The Effect of Processing Strategy on the Transfer of Newly Acquired Covariation Knowledge

Jennifer Gregan-Paxton, University of Delaware
Stewart Shapiro, University of Delaware
[ to cite ]:
Jennifer Gregan-Paxton and Stewart Shapiro (2002) ,"The Effect of Processing Strategy on the Transfer of Newly Acquired Covariation Knowledge", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, eds. Susan M. Broniarczyk and Kent Nakamoto, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 218-219.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, 2002     Pages 218-219

THE EFFECT OF PROCESSING STRATEGY ON THE TRANSFER OF NEWLY ACQUIRED COVARIATION KNOWLEDGE

Jennifer Gregan-Paxton, University of Delaware

Stewart Shapiro, University of Delaware

Prior consumer behavior research has examined the individual’s ability to detect the covariation of product attributes and investigated factors influencing the acquisition process. The present study extends this stream of research by investigating the factors that influence the application of covariation knowledge acquired in one product domain to a novel task drawn from the same or a different domain.

CONCEPTUAL BACKGROUND

The conceptual framework developed in this paper suggests that whether, and under what circumstances, consumers use covariation information acquired in one setting to accomplish a processing goal in another setting depends to a large extent on how consumers acquire covariation knowledge. Specifically, we propose that under intentional learning conditions, consumers acquire covariation knowledge via a process in which pairs of data points are aligned and mapped in terms of their corresponding values (e.g., price1 -> price 2, quality1 -> quality 2). In contrast to this, we further propose that under incidental learning conditions, consumers process information in a manner that is incompatible with aligning and mapping of this nature.

A key implication of this processing difference is that intentional learners are likely to produce a relatively more abstract representation of covariation knowledge than incidental learners (cf., Ross and Kennedy 1990). This is a critical differenceCprior empirical work has shown that transfer between domains is more likely to occur when the learner possesses an abstract representation of the relevant domain than when the learner possess a more content-specific representation of that same domain (Gick and Holyoak 1983). Notably, however, there is also research to suggest tha abstract knowledge provides little benefit over content-specific knowledge when transfer occurs within a domain (Blessing and Ross 1996).

Based on these findings, we predict that intentional learners, by virtue of their abstract knowledge, will be capable of applying covariation knowledge not only to a novel task drawn from the same product category in which the covariation was acquired, but to a novel task drawn from a different product category. In contrast, we hypothesize that incidental learners, by virtue of their relatively content-specific knowledge, will be limited to applying covariation knowledge to a novel task drawn from the same product category in which the covariation was learned.

METHOD

The experiment conducted to test these predictions consisted of two phases, with each phase presented to subjects as a separate study. The first phase served as the learning stage of the experiment, while the second phase served as the transfer stage of the experiment. In the first phase, an intentional learning group was created by instructing a group of participants to study a list of pairs of variables and to describe, in writing, the relationship between the variables. An incidental learning group was created by having another group of participants rewrite each of the variable pairs. In the second phase of the experiment, the transfer of covariation knowledge was assessed via a series of predictions regarding either the product from the first phase of the experiment or a different product. Prior to completing the prediction task, half the subjects received a hint about the relationship between the learning and transfer phases of the experiment. The remaining subjects received no hint about the connection between the learning and transfer tasks. The hint manipulation was included to provide evidence regarding the source of subjects’ transfer difficulties. To the extent that the hint enhances subjects’ ability to access covariation knowledge, transfer difficulties observed in the presence of the hint indicate problems in applying that knowledge to a novel task.

RESULTS

The results of the study demonstrate that intentional and incidental learners differ not only in their ability to acquire covariation knowledge, but in their ability to apply that knowledge. Findings pertaining to covariation detection indicate that the intentional learners were much more sensitive to the correlation than the incidental learners. Even controlling for this difference, however, significant variance in the transfer performance of the two learning groups emerged. As expected, intentional learners who accurately detected the correlation transferred their covariation knowledge to the novel task regardless of whether the task was embedded in the same product category or a different product category. In contrast, but also as anticipated, incidental learners who accurately detected the correlation transferred their covariaion knowledge to the novel target when it was drawn from the same product category, but not when it was drawn from a different product category.

DISCUSSION

This pattern of findings is consistent with the idea that incidental and intentional learners differ in the way in which covariation knowledge, once detected, is represented in memory. The results imply that the intentional learners, who made a deliberate attempt to learn the relationship between the two attributes across individual instances, produced a relatively abstract representation, one that applied in both a similar and a different domain. Relative to this, the incidental learners, who engaged in attribute by attribute processing within individual instances, appear to have produced a relatively concrete representation, one that applied to a similar, but not a different domain.

Results pertaining to the hint manipulation corroborate this story. The transfer performance of the incidental learning group was unaffected by a prompt to access their covariation knowledge. This outcome suggests that the locus of their transfer difficulties lie in the application of (content-embedded) covariation knowledge to a new domain. Interestingly, the transfer performance of the intentional learning group was significantly improved by the retrieval aid, indicating that their primary challenge was accessing existing covariation knowledge when faced with a task from a different domain.

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