Theoretical Perspectives on the Impact of Negative Information: Does Valence Matter?

Carol A. Scott, University of California, Los Angeles
Alice M. Tybout, Northwestern University
ABSTRACT - Marketing researchers and marketing practitioners have long been interested in the factors that determine which product cues, or pieces of information, are used by consumers in forming judgements. Recent marketplace events such as product recalls, dramatic news stories on product defects, and occasional wild but damaging rumors have focused practitioners' interest more specifically on the utilization of negative product cues and on ways to lessen their impact on evaluations and choice. This special session attests to the fact that some researchers also feel that we should devote some attention to the effects of negative information.
[ to cite ]:
Carol A. Scott and Alice M. Tybout (1981) ,"Theoretical Perspectives on the Impact of Negative Information: Does Valence Matter?", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 08, eds. Kent B. Monroe, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 408-409.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 8, 1981      Pages 408-409

THEORETICAL PERSPECTIVES ON THE IMPACT OF NEGATIVE INFORMATION: DOES VALENCE MATTER?

Carol A. Scott, University of California, Los Angeles

Alice M. Tybout, Northwestern University

ABSTRACT -

Marketing researchers and marketing practitioners have long been interested in the factors that determine which product cues, or pieces of information, are used by consumers in forming judgements. Recent marketplace events such as product recalls, dramatic news stories on product defects, and occasional wild but damaging rumors have focused practitioners' interest more specifically on the utilization of negative product cues and on ways to lessen their impact on evaluations and choice. This special session attests to the fact that some researchers also feel that we should devote some attention to the effects of negative information.

Yet, from a theoretical perspective, a focus on valence per se may be wrongheaded and ironically unlikely to provide us with any clear directions for moderating the impact of negative information. Using an information processing theory approach, we contend that research may be better directed toward examining those attributes of cues and of the environment in which the cues are received that make them more salient to the individual and/or more informative [Fiske (1980) argues that informative cues are by definition salient or attention attracting. However, as empirical research has shown (Taylor and Fiske 1978), salient cues are not always high in informativeness.], and thus more likely to be differentially attended to and used by consumers. A cursory review of the literature indicates that valence per se may not be one of these attributes. Further, we argue that researchers should investigate the effects of various cue properties on the information processing strategies or cue combination rules used by consumers as well as on the ultimate evaluation. Examining the underlying determinants of attention and cue integration will provide direction for designing more effective influence strategies. This abstract briefly sets forth this theoretical view and illustrates its value.

Does Valence Matter?

Several studies have suggested that negative information is given relatively more weight than positive information in judgment formation (e.g., Kanouse and Hanson 1971; Lutz 1975; Wright 1974). It is important to note the emphasis on differential weighing, as certainly no one would be surprised that the addition of negative cues to an information base produced less favorable evaluations. Most attitude models would predict this latter outcome (cf. Fishbein and Ajzen 1975). A strong test of the differential weighting effect is extremely difficult to conduct, though, because one must somehow devise a situation in which two pieces of information are equal on all other plausible dimensions except valence.

In this regard, it is interesting to note that most explanations proposed for the observed differential impact of negative information entail the use of some other descriptive construct that essentially pinpoints a difference other than valence between the information pieces. Thus, negative cues are not given more weight because they are negative, but rather because negative cues happen to be statistically rare (i.e., one encounters negative information less frequently than positive information in everyday life), because they are rare in context (i.e., one negative cue admist several positive cues in a particular context), or because they are non-modal, or extreme (i.e., the property of being "bad" on an attribute when almost all other similar objects are "good" on the attribute). As Fiske (1980) argues, cues that are rare or non-modal are more informative than common or modal cues because they discriminate between similar objects. If, as recent work in social cognition suggests, people are "cognitive misers" (Nisbett and Ross 1980; Taylor 1980), they may follow the adaptive strategy of differentially attending to these more informative cues. And, differential attention has been shown to determine the weight given to a cue in forming judgements.

One must be very careful, then, in generalizing the conclusion that negative information is weighted more heavily than non-negative information, especially to product evaluation contexts. The rarity or distinctiveness of a cue can change over time and situations independently of its valence. Many of the studies frequently cited as supporting the negative information effect, for example, have been conducted in the context of evaluating or forming impressions of other people where indeed social customs make negative information unusual or unexpected. Clearly, one can imagine product evaluation contexts where very positive information would be as rare or as distinct (e.g., an honest and reliable car repair shop). Fiske (1980) recently has demonstrated that extremely positive, and thus statistically rare, information is given more attention (as measured by looking time) and more weight in forming judgments than other cues.

A focus on the underlying properties of cues which cause differential attention (e.g., the informativeness produced by rarity or non-modality) and thus differential impact is clearly warranted by extant research. Such a focus has a number of advantages. Obviously, it will allow us to specify the conditions under which negative (or positive) information will have an especially heavy impact on product evaluations. Further, it will open the door to investigation of other properties which may affect attention to cues. A knowledge of important situational qualifiers indicates when a manager should be especially concerned about negative product information, and a knowledge of factors that produce increased attention may suggest ways of decreasing attention to certain cues, or at least enable one to counter with informational cues of equal attention value.

Apart from the relationship between cue attributes and attention, however, the information processing approach suggests that one should also be concerned with the relationship between cue attributes and cue integration processes. Certain types of cues may be processed more easily and thus be used more readily. Other types of cues may be more difficult to interpret, and thus may affect evaluations indirectly by causing the individual to shift to a different cue integration strategy. For example, information about products can be obtained through learning about other people's experiences or opinions. Experiential information may be processed fairly easily, but information from others (external information) may require more cognitive work (see Kelley 1967). This would be especially true if the external information is presented in abstract, statistical terms (e.g., "80% of the people who tried product x found ...") as opposed to concrete, vivid terms (e.g., "When Joe Smith tried his new lawn mower ..."), as discussed by Borgida and Nisbett (1977). Thus, the source (external vs. experiential) and the format (abstract vs. concrete) of the information may affect the process by cues are combined to form judgments.

This type of reasoning formed the basis for several experiments recently conducted by the authors. Specifically, we hypothesized that receipt of negative abstract external information about a product (i.e., 802 of the people who tried it preferred another brand to it) would produce uncertainty about the true character of the product. If this information was received after actual experience with the product, we postulated that the uncertainty would be resolved by recalling the more easily processed experience cue, and that consumers would follow a simple integration strategy that entails merely adding or averaging informational cues. If the person had no experiential information, however, the uncertainty caused by the external information should motivate the individual to recall any past behaviors related to the product and to combine these cues according to the causal analysis roles described in Bem's (1972) self-perception theory.

This proved to be the case. Individuals who had agreed to try a new soft drink in return for a coupon incentive evaluated the drink less favorably than those who did not receive an incentive for trial (i.e., the typical discounting effect predicted by self-perception theory) only when the negative evaluations of others were received prior to testing the product. On the other hand, when the negative information was received after the taste experience, all cues were simply added such that the incentive group (with the additional positive reward cue) evaluated the drink more favorably than the no incentive group. This finding was observed across several dependent measures (semantic differential scales, overall evaluation measures, behavioral intentions). Further, the incentive-information after group reported the least desire for more information about the product before using it regularly, recommending it to friends, etc.

The only problem with concluding that negative external information produced the uncertainty and thus the differences in cue integration processes is the fact that the same results were found for positive external information. Even when subjects tasted a good product and they received positive information from other people, the order of the two types of information (experiential and external) had a dramatic effect on subsequent evaluations. Thus, one must conclude at this point that the ambiguity of the external information, and not its valence caused the differential processing of cues. If this is the case, then one might expect that introducing factors to make the external information less ambiguous would extinguish this effect. Providing external information in vivid, concrete terms might be one way to achieve this.

Summary

As the discussion of new and old literature in this paper illustrates, we believe that an examination of the underlying properties of negative information that sometimes make it more informative or attention arousing or that cause individuals to shift to different cue integration strategies is a useful approach. Ecologically, negative information may possess some of these attributes. But it is important from a practical and a theoretical perspective to separate valence from other properties. Placing the research on negative information in the more general information processing framework provides a richer basis from which to design strategies to counter negative information. [An excellent example of how counter-strategies can be developed is provided by Tybout, Calder, and Sternthal (in press). Using available knowledge concerning the mechanisms of cue-storage and retrieval, these authors were able to demonstrate why the refutational strategy used by McDonald's to counter the recent rumor about worms in their hamburgers was ineffective. Further, they demonstrated that other strategies, based on information processing principles, were effective in neutralizing the rumor.]

REFERENCES

Bem, D. J. (1972), "Self-Perception Theory" in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 6, ed. Leonard Berkowitz, New York: Academic Press, pp. 1-62.

Borgida, E. and Nisbett, R. E. (1977), "The Differential Impact of Abstract vs. Concrete Information on Decisions," Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 7, 258-271.

Fishbein, M. and Ajzen, I. (1975), Belief, Attitudes Intention, and Behavior: An Introduction to Theory and Research, Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.

Fiske, Susan T. (1980), "Attention and Weight in Person Perception: The Impact of Negative and Extreme Behavior," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 38, 889-906.

Kanouse, David E. and Hanson, L. Reid, Jr. (1972), "Negativity in Evaluations," in Attribution: Perceiving the Causes of Behavior, ed. E. E. Jones et al., General Learning Press.

Kelley, H. H. (1967), "Attribution Theory in Social Psychology," in Nebraska Symposium on Motivation ed. D. Levine, Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press.

Lutz, Richard J. (1975), "Changing Brand Attitudes Through Modification of Cognitive Structure," Journal of Consumer Research, 1, 49-59.

Nisbett, R. E. and Ross, L. (1980), Human Inference Strategies and Shortcomings of Social Judgement, Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall.

Taylor, Shelley E. (1980), "The Interface of Cognitive and Social Psychology," in Cognition, Social Behavior, and the Environment, ed. J. Harvey, Hillsdale, N. J.: Erlbaum.

Taylor, Shelley E. and Flake, Susan T. (1978), "Salience, Attention, and Attribution: Top of Mind Phenomena," in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 11, ed. Leonard Berkowitz, New York: Academic Press.

Tybout, Alice, M., Calder, Bobby J., and Sternthal, B. (in press), "Using Information Processing Theory to Design Marketing Strategies," Journal of Marketing Research.

Wright, Peter (1974), "The Harrassed Decision Maker: Time Pressures, Distractions, and the Use of Evidence," Journal of Applied Psychology, 59, 555-561.

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