Self-Referencing: an Examination of Antecedents, Consequences, and Role in Message Processing

Jennifer Edson Escalas, Duke University
Parthasarathy Krishnamurthy, Pennsylvania State University
[ to cite ]:
Jennifer Edson Escalas and Parthasarathy Krishnamurthy (1995) ,"Self-Referencing: an Examination of Antecedents, Consequences, and Role in Message Processing", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, eds. Frank R. Kardes and Mita Sujan, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 340-342.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, 1995      Pages 340-342


Jennifer Edson Escalas, Duke University

Parthasarathy Krishnamurthy, Pennsylvania State University


Self-referencing as a mode of processing has attracted a great deal of research attention (e.g., Rogers, Kuiper, and Kirker 1977; Belleza 1984; Wagner 1984; Klein and Kihlstrom 1986; Burnkrant and Unnava 1989; Sujan, Bettman, and Baumgartner 1993). Defined as relating a stimulus to one's self related knowledge structures, self-referencing has been shown by many social cognition scholars to influence recall. The basic paradigm is that self-referencing enhances recall by increased elaboration and/or organization. Our special session was designed to highlight the advances in self-referencing being made in consumer research. In addition to addressing the consequences of self-referencing, the papers in this session consider its antecedents and its role as a process variable. Thus, the studies discussed in our session examine self-referencing as a dependent variable, a mediating variable, and an independent variable (see Figure).


Parthasarathy Krishnamurthy's paper addresses the question: Are there stimulus-related, subject-related, and contextual factors that systematically facilitate or inhibit self-referencing? In other words, the primary emphasis of his research is to understand the antecedents of spontaneous self-referencing. Thus he moves away from the traditional question of "what happens when self-referencing is induced?" and focuses on "when does self-referencing take place?" The paper presented focuses on the role of stimulus ambiguity in influencing spontaneous self-referencing. Krishnamurthy hypothesizes that stimulus ambiguity should enhance self-referencing because processing an ambiguous stimuli involves perceptual closure, which is an abstraction of meaning through a process of completing an otherwise incomplete stimulus (Snodgrass and Feenan 1991). Since people use available and/or accessible relevant knowledge structures to achieve this perceptual closure, and because self knowledge is known to be both available and accessible, an ambiguous stimulus is more likely to be perceptually closed using self related knowledge structures.

Krishnamurthy tests this proposition in a print advertising setting. His results for male subjects support the notion that ambiguous stimuli lead to more self referent processing. However, his results for female subjects are not in the hypothesized direction. In seeking an explanation for these counter-intuitive results, Krishnamurthy finds that ad liking is a significant mediator of the effect of ambiguous stimuli on self-referencing. The female subjects did not like the ambiguous stimulus and therefore did not engage in more self-referencing compared to the unambiguous stimulus. Krishnamurthy plans to examine the effects of stimulus ambiguity on self-referencing and the mediating effect of ad liking in future research, as well as examine other potential antecedents of self-referencing, such as message valence, input modality, and individual differences. Furthermore, he intends to develop and validate scale items for measuring self-referencing.


In her research on mental simulation, Jennifer Edson Escalas finds self-referencing to be a mediating variable. Social psychologists have found that mental simulation leads to higher probability estimates for simulated events, positively affecting attitudes, behavioral intentions and actual behavior (e.g., Gregory, Chialdini, and Carpenter 1982). However, previous research into mental simulation does not provide an adequate explanation of why these outcomes occur. In two studies, Escalas, alone and with coauthor Linville, finds that subjects who mentally simulate using a running shoe have more favorable attitudes about the shoe and more favorable behavioral intentions towards trying on and/or purchasing the shoe. This occurs because self referencing focuses attention away from product features and onto the self, reducing counterarguing and/or source derogation which both negatively impact shoe attitudes. Furthermore, the self-referencing elicited in mental simulation generates positive affect that is transferred to the shoe, while those who do not self-reference either generate skeptical, disinterested emotions that negatively impact product attitudes or no significant feelings at all.

Escalas extends her self-referencing as mediating process from mental simulation to autobiographical memory retrieval. Using the data from Sujan, Bettman, and Baumgartner's second study (1993), she finds that subjects who were encouraged to retrieve autobiographical memories have more favorable attitudes towards the stimulus product than those who were not. More importantly, the self-referencing condition generates more positive affect and fewer counterarguments and product feature focused thoughts. The positive affect favorably impacts product attitudes while counterarguing lowers attitudes, replicating the self-referencing effects found for mental simulation.


It has been found in both consumer behavior research (e.g., Burnkrant and Unnava 1989) and psychology research (e.g., Rogers, Kuiper, and Kirker 1977; Belleza 1984; Brown, Keenan, and Potts 1986; Klein and Loftus 1988) that self-referencing increases elaboration, influences persuasion, and leads to higher recall of words or phrases. There are two arguments as to why this occurs. First, the motivation argument claims that information pertaining to the self is of intrinsic interest and therefore attracts more attention and leads to more cognitive effort. Second, the ability argument claims that self-referencing makes available a highly complex and integrated structure to which incoming information can be related. Thus, self-referencing could make it easier to process information.

Rohini Ahluwalia presented two studies, conducted with coauthors H. Rao Unnava and Robert E. Burnkrant, that examine these two arguments. In the first study, the authors use a secondary task method to assess cognitive effort under the assumption that if motivation is enhanced by self-referencing, then one should expect enhanced cognitive effort. Using a direct manipulation of self-referencing, they find that there is not a significant difference in cognitive effort between those subjects who self-reference and those who do not. Thus, it appears that if motivation leads to increased cognitive effort, then motivation to process is not enhanced by self-referencing.



In the second study, Unnava, Burnkrant, and Ahluwalia hypothesize that if the cognitive effort argument is correct, then the effects of ad copy induced self-referencing should be attenuated if the cognitive structure that it helps access is not rich or does not have strong associations. However, if the motivation argument is correct, then the effects of self-referencing should be attenuated for the people who are involved in the product category and thus are naturally motivated to process the information. Usage experience with the target product (contact lenses) was used to operationalize richness of cognitive structures and product category involvement. The results indicate that when ability is low to begin with (i.e., the self structure does not have rich experiences associated with it), self-referencing does not lead to enhanced elaboration. Overall, self-referencing appears to make rich cognitive structures more available, when they are present, and hence assists in elaboration of the target information.


Our discussant, Patricia Linville, summarized what these three papers tell us about self-referencing. First, we know self-referencing occurs with ambiguous stimuli and under conditions of mental simulation and activating autobiographical memory. We also know what happens when self-referencing occurs. Messages are elaborated, positive affect is generated, people are distracted from product feature evaluation, and attitudes towards products are improved. There are still some puzzles that exist. For example, the Unnava, Burnkrant, and Ahluwalia paper asserts that self-referencing leads to more cognitive elaboration, while the Escalas paper predicts simpler processing (distraction from product features, self focus, and increased role of affect).

For future research, Linville suggests that we consider multiple selves in addition to the unitary self we have focused on to date (e.g., Markus 1977; Linville 1985, 1987). Additionally, possible selves or future selves (Markus and Nurius 1986) might be interesting, particularly for mental simulation of future events. Recent work on chronically and automatically accessible self-constructs (e.g., Higgins, Bargh, and Lombardi 1985; Higgins, King, and Mavin 1982) might be directly relevant in testing the mechanisms underlying the increased elaboration found with self-referencing, particularly with respect to measures of cognitive effort. Another question is whether self-referencing leads to heuristic or systematic processing (e.g., Chaikin 1980). The studies presented here today lead to different conclusions. Linville also wonders what would be the result if subjects self-referenced a negative experience. And finally, there may be different types of self-knowledge that can be activated. For example, does activation of trait knowledge differ in its effects from activation of episodic memory? Overall, Linville found that the research presented in the session moves the self-referencing paradigm forward in ways that are creative, interesting, and relevant.


Belleza, F.S. (1984), "The self as mnemonic device: The role of internal cues," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 47, 506-516.

Brown, Polly, Janice M. Keenan, and George R. Potts (1986), "The self-reference effect with imagery encoding," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51 (November), 897-906.

Burnkrant, Robert E. and H. Rao Unnava (1989), "Self-referencing: A strategy for increasing processing of message content," Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 15 (December), 628-638.

Chaikin, S. (1980), "Heuristic versus systematic processing and the use of source versus message cues in persuasion," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39, 752-766.

Gregory, W.L., R.B. Chialdini, and K.M. Carpenter (1982), "Self-relevant scenarios as mediators of likelihood estimates and compliance: Does imagining make it so?" Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 43, 89-99.

Higgins E.T., J.A. Bargh, and W. Lombardi (1985), "The nature of priming effects on categorization," Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 11, 59-69.

Higgins E.T., G.A. King, and G.H. Mavin (1982), "Individual construct accessibility and subjective impression and recall," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 43, 35-47.

Klein, Stanley B., and John F. Kihlstrom (1986), "Elaboration, organization, and the self-reference effect in memory," Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 115, 26-38.

Klein, S.B. and J. Loftus (1988), "The nature of self-referent encoding: The contributions of elaborative and organizational processes," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 55, 5-11.

Linville, Patricia W. (1985), "Self-complexity and affective extremity: Don't put all your eggs in one cognitive basket," Social Cognition, 3, 94-120.

Linville, Patricia W. (1987), "Self-complexity as a cognitive buffer against stress-related depression and illness," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 663-676.

Markus, Hazel (1977), "Self-schemata and processing information about the self," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35, 63-78.

Markus, Hazel and Paula Nurius (1986), "Possible selves," American Psychologist, 41, 954-969.

Rogers, T.B., N.A. Kuiper, and W.S. Kirker (1977), "Self-reference and the encoding of personal information," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35 (September), 677-688.

Snodgrass, J. G. and K. Feenan (1991), "Priming effects in picture fragment completion: Support for the perceptual closure hypothesis," Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 119 (3), 276-296.

Sujan, Mita, James R. Bettman, and Hans Baumgartner (1993), "Influencing judgements using autobiographical memories: A self-referencing perspective," Journal of Marketing Research, 30 (November), 422-436.

Wagner, Wolfgang (1984), "Recognition of own and others' utterances in a natural conversation," Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 10 (December), 596-604.