Seeing Is Not Necessarily Believing: Interactions Between Prior Beliefs and New Information in Consumer Judgment and Choice

Cornelia Pechmann, University of California, Irvine
[ to cite ]:
Cornelia Pechmann (1995) ,"Seeing Is Not Necessarily Believing: Interactions Between Prior Beliefs and New Information in Consumer Judgment and Choice", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, eds. Frank R. Kardes and Mita Sujan, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 430-431.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, 1995      Pages 430-431


Cornelia Pechmann, University of California, Irvine


The three papers in this special session dealt with the same fundamental issue: How consumers integrate information from various sources, often conflicting, in forming brand evaluations and making brand choices. The specific focus is on understanding when and why consumers might rely on intuitive beliefs or naive theories, rather than other inputs, to infer a brand's rating on missing or ambiguous attributes. Thus the research grapples with decision-making in its real world complexity, a recurring but important theme in consumer research.

What makes the current research novel is that subjects could have relied on more reliable inputs, such as data available through information search. Thus the theoretical contributions of this special session lie in (a) examining how consumers weight prior beliefs or theories versus other inputs, and (b) identifying factors that determine which inputs will dominate. A unique methodological contribution is that the session brings together two previously disparate types of studies, on inference-making and information search. In terms of substantive contributions, the research addresses when and why advertising might be deceptive due to erroneous inference-making, and the potential impact of corrective advertising.


Broniarczyk and Alba's paper was entitled "Bases for Product Inference: Prior Beliefs and Data." In their research, subjects' intuitive beliefs or theories about attribute correlations conflicted with "data-based cues." Several experiments then examined: (a) the relative diagnosticity of prior beliefs vs. data-based cues in product inference, and (b) the influence of prior beliefs on the likelihood of product inference. Prior beliefs were operationalized as the intuitive relationship between warranty and durability. The data-based cues examined were the empirical correlation between the missing attribute and a presented attribute in a set of related brands, the overall ratings of the brand, and the average value of the missing attribute across the other brands.

A consistent finding was that prior beliefs (that a better warranty implies higher durability) were perceived as a more reliable basis for inference than data-based cues. Also, prior beliefs were shown to lead to a greater level of spontaneous inference than had been reported in previous studies even though the data supported an opposite basis for inference. In sum, prior theories dominated when pitted against the type of data-based cues discussed above. However, when subjects were provided with data about the company's prior reputation, that input was perceived as the most diagnostic and carried the most weight in consumer judgments.


Johar's paper was entitled "Do Consumers Update Prior Beliefs about Brands and Advertisers?: The Case of Corrective Advertising." It addressed when and why corrective advertising might inadvertently lower consumers' beliefs about the advertised brand on correlated claims that were not the target of the correction. The paper also examined the effects of corrective advertising on brand and advertiser evaluations.

The advertiser's prior reputation was again a critical variable, but rather than serving as an input to judgments it moderated subjects' reliance on other inputs. When subjects had a favorable prior evaluation of the advertiser, corrective (less favorable) information on the target attribute apparently was not perceived as diagnostic of the brand's rating on correlated attributes or brand evaluations. However, when subjects had an unfavorable prior evaluation of the advertiser, those exposed to corrective advertising tended to infer the advertised brand had a lower rating even on nontarget attributes and evaluated the brand less favorably. Further, corrective advertising lowered advertiser evaluations for companies with good reputations but actually increased advertiser evaluations for companies with poor reputations. This research addresses important issues about whether corrective advertising is a non-punitive remedy for deception.


Pechmann talked about "When and How Extraneous Reference Prices Deter Choice of Competitors: Alternative Mediational Paths and Implications for Consumer Deception." In this research, subjects' favorable prior beliefs about the market leader were challenged by a competitor's advertising campaign. Reference prices were provided that either implied, or stated explicitly, that the competitor was substantially overpriced on certain services. These price comparisons were accurate but extraneous to the choice task in that they did not pertain to the class of service subjects required. The pertinent prices were omitted from the ads, and subjects could "call" the companies for accurate price data.

Instead, subjects tended to rely on the extraneous reference prices, particularly when the information was factual ("costs $3 more") vs. impressionistic ("costs more"), and when the targeted competitor was named vs. unnamed ("the competitor"). As predicted, these two message factors seemed to enhance the perceived diagnosticity and accessibility of the inference-related inputs. Reliance on inferences led subjects to (a) engage in less information search, (b)rate competitors lower on overall price, and (c) choose the more expensive advertised brand rather than a cheaper competitorCeven though their most important decision criterion was low price.

In sum, consumers may make erroneous inferences about omitted product attributes without prompting, and these inferences may affect brand choiceCeven in situations when consumers could have engaged in information search. But it would be difficult to eradicate this type of miscomprehension because the government would have to ban direct, factual comparisons as these are most likely to be overgeneralized.


The discussant, Mazis, focused on the contributions and potential limitations of the three papers. The papers were praised for consisting of high quality, theory-based, multiple-study research. More specific comments by the discussant are summarized below.

The Broniarczyk and Alba paper makes an important contribution because it contrasts two competing explanations of how consumers make inferences: by relying on prior beliefs vs. data-based cues. It has important public policy implications because it suggests that consumers often rely on incorrect beliefs (e.g., no cholesterol=no fat)even when faced with refutational evidence (e.g., nutritional information on the packaging). However, the low accessibility of the correlational data presented in the study may have contributed to subjects' reliance on prior beliefs or theories.

The Johar paper examines an important issue in corrective advertisingCthe role of the company's reputationCthat has not received adequate attention in previous studies. Also, the research is timely in that we may see an increase in corrective advertising under the current FTC administration. The two studies were carefully conducted and manipulation checks were employed throughout. On the other hand, student subjects were used and the ads and reputation manipulation appeared to be somewhat contrived.

The Pechmann research devoted a great deal of attention to maximizing external validity. The two studies used real brands, a realistic cover story, and a sophisticated computer-simulated search task. It was found that naming competitors and factual claims were most effective at changing nontargeted beliefs, but not at changing targeted beliefs which would have been very predictable. One suggestion is to conduct follow-up analyses to examine the role of search directly and to examine the impact of the ads separated from the impact of search.

Overall, the studies were conducted carefully and make important contributions to the consumer inference-making literature.