Accommodative Cognitive Style Differences in Consumer Reduction of Alternatives

Naresh K. Malhotra, Georgia Institute of Technology
Christian Pinson, European Institute of Business Administration
Arum K. Jain, State University of New York at Buffalo
ABSTRACT - The concept of cognitive style suggests that consumers have rather permanent differences in the manner in which they acquire, process, and integrate information from the environment. This paper examines whether a particular accommodative cognitive style; namely, tolerance of ambiguity, has an influence upon the simplification strategies used by consumers to avoid cognitive strain. Towards this, two empirical investigations were undertaken and specific hypotheses tested. The results provide support for the hypotheses and suggest the usefulness of accommodative cognitive styles in explaining consumer information processing strategies.
[ to cite ]:
Naresh K. Malhotra, Christian Pinson, and Arum K. Jain (1980) ,"Accommodative Cognitive Style Differences in Consumer Reduction of Alternatives", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 07, eds. Jerry C. Olson, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 541-546.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 7, 1980     Pages 541-546

ACCOMMODATIVE COGNITIVE STYLE DIFFERENCES IN CONSUMER REDUCTION OF ALTERNATIVES

Naresh K. Malhotra, Georgia Institute of Technology

Christian Pinson, European Institute of Business Administration

Arum K. Jain, State University of New York at Buffalo

ABSTRACT -

The concept of cognitive style suggests that consumers have rather permanent differences in the manner in which they acquire, process, and integrate information from the environment. This paper examines whether a particular accommodative cognitive style; namely, tolerance of ambiguity, has an influence upon the simplification strategies used by consumers to avoid cognitive strain. Towards this, two empirical investigations were undertaken and specific hypotheses tested. The results provide support for the hypotheses and suggest the usefulness of accommodative cognitive styles in explaining consumer information processing strategies.

INTRODUCTION

The concepts of "awareness" and "evoked" sets have been proposed (Howard and Sheth 1969; Campbell 1969, 1973; Narayana and Markin 1975) to describe consumers' degree of knowledge about and attitudes toward alternative brands. The awareness set denotes the set of brands in a given product class the consumer is aware of, whereas the evoked set refers to that limited group of brands that the decision maker actually considers when making a specific brand choice.

Research on the determinants of evoked set size suggests the existence of individual differences. Evoked set size has been shown to be positively correlated with education (Campbell 1969; Gr°nhaug 1973-74, 1974; Maddox et al. 1978), and negatively correlated with age (Maddox et al. 1978). The explanation usually offered is that as the individual ages, he develops more familiarity/ experience with the product class which would lead to smaller evoked sets. [This is consistent with the inverse correlation found between evoked set size and brand loyalty (Campbell 1969; Ostlund 1973).] Also, the more educated consumer is portrayed as having greater inclinations and capabilities to discover and consider more alternatives. These findings, however, have to be further validated with a broader array of products involving varying levels of perceived risk and hence, different types of problem solving behavior, e.g. extensive, limited, routinized or exploratory (Howard and Sheth 1969).

Coming from a different perspective, evoked set formation can be viewed (e.g. Park 1978a; Belonax and Mittelstaedt 1978) as a very effective "simplifying strategy" used by consumers to limit the cognitive strain involved in processing too many alternatives. This view is consistent with those information processing studies that represent reduction of large [However, when the set of available alternatives is small (Russo and Rosen 1975) or "pre-reduced" by subjects (Bettman and Jacoby 1976) there is no elimination phase.] sets of alternatives as a two-phase process involving an initial elimination phase based on a minimum cut off threshold [This phase can thus be viewed as involving a very simple conjunctive heuristic. Wright (1975) has shown that this heuristic is very attractive to consumers as an initial screening device.], followed by a specific choice among the remaining set of alternatives (Payne 1976; Wright and Barbour 1977; Park 1978a, 1978b; Svenson 1974; Lussier and Olshavsky 1974; Van Raaij 1976; Lehtinen 1974; Russ 1971; Pras and Summers 1975).

Also relevant to this discussion is the literature on attribute versus alternative processing (for an excellent review, see Bettman 1979, pp. 216-222, and Chapter 6.) There is some evidence that processing information by alternatives leads to greater long term retention. However, processing by attributes facilitates consumer choice making to a greater extent.(Bettman 1979, p. 216) Thus, in the initial elimination phase one can speculate that consumers use brand names as chunks [A chunk is defined as "any configuration that is familiar to the subject and can be recognized by the subject,'' (Simon and Barenfeld 1969). Chunking as a simplification process in choice heuristics is described by Rumelhart and Norman (1978), Miller (1956), Simon (1960) and Bettman (1979, pp. 276-277).] of information. These chunks can be processed at a faster rate than information on attributes. This is more likely to be true when the number of alternatives in the awareness set is high and the consumer is quite familiar with some or all of the brands. For the specific choice processing phase however, it is likely that consumers will find it more convenient to adopt a processing by alternative strategy.

COGNITIVE STYLES

The literature on cognitive styles offers promise in gaining richer insights into alternative reduction strategies employed by consumers (Goldstein and Blackman 1978; Pinson 1978). The concept of cognitive style suggests that consumers have relatively permanent differences in the manner in which information from the environment is acquired and processed.

Witkin, one of the earliest researchers to call attention to the concept of cognitive style provides what is perhaps the most general definition: cognitive styles are "the characteristic, self consistent ways of functioning shown by the person in the cognitive sphere" (Witkin 1964). Messick (1976) also defines cognitive style in terms of consistent patterns of "organizing and processing information." Similar definitions are presented by Coop and Sigel (1971), Bieri (1971), and Goldstein and Blackman (1978).

Pinson (1978) classified cognitive styles by two major categories. [More complex classifications of cognitive styles have been proposed. For example, Suedfeld (1971), Klein et al. (1967), Vannoy (1965), Messick (1970, 1976) and Kogan (1973, 1976).] The first category labeled "Information Processing Complexity", places emphasis on the complexity of an individual's cognitive structures. The second category brings together "accommodative cognitive styles". These styles refer to the various ways an individual regulates or controls information from his environment. They determine the potential for registration of certain and not-other pieces of information.

Cognitive styles falling in the category labeled "Information Processing Complexity" deal with three basic aspects of cognitive complexity: "differentiation", "discrimination", and "integration". Broadly defined, "differentiation" refers to the number of dimensions used by an individual in processing information. "Discrimination'' refers to the number of separated conceptual categories on a dimension. Finally, "integration" refers to the degree of interrelatedness of elements within a particular cognitive domain.

In contrast to those cognitive styles describing individual differences in information processing complexity, "accommodative'' cognitive styles do not refer to abilities but rather emphasize general regulative tendencies in information processing (hence the name of cognitive control that is often attached to them). In cognitive control approaches, there is a concern with individual systematic differences in achieving an optimum adaptive balance of some kind in relation to the demands of both the situation and the motivations of the individual (Majeres 1972). Cognitive controls describe the preferred information processing tendencies shown by individuals in a variety of situations in their search for a state of balance. [There is some debate regarding the similarity of cognitive controls to "defenses" (i.e. modes of mastering anxiety) such as repression-sensitization (Byrne 1964). Yet in view of the evidence presented (Klein 1970) it seems that the two constructs are different.] The principal cognitive controls are: "Tolerance for Ambiguity", "Analytic-Global Functioning", and Leveling-Sharpening".

The overall objective of this paper is to study whether individual differences in accommodative cognitive styles have an influence upon the simplification strategies used by consumers to avoid cognitive strain. Towards this, one particular accommodative cognitive style; namely, tolerance for ambiguity, is retained for empirical investigation. The concept of tolerance for ambiguity is next described.

Tolerance for Ambiguity

The term "tolerance for ambiguity" has been used in the psychological literature to refer to individual differences in reacting to intrusive material--some people tend to keep apart all intrusive elements whereas others try to integrate them. [This concept has a parallel in Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance with the one difference that here the focus is on persistent characteristic ways of treating the whole range of ambiguous situations and not only those characterized by a state of mental discomfort stemming from cognitive imbalance or dissonance.] Intolerants of ambiguity experience discomfort when confronted with ambiguous situations. An ambiguous situation may be of three types (Kreitler, Maguen and Kreitler 1975). A given situation may be ambiguous because: a) it can be interpreted in multiple ways, or b) it cannot be interpreted in terms of habitual modes of cognition and experience or c) it includes competing cues evocative of cognitive conflict and imbalance. Intolerants of ambiguity are thus regulated by the need to defend themselves against the threat posed by novel situations.

RESEARCH HYPOTHESES

A series of studies (see Moore 1975) found that intolerants are extremely resistant to change because of their inability to synthesize additional information into a pre-existing belief structure (e.g. Shaffer et al. 1973; Shaffer and Hendrick 1974). Since they are reluctant to include information which is ambiguous with respect to pre-existing beliefs, intolerants tend to reduce the situation to a black-white dichotomy. [As degree of ambiguity and stress mounts, intolerants become more and more intolerant of ambiguity (Smock 1955).] More precisely, they are likely "to respond to only the known or 'most familiar' element of the stimulus situation'' (Smock 1955), i.e. the limited number of brands they are highly familiar with. [As mentioned earlier, Campbell (1969) and Ostlund (1973) have shown that there is an inverse relationship between evoked set size and brand loyalty. It is then natural to expect intolerants to be more brand loyal than tolerants.]

Indeed, Budner's study (1962) and ensuing investigations (e.g. Shaffer et al. 1973) indicate that individuals intolerant of ambiguity have a tendency to dislike novel situations. A study by Blake et al. (1973) suggests that the intolerants' aversion for novelty extends to the adoption of new products. In their study, Blake and his associates found relationships between intolerance for ambiguity as measured by Budner's scale, and (a) new product perception and (b) willingness to buy new products. Also, intolerants can be assumed to try to avoid being exposed to too many sources of information. In view of their "closed" attitudes toward novelty/variety the following hypothesis seems reasonable:

H1: Consumers intolerant of ambiguity are expected to have smaller "evoked" sets, i.e., they are prone to use an initial reduction-of-alternatives strategy.

H1 suggests that consumers differing in ambiguity tolerance differ in their preferred modes of ambiguity reduction, i.e., intolerants are expected to retain fewer brands in their initial elimination phase.

To increase the likelihood of finding a reason to eliminate brands, consumers may increase the saliency or importance of the choice criteria. This would increase the likelihood of eliminating those brands that fail to meet some acceptable level on one or more attributes. A study by Belonax and Mittelstaedt (1978) indeed indicates that applying more choice criteria tends to result in a smaller evoked set. Accordingly, the following hypothesis is postulated:

H2: Consumers intolerant of ambiguity assign higher importance weights across attributes when evaluating alternatives in the choice set. [The differences between tolerants and intolerants of ambiguity with respect to importance weights in H2 must be tested across attributes. Such differences at individual attribute level are not conceptually expected to be significant unless specific consideration is given to the nature of the attribute and the respondent demand characteristics.]

EMPIRICAL INVESTIGATIONS

To examine these hypotheses, two empirical investigations were undertaken. The product categories considered were toothpaste and floor cleaners. These are frequently purchased and heavily advertised consumer non-durables. Hence, once could expect brand awareness to be high in both the product categories.

Study I

Data for this study were obtained from 176 housewives in a large metropolitan area in the U.S. The product selected for this investigation was toothpaste. The salient product attributes were identified by interviewing a pretest sample of housewives, examination of product packages on supermarket shelves, and content analysis of advertisements.

The data obtained from the respondents included information about their brand awareness, size of the evoked set and importance ratings of the identified product attributes. The brand awareness was operationalized by asking the respondents to "tell us the names of different brands of toothpaste currently available in the market." Following Ostlund (1973), evoked set was measured by asking the respondents "which brands of toothpaste would you consider buying for your use." The importance ratings of the attributes were obtained on 7-point Likert type scales (1 = Not So Important; 7 = Extremely Important). [Subjects were instructed to "rate the various characteristics of [product] in terms of relative importance to you."] Tolerance for ambiguity was measured by using Budner's (1962) test. Based on this test, respondents were classified as either tolerant or intolerant of ambiguity.

The first hypothesis was tested by performing a one way metric analysis of variance (Hayes 1973). In the analysis, the independent variable was the tolerance of ambiguity classification. The dependent variable was the size of the evoked set. The results were found to be significant. Consistent with the hypothesis (H1), intolerants were observed to have significantly smaller evoked sets as compared to those tolerant of ambiguity. To highlight the results, frequency distributions of the size of the evoked set for the tolerants and intolerants of ambiguity along with the ANOVA F statistic and p value are presented in Table 1.

To test the second hypothesis, the attribute importance ratings were summed across the attributes independently for each respondent. [For a given product all subjects were presented with the same number of attributes.] These were treated as the dependent variable in the metric ANOVA framework. The independent variable was, again the tolerance for ambiguity classification. The results presented in Table 2 support the hypothesis. We observe that as hypothesized, the intolerants of ambiguity tend to give significantly higher importance weights across the salient attributes identified in the pre-test. Using more important attributes in their initial reduction strategy, they are then able to produce a smaller evoked set.

TABLE 1

STUDY 1: DIFFERENCES IN THE EVOKED SET SIZE BETWEEN TOLERANTS AND INTOLERANTS OF AMBIGUITY

TABLE 2

STUDY I: DIFFERENCES IN IMPORTANCE WEIGHTS ACROSS ATTRIBUTES BETWEEN TOLERANTS AND INTOLERANTS OF AMBIGUITY

Study II

This study involved a different sample of 149 housewives in a major metropolitan area in the United States. The respondents were asked to provide their evaluation of floor cleaners. Towards this, salient attributes of floor cleaners were identified in a manner similar to that adopted for toothpaste.

The data obtained was similar to that for the first study. The respondents were again classified as tolerants and intolerants of ambiguity based on Budner's (1962) instrument. To test the two hypotheses the metric analysis of variance framework described in Study I was adopted. The results are presented in Tables 3 and 4. The results are supportive of the two hypotheses. As in Study I, intolerants of ambiguity were observed to have a smaller evoked set than those tolerant of ambiguity. Also, the intolerants tend to hive higher importance weights across attributes.

TABLE 3

STUDY II: DIFFERENCES IN THE EVOKED SET SIZE BETWEEN TOLERANTS AND INTOLERANTS OF AMBIGUITY

TABLE 4

STUDY II: DIFFERENCES IN IMPORTANCE WEIGHTS ACROSS ATTRIBUTES BETWEEN TOLERANTS AND INTOLERANTS OF AMBIGUITY

DISCUSSION

The study findings suggest that the initial reduction of alternatives leading to specific choice processing vary as a function of one particular accommodative cognitive style; namely, tolerance of ambiguity. Overall, consumers intolerant of ambiguity tend to have smaller evoked sets. Because Jarvis and Wilcox (1973) have shown that the size of the evoked set is positively related to the size of the awareness set there was some concern that the differential evoked set sizes of intolerants vs. tolerants might be attributable to differences in awareness rather than tolerance of ambiguity. To clarify this, analysis of variance tests were performed for both studies. In each case, the dependent variable was the size of the awareness set and the independent variable was the tolerance for ambiguity classification. In both studies the differences between the tolerants and intolerants of ambiguity with respect to the size of the awareness set were not found to be statistically significant.

The lack of relationship between tolerance of ambiguity and awareness set may be due to the fact that both the products under study are relatively simple and familiar, as well as heavily advertised.' These factors may have obscured possible differences in intolerants' and tolerants' extent of search for, and exposure to information about these products/brands.

Since no significant differences in awareness set size between tolerants and intolerants were found, this "third variable" hypothesis can be safely ruled out. Differences in evoked set sizes may then be explained in terms of the tolerance for ambiguity. The tendency of intolerants to reject a greater number of alternatives during the initial elimination phase, is further supported by findings that they assign greater weights to these salient attributes. This is congruent with Belonax' and Mittelstaedt's (1978) claim that the evoked set is largest when relatively few choice criteria are applied to information.

This investigation, however, leaves many questions unanswered. First of all, the interpretation of evoked set formation as a reduction of alternatives phase of information processing although intuitively appealing would need to be further examined probably through experimental manipulation. More specifically, one would expect evoked set formation to be influenced by such situational factors as perceived risk, product involvement and familiarity, product class complexity, need for information, and perceived ambiguity of the information/situation provided. These need to be fully explored. Another question worthy of investigation is under what conditions/situations does the tolerance of ambiguity concept become operable.

Secondly, other cognitive style variables as well as personality traits would be worth investigating as possible determinants of evoked set formation. For example one can speculate that the individual's motivation, self confidence, and cognitive capabilities in further processing information in the specific choice processing phase would have a bearing on his willingness to retain fewer or more alternatives in the first initial reduction phase.

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