Special Session Summary on the Persuasiveness of Negative Information: Limitations to the Negativity Effect

Rohini Ahluwalia, University of Kansas
[ to cite ]:
Rohini Ahluwalia (2000) ,"Special Session Summary on the Persuasiveness of Negative Information: Limitations to the Negativity Effect", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27, eds. Stephen J. Hoch and Robert J. Meyer, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 235-236.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27, 2000      Pages 235-236



Rohini Ahluwalia, University of Kansas

Due to increasing consumer activism (Irvine 1992), enhanced government probe of products that pose a danger to the public (Irvine 1992) and increased media attention to and public interest in corporate affairs (Dye 1997), the amount of negative information relating to businesses is on the rise. Additionally negative advertising has become an important concern for companies and political candidates. Given these trends it is critical for consumer behavior researchers to understand the potential impact of negative information in the marketplace and be able to assess situations in which this impact is likely to be detrimental.

The negativity effect or the greater weighting and subsequently greater impact of negative information as compared to positive information in judgment and decision making, has been well documented in various literatures: decision making (framing effect, Kahneman and Tversky 1979), impression formation (Fiske 1980; Kanouse and Hanson 1972), and persuasion (Meyerowitz and Chaiken 1987). It is also well-accepted in business practice. For instance, the Merriam formula used to determine the impact of media exposure gives negative news quadruple weight than positive news (Kroloff 1988).

While the negativity effect is a robust finding in the literature, recent research has begun to focus on its limitations (e.g., Ahluwalia, Burnkrant and Unnava 1997; Skowronski and Carlston 1989). Consistent with this, the session attempted to identify boundary conditions to the negativity effect, and thereby provide marketers with an understanding of situations in which the disproportionate impact of negative information is likely to be attenuated and identify situations in which negativityin communications may enhance/diminish persuasion.

To meet the objectives, three papers were included in this session. These papers examine the impact of negativity in three very different contexts (health-related advocacy, consumer boycotts, and political candidate evaluations), each identifying a different boundary condition of the negativity effect.

Punam Anand Keller first presented the results of her research with Issac Lipkus and Barbara Rimer in the area of negatively versus positively framed health messages. Their research identifies a situational condition that is likely to determine the effectiveness of negatively framed messages: the subject’s mood. Consistent with the mood congruency hypothesis they find that negatively framed messages are likely to be more persuasive in negative as compared to positive mood states. While positively framed messages are likely to be more persuasive when the respondents are not depressed. Thus their results support the view that persuasion is determined by the consistency between one’s emotional state and the valence of the frame.

In the experiment, the gain frame emphasized the benefits of getting a mammogram, whereas the loss frame emphasized the costs of not getting a mammogram. Subjects were divided into two groups, non-dysphoric and dysphoric (mildly depressed), based on their assessment of how they felt in the week preceding the experiment. Persuasion was measured by assessing agreement with the framed beliefs, the difference between pre-message versus post-message risk assessment, intentions to get a mammogram in addition to measures on perceived costs and accuracy. All subjects also received their personalized 10-year risk for getting breast cancer calculated by a medical algorithm. Message persuasion was also judged by analyzing the extent to which women reduced their follow-up risk estimates.

Specifically, the path analysis indicated that for non-dysphoric women, compared to the loss frame, the gain frame changed (lowered) their ten-year risk estimate, which in turn increased the perceived costs of getting a mammogram. In other words, an increase in one’s belief that one is unlikely to detect breast cancer, produces an increase in the costs (e.g., inconvenience, pain) of getting a mammogram. The same pattern was observed for persuasionBthe gain frame lowered risk estimates, which in turn increased persuasion for non-dysphoric women who received the gain versus the loss frame. A different pattern was observed for dysphoric women. For dysphoric women, framing influenced risk perceptions, which in turn influenced persuasion, but not perceived costs. Specifically, the loss frame changed (lowered) risk perceptions, which then increased dysphorics’ agreement with the loss-framed message.

Thus, the results support the view that persuasion is determined by consistency between one’s emotional state and the valence of the frame. Specifically, non-dysphorics were more persuaded by the gain frame than the loss frame whereas dysphorics preferred the loss frame to the gain frame.

Zeynep Gurhan Canli presented the results of her work with Sankar Sen and Vicki Morwitz on the issue of consumer boycotts. Their research demonstrates another boundary condition for the negativity effectCthe domain of consumer boycotts. They find that when consumers contemplate engaging in this relatively negative behavior, negatively framed communications are less persuasive than positively framed communications. In their research, negative framing was as persuasive as positive framing only when consumers’ perceived efficacy was high and they expected high levels of participation from others in the boycott. In all other conditions considered in their research, positive (vs. negative) framing was more persuasive in increasing the consumer’s likelihood of participating in a boycott.

Specifically, the experiment had a 2 (Participation Expectation: high vs. low) X 2 (Efficacy Expectation: high vs low) X 2 (Frame: positive vs. negative) between-subjects design. In articular, the authors attempted to gain insight into the effectiveness of persuasive communication in a consumer boycott context by focusing on how the specific message frame (i.e., negative vs. positive) adopted by boycott organizers interacts with consumers’ expectations to affect their boycott decision. They find that when pro-boycott communications stress the benefits accompanying boycott success, consumers are more likely to participate and their intentions do not vary as a function of individual efficacy or overall participation expectations. Positive framing increases consumers’ intentions by affecting their perceptions regarding boycott’s likelihood of success. However, when such communications stress the losses accompanying boycott failure (i.e., negative frame), they obtain a crossover interaction between consumers’ expectations about their own efficacy and others’ participation. Specifically, when consumers believe that each individual’s contribution can make little difference to the boycott’s outcome (i.e. low efficacy expectations), their participation willingness is sensitive to their expectations of overall participation. They are more likely to participate when majority of other consumers are also participating. However, if consumers expect that each boycotter (including themselves) can make a difference to the boycott’s outcome (i.e. high efficacy expectations), then their participation willingness is less sensitive to what others are doing (i.e. overall participation expectations).

Rohini Ahluwalia presented her research in the area of resistance to persuasion. This paper identifies a dispositional variable that not only eliminates the negativity effect, but also reverses it into a positivity effect: commitment of the respondent to the target. This paper examined resistance, over a 9-month period, in context of the Clinton-Lewinsky Affair, as well as in a lab study conducted in the consumer context. In the field study, negativity effect was found for voters who were committed to another candidate. In contrast committed Clinton supporters demonstrated a positivity effect, attempting to minimize the impact of the negative information related to President Clinton on their attitudinal representation. Consistent with the field study, the lab study also found that committed consumers were able to effectively resist the negative information, while the low commitment consumers were more likely to weight it heavily.

Specifically, this paper examined three modes of resistance to counterattitudinal information, based on Fishbein and Ajzen’s (1981) expectancy value approach: biased assimilation, impact and relative weighting. While past research has extensively examined the biased assimilation processes (e.g., argument scrutiny, source derogation, and meaning distortion), limited amount of research has examined the impact and weighting processes. The impact of a piece of information was assessed by the extent of its spillover to other attributes in the attitudinal representation. The relative weight was assessed as the amount of weight that the voters/consumers assigned to different attributes (target and others) in forming their overall evaluation of target.

The Clinton supporters first demonstrated a strong biased assimilation effect. This mode of resistance, however, decreased in effectiveness over time. When the relative effectiveness of the biased assimilation declined over time, the evaluation mode of resistance emerged. They decreased the importance of attributes that were heavily influenced by the negative information, while giving more weight to attributes that were unaffected by this information. A third mode of resistance focused on their attempts to isolate the impact of the negative information to the target attributes (morality and honesty), avoiding its spillover to other attributes related to President Clinton (e.g., ability to get things done, intelligence). In contrast, Low commitment voters demonstrated a willingness to change their beliefs related to all the other (even uncorrelated) attributes measured in this study, on the basis of the negative information. The findings of the lab study in a consumer ontext were consistent with those of the field study.

Thus, taken together the three papers are able to present a coherent picture of the relative impact of negative information in the marketplace, as well as identify dispositional, task-related, and situational factors that are likely to moderate the impact of negative information on persuasion related outcomes.

Curt Haugtvedt served as the discussion leader. He provided an overview of the three papers and pointed out their strengths and suggested directions for future research.


Ahluwalia, Rohini, Robert E. Burnkrant and H. Rao Unnava (1997), "The Value Of A Committed Consumer: The Context Of Negative Disconfirmatory Information," paper presented at the Association of Consumer Research Conference, Denver, Colorado.

Dye, Patrick (1997), "Emergency Services," Marketing Week, 20 (April), 73-74.

Fishbein, Martin and Icek Ajzen (1981), "Acceptance, Yielding, and Impact: Cognitive Processes in Persuasion," in Cognitive Responses in Persuasion, eds. R. E. Petty, T.M.Ostrom, and T. C. Brock, Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 339-359.

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Kanouse, David E. and L.Reid Hanson (1972), " Negativity In Evaluations," in Attribution: Perceiving The Causes Of Behavior, E.E. Jones et al. eds. Morristown, NJ: General Learning Press.

Kroloff, George (1988), "At Home and Abroad: Weighing In," Public Relations Journal, (October), 8.

Meyerowitz, Beth E. and Shelly Chaiken (1987), "The Effects of Message Framing on Breast Self-Examination Attitudes, Intentions, and Behavior", Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52 (3), 500-510.

Skowronski, John J., & Carlston, Donal E. (1989), "Negativity and extremity biases in impression formation: A review of explanations", Psychological Bulletin, 105, 131-142.