How Processing Modes Influence Consumers’ Cognitive Representations of Product Perceptions Formed From Similarity Judgements

Donna Hoffman, Vanderbilt University
Piyush Kumar, Vanderbilt University
Thomas Novak, Vanderbilt University
EXTENDED ABSTRACT - The mental representation of objects, and the judgment of similarity among them, is an important area of inquiry in the marketing and consumer psychology literature. There is a rich stream of research that examines consumers’ similarity judgments to draw inferences regarding how objects may be represented in consumers’ minds (Glazer and Nakamoto 1991, Tversky 1977).
[ to cite ]:
Donna Hoffman, Piyush Kumar, and Thomas Novak (2003) ,"How Processing Modes Influence Consumers’ Cognitive Representations of Product Perceptions Formed From Similarity Judgements", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 30, eds. Punam Anand Keller and Dennis W. Rook, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 177-178.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 30, 2003     Pages 177-178

HOW PROCESSING MODES INFLUENCE CONSUMERS’ COGNITIVE REPRESENTATIONS OF PRODUCT PERCEPTIONS FORMED FROM SIMILARITY JUDGEMENTS

Donna Hoffman, Vanderbilt University

Piyush Kumar, Vanderbilt University

Thomas Novak, Vanderbilt University

EXTENDED ABSTRACT -

The mental representation of objects, and the judgment of similarity among them, is an important area of inquiry in the marketing and consumer psychology literature. There is a rich stream of research that examines consumers’ similarity judgments to draw inferences regarding how objects may be represented in consumers’ minds (Glazer and Nakamoto 1991, Tversky 1977).

Though consumers are known to adopt experiential as well as rational information processing modes (Hirschman and Holbrook 1982; Holbrook and Hirschman 1982), the importance of the mode in which consumers process information to generate these similarity judgments has been left generally unexamined. In the information processing literature, marketers assume consumer operate under "bounded rationality" (Bettman, Luce and Payne 1998) and limited processing capacity and implicitly assume that consumers process information and make decisions according to a rule-based system that interacts with features of the decision-making environment to produce decisions.

However, considerable research in the cognitive psychology literature suggests that there are actually two distinct ways in which consumers process information: the associative (or "experiential") system, in which reasoning is based on principles of similarity and contiguity and the rule-based (or "rational") system, where reasoning is based upon the application of learned rules. These two systems may work independently but in conjunction, or may compete with each other to generate responses (see Sloman 1996 and Epstein 1994 for summaries). Since the rule-based system has some capacity to "overrule," although not completely repress, the associative system, it is not surprising that most research on consumer decision-making and information processing tends to assume some form of a rule-based system as the basis for the decision-making process.

Nevertheless, research in psychology suggests that these two systems of reasoning differ according to the nature and extent of the information they use in processing and the responses they produce. In fact, even when consumers are explicitly primed to use a rule-based system, the associative system actually "intrudes" upon the response, even "neutralizing" it. This suggests that it makes sense to try and examine more fully the impact of these two modes of processing on consumer response. Of course, marketers recognize that different types of consumer information processing exist, but usually examine these differences in the context of outcomes (Shiv and Fedorikhin 1999).

Importantly, some consumer behavior researchers (e.g., Holbrook and Hirschman 1982, Hirschman and Holbrook 1982, Epstein, Donovan and Denes-Raj 1999) argue that the particular information processing model a consumer adopts, experiential versus rational, could impact her mental representation of object or events. This suggests, as one example, that consumers’ cognitive structure formed from perceptions among individual stimuli, say from similarity judgments, might also different depending on the particular information processing mode adopted.

Yet, studies of consumers’ cognitive representations of structure implicitly assume that consumers perceive similarity among products according to a rule-based, rational processing system. These studies have examined derived structures among products and found that the derived structures may vary by factors such as the type of product being judged, and how the judgments were made. Glazer and Nakamoto’s (1991) results on compensatory versus noncompensatory processing makes sense in the context of goal-directed information processing, but the question immediately arises: what happens if consumers are in an experiential mode? Thus, it remains unanswered whether the same pattern of results will be observed when an associative, experiential processing mode is in effect. Such answers have implications for research in information processing and market structure.

Therefore, we examine in this paper how these two processing modes (rule-based/rational versus associative/experiential) affect consumers’ cognitive structures underlying similarity judgments. The central premise of this investigation is that the processing mode influences the information processing system that is invoked, which in turn influences the processing effort and the manner in which objects under evaluation are mentally represented relative to each other.

Specifically, we hypothesize that under an experiential processing mode, the associative system of processing is invoked and the resulting cognitive representation of a set of objects will generate a similarity matrix relatively more consistent with a dimensional, spatial representation. On the other hand, when the same set of objects is evaluated under a rational processing mode, then some form of a rule-based system is invoked, and the cognitive representation will generate a similarity matrix relatively more consistent with a hierarchical, tree representation. More generally, we propose that the mental representation of objects is the result of an interaction between the true structure of objects and the processing mode adopted to evaluate them.

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