The Effects of Ambiguity on Consumer Information Processing: What, When, Why, and How Summary of Papers Presented At Session 5.5

S. Ratneshwar, University of Florida
[ to cite ]:
S. Ratneshwar (1993) ,"The Effects of Ambiguity on Consumer Information Processing: What, When, Why, and How Summary of Papers Presented At Session 5.5", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, eds. Leigh McAlister and Michael L. Rothschild, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 330.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, 1993      Page 330



S. Ratneshwar, University of Florida

Consumers often have to cope with ambiguous information environments, and in recent years this issue has become a topic of considerable interest to consumer researchers. What are the effects of ambiguity on consumer judgments in different domains? When might these effects be observed: Are they moderated by a specific set of variables? Why might these effects be predicted in terms of theoretical rationale? And finally, how might these effects be explainable in terms of mediating processes?

The purpose of the special session was to stimulate discussion and future research that might profitably address the preceding questions. Three papers were presented; all were aimed at advancing theoretical knowledge of the issue, but in addition presented empirical work. Also, all three had their theoretical foundations in recent research in the area of social cognition. A brief overview of the papers is provided below.

The paper presented by Kardes examined ambiguity in the form of incomplete information on product attributes. The fact that critical information is missing often may not be salient to consumers. Consequently, they may often form more extreme and more confident judgments than are warranted. Nonetheless, such effects are also likely to be moderated by factors that impact on the likelihood that consumers detect the omissions. Two experiments were presented in which the effects of missing information on product evaluative judgments were investigated under varying conditions of prior knowledge, environmental cues to the omissions, and the memorability of the original attribute information.

Chaiken and Maheswaran's paper addressed the processing of persuasive messages such as advertisements when the arguments in the message are ambiguous in terms of their evaluative implications for the advertised product. Their research built on the theoretical framework provided by Chaiken's (1980) heuristic-systematic information processing model. Specifically, it tested the proposition that the two modes of processing can act concurrently to impact on each other rather than operating in a mutually-exclusive fashion. The results suggest that heuristic cues such as source credibility can bias systematic processing when message arguments are ambiguous; however, this effect is further moderated by task importance.

Pechmann and Ratneshwar investigated the accuracy of consumers' covariation judgments when the attribute information represented in memory is relatively unambiguous (i.e., high in diagnosticity) versus when it is relatively ambiguous. They presented a set of experiments wherein subjects made price-quality covariation judgments on the basis of taste tests of products. The results show that prior beliefs or "theories" about the covariation can bias judgments when diagnosticity is low (versus high). Two follow-up studies suggest that subjects' prior beliefs did not induce encoding biases in taste perceptions. Instead, low diagnosticity subjects likely made heuristic use of their priors as additional inputs in forming their covariation judgments.