) suggests that the self also has an evaluative or affective component which plays a role in the encoding of personal information. He feels the self-referencing process has an emotional quality which the cognitive model overlooks and attributes enhanced memory of self-referenced information to both the cognitive and affective components of the self.

The next section describes how self-referencing has been operationalized in an advertising context. A review of self-referencing manipulations in social psychology studies follows with suggestions as to how these manipulations might be useful in devising marketing strategies (or how they relate to strategies marketers already use, intuitively).


A limited amount of self-referencing research has been conducted in a marketing-related context. Most noteworthy are studies in which researchers have attempted to induce self-referencing within the framework of advertising. Shavitt and Brock (1984) experimentally manipulated individuals' degree of "self-relevant responding" in a television commercial. Their goal was to establish the causal role of self-thoughts on persuasion. Subjects were exposed to one of three conditions: a self-relevance condition in which they were instructed to relate the advertisement to their own experiences, a message-recall condition in which they were told to remember what they would see in the ad, and a control condition where they were told only to view the ad. These instructions were edited onto the tape of the commercial itself. The degree of self-relevant responding in each condition was assessed by examining subjects' cognitive responses. Results of the experiment showed that subjects in the self-relevance condition elicited more self-originated thoughts and more thoughts focusing on the self as target than subjects in the message-recall condition (of which the intent was to suppress self-originated thinking), but not more than subjects in the control condition. The difference in the magnitude of self-thoughts between the self-relevance condition and the message-recall condition suggests that self-originated thoughts play a causal role in persuasion. The lack of significance between the self-relevance and control conditions supports the notion that self thoughts occur spontaneously. The authors also measured subjects' attitudes toward the message and brand, and their behavior. Surprisingly, subjects' effecting and behavior were less positive in the self-reference condition than in the other conditions. This implies that respondents in the self-reference condition elicited refutational thoughts that inhibited persuasion and thus suggests that advertisers should examine the content of message-related thoughts. The self-referencing strategy did, however, increase the consistency between subjects' attitudes and behavior.

Self-referencing strategies were tested again in a marketing context by Yalch and Sternthal (1985). The effectiveness of two alternate strategies was examined relative to a control group of subjects who simply listened to a radio commercial for a new beverage. Self-referencing was operationalized by the experimenter who either (1' instructed subjects to relate what they would hear "to their own experiences and to themselves" (instruction condition!, (2) labeled subjects as being more concerned about the flavor of a beverage than others who previously participated in the research (label condition), or (3) administered both the instructions and a label. After listening to the commercial, participants recorded their cognitive responses and evaluated the taste of the product. They also had the opportunity to drink as much of the beverage as they desired (a behavioral measure). The cognitive response results showed that subjects had fewer negative taste thoughts in the instruction and label conditions individually than in the other conditions (also implying fewer self-associations since the message delivered only positive taste information). Subjects' objective evaluation of the taste of the product was more positive in the instruction and label conditions individually than in the other conditions (also implying fewer self-associations since the message delivered only positive taste information). Subjects' objective evaluation of the taste of the product was more positive in the instruction and label conditions individually than in the joint condition and somewhat more favorable than in the control condition.

As a result of the limited effectiveness of their self-referencing strategies, the authors conducted a second experiment in which they added a treatment condition and measured subjects' evaluations of the nutritional value of the product rather than its taste. In the added treatment condition, subjects were instructed to listen to the commercial and "try to create a detailed mental picture that includes yourself and what is being said in the commercial" (self-focused instructions). The nutritional value of the product was judged more favorable among individuals in the instruction condition than among those in the control, joint, or self-focused instruction condition. The cognitive response results also supported this finding. Subjects in the instruction condition had more favorable nutrition-related thoughts than those in the control, joint, and self-focused instruction conditions. The authors concluded that subjects in the instruction self-referencing condition linked the information in the message to themselves, while those in the other groups did not. They suggest that the other strategies disrupted individuals' processing of the nutritional information in the message, in some cases, because people simply focused on themselves.


While much of the early self-referencing work in social psychology involved exposing subjects to trait words and measuring their recall given varying operationalizations of self-referencing, and may not at first glance appear relevant, it is our contention that this work provides a basis for assessing present communications-related strategies and for devising new ones. Advertisers, after all, are interested in enhancing the level of recall and recognition their advertisements generate. At times self-referencing occurs spontaneously (Shavitt and Brock 1984; Wells, Hoffman, and Enzle 1984); but it also is possible to encourage individuals to relate stimulus information to themselves and thereby to enhance recall of that information.

A review of some of the ways that self-referencing has been operationalized (generally in non-commercial settings) provides a starting point. One of the successful self-referencing strategies involved instructions to individuals by the experimenter to relate the stimulus information (either trait words or an ad) to themselves (Bellezza 1984; Lord 1980; Shavitt and Brock 1984; Yalch and Sternthal 1985). A variation of that strategy is having subjects think of a personal experience which relates to the stimulus (Bower and Gilligan 1979). Prompting individuals to do this in an advertising context could take many forms. Imbedded within a commercial an announcer or spokesperson might say "think back to the last time you had a headache that just wouldn't go away" and follow it up with relevant product information. Similarly, it is probable that slice-of-life ads that depict a common problem or situation with which individuals can identify are effective in encouraging them to pay attention to the ad and remember the brand name. Sex-role portrayals encourage audiences to identify with a product, thereby enhancing their involvement with it. The likelihood of subjects' self-referencing in each of these instances is supported by Rogers (1981), who suggests that the "self" is a fixed reference point which individuals use to interpret information. He suggests that individuals make relativistic appraisals when processing personally-relevant information. Consequently, it is likely that if individuals can identify with an at portrayal, their response to the ad will be favorable. If individuals cannot identify with a portrayal, the ad may not get their attention or they may exhibit reactance-based negative attitudes. In this latter case, individuals may elicit a large number of self-relevant responses but the valence of those responses may provide more explanatory information than their magnitude. Each of these types of ads could be compared to an ad with straight product-benefit copy to determine the extent to which they actually generate self-referencing on the part of individuals.

It is also possible that the way in which an ad is worded affects individuals' aptitude to self-reference the message information. In writing advertising copy, experts suggest that to get and keep an audience interested, one should refrain from using the pronoun "I" and instead write in terms of "you" (Bovee and Arens 1986). Rogers (1974) reports that first-person sentences (in the form of personality items) have been used to gain access to an individual's self-concept, although the context here is not communications-related. Researchers measure the extent to which persons self-reference by analyzing their cognitive responses and the occurrence of "I"-related statements (Davis and Brock 1975; Shavitt and Brock 1985). Thus, it should be possible to stimulate self-referencing by addressing individuals in the second person ("you") or by name (in a direct marketing or personal selling context). Individuals should be more likely to engage in self-referencing when exposed to an ad written in the second person than to those written in the first (a testimonial) or third ("most people") persons. Such ads could be tested against one restricted to product benefit copy, provided the same product-related information is conveyed in each.

In direct mail and personal selling, it is common to induce persuasion by addressing an individual by name. Personalization of this type is assumed to be effective because individuals like hearing their name and may feel the stimulus person is genuinely interested in them. It is also obvious, however, that this strategy enhances persuasion because it increases the likelihood that the individual will self-reference the information.

Another technique commonly used by social psychologists to induce self-referencing is to ask individuals Whether trait words are descriptive of themselves (Bower and Gilligan 1979; Rogers et al. 1977; Wells, Hoffman, and Enzle 1984). Subjects engaging in this self-reference task exhibit d greater recall for those words than subjects asked just the relative meaning of each word (Rogers et al. 1977) or subjects instructed to relate the word to another person (Bower and Gilligan 1979). In an advertising context, an announcer or spokesperson could facilitate this strategy by asking the audience a question that links a product benefit to their own needs. For calcium-fortified milk, for example, an announcer might begin with a question like: "Are you concerned that you're not getting enough calcium in your diet?" This strategy would induce self-referencing because it prompts the audience to focus their attention on themselves while providing a link with the relevant product information. According to Bower and Gilligan (1979), appeals directed at an individual's self-interest are superior to those which focus on an audience's concern for others ("Are you concerned that your family is nor getting enough calcium?") Research suggests that the "self" is a much more organized structure than the "other" and therefore less effort is required to process self relevant information than other-relevant information (Bower and Gilligan 1979; Keenan and Baillet 1980; Kuiper and Rogers 1979; Rogers 1981). It also induces deep encoding of information which leads to superior memory Keenan and Baillet (1980) argue that the self is the richest schema in memory. It would be interesting to compare these two conditions against an ad that simply describes product benefits to assess the extent of self-referencing stimulated by each.

At this point it should be noted that the strategies discussed thus far are complementary Asking an audience, for instance, about their concern for themselves on an issue involves the use of second person pronouns in the copy and induces subjects to relate the stimulus information to themselves. This is not to say that the strategies are equally effective, however. Directing a question to an audience gives them the opportunity to respond negatively as well as positively (maybe they aren't concerned about getting calcium in their diet). Potentially, ad copy written in the second person, without a self-descriptive question, is superior to the same message when it begins with a question.

Other studies suggest additional ways to induce self-focused attention--the use of mirrors (Wicklund and Duval 1971), TV cameras (Duval, Wicklund, and Fine 1972) and subjects' own voices which were taped (Ickes, Wicklund, and Ferris 1973). Retailers have long used mirrors in department stores to create an image for a store or to give an area the perception of depth. While we doubt that it has been investigated empirically, it is highly likely that these mirrors increase store traffic and sales as a result of inducing individuals to focus attention on themselves (and the merchandise surrounding them). In hat and shoe departments, mirrors are placed in open view 80 that customers can try on the merchandise and evaluate the extent to which it flatters them, or to view themselves as others will. Although individuals can make purchase judgments simply by trying on these items and assessing their fit, it is likely that sales increase as a result of allowing customers to view themselves with the item. If individuals do not positively evaluate their image with one item, chances are good that they will try another.This self-with-object judgment is important to the consumer's ultimate behavior.

It is obvious that marketers presently use many of the techniques reviewed thus far but it is not clear why many of them seem to work. By applying methods by which researchers in other disciplines have been successful in inducing self-referencing, marketers can test the relative effectiveness of existing strategies (which may be inducing self-referencing) and discover new ones.


The research discussed thus far suggests ways to measure the extent to which self-referencing occurs and its subsequent effect. Most of the earliest studies (with the exception of Davis and Brock, 1975) focused on the latter. The effectiveness of self-referencing was assessed primarily through recall of stimulus trait words (Bower and Gilligan 1979; Keenan and Baillet 1980; Kuiper 1978; Kuiper and Rogers 1979; Rogers et al. 1977; Lord 1980). Davis and Brock were the first to measure the occurrence of self-referencing by analyzing individuals' cognitive responses. They hypothesized that individuals' use of first-person pronouns was indicative of self-referencing on their part. Subjects in the self-referencing condition were expected to use more first-person pronouns than other subjects, a result which was supported.

In a later study, Shavitt and Brock (1984) began categorizing and ordering subjects' cognitive responses. They went beyond measuring the valence of subjects' cognitive responses and the extent of counterarguing, support arguing and source derogation (typical measurement procedures) to measuring their semantic content. The authors developed a cognitive response coding scheme which included self, product, and execution-related thoughts. Self-thoughts were considered most important in influencing individuals' attitudes. They conceptualized self-thoughts (self-referencing) on two dimensions, self-as-origin, and self-as-target. Thoughts categorized within the former were those where individuals expressed their own beliefs and experiences relative to the message, rather than playing back message arguments. Self-as-target thoughts were those that suggested links between the respondent and the message, i.e., when respondents referred to the product relative to their own needs and interests (in line with Krugman's notion of high involvement as "the number of conscious bridging experiences, connections, or personal references . . . that the viewer makes between his own life and the stimulus" (cited by Shavitt and Brock 1984). As previously reviewed, self-referencing did induce more self-thoughts than other treatments and these self-thoughts were related to subjects' attitudes and behavior (two other measures taken as well).

Cognitive responses were also collected by Yalch and Sternthal (1985). They had judges classify responses into four categories--nutrition-related, taste-related, other product-related, and message-execution-related--and rate the valence of each thought. Originally, they tried to classify responses as self-associations or associations linking the message to the self but found inconsistency among the judges' evaluations. Their self-referencing treatment was found to differentially influence the nature and valence of subjects' cognitive responses. Whether individuals actually self-referenced the information was determined by the nutrition-related or taste-related associations and subjects' attitude toward the product's nutritional value and taste (scaled measures), not by the number of self-associations as in the previous two studies reported.

In order to assess the effectiveness of marketing strategies based on self-referencing, it would seem that cognitive responses, attitudes, and a behavioral measure (or purchase intention) should be taken--so as to assess the actual occurrence of self-referencing among individuals (since some studies support its spontaneous occurrence). In analyzing cognitive responses, we are especially impressed with the coding scheme devised by Shavitt and Brock (1984), which focuses on "self" thoughts.

Additionally, we would recommend a self-referencing manipulation check such as the one used by Shavitt and Brock ("When reacting to the commercial, to what extent were you trying to focus on your own experiences?") or questions which address the process of self-referencing. For instance, Shavitt and Brock also had subjects rate the extent to which each thought came from their own thinking or experiences to assess the origin of each response. Bellezza (1984) asked his subjects how easy it was to relate each trait word to a personal experience (a measure of the degree to which subjects could associate with each word). If the stimulus is a slice-of-life commercial or a sex-role portrayal, individuals could be asked the extent to which they could picture themselves in that situation. If "you" copy is being tested, individuals could be asked about how well they could identify with the product and its benefits or to what degree they thought about how the product could benefit them.

Finally, it may be useful to measure individual differences in self-referencing to assess whether some individuals are more susceptible to such strategies than others. Snyder's (1974) Self-Monitoring Scale (SM) may provide insight here. It would allow us to identify individuals who are likely to monitor themselves and adjust their behavior out of concern for social appropriateness. Snyder (1974; Snyder and DeBono 1985) found that individuals who were high self-monitors were more likely to use social comparison information than individuals who were low self-monitors. In an advertising context, high SMs should be more susceptible to judging the social appropriateness of sex-role portrayals or slice-of-life advertising and they should be more likely to respond negatively to socially inappropriate portrayals than low SMs.

It also would be useful to measure individuals' self-schema relative to a persuasive communication to determine their receptivity to a message. Markus' (1977, 1980) technique offers a way to do this. Individuals' self-schema should be a critical element in predicting their responses to slice-of-life commercials and sex-role portrayals.


Since the self-referencing process plays an important role in the way individuals attend to and process incoming information, marketers should benefit by understanding the instrumental role that self-judgments play in consumers' perceptions of commercial stimuli. Although marketers often use strategies that are intuitively logical (or simply that work), they rarely take the time to consider the reasons such strategies work. It seems apparent that these reasons frequently reside in the self-referencing phenomenon, and to that extent, its explication should not only account more fully for the effectiveness of currently used strategies but also prescribe modified (and still more effective) ones in the future.


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