A Dual-Process Theory of Information Overload

Gary L. Hunter, Illinois State University
EXTENDED ABSTRACT - Popular press articles, as well as some research, suggest that a large amount of information can lead to negative consequences such as poor choice and negative affect such as confusion or frustration (e.g., Jacoby, Speller, and Kohn 1974a). Yet, empirical support for the existence of such an Ainformation overload@ has been ambiguous (Bettman, Luce, and Payne 1998). Some researchers have reported evidence of subjects assigned to high information conditions making poorer choices despite these participants’ reports of greater confidence and satisfaction with their decisions (e.g., Anderson, Taylor, and Holloway 1966; Jacoby et al. 1974a, 1974b).
[ to cite ]:
Gary L. Hunter (2002) ,"A Dual-Process Theory of Information Overload", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, eds. Susan M. Broniarczyk and Kent Nakamoto, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 211-212.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, 2002     Pages 211-212

A DUAL-PROCESS THEORY OF INFORMATION OVERLOAD

Gary L. Hunter, Illinois State University

EXTENDED ABSTRACT -

Popular press articles, as well as some research, suggest that a large amount of information can lead to negative consequences such as poor choice and negative affect such as confusion or frustration (e.g., Jacoby, Speller, and Kohn 1974a). Yet, empirical support for the existence of such an "information overload" has been ambiguous (Bettman, Luce, and Payne 1998). Some researchers have reported evidence of subjects assigned to high information conditions making poorer choices despite these participants’ reports of greater confidence and satisfaction with their decisions (e.g., Anderson, Taylor, and Holloway 1966; Jacoby et al. 1974a, 1974b).

The research reported herein extends prior work examining information overload by applying automaticity theory. Automaticity theory suggests that some mental processes occur autonomously with little awareness, intention, or control and that these processes can be beneficial in terms of efficiency (Bargh 1997). Specifically, this study examines goal dependent automaticity in which an individual has a goal of processing the information, but is unaware of all the influences the information has on their behavior. Applying this theory to the present context, consumers learn through previous experiences to automatically associate a negative affect with an amount of information too large to be processed. The theory would predict that consumers are unable to identify the source of this negative affect and attribute it to the current focus of attentionBa product within that display. Therefore, the amount of product versions or brands displayed within a product category can influence evaluations of a single brand or version.

Similar to Devine’s (1989) work on stereotyping that proposed a dual process, this manuscript hypothesizes and tests a two-stage model of information overload. The first stage (i.e., the relationship hypothesized between the number of brands or versions and affective rating of a single brand or version) represents the predominately automatic process. In this stage, a large amount of information (operationalized as a large number of brands or versions from the same product category) produces a negative affect. The affect is an automatic reaction, which may be inate or learned (cf. Bargh 1997). The negative affect is in a diffuse form that is mistakenly attributed to the brand or version that is in the individual’s awareness at that time (cf. Wilson and Brekke 1994). The second stage (i.e., the relationship hypothesized between affective rating of the brand or version and brand/version choice) represents the more conscious process. This stage represents how negative affect produced automatically in the first stage influences brand/version choice. By serving as information, affect influences the individual’s choice between brands or versions (cf. Pham 1998).

Tests of proposed relationships suggested by automaticity theory were carried out in a computer laboratory. The method used high-resolution photographs of retail displays presented on computer monitors as stimulus materials. Visual presentation of stimuli on computers is frequently used in studies examining automaticity theory (Bargh 1997). The study utilized a two cell between subjects experimental design to test the hypotheses. Two levels of the number of product class brands or versions (large and smaller) were manipulated across five product categories (cordless telephones, video cassette recorders, portable CD players, cameras, and telephone answering devices).

Subjects randomly received one of the two experimental conditions for each of the five product categories. A high-resolution photograph of either a large (20 to 25) or smaller (4 to 5) number of brands or versions from the same product class was presented for each of the categories. The photograph of a large or smaller number of brands or versions was followed by presentation of a photograph of a single brand or version from that category. Subjects were instructed to complete a scale measuring affect toward the single brand (Batra and Stayman 1990). Following completion of the first scale, a second single brand or version appeared, and subjects were again asked to complete the scale measuring affect toward this second single brand. The single brands/versions were determined to have similar affective ratings in a pretest. After this second affective measure, subjects were presented with a split screen showing the two single brands/versions presented earlier and were asked to choose the one they were most likely to purchase. The photographs remained on the screen until subjects had made a decision by clicking the mouse on the preferred brand or version. Completion of the affective rating of the brands or versions and the choice phase of the experiment were unobtrusively timed using the software.

Results offer support for two indirect influences of a large number of brands or versions on choice. A large number of brands or versions had a statistically significant relationship with negative affect, which had a statistically significant relationship with choice. Also, a large number of brands or versions caused subjects to use more time to complete affective ratings and to choose between the two single brands. Support for an automatic process is offered by the significant relationship between the length of time used in affective rating and choice. Following the logic of other research (cf. Bargh et al. 1996; Fazio et al. 1986; Stroop 1935), response time can be used to operationalize automaticity. Greater time in completing the affective rating and in choice would support a dual-process model of information overload, in which automatic processes are interfering with and influencing more conscious processes.

In terms of theory, automaticity aids in explaining equivocal results in the information overload literature by suggesting that consumers cannot recognize all influences associated with exposure to a large amount of information and thereby are unable to report them (cf. Wilson and Brekke 1994). Evidence from this study suggests that the amount of brands or versions in the environment does have a subtle influence on product evaluations. If future research supports this preliminary finding, it would impact managers in terms of merchandise display, distribution, and brand extensions. Consumers would be able to make more informed decisions because of increased awareness regarding the influence of a lage number of brands or versions.

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