Cue Utilization in the Perception of Others: a Discussion of Three Studies

Carol A. Scott, University of California, Los Angeles
ABSTRACT - Three papers investigating inferences drawn about other people from physical characteristics or possessions are discussed. Each paper is examined for its methodological integrity, its contribution to current knowledge, and its basis for future research. A few remarks on this area of research as a whole are presented.
[ to cite ]:
Carol A. Scott (1980) ,"Cue Utilization in the Perception of Others: a Discussion of Three Studies", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 07, eds. Jerry C. Olson, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 378-380.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 7, 1980     Pages 378-380


Carol A. Scott, University of California, Los Angeles


Three papers investigating inferences drawn about other people from physical characteristics or possessions are discussed. Each paper is examined for its methodological integrity, its contribution to current knowledge, and its basis for future research. A few remarks on this area of research as a whole are presented.

In discussing the work of others, one is wise to talk about the broad, general issues central to all of the papers. Indeed, I would prefer to use that strategy here. Unfortunately, these three papers have little in common beyond the fact that they all focus on some aspect of perceptions of other people based on physical characteristics or goods displayed. The reasons the authors give for conducting their studies, and the purposes of the individual investigations are very different. And, beyond some basic level research can be evaluated only in terms of the purpose for which it was designed. I am afraid, therefore, that I will have to bore you with a commentary of papers taken one at a time.

Three major questions will be asked about each study. First, how adequate is the methodology and study design for answering the research question posed? Second, what do we know now that we did not know before this study was done? And, finally, what research directions are shown to follow from the study, or where do we go from here? I will talk about the Patzer paper first since it is most dissimilar to the others.


The experiment reported by Patzer was designed to determine the impact of "sexy" versus nonsexy female communicators on recall of advertisement copy points and on affective, cognitive, and conative components of attitudes exhibited by male and female receivers (a 2 x 2 experimental design). The author states that the attitude measures tapped attitudes toward the advertisement, the product, and the communicator, but it appears that individual items may have referred to these different objects, and thus the effects for different objects is lost by the summing procedure used here. Secondarily, the study investigated the degree and direction of correlation between the perceived sexiness of the communicator and physical attractiveness, communicator credibility, perceived expensiveness of the product being advertised, recall of copy points, communicator intelligence, expertise, and trustworthiness.

Several methodological problems exist in this study, some rather minor and some not so minor. Perhaps the most serious of these is the failure to define sexiness or to provide a detailed description of the operationalization of sexiness. This is particularly important in light of the failure to achieve a significant difference in the ratings of the sexiness of the different communicators for female receivers. The failure to successfully operationalize sexiness for the female subjects calls the results for the subjects into question. Without a knowledge of what constituted a "sexy" communicator, one can only speculate about why the female receivers responded as they did. If the six modeling agency professionals used for pretesting the photographs were all male, or if they were all operating under the male stereotype of female sexiness, then the finding is understandable. Females may well have been offended by a Playboy bunny-type ad directed at them, or may even have felt that the ad was not directed at them. Given the amount of consciousness-raising that has occurred on most college campuses and the thinness of the disguise for this study, I am amazed that the experimenters suffered no bodily injury. [At the very least, I do not recommend replicating this study at the Graduate School of Management at UCLA!] In any case, I am not sure I know what was manipulated for the males, and I know I do not know what was varied for the females. The results for the females cannot be interpreted as being caused by the sexiness of a female communicator, although one might say something about the effects of a communicator that males perceive as sexy on female receivers.

I am surprised that a male communicator was not used in any of the treatments, since it has been shown by others (e.g. Baker & Churchill, 1977) that males and females respond differently to male and female communicators. Further, it is surprising that product type was not varied, and that the limitations associated with using a single product type was not noted. Again, this variable has been shown to influence reactions to communicators in advertisements (e.g., Baker & Churchill, 1977). Finally, it seems to me that a coefficient alpha should have been calculated and reported for the summed measures. As Baker and Churchill (1977) found, these items do not always work well as a single scale, and some adjustments may be necessary.

In trying to determine what we know now that we did not know before, I came up with a fairly low score. Patzer states that most other studies of the physical characteristics have focused on physical attractiveness rather than sexiness. Strangely enough, Baker and Churchill (1977) state the opposite, that most advertising studies have examined the sexiness variable. Frankly, I do not know what either author means by "sexiness,, and I am not sure it matters all that much. Many studies have demonstrated the effects of physical attributes that Patzer reports here (see Baker & Churchill, 1977 for a good review). So, the contribution of this study does not lie in its particular findings.

However, Patzer argues that his work provides a theoretical orientation missing in previous studies. If this were true, it would indeed represent a substantial contribution. As Wilson and Moore (1979) note, extant studies can be characterized as being of the "Look Ma--No Theory" variety. They go on to say, however that one should look to theory to determine what kinds of variables might be important in influencing communicator effectiveness. This is not what Patzer does. Rather, he proposes a different theoretical rationale for each hypothesis, and proposes four different theories which could each explain the pattern of results. Not one of these theories is tested explicitly in this study, so the findings could be due to distraction, consistency, mediated generalization, or any of a number of other processes. While post hoc theorizing could account for the results, we are no closer to understanding precisely what is going on here than we were before. It is difficult to say whether having no theory or having too many alternative theories is the more uncomfortable situation.

Some research directions for the future are fairly clear. First, if we are interested in sexiness as a variable, then we must clean up our definition and operationalizations. Sciglimpaglia, Belch and Cain (1979) propose two dimensions of sexiness, namely, nudity and suggestiveness. While I am not sure I agree with this notion, at least it is a more precise specification which allows for the testing of the various components that might add up to an overall impression of sexiness. Second, future research must try to untangle the theoretical mess that appears to exist in this field. Independent variables should be derived from a theoretical base, and this theory should be subject to direct test. The effects should occur when predicted by the theory, and not occur when theory predicts they should not. As Peterson and Kerin (1977) suggest, effects of communicators are likely to depend on a number of factors (the audience, the nature of the product, the situation). It is time that we systematically investigated these issues.


Holman's study is the most difficult one for me to discuss, and so I am putting these comments in the middle, hoping for a primacy or recency effect. There are many interesting features in this work, but its meaning is hard to decipher. Basically, Holman attempted to identify some basic "messages" sent by clothing in the particular realm of female students walking to class on a college campus. Once the messages were identified, she attempted to determine what the content of these messages were, or what they communicated about the attributes of the wearer/sender. Like Balk, Holman focused on the effects of consumption choices on others rather than the effects intended or desired by the buyer/wearer.

In terms of methodology, the study represents an almost unbelievably difficult data collection task. Over 1000 slides were analyzed, and presumably 171 codes were generated by each of three raters for each slide. One must congratulate the author for surviving this task, and only stand in awe of her patience. The analysis of the data appears relatively straightforward, and I see no major problems here. The conceptualization of clothing as communication and the use of the communication, or language paradigm is a fresh one that should provoke some intriguing research questions.

The surprising contribution of this study lies in what the author calls the "discouraging" results. The author feels they are discouraging because only the variables of "fashionability" and "sexy looking" were affected by different clothing models apart from the effects of an apparent difference in facial expression. Frankly, I find this refreshing and a novel result. While it is generally assumed that clothing tells a great deal about our personalities, it appears from this study that clothing messages communicate something about clothing. At the very detailed level at which clothing messages were constructed and in this particular context, I see no a priori reason why they should communicate anything about such consumption variables as drinks beer frequently, rides a bicycle to school, or drives a small foreign sports car.

There are several interesting directions future research could take, and two of these are noted here. First, it would be interesting to carry out this research in a situation in which clothing may send stronger communication messages. The so-called "dress for success" literature, for example, suggests that clothing does create certain perceptions of what the wearer will be like. The effects of clothing, though, may not be observed on consumption variables, but rather on such personal characteristics as competence, expertise, and the like. Thus, one could search for social systems and situations where messages are stronger. The trick here will be to determine the types perceptions that result from these messages. Related to this stream of research is the question of what factors in a given social system and setting determine whether differential impressions are created by clothing. In this study, for example, it appears that all of the clothing types were normal for college students. That is, none of the outfits seem to be "out-of-role." If the person dresses in a manner typical of college students as in all of these photographs, then they may be perceived as having the attributes of a typical college student. One might hypothesize that clothing results in attributions of personality characteristics only when the clothing is different from the norm or typical expectations (cf., Jones & Davis, 1965). What seems to be needed is some theoretical notion of when and how clothing affects person attributions.


Like Holman, Belk focuses on what is perceived from product choices as opposed to the image one intends to project. However, Belk examines the effect of two characteristics of sets of products on liking or evaluation of the person who owns them. This is an interesting way to approach the problem of perceptions because it is likely that a single product choice carries little information. Indeed this study suggests that it is the configuration of product choices that carries information; a person who owns a softball, a bicycle, a pair of jeans, and a backpack is different from a person who owns a softball, a bicycle, slacks, and a leather suitcase. Belk's study investigates whether the consistency of product choices, the similarity of those choices to the perceivers', or both dimensions affect liking for the target person.

As in Holman's study, the methodology is straightforward, although I would prefer to see a direct manipulation check for similarity and consistency. Belk's primary contribution lies in the test of the effects of dimensions of product choices, and the imaginative attempt to rule out rival alternative explanations of the phenomenon. The study has a clear theoretical base that is subject to test. Thus, the study advances our knowledge of what it is about product choices that influences the evaluation or liking of another. This is the kind of research that is most immediately useful. It is unfortunate that the consistency and similarity could not be completely crossed in the design, but this problem, for which I see no easy solution, does not mar the study in any fatal way.

The directions for future research that I think might be interesting as a follow up to this study are not mentioned by Belk, but rather occurred to me from reading his and Holman's paper. One could consider product choices as informational cues, and integrate their study with current information processing research. What comes to mind most readily is the notion of the cognitive bases for social stereotype effects and the concept of scripts or schema (cf. Abelson, 1976). It is generally acknowledged that, given some cues or pieces of information about a person, an observer will infer other characteristics. And it is suggested by some that these other characteristics will be what is contained in the script or schema accessed by the original cues. Thus, in Belk's study, the college student product set may have called up the script associated with the person's concept of "friends" or "typical college student." And, the subject might recall many people in this category that he or she likes. The college student product set may produce greater liking because the subject has more positive experiences stored with the relevant schema. The "older person" set may produce less liking because the observer has fewer reference points attached to this schema and fewer positive experiences stored there.


As Goffman (1959) wrote, "All the world is not, of course, a stage, but the crucial ways in which it isn't are not easy to specify" (p. 72). The papers presented in this session demonstrate that, as actors, we deliver many more lines than we may be conscious of. Other people are likely to make inferences about us from our physical appearance, our clothing, and our possessions. These inferences, though, depend upon a whole host of factors. I would not underestimate the difficulty we face in trying to organize and understand them. These papers contribute to our knowledge by their shortcomings as well as their achievements. I congratulate the authors on their courage in even attempting to conduct meaningful research in this area.

I am most in sympathy with Holman's view of treating personal characteristics (clothing, other products) as communications. Although I do not wish to follow her particular methodology, I do think it would be useful to examine personal characteristics as informational cues in an ongoing stream of information. One can then draw upon an established body of information processing to provide a coherent direction for our research efforts. However, other approaches may develop as investigations continue, and these may prove more useful.


Abelson, Robert P. (1976), "Script Processing in Attitude Formation and Decision Making," in J. S. Carroll and John W. Payne, eds., Cognition and Social Behavior, Hillsdale, New Jersey: Erlbaum.

Baker, Michale J. and Churchill, Gilbert A. (1977), "The Impact of Physically Attractive Models on Advertising Evaluations," Journal of Marketing Research, 14, 538-55.

Goffman, Irving (1956), Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Garden City, New York: Doubleday Anchor Books.

Jones, E. E. and Davis, K. (1965), "From Acts to Dispositions: The Attribution Process in Person Perception," in L. Berkowitz, ed., Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 2, New York: Academic Press.

Peterson, R. A. and Kerin, R. A. (1977), "The Female Role in Advertisements: Some Experimental Evidence," Journal of Marketing, 41, 59-63.

Sciglimpaglia, Donald, Belch, Michael A., and Cain, Richard F., Jr. (1979), "Demographics and Cognitive Factors Influencing Viewers' Evaluations of 'Sexy' Advertisements," in W. L. Wilkie, ed., Advances in Consumer Research, vol. 6, Ann Arbor, Michigan: Association for Consumer Research, pp. 62-65.

Wilson, R. Dale and Moore, Noreen K. (1979), "The Role of Sexually-Oriented Stimuli in Advertising: Theory and Literature Review, in W. L. Wilkie, ed., Advances in Consumer Research, vol. 6, Ann Arbor, Michigan: Association for Consumer Research, pp. 55-61.