Style of Information Processing Differences in Relation to Products, Shopping and Self-Consciousness

Stephen J. Gould, Rutgers University
ABSTRACT - Style of processing information, as measured by the Style of Processing Scale (Childers, Houston and Heckler 1985), was assessed in relation to several product involvement variables, shopping visualization, three self-consciousness variables, and gender. The sample was divided into four groups on the basis of the scale score: "Low Processors," "High Verbals," "High Visuals" and High Processors." Results indicated that there were clear style of processing differences in relation to most of the tested variables. The strategic and research implications of these results are discussed.
[ to cite ]:
Stephen J. Gould (1990) ,"Style of Information Processing Differences in Relation to Products, Shopping and Self-Consciousness", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, eds. Marvin E. Goldberg, Gerald Gorn, and Richard W. Pollay, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 455-460.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, 1990      Pages 455-460


Stephen J. Gould, Rutgers University


Style of processing information, as measured by the Style of Processing Scale (Childers, Houston and Heckler 1985), was assessed in relation to several product involvement variables, shopping visualization, three self-consciousness variables, and gender. The sample was divided into four groups on the basis of the scale score: "Low Processors," "High Verbals," "High Visuals" and High Processors." Results indicated that there were clear style of processing differences in relation to most of the tested variables. The strategic and research implications of these results are discussed.

As interest in mental imagery has grown, researchers have found individual differences in consumers' preferred styles of information processing, i.e., verbal versus visual processing (Holbrook, Chestnut, Oliva, and Greenleaf 1984; Smith, Houston, and Childers 1984; Childers, Houston, and Heckler 1985). This paper seeks to extend that work by looking at style of processing in relation to products, shopping plans, and various aspects of self-consciousness (Fenigstein, Scheier, and Buss 1975), all of which have salient visual or verbal elements. It will also provide a further test of the usefulness and nomological validity of the Style of Processing Scale (Childers, Houston, and Heckler 1985).


Interest in style of processing has developed from at least two main streams of research in psychology and consumer behavior. These are (1) mental imagery research and (2) the information processing paradigm. Within each of these areas, research has found that there are individual differences which have an impact on dependent variables within their domain (MacInnis and Price 1986; Childers, Houston, and Heckler 1985). Mental imagery research has assessed the processing of information in a variety of modes including auditory, olfactory, gustatory, and kinesthetic, but most especially the visual mode (MacInnis and Price 1986). A number of aspects of imagery processing have been studied which are conducive to the extrapolation of individual differences including imagery vividness, imagery control and imagery style (Childers, Houston, and Heckler 1985). Of interest here is the assessment of imagery style which Childers et al. define as "the individual's willingness to habitually engage in imaginally versus verbally oriented processing." In order to assess imagery style, they adapted the Style of Processing (SOP) scale from the widely used VVQ scale (Richardson 1977) and demonstrated its reliability and validity.

It has been found in looking at mental imagery and information processing together, that there is a positive relationship between preference for visual imagery processing and visually oriented print ads (Rossiter and Percy 1978), that the use of pictures in ads which may stimulate mental imagery can make a difference in information processing (Kisielius and Sternthal 1984), and that schematics (experienced consumers) will use mental imagery more than aschematics (inexperienced consumers) (Smith, Houston, and Childers 1985). Childers, Houston, and Heckler (1985) find that differences in individual information processing may stem from two factors: (1) cognitive ability to process information and (2) preferred strategies or styles of processing, i.e., verbal versus visual.

In light of previous research, the present study was conducted in order to further investigate individual difference in style of processing and to see how this might affect some product areas of interest. It is hypothesized that individuals more verbal in style will be more involved with verbal products, such as books and magazines, while highly visual individuals will be more involved with media, such as television, or products which are visually oriented, such as clothes. Music is explored on a more exploratory basis although it is tentatively hypothesized that music will be associated with the visual mode since both have been related to right brain processing (Hansen 1981). Radio is included on an exploratory basis as well, since it may be used for verbal purposes by some, musical entertainment by others, and since, it may involve the use of imaginative imagery by some but not all users.

Self-consciousness (Fenigstein, Scheier and Buss 1975) is also to be considered. With respect to self-consciousness, it was especially felt that one of its three sub-components, public self-consciousness, would be important. Public self-consciousness has been previously used in consumer behavior contexts to assess an individual's awareness of and concern with his or her self-image and self-appearance in public (Burnkrant and Page 1981; Gould and Barak 1988; Stern, Gould, and Barak 1987). In this regard, it was predicted that visually oriented individuals would be more publicly self-conscious, i.e., self-appearance conscious, than others because of the highly visible nature of self-appearance. Social anxiety, which concerns an individual's degree of anxiety in interacting with others, is more tentatively hypothesized to follow public self-consciousness, as is private self-consciousness, which concerns an individual's degree of focus on his/her own thoughts and feelings (Fenigstein, Scheier, and Buss 1975). Finally, it was hypothesized that high visuals would tend to report more visualization in planning for a shopping trip than would low visuals. Gender was included on an entirely exploratory basis.



The sample consisted of 138 adults. They were administered the questionnaire by students in a consumer behavior class, who received class credit. The sample was a quota sample in that at least 2 of the subjects, per student, were required to be over 50 years old and at least two were required in the 35-50 range in order to insure a wide spectrum of ages. Verification was obtained by telephone calls of approximately 5% of the sample, by debriefing of the student interviewers, and by inspection of the surveys, themselves. No problems were encountered. The study was conducted in the Northeastern part of the U.S.


The following measures were used in the survey:

Independent Measure

The Style of Processing Scale (SOP). The SOP is a 22-item scale which assesses the degree to which an individual uses a verbal or visualizing style of information processing (Childers, Houston, and Heckler 1985). An example of a verbal item is "I enjoy learning new words." An example of a visual item is "When I'm trying to learn something new, I'd rather watch a demonstration than read how to do it."

Dependent Measures

Involvement with product measures. The first eleven items were adapted from the Personal Involvement Inventory of Zaichkowsky (1985) to measure the involvement an individual had with the following products: television, radio, magazines, books, clothes, cameras, and music. These products were selected because of their sensual orientation particularly with respect to the visual sense, (e.g., camera), or because they reflected a relatively verbal orientation (e.g., books).

Shopping visualization. A single question assessing the use of visualization in making a shopping list or planning a shopping trip was also asked as follows: "When I make a shopping list or plan a shopping trip, I usually visualize what I'm going to buy."

The Self-Consciousness Scale (SCS). The SCS assesses the trait of self-consciousness which concerns the degree to which a person focuses on him/herself or on the external environment (Fenigstein, Scheier, and Buss 1975). The 23-item scale, according to its creators, actually consists of the following three subscales: (1) private self-consciousness which looks at degree of internal focus (e.g., "I reflect about myself a lot"), (2) public self-consciousness which concerns the degree to which someone is conscious of his/herself as a public person with an impact on others (e.g., "I'm very self-conscious about the way I look") and (3) social anxiety which measures the degree to which someone is anxious about social interactions with others (e.g., "I feel anxious when I speak in front of a group").


Style of processing was assessed by taking each of two subscales of the SOP, the verbal and visual subscales, dividing them at the median and combining them to create four categories for consideration: (1) "Low Processors"- low verbal/low visual on the SOP (n = 34), (2) "High Verbals"high verbal/low visual on the SOP (n = 37), (3) "High Visuals"- low verbal-high visual on the SOP (n = 33) and (4) "High Processors"- high verbal/high visual on the SOP (n = 34). Reliabilities for the two measures using Cronbach's alpha were .67 for the visual component and .77 for the verbal component. This resulting variable is designated "VERBVIS." While Childers, Houston, and Heckler tend to prefer to use the SOP as a single scale, they also point out that the value of using the scale in its two component form was worthy of further research. In fact, most of the items of the scale assess only one or-the other component (e.g., "I enjoy learning new words"- verbal style; "I like to "doodle" "- visual style) while just a few actually force a choice between verbal and visual styles (e.g., "I generally prefer to- use a diagram rather than a written set of instructions"). Here, it was deemed appropriate to use the scale by assessing the two components, separately, because some individuals are likely to be either more or less active in both the verbal and visual modes together, and also because some product use often reflects the involvement of both modes of processing (e.g., magazines). This approach is analogous to the fact that while many individuals are either more left brain or more right brain, there are some who are less specialized and more whole brained (Hansen 1981; Kosslyn 1987). It is also similar to sex role research in which various types are identified by combinations determined from scores on two separate scales: masculinity and femininity (Bem 1981). This approach allows for the clear identification of types both for researchers and managers.

A multivariate analysis of variance was run to test for an overall effect of the independent variable, the four-level classification by the SOP, i.e. VERBVIS. Results, using the Hotelling-Lawley Trace statistic, indicated that there was such an effect (F = 2.46, p < .0001). Next, the univariate analyses for each of the dependent variables were assessed as follows (see Tables 1 and 2):

Product Variables: There were significant univariate effects for these product variables: television, magazines, and books. When the means are examined for television, High Verbals, group 2 and High Processors, group 4, report being less involved with television than others. Based on planned comparisons, High Verbals differ from both Low Processors (p < .0138) and High Visuals (p < .0018) while High Processors differ from High Visuals (p < .0291). Verbal orientation seems to be most salient. Interestingly, Low Processors had the second highest involvement with television possibly for the following reasons: (1) they are clearly low in preference for verbal processing which seems to be most salient in reducing television involvement and (2) it is also possible that they have a tendency to be involved with television in some way not assessed here, such as keeping it on for the sound or for 'company.'





In the case of magazines, individuals who are High Processors tended to report being more involved with magazines than individuals who are High Verbals (p < .0072) or High Visuals (p < .0026), alone. Thus, people who are highly responsive to both visual and verbal cues are most involved with magazines, very likely reflecting the dual visual and verbal nature of magazines. With books, as with television, verbalness seemed to be salient although in the other direction as both High Verbals and High Processors claimed more involvement with books than others. High Verbals were significantly more involved with books than were Low Processors (p < .0075) and High Visuals (p < .0001) while High Processors were more involved than both of these other groups (p < .0001 for both). The effect sizes for these three product categories, as indicated by R2, were .10, .09, and .24, respectively. These are very reasonable effects considering that there is only one independent variable, i.e. VERBVIS. Finally, none of the other product involvement findings were statistically or behaviorally significant, although camera involvement was in the right direction in that both High Visuals and High Processors were more involved with cameras- indicating at least a probable degree of visual salience.

Shopping Visualization. Results indicated that shopping visualization was clearly related to visualization style as both High Visuals and High Processors were more likely to visualize or plan a shopping trip than were others (p < .0001). High Visuals were significantly more likely to visualize their shopping in advance than were Low Processors (p < .0099) and High Verbals (p < .0040). The same was true for High Processors who reported more shopping visualization than the other two groups (p < .0005 and p <.0001, respectively). The R2 for this relationship was .14 which again is very reasonable for one independent variable.

Self-Consciousness Variables. There were significant results for all three self-consciousness variables: private self-consciousness (p < .0007), public self-consciousness (p < .0009) and social anxiety (p < .0013). Examination of the means reveals that, in general, High Visuals and High Processors reported being most publicly and privately self-conscious- the contrasts of groups 3 and 4 with groups 1 and 2 were found to be all be significant (p < .05 or better). However, for social anxiety the results varied in that only group 2, the High Verbalizers, differed from High Visualizers and High Processors (p < .0001 and p < .0222, respectively). The effect sizes, as indicated by the R2, were .12 for public self-consciousness, .13 for private self-consciousness, and .11 for social anxiety. Altogether these results evidence a relationship between visualizing style and self-consciousness which seems to indicate a process of self-visualization. Thus, it is likely that High Visuals and High Processors will tend to visualize themselves more than others when focusing on their self-concept, the target of self-consciousness, as well as being more self-conscious in general.

Gender. An interesting result was obtained when gender was cross-tabulated with VERBVIS as shown in Table 3. Women tended to report being more active processors than men (p c .017). Particularly striking was the result in which 32.91% of women were High Processors to only 13.56% of the men while just the opposite result was found for Low Processors- 35.59% of men to 16.46% of women. However, about the same percentage of High Verbals and High Visuals occurred among both men and women. These results provide a marker for at least a partial demographic identification of style of processing differences, and also a strong impetus for further gender-related research in this area.


The results of this study give an indication of the effects of processing style on some relevant marketing variables and point the way to further research in this area. Several findings emerge on the basis of the present data. First, in general, this study provides further support for the usefulness and nomological validity of the SOP scale, particularly when the four processing groups are considered. The scale has been shown to be related to several consumer-related variables,

Second, the results have indicated that involvement with media types of products has links to style of processing. Although not measured in this study, it is likely that the frequency of media use and within media choice differences (e.g., the choice of magazines, such as People versus Scientific American) are related to style of processing as well.

Third, style of processing is related to visual planning for shopping which may only be a tip of the iceberg in assessing: (1) how visually-oriented consumers may use mental imaging in the search for, purchase, and use of products, and (2) how verbally-oriented consumers function and make decisions in the same situations. The planning of a shopping trip and list involves the visualization of a future event out of the processing and recall of previous shopping experience. For example, High Visuals and High Processors may form cognitive maps of their shopping trips as they picture their purchases in advance in their minds. This suggests a need for marketers and retailers to develop imagery cues in their advertising, store and mall layouts, and store displays which are likely to stimulate mental imagery in the minds of these visually-oriented consumers as they make shopping plans. On the other hand, High Verbals are likely to respond more strongly to the use of verbal cues, such as store and brand names or key appealing terms (e.g. new, free, unique), although more research is needed to identify what they seek in the way of specific mental cues in planning and engaging in shopping.

Fourth, applying the work of Robertson (1987) in looking at brand names in terms of imagistic content, High Processors are likely to be the most responsive of all the groups to store and brand names laden with imagery (e.g. "White Dove"); High Verbals may respond most strongly to abstract, less imagistic names when forming shopping lists (e.g. such as "EXXON" originally was when it was a new name). However, further research is needed to determine whether imagery laden brand names are still more effective for all groups, including High Verbals, in line with the findings of Robertson, or whether individual differences are strong enough to moderate those findings. Low Processors may respond more strongly to other types of cues altogether, such as sound or kinesthetics, which they recall when putting together their shopping plans. Research into various types of cues in the context of style of processing should be undertaken.

Finally, and perhaps most interesting is the finding that mental imaging seems to be related to self-consciousness. This seems to indicate that the self-concept for visually-oriented individuals has a high image content which marketers and advertisers may want to study and address in the future. In other words, when people focus on themselves, reflecting their private self-consciousness, they may literally see themselves in their mind's eye more than others who are not as inclined to engage in such self-focusing. Self-image research and application may take on whole new dimensions not previously considered. For example, in assessing self-image in marketing research through administering semantic differential and Likert scale type questions, it might be useful to have respondents sit in front of a mirror so they can see themselves while they answer the questions- a technique which is often used in self-awareness research to obtain self-focus and attention (Fenigstein, Scheier, and Buss 1975). In the market research situation, seeing oneself in a mirror might stimulate the visually-oriented person to concentrate on self-relevant visual cues although both High Verbals and Low Processors would probably be less affected. For instance, the verbally-oriented person, although being less self-conscious in general, might be better stimulated in self-imagery evaluation relative to the visually-oriented person if asked to write or verbalize something about his or her self-image. On the other hand, Low Processors may respond to other self-relevant cues not considered here. Finally, High Processors might best respond in terms of inducing self-focus to both the types of cues (mirror and verbalizing), administered simultaneously.



Similar techniques might be used for inducing or tapping into public self-consciousness which can be affected by the presence of other people (Fenigstein 1979). Market researchers might want to evoke public self-consciousness to create an audience effect even though they are only surveying or interviewing one person at a time (e.g. investigating product use in social settings such as when a person throws a party). Or they may just need to be aware whether certain types of questions may induce public self-consciousness effects. In such cases, visually-oriented people are likely to respond to mental cues with visual imagery (e.g. "Imagine an audience in front of you") while verbally-oriented people, although less publicly self-conscious or socially anxious, should respond best to cues which evoke thinking (e.g. "Write down what others think about you"). As with private self-consciousness, the picture is less clear with respect to Low Processors except that they are less publicly self-consciousness than visually-oriented individuals. More research is needed to investigate them and how they function with respect to processing information about self-relevant cues.

In addition, more research with respect to the self-consciousness construct is needed to work out how people develop and recall self-relevant imagery and concepts. Such research might also consider how people link their self-image to product image, concept, and use, if at all. For example, it is more likely that highly visually-oriented and self-conscious people will visualize themselves throughout the prepurchase and actual consumption phases of interaction with products than will less visually-oriented individuals. Such self-visualization may take the form of seeing oneself possessing products, using them, and displaying, and showing them off in a way which reflects the individual's public self-consciousness and social anxiety. Understanding of this self-visualization process can lead to better insight for both copy creation and product positioning. However, for both High Verbals and Low Processors, themes which play less on self-image and appearances may need to be developed.

In moving beyond the dependent variables considered here, future research should extend and elaborate these results by also considering style of processing in relation to other areas of interest, such as media use, other product areas (e.g. fashion), schema (Smith, Houston, and Childers 1985), attitudes, advertising involvement and response, hemispheric processing and other brain subsystem processing (Hansen 1981; Kosslyn 1987), and the Elaboration Likelihood Model (Petty, Cacioppo, and Schumann 1983). Thus, style of processing is likely to be built into a whole network of these constructs which ultimately can be used to predict advertising and behavioral response. Particularly intriguing would be to investigate how products, and/or particular attributes of products, such as shapes, colors, and names are related to processing style and subsequently to purchase and use. We need to consider whether there are certain product designs or advertising modes, portrayals or themes which appeal to a person of one processing style or another. Likewise, we might consider whether brand differentiation and positioning messages involve the selective perception of cues by people of different processing styles and therefore are amenable to explicit marketing efforts addressing those differences. There also may be situational differences in processing style which vary by setting (e.g. time pressure, more expressive types of situations such as gift giving) that need to be addressed. Future research might also extend the SOP scale to consider other sense modalities: olfactory, auditory, gustatory, and kinesthetic (see Sheehan 1967 for a short version of the Betts' Questionnaire which assesses these modalities).


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