What Is Low Involvement Low In?

Clark Leavitt, The Ohio State University
Anthony G. Greenwald, The Ohio State University
Carl Obermiller, The Ohio State University
ABSTRACT - Consumer psychologists have disagreed in their theories about what constitutes high involvement, necessarily leaving the important phenomenon of low involvement ambiguous. After reviewing the relevant consumer and cognitive psychology concepts, we offer a 3-stage information processing model in which high involvement is associated with the third stage--elaborated encoding of (that is, extensive cognitive responding to) advertising messages. Our model associates different types of low involvement with each of its first two stages--preattentive processing and focal attention. Both of these types of low involvement--inattentive and attentive--can lead to advertising impact.
[ to cite ]:
Clark Leavitt, Anthony G. Greenwald, and Carl Obermiller (1981) ,"What Is Low Involvement Low In?", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 08, eds. Kent B. Monroe, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 15-19.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 8, 1981      Pages 15-19


Clark Leavitt, The Ohio State University

Anthony G. Greenwald, The Ohio State University

Carl Obermiller, The Ohio State University

[Draft of August 11, 1980. Address reprint requests to Clark Leavitt, The Ohio State University, 1775 College Road, Columbus, Ohio 43210.]


Consumer psychologists have disagreed in their theories about what constitutes high involvement, necessarily leaving the important phenomenon of low involvement ambiguous. After reviewing the relevant consumer and cognitive psychology concepts, we offer a 3-stage information processing model in which high involvement is associated with the third stage--elaborated encoding of (that is, extensive cognitive responding to) advertising messages. Our model associates different types of low involvement with each of its first two stages--preattentive processing and focal attention. Both of these types of low involvement--inattentive and attentive--can lead to advertising impact.

One of us (Leavitt and Walton 1978) has suggested elsewhere that the paradigm that has been applied to persuasive communication is an adversary model of interaction which pictures persuasion as a kind of contest. The persuader's role is to move the audience To action by rhetoric, by promise of reward, or any other means. The target--the audience member--resists, is critical, and uses reasoning and skepticism to emphasize the flews in the appeals.

An alternative to the adversary paradigm is unclear. Perhaps it is a kind of informal learning in which the self plays an instrumental role rather than acting as a goal. In any case, the adversary model is congenial to the notion of ego involvement which is a topic of some interest recently to one of us (Greenwald, in press). We began this paper with tile notion that the adversary paradigm and its embodiment in ego involvement in particular, would provide a key to understanding the concept of involvement in consumer psychology. Consumer psychologists have been interested particularly in low involvement, and ego involvement is high involvement. By using little more than reverse English, we thought, we should arrive at the meaning of low involvement.

Perhaps fortunately, the conceptual analysis of consumer involvement turned out to provide a more complex challenge than we anticipated. We shall retrace our path by looking first at prominent attempts to define involvement in consumer research, next reviewing the relevant theoretical concepts in social and cognitive psychology, and lastly presenting our conclusions about the nature of consumer involvement.



Most of the paths followed by consumer psychologists in their recent investigations of involvement emanate from an article that appeared in Public Opinion Quarterly in 1965, by Herbert Krugman. Because of the importance of that article to subsequent treatments of involvement, it is worth indulging in a complete quotation of the definition of involvement Krugman offered at that time:

(There are) two entirely different ways of experiencing and being influenced by mass media. One way is characterized by lack of personal involvement, which, while perhaps more common in response to commercial subject metier, is by no means limited to it. The second is characterized by a high degree of personal involvement. By this we do not mean attention, interest, or excitement but the number of conscious "bridging experiences," connections, or personal references per minute that the viewer makes between his own life and the stimulus. This may vary from none to many.

The significance of conditions of low or high involvement is not that one is better than the other, but that the processes of communication impact are different. That is, there is a difference in the change processes that are at work. Thus, with low involvement one might look for gradual shifts in perceptual structure, aided by repetition, activated by behavioral-choice situations, and followed at Some time by attitude change, With high involvement one would look for the classic, more dramatic, and more familiar conflict of ideas at the level of conscious opinion and attitude that precedes changes in overt behavior.

For our purposes, the most significant aspects of Krugman's analysis were (a) his specific disavowal of the interpretation that involvement might mean level of attention, interest, or excitement, (b) his reference to lack of personal connections in the case of low involvement, and (c) his suggestion that information processing followed a different route when involvement was low rather than high. In an article appearing two years later, Krugman (1967) added the important proposal that television was a medium that characteristically elicited low involvement, while print elicited high involvement. [In a 1971 article, Krugman added the speculation that brain wave patterns might he used to assess low vs. high involvement, but it may be best to regard that suggestion as a digression, since it seems to lead the concept of involvement away from his disavowal of an interpretation in terms of attention and excitement.]

Ray et al.

In a 1973 article, Michael Ray along with several others incorporated a modification of Krugman's low-involvement processing concept into a broader analysis of variations in the sequence of changes in affect, behavior, and cognition that might occur following receipt of a communication. Krugman=s high-involvement processing corresponds to Ray et al.'s learning hierarchy. It is not immediately clear whether Ray et al.'s low involvement hierarchy or their dissonance-attribution hierarchy should be taken as more nearly equivalent of Krugman=s low-involvement processing. In a recent discussion of just this point, Calder (1979) suggested that low involvement might be best conceived in terms of a direct impact of communication on behavior rather than an impact that is mediated by cognitive change. [Krugman's original (1965) statement, "with low involvement one might look for gradual shifts in perceptual structure, aided by repetition, activated by behavioral-choice situations, and followed at some time by attitude change," (p.) is ambiguous. Its interpretation in terms of the Ray et al. hierarchies depends on whether we care to interpret "gradual perceptual shifts" as a full-fledged cognitive stage or not.]

Houston & Rothschild

Houston and Rothschild (1977) have distinguished three types of involvement in the context of their decision-making analysis of consumer behavior. Their concept of involvement corresponds approximately to personal importance, which is a common feature with Krugman's analysis. The significance of their contribution is in recognizing that importance or involvement may be a consequence not only of the circumstances in which s message is received (they refer to this as situational involvement), but also of unique characteristics of the recipient (which they identify as enduring involvement). Their third type of involvement, response involvement, is defined as "the complexity or extensiveness of cognitive and behavioral processes characterizing the overall consumer decision process." (p. 5). Also, they conceive response involvement as reflecting the combined influence of situational and enduring involvement. Thus, the first two types of involvement represent sources of involvement (in the situation and person, respectively) while the third type captures the role of involvement in causing detailed cognitive processing. The association of involvement with an elaborated form of cognitive processing is an assumption shared with both Krugman and Ray et al., but the decision-making framework of the Houston and Rothschild analysis of cognitive processing is quite different from the cognitive models used by Krugman and Ray et al.


Houston and Rothschild's analysis of involvement in terms of a detailed set of cognitive processes provides a contrasting background for Andrew Mitchell's (1979) proposal that involvement be defined as a state, rather than a process (p. 194). Mitchell starts from a conception of involvement as meaning relevance to an important or high priority personal goal--a concept that fits well enough with the meaning of personal importance that underlies the other conceptions we have reviewed. Mitchell, however, proceeds in a different direction when he defines involvement as indicating "the amount of arousal, interest, or drive evoked by a particular stimulus or situation" (1979, p. 194). It is appropriate to recall Krugman's exclusion of "attention, interest, or excitement" from his (1965) conception of high involvement.

In summary, although there has been consensus that high involvement means personal importance, consumer behavior theorists have shown little agreement regarding the psychological analysis of importance--alternatively interpreting it in terms of personal connections, sequence of information processing, complexity of processing, and degree of arousal. This uncertainty about high involvement necessarily leaves the theoretical analysis of low involvement unsettled, We turn for help to several involvement-related concepts from social and cognitive psychology.


First we consider three psychological approaches to the nature of information processing associated with high involvement--cognitive response analysis, encoding elaboration theory, and ego task analysis.

Cognitive response analysis

Cognitive response analysis (Greenwald 1968; Petty, Ostrom & Brock 1980) holds that the cognitive reactions of the recipient of a persuasive communication are more important than is the actual communication content in determining the impact of a persuasive message. The effect of a message thus depends on whether the recipient's cognitive responses support or oppose the message's conclusion. Petty and Cacioppo (1979) recently showed that an involvement manipulation resulted in increased cognitive response activity--a finding that provides a nice link between Krugman's analysis of involvement in terms of personal connections and the cognitive response theory.

However, personal connections or bridging experiences are not the only kinds of cognitive responses that may occur in response to a persuasive message. Recent cognitive psychological theory about the role of degree of elaboration in encoding of information provides further connections among the concept of consumer involvement, cognitive response theory, and a variety of memory phenomena. [The encoding elaboration view previously was identified as a theory of levels of processing (Craik & Lockhart 1972), but the "levels" metaphor bas seemed inappropriate on the basis of more recent findings (e.g., Craik & Tulving 1975).] The more elaborate, or detailed, is the encoding of an item of information (i.e., the more different ways it is categorized), the more likely it is to be recalled later. Some recent work by T. B. Rogers and his colleagues (Rogers et al. 1977; Kuiper & Rogers 1979) has shown that the task of judging the relevance of trait words to oneself has the properties of elaborated encoding, producing even better memory for the trait words than do other tasks thought to involve high degrees of elaboration (such as making a judgment about the meaning of the trait). In other words, relating information to the self entails substantial elaboration. Extending this theory to the advertising communication domain, we have a strong basis for predicting that the greater the self relevance of the topic of a message, the more elaborate the processing of the content and therefore the better the memory for the message.

The cognitive response and encoding elaboration theories offer useful accounts of effects of involvement on cognitive responses to, and memory for, an advertising message. Important questions still needing answers are: (a) How do people vary in what they find important? and (b) Do such variations between people have significance for the processing or impact of advertising communications? Greenwald's (in press) recent review of the ego-involvement concept in social psychology led to an approach called ego task analysis, which provides a basis for addressing these questions. An ego task is a long-persisting task, which means that it is directed to a distant--perhaps unattainable--goal, and subsumes tasks that are directed at immediately available goals--goals that may be only temporarily important.

Two ego tasks that seem pervasive in daily social existence are impression management (achieving a satisfactory image in the eyes of others) and self-image management (achieving a satisfactory self-evaluation). The analysis of ego tasks can be applied to consumer involvement by considering the relation of advertising content to the various short-term and long-term tasks of the consumer, and to the impression and self-image management tasks in particular. It is interesting to observe that, although most heavily advertised products are instrumental in achieving some immediate and concrete goals, advertisers often choose to appeal to the more generalized goals of ego tasks. Thus, cigarettes are advertised not in terms of their effects on level of arousal or on reduction of social tension, but in terms of the image of the person who uses the advertised brand.

Automobiles are advertised partly in terms of their transportation virtues, but even more in terms of the image of the person who drives the advertised model. Advertisers are imaginative in manufacturing connections of products to ego tasks--one of our favorites is the dishwasher detergent advertised by showing a housewife whose clean, shiny dishes cast "a nice reflection" on her. To the extent that the audience member shares such ego-task goals of the advertisement's protagonist--who achieves a favorable self-image or a favorable impression by using the recommended brand--the ad helps the involvement process; that is, it helps to establish personal connections to the brand. Further, to the extent that various audience segments are characterized by different ego tasks, the same type of appeal will not work best for all. Thus, it is not surprising that some cigarette brands appeal to health by advertising low tar and filters, while others appeal to an image of social or sexual success.

Ego tasks are not the only form of activity that might give us some clues about the nature of involvement. Ego-involvement is a subset of task-involvement, the highest level of that broader category. Lower level task involvement may also be intrinsically motivating and may elicit elaborated processing of advertising messages. Unlike ego involvement, task involvement occurs where there is intrinsic motivation but no special self-relevance (de Charms 1968). In fact, Csiksentmilhalyi (1975) found that his more task-involved subjects were less self-conscious.

Although the cognitive response, encoding elaboration, and ego task analyses provide a coherent conception of high consumer involvement, they still only characterize low involvement indirectly. (This is where our reverse English fails! ) To get psychologically closer to low involvement we consider a few concepts that have become familiar in research on learning and on selective attention.

As a characterization of low-involvement processes, the study of animal learning gives us the concept of latent learning (learning in the absence of relevant motivation), and research on human verbal learning gives us the somewhat related concept of incidental learning (learning without intention to learn). These principles lead us to expect that learning will occur under low-involvement conditions, but it may be, weaker learning than when motivation or intention are present.

Cognitive psychology has provided us with the contrast between focal attention and preattentive processing. Information is assumed to be processed via a limited-capacity channel when it achieves focal attention, and this channel (sometimes called short-term memory, active memory, or primary memory) is assumed to be the entry route to long-term memory. Information that is outside of focal attention is expected to receive some immediate processing, but to leave no long-term memory residue. This contrast is suggestive, but the problem arises -- where to locate low-involvement processing. Is it characterized by focal attention or does it occur instead outside of focal attention?

Figure 1 provides a basis for interrelating the several psychological principles that have been discussed in this section. The basic scheme of the figure employs the sequential-stages conception of information processing, which has been the dominant paradigm of cognitive psychology in recent years. (Although we find this paradigm heuristically useful, we will question one aspect of it in the third part of this paper). In Figure 1, the interpretations of high involvement as cognitive responding or as establishing personal connections are grouped together as variations on the theme of encoding elaboration. With high involvement, the elaboration provided by the audience member should vary from person to person; ego cask analysis can be used as one way to analyze these individual differences. People who are highly involved may nonetheless be engaged in very different tasks.

Figure 1 reveals our dilemma in the conceptual location of low involvement. If it is identified with failure of the message to reach a stage of focal attention, then we should expect no memory for the message, and presumably no impact. Since the major analyses of low consumer involvement lead us to expect impact, we are inclined to identify low involvement instead with achievement of focal attention, accompanied by minimal encoding. These two options are identified by different subscripts in Figure 1. It is low involvement that corresponds to the principles of latent and incidental learning in the experimental psychology literature.


Two Types of Low Involvement

Our consideration of a form of low consumer involvement that operates outside of focal attention is encouraged by Zajonc's (1980) recent criticism of the prevailing view that effective Judgments are cognitively mediated--that is, his criticism of the view that we use our beliefs or cognitions about an object as the basis for evaluating the object. Zajonc=s critique rested partly on the empirical observation that affective reactions often occur too rapidly to be cognitively mediated. If, as Zajonc, suggests, affect and cognition are independent systems, then affective reactions could be influenced by information that impinges on the nervous system but does not penetrate the cognitive system of focal attention.



A reformulation of Figure 1 that incorporates this possibility is given in Figure 2, which describes a segment of a multisystem analysis of human information processing (Greenwald in press b). In Figure 2, the system of focal attention and long-term memory (that is, the cognitive system) is not the only route by which input information can influence behavior. A second (noncognitive) path is proposed. In addition to Zajonc's evidence for effective-cognitive independence, some other support for the existence of the noncognitive path comes from several staple phenomena of contemporary social psychology: (a) discrepancies between verbal and nonverbal communications that emanate from the same person (Ekman & Friesan 1969), (b) inconsistencies between stated attitude and overt behavior (Wicker 1969), and (c) the pervasive occurrence of influences on human behavior that cannot be reported accurately by the cognitive system (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977).

We shall refer to the two types of low involvement shown in Figure 2 as nonattentive and attentive low involvement. In proposing the nonattentive variety of low involvement, we do mean to suggest than an unattended advertising message may influence behavior without the audience member having any verbally reportable knowledge of this influence.

Three Bases for Effectiveness of Low Involvement

In most cases, high-involving advertising massages should be more effective than low-involving ones because the former should be better remembered. Nonetheless, there are at least three bases for expecting that low-involving messages can be effective with repeated exposures. In discussing the effects of low involvement we shall assume that information can be processed simultaneously by the cognitive and noncognitive paths shown in Figure 2.



1. Reduced counterarguing.  First we consider a circumstance under which low involvement may enhance the effectiveness of a focally attended message. If the cognitive response elicited by a message would tend to oppose its effect--as in the case of a political advertisement for a candidate one intends To vote against--then the audience's lack of elaborative encoding may be more desirable than the presence of such elaboration from the advertiser's perspective.

2. Learning by repetition.  Certain effects do not require elaborative encoding, and can therefore occur quite successfully with low involvement. In particular the aim of establishing a simple schema in the audience's memory can be achieved by means of repetition when there is only mini-real encoding. You don't have to have been highly involved with the relevant ads to find yourself tending to respond to a bartender's "What'll you have?" by thinking (if not saying) "Pabst Blue Ribbon." The low-involving repetition of this message, with the accompaniment of a musical theme that aids in organizing the response together with the question, unavoidably establishes the desired scheme in listeners who are exposed to if often enough. One of us (Leavitt 1961) has previously analyzed the role of stimulus qualities of advertising massages in facilitating recall that may be dependant only on minimal encoding. The attention-holding characteristic that Leavitt designated intrigue may be all that is needed to produce this sort of learning. [This perceptual learning perhaps resembles the process by which very young children develop object schemas--before they have much of a cognitive structure that is capable of providing elaborative encoding. This similarity to perceptual learning may allow insight into a phenomenon that must have been noticed by every parent who has ever observed a child in front of a television set--a degree of rapt attention to advertisements that often exceeds attention to other programming. Although this attention may be very focused, it may often not meet our conceptual criterion of high involvement because there may be only minimal elaborative encoding (or cognitive responding). The resulting schema may be easily recognized or elicited by appropriate cues (as when the child accompanies the parent to market), even though it is not readily producible in free recall.]

3. Learning without attention.   Zajonc (1980), in his paper on the separateness of cognitive and affective systems, reported several studies in which repeated exposure to a stimulus increased the liking for that stimulus without apparent cognitive mediation, In one of these studies (Wilson 1979) the repeated stimuli were presented in the unattended ear in a dichotic listening task, to assure that their effect was not mediated by focal attention. It is such results that prompt us not to dismiss the importance to consumer psychology of the nonattentive variety of low involvement.


The first two of our suggested mechanisms of low-involvement persuasion--reduction of counterarguing and learning via repetition--fit well with existing theory in social and cognitive psychology. The third--learning without attention--does not. Nonetheless, and even though we count ourselves among those who look skeptically at claims of "hidden persuasion" and "subliminal influence," we believe that the proposal of noncognitively mediated influence should receive serious consideration. Needless to say, it will be a challenge to researchers to develop designs and procedures that can convincingly demonstrate influences on consumer behavior that occur without self conscious cognitive mediation.


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