Special Session Summary Interdisciplinary Insights Into Incongruity: Cognition, Language, and Art

Bridgette M. Braig, University of Colorado
[ to cite ]:
Bridgette M. Braig (1999) ,"Special Session Summary Interdisciplinary Insights Into Incongruity: Cognition, Language, and Art", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, eds. Eric J. Arnould and Linda M. Scott, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 156-157.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, 1999      Pages 156-157



Bridgette M. Braig, University of Colorado

The focal interest of this session is to broaden our understanding of incongruityCboth the factors that create it as well as the breadth of responses to incongruity. Notions of incongruity, or a lack of harmony or agreement, play a role in a number of different domains even if the linguistic label given to this lack of harmony differs. For example, research on humor (Johnson and Mervis 1997), surprise in art and literature (Iran-Nejad 1987; Waldman 1988), semiotics (Pylkk√∑ 1996), and cognitive psychology (Mandler 1982) has sought to understand how people respond to the difference between what is perceived and what is expected.

Despite the variety of academic domains that utilize incongruity in theorizing, the consumer literature has largely focused on cognitive treatments of incongruity (Campbell and Goodstein 1998; Meyers-Levy and Tybout 1989; Peracchio and Tybout 1996; Stayman, Alden, and Smith 1992). Much of this work is grounded in Mandler’s (1982) oft-cited chapter on the relationship among levels of schema incongruity, relative success in resolving perceived incongruity, and preference or value. Although Mandler offers an important starting point, there is a great deal about the concept that is not well-understood. The three papers in this session all represent different approaches to enhancing the depiction of the antecedents and consequences of incongruity as well as expanding the domain of phenomena that can be explained using incongruity notions.

Malaviya and Braig continue in the cognitive tradition and probe deeper into the mechanism by which incongruity resolution impacts evaluative judgments. They suggest that advertising context my affect the degree of perceived incongruity. Hence, the context in which a stimulus is viewed may moderate whether a stimulus is even viewed as incongruous, and therefore context may also have an impact on subsequent resolution and evaluative judgment processes. This research also qualifies existing theorizing that suggests that incongruity is resolved provided sufficient elaboration is devoted to the task (Peracchio and Tybout 1996). Data reported in the present paper suggest that two different types of elaboration are required for resolutionCitem-specific and relational elaboration. A balance between the two must be struck in order for successful reconciliation of incongruity and hence favorable evaluative judgments to result.

The mechanistic approach used by Malaviya and Braig serves as a critical means for understanding fundamental cognitive activities that result in detection of incongruity (at a conscious or subconscious level) as well as evaluative and elaborative responses to the incongruity. However, this view of incongruity is contextually impoverished in that it is silent as to the forces that shape the nature of the incongruity-resolution process. McQuarrie and Mick treat incongruity from the vantage point of rhetoric and semiotics. Weaving text-interpretive and cognitive psychological perspectives allows them to meld semiotic interpretation with the cognitive building block of elaboration. They argue that artful deviation in the form of various rhetorical devices is conceptually similar to incongruity. However, the following analogy is given: if incongruity is viewed as a chrysalis, the marking a text using deviation is a more adult form. Deviation can imply low vs. high (less vs. more) incongruity, but also the direction of the incongruity. They adopt the view of deviation or incongruity as a potential tool for advertisers. In employing various rhetorical devices in messages, advertisers have the ability to use deviation to set meanings into play. In essence, the form of the deviation may prompt specific resolution processes in interpreting the various figures of rhetoric. Further, advertisers can mark their presumably persuasive texts using both verbal and visual modalities. Hence, McQuarrie and Mick also explore whether visual incongruities spur the same forms of resolution as verbal deviations.

One of the intriguing ideas forwarded by McQuarrie and Mick is that various forms of incongruity or rhetorical devices may prompt different routes to resolution. Braig and Krane push this notion even further, and begin with the premise that multiple routes to resolution are plausible for the same stimulus. They use this notion to explore consumer response to contemporary, abstract art where reactions to incongruity and ambiguity often constitute the consumption experience. They conducted depth interviews with experts (Fine Arts students) and novices (College of Business students) in order to learn how expertise moderates the process of consuming abstract paintings. Analyses revealed that the strategies employed in responding to contemporary art suggest that resolving perceived incongruity/ambiguity in both subject matter and meaning affected evaluative judgments. Further the relationship between "reconciliation" efforts and evaluative judgments differed by expertise. Implications are drawn regarding the relationship between cognitive processing and experiential consumption. In addition, insights from the various strategies used to respond to contemporary art are used to suggest how cognitive theorizing regarding resolution processes might be revised to account for a broader range of phenomena.


Campbell, Margaret C. and Ronald C. Goodstein (1998), "The Role of Risk in Consumers’ Evaluatin of Schema Incongruity," working paper, University of California at Los Angeles.

Iran-Nejad, Asghar (1987), "Cognitive and Affective Causes of Interest and Liking," Journal of Educational Psychology, 79 (June), 120-130.

Johnson, Kathy E. and Carolyn B. Mervis (1997), "First Steps in the Emergence of Verbal Humor: A Case Study, " Infant Behavior and Development, 20 (2), 187-196.

Mandler, George (1982), "The Structure of Value: Accounting for Taste," in Affect and Cognition: The 17th Annual Carnegie Symposium, ed. Margaret S. Clark and Susan T. Fiske, Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 3-36.

Meyers-Levy, Joan and Alice M. Tybout (1989), "Schema Congruity as a Basis for Product Evaluation," Journal of Consumer Research, 16 (June), 39-54.

Peracchio, Laura A. and Alice M. Tybout (1996), "The Moderating Role of Prior Knowledge in Schema-Based Product Evaluations," Journal of Consumer Research, 23 (December), 177-192.

Pylkk√∑, Pauli (1996), "On Surprise," Semiotica, 109 (3/4), 293-309.

Stayman, Douglas M., Dana L. Alden, and Karen M. Smith (1992), "Some Effects of Schematic Processing on Consumer Expectations and Disconfirmation Judgments," Journal of Consumer Research, 19 (September), 240-255.

Waldman, Diane (1988), Willem DeKooning, New York: Harry N. Abrams.



Prashant Malaviya, University of Illinois at Chicago

Bridgette M. Braig, University of Colorado

Past research has applied schema-congruity theory to account for evaluations of brand extensions. The general finding is that moderately incongruent brand extensions are evaluated more favorably than congruent or extremely incongruent ones, presumably because moderate incongruity can be successfully resolved (i.e., "fit" between a brand and a category is noticed). The present research finds that this relationship between (in)congruity and evaluation is moderated by the context in which the product is presented. The context influences whether incongruity is perceived, as well as the level or severity of this incongruity. As a consequence, context plays a role in the likelihood of incongruity resolution and subsequent evaluation of brand extensions. Further, it is suggested that two different types of elaboration must be brought to bear on the incongruity-resolution task in order to succeed. Hence, the roles of item-specific and relational elaboration in the resolution and evaluative judgment processes are also explored.



Edward F. McQuarrie, Santa Clara University

David Glen Mick, University of Wisconsin-Madison

This paper will consider the kinds of incongruity that can be created by means of rhetorical figures. The governing perspective will be incongruity considered as a device under the control of the advertiser, as contrasted with incongruity considered as a global property of the stimulus object. Incongruity serves as a bridging idea that links text-interpretive approaches such as semiotics and rhetoric to more traditional experimental and cognitive psychological approaches. From a semiotic standpoint, incongruity can be re-conceptualized as deviation that marks a text. Marking a text provokes interpretation, or, in the language of cognitive psychology, elaboration. These ideas are illustrated with examples of both visual and verbal rhetoric.



Bridgette M. Braig, University of Colorado

Susan Krane, University of Colorado Art Galleries

Consumer research on incongruity has conceptualized the term in cognitive language (i.e., assessing whether a given stimulus "fits" with a category in memory). This stream of research primarily considers overall evaluations, recall, and other memory measures as the outcomes of incongruity. The premise of the present research is that art theories can broaden the construal of incongruity as well as enrich our understanding of consumer responses to incongruity. Two specific art genres-surrealism and abstract expressionism-are examined as vehicles for exploring incongruity in the experiential consumption of art. Additionally, expertise is explored as a key moderator of the nature of and responses to incongruity.