A Consideration of Verbal and Interactive Protocol Methodologies in Consumer Information Processing Research

ABSTRACT - This paper discusses verbal and interactive protocol methods in the study of consumer information processing and decision making. Unlike verbal protocols, which are recorded from individual consumers, interactive protocols are recorded from two or more consumers engaging in decision making activities. In light of evident methodological drawbacks in gathering verbal protocols, interactive protocols are suggest, d as a technique for studying both individual and group consumer information processes.


Joel Rudd (1984) ,"A Consideration of Verbal and Interactive Protocol Methodologies in Consumer Information Processing Research", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11, eds. Thomas C. Kinnear, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 361-366.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11, 1984      Pages 361-366


Joel Rudd, University of New Hampshire [Assistant Professor of Family and Consumer Studies.]

[Work on this paper was supported in part by New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station Project H274. Scientific Contribution Number 1252 from the New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station.]


This paper discusses verbal and interactive protocol methods in the study of consumer information processing and decision making. Unlike verbal protocols, which are recorded from individual consumers, interactive protocols are recorded from two or more consumers engaging in decision making activities. In light of evident methodological drawbacks in gathering verbal protocols, interactive protocols are suggest, d as a technique for studying both individual and group consumer information processes.

There has recently been growing interest in giving more theoretical and research attention to the social nature of consumer information processing and decision making (Davis 1976; Dunsing and Hafstrom 1975; Szybillo, Sosanie, and Tenenbein, 1979). Recognizing the widespread "psychologistic bias" in consumer research, some commentators have called for researchers to begin to employ models and methods in which the individual consumer is no longer the unit of analysis. Better, it is argued, to employ social units of analysis, e.g., husband-wife, friendship groups, salesperson-customer, etc., (Chaffee and McLeod 1974; Davis 1976; Wind 1976). A shift in consumer research toward use of a social unit of analysis would parallel current trends in social psychology and communication research (see, e.g., Forgas 1981; Fisher 1978; Hewes 1979; Sampson 1977; Shimanoff 1980).

Progress in the study of social consumer information processing has been slow in part because the standard methodological tools of consumer research assume the individual consumer to be the relevant unit of analysis. The process of developing and refining methodologies suited to the generation of social consumer information processing data is difficult. One fruitful approach is to modify current methods to make them suitable for social level analysis. The present paper discusses one such modified methodology: interactive protocols. Interactive protocol methodology is a socially-oriented variant of an often-used technique for studying individual consumer information processing, verbal protocol methodology.


Verbal protocols generally consist of the verbal tracings (i.e., transcripts of consumer utterances) of an individual consumer's information processing and decision making activities. The consumer is usually instructed to "think aloud," i.e., to verbally report all thoughts (Haines 1974), to " . . . say what you're going to look at..." (Payne 1976, p. 372) or to "... say what you are doing and where you are going..." (Payne and Ragsdale 1978; p. 572).

The subsequent verbalizations are typically audio recorded and transcripts are later made. Most researchers delete many or all nonverbal vocalizations, e.g., laughter, and other nonverbal sounds, e.g., handclapping and store noises, from their transcripts and "clean up" the pronunciation, e.g., "cuz" becomes "because" (an exception is King 1969).

Some researchers supplement the verbal tracings with separate observations of selected ongoing nonverbal behaviors, e.g., use of trained observers in a store setting (Payne and Ragsdale 1978), or information display boards in a laboratory setting (Payne, 1976), or eye fixation measures (Russo, 1978). The in-store measures, when taken, tend to be somewhat sparingly and haphazardly used. In the main, they are used to explain or clarify a verbalization, e.g., "Yeah, I'll try that, and see if it makes any difference. (looks for beef bouillon)..." (Bettman and Zins 1978, p. 80). The laboratory observations using information display boards supplement verbal protocols by organizing and limiting the choice task and thus make data gathering and analysis more efficient (Payne 1976). The eye fixation measures complement verbal protocols by yielding very accurate and detailed records of eye movements (Russo 1978).

The use of verbal protocol methodology in the study of consumer cognitive and decision making processes is becoming increasingly common (e.g., Bettman 1970; Biehal and Chakravarti 1982a; King 1969; Payne 1976; Vandenburg, 1981). A number of recent reviews compare verbal protocol methodology with competing methods of tapping consumer information acquisition and processing activities, e.g., eye fixations, information display boards, computer information displays, and response time analysis (Bettman 1979, pp. 195-201; Payne 1980; Payne, Braunstein, and Carroll, 1978; Russo 1978). Other reviews assess the validity of verbal protocol methods in general (Ericsson 1975; Ericsson and Simon 1980; Nisbett and Wilson 1977) or weigh the advantages and disadvantages of particular types of protocol generation and analysis, e.g., concurrent vs. recall, field vs. laboratory, etc. (Douglas 1980: Douglas, Craig, and Faivre 1981).

In general, these reviews conclude that there are two major advantages of verbal protocol methodology: (1) it enables researchers to extensively tap consumer's internal cognitive and decision making processes, while (2) minimizing apriori imposition of structure on consumer choice. Verbal protocols convert essentially private activities ("thoughts") into public activities ("verbalizations") and thus enable researchers to record them for later analysis. Verbal protocol methodology appears to be well-suited for research in the consumer information processing perspective (Douglas, Craig, Faivre 1981; Ray and Ward 1976).

However, the advantages of verbal protocol methodology may be offset by a number of important drawbacks. Several drawbacks can be traced to the psychologistic bias in the consumer information processing perspective (Wind 1976). The presence of this bias is largely a function of the predominance of cognitive psychology in the study of consumer information processing and decision making (see, e.g., Jacoby 1976; Kassarjian 1982). Operationally, the bias is reflected in the use of protocol methodology to record the activities of individual consumers.

The purpose of the present paper is to discuss drawbacks in verbal protocol methodology resulting from an overreliance on psychological models of information processing and decision making and to examine interactive protocol methodology,a protocol technique which eliminates or minimizes each of these drawbacks. The present paper argues that interactive protocol methodology is an appropriate tool to shift consumer information processing research to a social unit of analysis. Further, the paper argues that because they do not share some of the major drawbacks of verbal protocols, interactive protocols can provide an important method of studying individual consumer information processing and choice behavior.


The discussion of drawbacks in verbal protocol methodology to follow is limited in several ways. First, the discussion considers only verbal protocols used in conjunction with consumer choice behavior and thus excludes related "thought-monitoring" approaches in persuasion research (e.g., Wright 1980) and "free elicitation" techniques in memory research (e.g., Olson and Muderrisoglu 1979). Second, only concurrent verbal protocol techniques, i.e., those in which the protocols are recorded simultaneously with the choice task, are considered. Free recall methods (Russo and Johnson 1980), retrospective verbalization (Ericsson and Simon 1980), and prompted post hoc protocols (Russo and Rosen 1975), while related to the "classic" concurrent verbal protocol methods (Douglas, Craig, and Faivre 1981) are distinct in several ways and are, therefore, excluded from the discussion. Third, the discussion focuses on the methods typically used to elicit verbal protocols, rather than on the various approaches available for systematically analyzing them (e.g., Bettman and Park 1980; Biehal and Chakravarti 1982b).

In the section to follow, each drawback is briefly described and its likely impact on the consumer's "natural" information processes is discussed. An attempt is made, for each drawback, to answer the question: "Does this characteristic of verbal protocol methodology change the primary process in major ways?" In other words, an attempt is made to assess the potential reactivity of the method: the likelihood that the mere collection of verbal protocols may systematically influence the behaviors and processes of interest in some substantial way (Campbell and Stanley 1963).

Are Consumers Able to Verbally Report Their Thoughts?

The first drawback in verbal protocol methodology is that it requires an "extra response" (Russo 1978). In addition to engaging in the choice task at hand, consumers must simultaneously verbalize their thoughts. This requirement may impose a difficult burden on consumers (Douglas, Craig, and Faivre 1981; Wright 1974). Because consumers may be unable to translate all thoughts into verbalizations, their protocols may be fragmented and incomplete (Douglas 1980; Harries 1974; Simon 1978). Whether or not the failure of verbal tracings to bear a 1:1 ratio to thoughts results in substantially changed information processes or choices is not known (Bettman 1979; Payne 1980; Russo 1978). While the research evidence is sketchy, it seems likely that merely requiring an "extra response" may, under some circumstances, slow the choice process somewhat (Ericcson 19755.

Are Consumers Willing to Verbally Report Their Thoughts?

If the fragmented and incomplete verbal protocols were a result of random deletion of thoughts from the verbal record, the effect of the "extra response" might be of little concern. However, critics have pointed out that the nature of the "extra response" in verbal protocol methodology produces its second major drawback. Verbal protocol methods do not merely require consumers to engage in an extra response. Rather, consumers are required to think aloud in a public setting and to have their verbalized thoughts recorded. This requirement may be reactive in two ways. First, consumers may bias their verbalizations in an attempt to gain social approval. Second, consumer verbalizations may be systematically biased by the unusual and embarrassing nature of the think-aloud task .

The "verbalization of thought" requirement, critics have argued, produces a situation in which consumers may be highly sensitized to the social "norms of good consumer decision making" and to the possibilities of gaining social approval from the experimenter/interviewer (Bettman 1979; Douglas, Craig, and Faivre 1981; Russo 1978; Simon 1978). Consumers are thus often assumed to "self-censor" their verbal protocols to make their information processing activities appear to be more systematic and rational than they normally are (Jacoby, Chestnut, Weigl, and Fisher 1976; Wright 1974). Some experimental evidence supports this view (Ericsson 1975).

To the extent that thinking aloud while engaging in a decision making task is out of the ordinary and potentially embarrassing, it may produce systematic biases reflecting consumer's attempts to bring a sense of control and predictability to the situation, to minimize personal embarrassment, and thereby to maintain "face" (Goffman 1967). Recognizing the potential for this kind of bias, some consumer verbal protocols were gathered with an experimenter/interviewer present to reduce embarrassment by providing an excuse or "target" for verbalization (Douglas 1980). however, it should be noted that any decreased bias resulting from increased consumer ease brought on by experimenter/interviewer presence may be more than offset by a concomitant increase in "social approval" bias.

Are Consumers Verbally Reporting Ongoing Thoughts?

A third drawback in verbal protocol methods is that it may be difficult for researchers to distinguish protocols which are a reasonable reflection of ongoing thought processes from those which present "retrospective rationales" (Bettman 1979). The likelihood that retrospective rationales are being given by consumers is generally assumed to increase as prior consumer experience with the product category increases. At one extreme, taking protocols of totally routinized response behavior (Howard and Sheth 1969) may by definition yield only retrospective rationales. On the other hand, contamination of protocols by retrospective rationales will likely be minimal when consumers are presented with a choice task involving a totally new product categorY.

It is more difficult, however, to distinguish retrospective rationales from "true protocols" when the verbalization pattern reflects not consumer experience with the product category, but experience with a particular choice strategy (Wright 1974). Experienced consumers may verbally present a complex strategy in a "shorthand" obscuring the actual thought processes enacted. Such shorthand may include underreporting of intermediate steps in the process and underreporting of the degree of processing given to non-chosen alternatives (Wright 1974).


Interactive protocols consist of the verbal and/or nonverbal tracings (i.e., printed transcripts of utterances and/or nonverbal behaviors) of two or more consumers engaged in interaction toward an individual or joint decision. A search of available literature reveals little consumer research utilizing interactive protocol methodology.

Notable exceptions include Kenkel's (1961, 1963) and Arndt and Crane's (1975) work on husband-wife consumer decision making. These researchers collected in-home audio recordings of husband-wife Joint decision making episodes regarding spending and coded them using the Bales Interaction Process Analysis system (Bales 1950). Payne (1974) gathered interactive protocols in the experimental laboratory from pairs of subjects engaged in joint decision making under risk. Payne used the interactive protocol data to construct computer simulation models of information processing and decision making activities.

Like verbal protocols, interactive protocols make available to the researchers a tracing of verbalization reflecting a sequence of information processing and choice behaviors. Like verbal protocols, interactive protocol methodology places minimal structural constraints on consumer choice. The extent to which interactive protocol methodology may also share the drawbacks of verbal protocol methodology discussed above is now addressed.


Since no interactive protocol "comparative validity/reliability" studies have been done, the following discussion draws largely on the experiences reported by researchers using the technique (e.g., Arndt and Crane 1975; Couch 1977; Kenkel 1961, 1963; Payne 1974).

Are Consumers Able to Give Interactive Protocols?

Unlike typical instructions in verbal protocol methodology for individual consumers to "think aloud," instructions in interactive protocol methodology ask consumers to "discuss" (Kenkel, 1961, 1963) their decision or to "...give continuous verbal reports...indicating what they were considering and explaining the reason for each choice..." (Payne 1974, p. 6). Thus, both methods impose an extra response, beyond "mere thought," on consumers. One asks consumers to "talk into a microphone or to an experimenter/ interviewer;" the other to "talk with another consumer." In fact, many of the methods commonly used in consumer research may impose a similar extra response requirement, in one form or another, e.g., questionnaires, interviews, focus groups, etc. (An exception is eye fixation methodology (Russo 1978); another is unobtrusive observation, see e.g., Willett and Pennington's (1966) study of salesperson-customer interaction in which data we.e gathered via hidden microphone.) Moreover, it may be true that much everyday life consists of engaging in one or more "extra responses" over and above thought, e.g., talking, writing, driving, etc. (Stone and Farberman 1970).

The critical question regarding conversation as an "extra response" is whether, in and of itself, conversation affects the primary process of interest: consumer information processing and choice. In the main, researchers have tentatively concluded that it does not. Payne notes that an examination of his interactive protocols "...tit not suggest any large differences in the basic nature of the decision processes used by the two-person groups when compared with protocols obtained from preliminary studies involving individuals only" (Payne 1974, p. 21). In addition, Payne found similar density levels (an average of about 1.7 words per second) across interactive and verbal protocol studies. It would appear, on the basis of this preliminary evidence, that gathering interactive protocols does not affect consumer information processing activities any more than does gathering verbal protocols.

Are Consumers Willing to Give Interactive Protocols?

An obvious concern in interactive protocol methodology is the extent to which the nature of the task (the "extra response") affects the primary process of interest. Critics have argued that verbal protocol methods produce response biases resulting from a "social approval" effect and an "embarrassment avoidance" effect (e.g., Bettman 1979; Douglas 1980). To what extent are interactive protocols subject to the same criticism?

It appears that the nature of the extra response in interactive protocols can differ markedly from that in verbal protocols. Consumers in interactive protocol studies are generally asked to engage in something approximating ordinary, everyday (albeit recorded) conversation. They are not generally asked to "think aloud" to their partner; they are asked to "discuss". The situation thus has a greater degree of "mundane realism" (Aronson and Carlsmith 1969) than does a verbal protocol situation. Researchers report that interaction often produces relaxed, flowing, and articulate protocols and that the degree of task involvement is often quite high (Couch 1977; Kenkel 1963). If it is true, as Russo (1978) argues, that relaxed, comfortable consumers generate better protocols, it seems probable that interactive protocol methods may produce less embarrassment-related response bias than is produced by verbal protocols. To the extent that this occurs, interactive protocols could be expected to be more complete and more accurate than verbal protocols.

It should be noted that several verbal protocol studies are to some extent (and rather unsystematically) "interactive." That is, the experimenter/interviewer interacted with the consumer in ways varying from simple prompts ("remember to think aloud") to active participation in the choice processes under study. This was usually done to increase protocol density and to alleviate consumer embarrassment at talking alone into a microphone (Douglas 1980). Examples can be found in "shopping trip" studies (e.g., Bettman and Zins 1977; King 1969; Payne and Ragsdale 1978) and "laboratory" studies (e.g., Bettman and Park 1980). Most of the experimenter/interviewer interaction is usually edited out of the final verbal protocols (e.g., Bettman and Park 1980). The effect of this and other unsystematic interaction-related influences, e.g., store personnel, is not known (Douglas 1980).

The relative effect of interactive protocols on the social approval bias is complex. To the extent that the social approval effect is a function of the presence of a "stranger," there may be little difference in social approval bias between verbal and interactive protocol methodologies. Thus the presence of an interacting partner may produce the social approval bias, although this effect may be negligible when the partner is a spouse or an acquaintance, even a short-term one (Couch 1977).

Conversation may also attenuate the social approval effect by making it more difficult for consumers to make their information processing and decision making appear more rational and systematic than it normally is. The more "caught up" in the conversation the interactants are, the more that it is their "main involvement" (Goffman 1963), the more difficult it might be for them to intentionally structure their decision making.

It seems reasonable to suggest, in addition, that consumers are likely to be more "caught up" in a challenging decision making interaction than in a solo decision task. Payne suggests this sort of social facilitation when he concludes that the interactive protocol technique "...proved helpful in getting individuals to externalize their decision processes" (1974, p. 21). Further, Kenkel reports that the couples in his study "...took the problem seriously, as was evidenced by their disagreements and their discussions over one another's choice of items" (1963, p. 145). If interaction tends to be inherently more involving than talking into a microphone, then interactive protocols might be expected to be less subject to a social approval bias than are verbal protocols.

Are Consumers Conversing Ongoing Thoughts?

Verbal protocols have been criticized because they may fail to distinguish between ongoing thoughts and retrospective rationales. Interactive protocols may be less subject to this criticism, not because consumers are less likely to verbalize retrospective rationales in an interactive situation, but because they are more likely to verbalize that fact to one another in the course of their discussion. The flow of the interaction, with its suggestions, countersuggestions, disagreements, and explanations (Kenkel 1963; Payne 1974), is perhaps more likely to enable the researcher to distinguish thoughts from retrospective rationales.


Clearly much more research is needed before firm conclusions can be drawn about the relative advantages of verbal and interactive protocols. It is appropriate at this point, however, to make a few suggestions to guide future research. First, it should be recognized that the methodological issue of verbal vs. interactive protocols is merely one iteration of the more general question: What is the relationship between thought and talk? This general issue has not received the attention it deserves from cognitive science, linguistics, or sociology. (The issue is generally dealt with in the context of the relationship between thought, language, and culture; see e.g., Vygotsky 1962; Whorf 1956.)

Second, the extent to which interactive protocols might provide valid measures of individual (as well as social) consumer information processing is deserving of study. It is the contention of the present paper that the unique character of conversation, with its ability to reflect consensual cognitive representations, provides an important window on individual and social consumer information processing and decision making. If cognitive activity is social in nature and origin, as Mead (1934), Weber (1947), and more recently, Forgas (1981) have argued, then socially-oriented methodologies like interactive protocols may become valuable research tools. (The question for these thinkers is: What is the relationship between thought and interaction?)

Third, work is needed to determine the feasibility of employing interactive protocol methodology in tandem with other approaches. Russo (1978) has suggested that eye fixation methods are particularly well-suited for use with verbal protocols and Payne (1974) has suggested supplementing interactive protocols with eye fixations. The use of information display boards to study Joint decision making has been suggested by Jacoby (1977). The use of information display boards with interactive protocols is another option to be explored.

Fourth, developments in protocol methodology should help researchers to recognize the importance of nonverbal behavior in individual and interactive consumer decision making. Limited analysis of some nonverbal activities has been used in a few verbal protocol studies (e.g., King 1969; Payne 1976; Payne and Ragsdale 1978). Expanded and more systematic recording and coding of nonverbal activities in protocol studies of individual decision making should be explored. Further, the role of nonverbal activities in interactive consumer decision making has not been recognized thus far: the techniques employed in the Kenkel (1961, 1963), Arndt and Crane (1975), and Payne (1974) studies might be termed "conversational" protocols, since they elicited only verbal (and vocal) activities on audio tape. The simultaneous recording of both verbal and nonverbal consumer decision making activities is a next logical step in the development of interactive protocol methodologies (Burns and Granbois 1980). Currently available video recording technology provides an effective and efficient means to acquire simultaneous traces of both verbal and nonverbal activities and has been used successfully m a number of studies of group decision making (see e.g., Buban 1976; Hirokawa 1980; Katovich, Weiland, and Couch 1981). At a minimum, video recording provides a precise sequential and simultaneous record of verbal and nonverbal behaviors (Couch 1977). More sophisticated recordings of individual and multiple-party decision making can be obtained through the use of portable equipment, multiple cameras and microphones, split screen capability, and digital timer overlay.

Finally, it is important for researchers to be cognizant of the immense amount of data that even limited interactive protocols can generate (Couch 1977). As Payne (1974) notes, interactive protocol methodology probably is best utilized for hypothesis testing, rather than for "fishing expeditions."


Interactive protocol methodology appears to be well-suited for research in consumer information processing and choice behavior. The traditional caveat of "more research is needed" is clearly appropriate here. It is hoped that the present paper might, in some small way, stimulate needed research on this Potentially very useful method.


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Joel Rudd, University of New Hampshire [Assistant Professor of Family and Consumer Studies.]


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11 | 1984

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