A Two-Stage Theory of Information Processing in Persuasion: an Integrative View of Cognitive Response and Self-Perception Theory

Alice M. Tybout, Northwestern University
Brian Sternthal, Northwestern University
Bobby J. Calder, Northwestern University
ABSTRACT - Cognitive response theory is presently not a sufficient explanation of the information processing underlying persuasion. Initial opinion, one of the key constructs in cognitive response theory, is not well specified. This paper uses self-perception theory to specify the nature of the initial opinion construct. This integrative view emphasizes the importance of message related behaviors as cues utilized by consumers.
[ to cite ]:
Alice M. Tybout, Brian Sternthal, and Bobby J. Calder (1978) ,"A Two-Stage Theory of Information Processing in Persuasion: an Integrative View of Cognitive Response and Self-Perception Theory", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 05, eds. Kent Hunt, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 721-723.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, 1978      Pages 721-723


Alice M. Tybout, Northwestern University

Brian Sternthal, Northwestern University

Bobby J. Calder, Northwestern University


Cognitive response theory is presently not a sufficient explanation of the information processing underlying persuasion. Initial opinion, one of the key constructs in cognitive response theory, is not well specified. This paper uses self-perception theory to specify the nature of the initial opinion construct. This integrative view emphasizes the importance of message related behaviors as cues utilized by consumers.


During the last decade cognitive response theory has emerged as the most viable explanation of how individuals process persuasive information. The theory, however, is not a sufficient explanation of the persuasive process; it relies on the construct of initial opinion without fully specifying the nature of these opinions. Self-perception theory complements the cognitive response view, suggesting the process by which individuals acquire initial opinions. In this paper a common language is developed which links these theories. This integration provides a comprehensive theory which is sufficient to account for persuasion. In this integrative theory, initial opinion is a fully specified construct. An important implication of the theory is that persuasion depends on cues provided by message related behaviors as well as by the message itself.

This paper is divided into three sections. First, cognitive response theory extended to include memory structure is described. Next, an integrated theory is developed by incorporating the self-perception process into the cognitive response view. In the final section, implications of the comprehensive theory are outlined.


According to the cognitive response formulation, much of persuasion is self-persuasion. In response to a persuasive communication, individuals generate and rehearse their own repertoire of thoughts as well as those included in the information presented. The thoughts generated and rehearsed depend to a large extent on information recipients' initial opinion toward the position being advocated (cf. Greenwald, 1968). Those who are initially opposed to an advocacy are likely to rehearse counter-arguments to it. And the more extensively people rehearse counterarguments, the more likely these thoughts are to become part of their attitudinal disposition toward the issue, and the less likely people are to be persuaded to adopt the advocated position. In contrast, those individuals who have a favorable initial opinion toward an issue are likely to generate and rehearse support arguments, thus enhancing the probability of their being persuaded by the information presented. (Petty, 1977; Sternthal, Dholakia and Leavitt, in review).

The description of cognitive response as a mediator of persuasion underscores the theoretical importance of the initial opinion construct. Initial opinion guides the generation of thoughts that ultimately affect persuasion. However, for initial opinion to have integrity as a construct, the mechanism by which it influences processing must be described rather than merely stated. This can be achieved by extending cognitive response to include concepts related to memory structure (cf. Calder, 1978). More specifically, this view suggests that processing entails a short-term memory store and a long-term memory store. Short-term memory holds information which is being processed actively. Long-term memory holds most, if not all, of the information an individual has ever processed. To proceed further, the information held in long term memory must be retrieved and transferred to short term memory. In terms of cognitive response, memory structure implies that information from a message as well as other incoming information is initially represented in short-term memory as cognitive responses. In turn, these cognitive responses trigger the retrieval of further information from long-term memory and its registration in short-term memory.


The extended cognitive response theory presented above implies that the role of initial opinion in current cognitive response theory may be equated with retrieval from long-term memory. The initial cognitive responses in short-term memory determine whether long-term memory will be searched for support or counterargument thoughts. It may be appropriate to think of persuasion as a two-stage process. In the first stage, incoming information is represented more or less faithfully in short-term memory. If a person already has strong general thoughts in long-term memory (perhaps as the product of self-perception), these thoughts will be triggered at this point and also entered into short-term memory. It is these cognitive responses which form an initial opinion that guides further retrieval from long-term memory. This subsequent retrieval is the second stage of the process.

Consider a second and more problematic case for cognitive response theory. What occurs if no strong general thoughts are already stored in long-term memory? That is, what if the message triggers no existing initial opinion. Cognitive response theory is not sufficient to explain the persuasive process in this instance, unless it is bolstered by self-perception theory. This latter theory describes the process by which individuals infer the causes of their own behavior when they do not have strong initial opinions. These inferences then guide subsequent action. When a person cannot attribute his/ her actions to external causes, an internal disposition is inferred (e.g. liking a product). This disposition, in turn, may guide subsequent action. When a person's behavior is attributable to external causes such as social pressure or monetary incentives, no inference about internal states will be drawn with certainty. As a result, a disposition toward the behavior is unlikely to be formed and behavior will persist only in the presence of the external cause. Support for these self-perception predictions has emerged both in studies using the foot-in-the-door technique (cf. Freedman and Fraser, 1966; Pliner, Hart, Kohl, and Saabi, 1974; Reingen and Kernan, 1977; Snyder and Cunningham, 1975; Scott, 1976; Tybout, 1978) and labeling (cf. Kraut, 1973; Miller, Brickman, and Bolen, 1973; Tybout and Yalch, in review).

In situations where the message triggers no initial opinion, individuals will examine behaviors associated with the message to infer their initial opinion (Figure 1, Stage 1). The self-perception process ensues; if no external cause for the behavior is salient, an initial opinion consistent with the behavior is inferred. This opinion guides Stage II of the process (Figure 1). A final set of cognitive responses is retrieved from all of the potential cognitive responses in long-term memory.



In sum, we are suggesting that by developing a common language to link cognitive response and self-perception we can explain consumer behavior phenomena that cannot be adequately explained by either theory alone. Self-perception does not address the mechanism by which individuals process information. This is described by cognitive response. On the other hand, cognitive response does not consider a key source of initial opinion which may mediate persuasion, namely message related behaviors. This is addressed by self-perception theory. The importance of developing a common language may be illustrated with a recent investigation.

In an experiment pertaining to the persuasive effect of source credibility, Dholakia and Sternthal (1977) presented subjects with a communication requesting their compliance with a request attributed to either a high or low credibility source. Subjects' compliance was measured either before or after thee administration of an attitude battery. Because message recipients were unfamiliar with the issue, it was expected that the highly credible source would induce a more positive attitude toward his advocacy than a low credibility source when attitude measures were administered prior to behavior. In this situation, a high credibility source was more likely to inhibit the retrieval and transfer of counter-arguments from long to short-term memory than a low credibility source. Of greater interest in the present context is the source credibility effect when subjects behavior (i.e. compliance with the request) was available as a cue. Here, it was found that the low credibility source was more persuasive than the highly credible communicator.

To explain this result, we must invoke the common language. Consider for example those subjects who complied with the communicator's request. When the source was highly credible, individuals were likely to consider this stimulus as a likely cause of their compliance and therefore discount personal reasons. The relatively neutral initial opinion resulting from this attributional work would thus stimulate the retrieval and transfer of few support arguments and counterarguments to short-term memory when subjects were called upon to express their attitude toward the issue advocated. As a result, subjects' attitude would not be highly favorable or highly unfavorable. In contrast, those who complied in the low credibility condition could only plausibly attribute that behavior to a positive initial opinion toward the issue. In turn, this positive initial opinion would stimulate the retrieval and transfer of arguments supporting the advocacy to short-term memory when subjects were subsequently asked to complete the attitude questionnaire. Thus, attitude would be highly positive. These predictions were confirmed by Dholakia and Sternthal (1977).


As noted at the outset of this paper, cognitive response theory is possibly not a sufficient explanation for persuasion. The driving force in cognitive response theory is initial opinion. Yet the source of this opinion is not fully specified. While consumers may have stored opinions about some products/issues (possibly derived on the basis of their past behavior, circumstances surrounding that behavior etc.), for many products/issues no strong stored opinion may exist. In such instances, the individuals' self-perception of any message-related behaviors may provide the driving force for information processing. Our integration of cognitive response and self-perception theory provides a model which accounts for information processing regardless of whether or not an initial opinion exists. (See Table 1).

This integrative view is perhaps most important in underscoring the need to go beyond examining just the message in consumer research. Equally important may be the behavior and the perceived causes and significance of behavior associated with the message. On this view, consumer research has been myopic in investigating the non-message cues utilized by consumers.




Bobby J. Calder, "Cognitive Response, Images, and Scripts: What is the Cognitive Basis of Attitude?" Advances in Consumer Research, Volume 5, 1978.

Ruby R. Dholakia and Brian Sternthal, "Highly Credible Sources: Persuasive Facilitators or Persuasive Liabilities,'' Journal of Consumer Research, 3(March, 1977) 223-232.

Johnathan L. Freedman and Scott C. Fraser, "Compliance Without Pressure: The Foot-in-the-Door Technique," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4(August, 1966), 195-202.

Anthony Greenwald, "Cognitive Learning, Cognitive Response to Persuasion, and Attitude Change," in Anthony Greenwald, Timothy Brock, and Thomas Ostrom (eds.), Psychological Foundations of Attitudes, New York: Academic Press, 1968, 147-170.

Robert E. Kraut, "Effects of Social Labeling on Giving to Charity," Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 9(1973) 551-562.

R. L. Miller, P. Brickman and D. Boten, "Attribution versus Persuasion as a Means for Modifying Behavior," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31(March, 1975) 430-441.

Richard Petty, "The Importance of Cognitive Responses in Persuasion," Advances in Consumer Research, vol. 4, 1977, 357-362.

Patricia Piner, Heather Hart, Joanne Kohl and Dory Saabi, "Compliance Without Pressure: Some Further Data on the Foot-in-the-Door Technique," Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2(November, 1965), 669-676.

Peter Reingen and Jerome Kernana, "Compliance with an Interview Request: A Foot-in-the Door, Self-Perception Interpretation," Journal of Marketing Research, 14(August, 1977) 365-369.

Carol A. Scott: "The Effects of Trial and Incentives on Repeat Purchase Behavior," Journal of Marketing Research, 13(August, 1976), 263-269.

Mark Snyder and Michael R. Cunningham, "To Comply or Not Comply: Testing the Self-Perception Explanation of the 'Foot-in-the-Door' Phenomenon," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31(January, 1975), 64-67.

Brian Sternthal, Ruby R. Dholakia, and Clark Leavitt, "The Persuasive Effect of Source Credibility: Tests of Cognitive Response," in review.

Alice M. Tybout and Richard F. Yalch, "On Getting out the Vote: Effects of Labeling on Voter Turnout," in review.

Alice M. Tybout, "The Relative Effectiveness of Three Influence Strategies as Supplements to Persuasion in a Marketing Context," Journal of Marketing Research, (February, 1978).