Motivation, Ability, and Opportunity to Process Information: Conceptual and Experimental Manipulation Issues

ABSTRACT - The first objective of this paper is to present arguments in favor of establishing the conceptual distinctiveness of motivation, ability, and opportunity antecedents to message elaboration. The paper demonstrates that a lack of conceptual clarity among these antecedent conditions can lead to manipulation confounding and questionable construct validity.


J. Craig Andrews (1988) ,"Motivation, Ability, and Opportunity to Process Information: Conceptual and Experimental Manipulation Issues", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 15, eds. Micheal J. Houston, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 219-225.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 15, 1988      Pages 219-225


J. Craig Andrews, Marquette University


The first objective of this paper is to present arguments in favor of establishing the conceptual distinctiveness of motivation, ability, and opportunity antecedents to message elaboration. The paper demonstrates that a lack of conceptual clarity among these antecedent conditions can lead to manipulation confounding and questionable construct validity.

Second, the paper addresses operational problems inherent in the manipulation and measurement of these conditions. Suggestions for the use of confounding checks and other techniques in this regard are offered in order to avoid experimental disaster. The study serves as a caution to researchers experimentally manipulating these antecedent conditions to message elaboration.


Over the years, much insight has been acquired concerning the theoretical antecedents of message elaboration and message-evoked thinking (cf., Batra and Ray 1986; Chaiken 1980; Petty and Cacioppo 1979; 1981; 1986; Petty, Cacioppo, and Schumann 1983; Petty, Wells, and Brock 1976; Roberts and Maccoby 1973; Wright 1973; 1974; 1980). Various antecedents of message-evoked thinking and eventual persuasion have been proposed, such as one's accessibility of thoughts, response opportunity, message processing goals (e.g., motivation to process), and personality traits (Wright 1980). For example, it has been argued that one thought is more accessible than another thought if it can be produced in active memory faster and more often than the other thought. Response opportunity acknowledges the message recipient's limited processing ability and coping strategies, especially under conditions such as high levels of distraction. Message processing goals, such as motivation, are said to expand message-related thinking. Finally, personality traits, such as cognitive skills, knowledge, and expertise, have also been associated with increased message-evoked thinking (Wright 1980).

Perhaps the most frequently studied antecedent has been motivation to process information. The most common driving force behind one's motivation to process has been labeled "involvement" and has been the subject of extensive categorization efforts. For instance, Gardner, Mitchell, and Russo (1978; 1985) have suggested that three involvement categories serve as antecedents to persuasion: high involvement, strategy-limited low involvement, and attention-limited low involvement. [Other categorizations of involvement have been couched in hierarchy-of-effects terminology, including Park and Young's (1986) cognitive, affective, and low involvement categories as well as Greenwald and Leavitt's (1984) four levels of audience involvement: preattention, focal attention, comprehension, and elaboration.]

High involvement refers to the state of arousal to process brand-relevant advertising information. Strategy-limited low involvement contends that consumers are attentive to non-brand advertising content (music, scenery, sources etc.), while attention-limited low involvement implies an absence of attention to either brand or non-brand ad content. Arguably, however, the involvement level might best be conceptualized as being on a continuum (vs. categorization) from low to high. In fact, similar arguments have been made for a continuum of message elaboration (cf., Petty and Cacioppo 1986, p. 7-10). Yet, operationally, the notion of an involvement continuum would present problems in an experimental manipulation (see the "operational ranges" section).

Recently, researchers have explored relationships among combinations of possible antecedent conditions to message elaboration. For example, there has been considerable interest in the elaboration likelihood model (ELM) in that it can be said to have intelligently incorporated a variety of persuasion variables into a succinct and empirically testable framework (Petty and Cacioppo 1981; 1986). Specifically, the ELM suggests that the likelihood of message elaboration occurs as a function of separable elements of one's motivation and ability to process information. When a message receiver is both motivated to process message content (e.g., due to the personal relevance of the message) and has the ability to process the content, the central route to persuasion is hypothesized to occur. These conditions of motivation and ability are said to foster message-relevant thinking, activate cognitive responses, create changes in cognitive structure, and eventually lead to an enduring impact on one's attitudes toward the communicated topic.

When these antecedent conditions are not present, attitude formation/change can occur via the peripheral route to persuasion. Here, the message recipient focuses not on primary message content, but upon background cues (e.g., music, scenery, source characteristics) that are peripheral to the main message content. Attitudinal effects under the peripheral route are hypothesized to be less enduring than those under the central route.

The notion of motivation and ability as antecedent conditions to information processing is not a novel one. In fact, Petty and Cacioppo (1986, p. 8) acknowledge the contribution of Heider's (1958) concepts of "trying" (motivation) and "can" (ability) in the development of the ELM. These two antecedent conditions have also taken the forms of "arousal" (motivation) and "capacity" (ability) in other research efforts (Wright 1973). [For a complete discussion and schematic depiction of these antecedent conditions to message elaboration and processing, the reader is directed to work by Petty and Cacioppo (1986, p. 218-221) and Mitchell (1981, p. 25-29).]

Recently, this research has been extended in order to delineate three antecedent conditions to cognitive response generation: the message recipient's motivation, ability, and opportunity to process information (Batra and Ray 1986). It should be noted that the ability and opportunity variables have been combined by Petty and Cacioppo under the "ability" condition. However, others (Batra and Ray 1986; Wright 1980) use "opportunity" as a separate antecedent to mean the absence of respondent control over "exposure time, message length, the number of arguments in a message, and distractor thoughts evoked by competing messages" (Batra and Ray 1986, p. 434). In turn, Batra and Ray's "ability" condition includes those response-enabling variables under the respondent's own control (e.g., product knowledge, self-schema, expertise).

The purpose of this paper is to establish the importance of the motivation, ability, and opportunity conditions as separate concepts and, then, to address several operational problems that arise in the measurement of the conditions. Suggestions to maintain the conceptual clarity of the conditions in one's experimental manipulations are then provided.


It is important to establish the conceptual independence of variables in experimentation in order to avoid confounding of the manipulations. [Confounding occurs when a manipulation meant to represent one theoretical construct can be interpreted as representing more than one construct (e.g., a manipulation of involvement affecting treatment groups' levels of involvement and product familiarity). In essence, if confounding occurs, one is not manipulating the theoretical construct that was intended to be manipulated. Therefore, any differences found in the dependent variable can no longer be solely attributed to differences in the manipulated theoretical construct.] If confounding of manipulations occurs, the researcher's confidence in causal explanations of the experimental results is greatly reduced (Perdue and Summers 1986). The reasoning is that the construct validity of the operationalization of manipulations is now suspect under confounding.

Establishing the theoretical meaningfulness of concepts is the first and perhaps the most important step toward construct validation. At the heart of this process is the notion of construct explication or the procedure of making an abstract word explicit in terms of its observable variables (Nunnally 1978). As noted by Cook and Campbell (1979, p. 62), "A precise explication of constructs is vital for high construct validity since it permits tailoring the manipulations and measures to whichever definitions emerge from the explication." These emerging definitions should be clear and in accordance with general understanding of the words being used. For example, although several definitions of involvement exist (Zaichkowsky 1986), the underlying theme of involvement can be said to be the personal relevance (Apsler and Sears 1968) of the goal-object (e.g., advertising, product, purchase decision) to the individual. Most would also agree that involvement can be defined as an individual, internal state of arousal with intensity and direction properties (Mitchell 1981; Zaichkowsky 1986). This internal state can be distinguished from its possible antecedents (e.g., risk), consequences (e.g., information search, elicitation of cognitive responses), and related, but different, constructs (e.g., familiarity). Therefore, researchers should avoid conceptualizing and/or measuring involvement as: (1) antecedents to involvement, such as product importance, risk, symbolic or hedonic values (cf., Kapferer and Laurent 1986; Laurent and Kapferer 1985); (2) brand awareness, product knowledge or emotions (cf., Tyebjee 1979); (3) cognitions or affect (cf., Park and Young 1986); (4) familiarity, commitment, or importance (cf., Lastovicka and Gardner 1979; Rothschild 1979); or (5) information search (cf., Gensch and Javalgi 1987). Many of the researchers would reason that by the virtue of measuring involvement antecedents or consequences the state of involvement can be inferred. Preferably, antecedents theoretically predicted to influence involvement should be manipulated, while indicators tapping the true involvement state (vs antecedents or consequences of the state) should be used as a measure (i.e., manipulation check) of involvement.

Necessary Evidence

The relationship between involvement and cognitive response production and logic from Tesser and Krauss (1976) will now be used to present the evidence necessary to infer that two constructs (e.g., involvement and cognitive responses) are theoretically different.

An observed relationship between an indicator of involvement and that of cognitive response production may mean one of four things: (1) both indicators measure involvement, (2) both indicators measure cognitive response production, (3) a third variable (e.g., opportunity to respond) has altered the relationship between involvement and cognitive responses, or (4) the indicators do indeed reflect different, but related, constructs. Tesser and Krauss (1976) indicate that demonstration of a shifting, nonmonotonic and/or asymmetric relationship provides evidence to reject the hypothesis that both indicators reflect the same construct. [A shifting, nonmonotonic relationship indicates that as the magnitude of one indicant increases, there is at least one change in the direction of the other indicant. A relationship is said to be asymmetrical when the relationship of A to B is not identical to that of B to A (Tesser and Krauss 1976).] Confounding checks (to be discussed) also provide evidence helpful in rejecting hypotheses (1), (2), or (3).

Further Reasoning

Regarding the antecedents to message elaboration, as Petty and Cacioppo explain, "...the likelihood that elaboration occurs can be viewed as being a function of separable elements of motivation and ability" (Petty and Cacioppo 1986, p. 218). The separability of these concepts is based upon the following reasoning: "If a person is highly able to process a message but lacks the prerequisite motivation, little processing will occur" (Petty and Cacioppo 1986, p. 81). Conversely, if a message processor is motivated to process message content (due to personal relevance of an advertised product) but lacks the required ability (due to limited knowledge) and/or opportunity (due to distracting stimuli), little message elaboration will occur. Therefore, each individual antecedent condition serves only as a necessary, but not sufficient condition for message elaboration. Table 1 provides a list of additional factors (to the above example) influencing one's motivation, ability, and opportunity to respond. It should be noted that these factors serve as antecedents (as opposed to indicators) of their respective constructs.



The examination of media differences and involvement has led other researchers to make similar conclusions about the separability of the concepts. For example, as Wright (1974, p. 194) argues,

Involvement in actively processing information is largely a function of a person's recognition that the information has goal-satisfaction value to him. Involvement is thus grounded in the perceived meaning of the specific content. An advertisement that is highly arousing to a receiver by virtue of its content may be transmitted in a form that restricts his opportunity for response, or vice-versa. Arousal to process and opportunity to process should, therefore, be treated as theoretically separate variables.

Support for this contention was found by Wright (1974) in the examination of the interaction between content involvement and media conditions. When exposed to the broadcast message, individuals engaged in equal counterargumentation regardless of involvement. When exposed to the print message, high content involvement subjects engaged in significantly more counterargumentation than low content involvement subjects.

Others have argued for conceptual distinctiveness between ability (due to expertise) and motivation (due to involvement). Zaichkowsky (1985a, p. 296) indicates that:

Expertise may not be necessarily related to involvement because involvement is a motivational construct whereas expertise is a sustaining construct representing knowledge structure. One does not necessarily have to be an expert in order to be involved with the product. However, involvement may motivate one to gather information and in time become increasingly knowledgeable about the product.

Zaichkowsky (1985a) found support for her first contention in that there was not a significant relationship between involvement and expertise scores for 35mm cameras and red wine products tested. The second contention, that involvement may lead to increased knowledge over time, serves as a topic for the next section.


Even though it can be argued that motivation, ability, and opportunity are conceptually distinct and should be treated as such in experimental settings, several operational problems can still occur.

Antecedents to One Another

As indicated by several writers (Batra and Ray 1986; Lutz, MacKenzie, and Belch 1983; Petty, Cacioppo, and Goldman 1981; Zaichkowsky 1985a), measures of motivation (due to perceived importance) and ability (due to acquired knowledge) have been found, in some practical situations, to be significantly correlated with one another. This can create problems for the conceptual and, especially, the operational distinctiveness of the measures. However, there are three possible explanations for the significant correlations. First, motivation to process can, over time, develop into an antecedent condition influencing one's ability to process. For example, those motivated to find out more about an advertised topic might be more likely, over time, to develop greater expertise or invoke self-schema than those who are less motivated. In fact, studies by Batra and Ray (1986) and Lutz, MacKenzie, and Belch (1983) simply measured existing product importance and knowledge as opposed to manipulating these variables at the time of the experiment Therefore, it is quite possible that extended periods of motivation (due to perceived product importance) might lead to greater product knowledge. Second, the self-report measures of product expertise/knowledge have been criticized (cf., Zaichkowsky 1985a) as being inflated measures of "true" expertise/knowledge. Studies involving "true" measures of expertise have found no relationship between expertise and involvement levels (Zaichkowsky 1985a). Third, the operationalization of motivation as "measured product importance" is certainly quite different from its operationalization as "experimentally manipulated involvement in a product's advertisement." It would be interesting to see the relationship between motivation and ability across a variety of operationalizations of motivation.

Using causal modeling methodologies, Zinkhan and Muderrisoglu (1985) have investigated the preceding problem by providing evidence for the discriminant validity among product involvement, familiarity, cognitive differentiation, and advertising recall constructs. All four constructs shared more variance in common with their indicators than with the other constructs in the model.

Another perplexing problem is that motivation, ability, and opportunity may all interact in some situations. For example, Wright (1981, p. 281) suggests that:

Audience members' acute interest in the ad may increase thought production only when the reception situation is relatively strain free (e.g., print mode), but when the reception situation is more strainful (e.g., audio mode), motivational differences may be less important than inherent cognitive ability in determining thought levels.

The possibility of the three-way interaction among motivation, ability, and opportunity should serve as a caution in the development of operationalizations. For example, consider a hypothetical situation in which a researcher predicts increased cognitive response activity -to print advertising under a high level of motivation (e.g., due to greater personal relevance) and a high level of ability (e.g., due to subjects having extensive product knowledge). The results, however, are opposite of predictions. It seems an extremely complex, high personal relevance treatment was perceived by subjects as severely limiting their opportunity to process the advertising information. Therefore, this caused subjects exposed to the high personal relevance treatment to generate significantly fewer (as opposed to greater) cognitive responses.

With the manipulation of any one of the conditions, every effort should be made to hold the other conditions constant. In fact, one should include confounding checks (to be discussed) to determine if the manipulated condition inadvertently affected the nonmanipulated conditions. In addition, longitudinal studies might be insightful in untangling causal interpretations concerning the time occurrence of the variables. Perhaps of equal practical significance is the reality that the manipulation of one variable (e.g., motivation) may ultimately depend upon the level selected in holding the other variables (e.8., opportunity) constant.

Operational Ranges

Cook and Campbell (1979) caution researchers to be careful in experiments that involve the manipulation of several discrete levels of an independent variable that is continuous. For example, one might conclude that "manipulated high involvement" does not impact cognitive response production when in fact the "manipulated high involvement" was at an involvement level too low to produce cognitive responses. Therefore, it is important to conduct research at many levels of the continuous variable.

Another problem arises when a related, nonmanipulated variable (e.g., opportunity to respond) in an experiment occurs at a level either too low or too high to allow the intended manipulation (e.g., involvement) to operate. For instance, if an experiment contained an unlimited time to process a single advertisement, it is doubtful that a significant separation between manipulated high and low involvement groups would be attained. Similarly, if an experiment contained an overwhelming number of advertisements under an unreasonably short exposure time, significant separations between manipulated involvement groups would again be difficult to achieve. As argued with inverted-U effects in cognitive response production (Batra and Ray 1986; Cacioppo and Petty 1979), the manipulation of message processing involvement (with subsequent message elaboration) will tend to operate only in a given range of one's opportunity to process the message. The solution to this dilemma is to conduct several pretests varying the level at which other important, non-manipulated conditions are held constant.


This section suggests the use of several techniques to help avoid experimental disaster for researchers examining motivation, ability, and opportunity constructs. While the techniques presented are certainly not novel, their application to the antecedents of message elaboration would help contribute to the construct validity of the variables.

Construct Validity and Confounding Checks

It is certain that the advertisement of the motivation, ability, and opportunity concepts will be enhanced when the construct validity of their measures is established (Cook and Campbell 1979). Some work in this regard has taken place in establishing the convergent and criterion validity of the involvement concept (Zaichkowsky 1985b). However, given the close {but conceptually distinct) relationships among motivation, ability, and opportunity, establishing the discriminant validity of the measures is the important issue. That is, we must be careful that manipulations do not produce changes in measures of related but conceptually different constructs. For example, it would be desirable for a researcher to investigate whether a manipulation designed to alter motivation to process inadvertently varied perceptions of one's opportunity to process or mood states rather than, or in addition to, motivation to process (Perdue and Summers 1986). [Park and Young (1986, p. 21) acknowledge that their low involvement manipulation ("think of your friend's illness") may have distracted the subject's focus of attention by creating a sad mood which in turn lowered the subject's brand evaluation.] The solution to this problem is provided by Perdue and Summers (1986) who strongly suggest the use of "confounding checks" to assess discriminant validity issues (such as above) in addition to manipulation checks normally used to measure convergent validity. [A confounding check is a type of manipulation check that tests for a divergence of measures and manipulations of related but distinct "things" (Perdue and Summers 1986). It should also be mentioned that, although they did not use "confounding checks", Batra and Ray (1986) explored the variation of the opportunity manipulation check within both their motivation/ability treatment groups.]

Confounding checks, in the pretest development of motivation, ability, or opportunity manipulations, would prove to be invaluable to researchers placing any importance on hypothesized, causal relationships among manipulations and dependent measures. With multi-factor designs, the full-factorial ANOVA model for manipulation checks may provide researchers with added insight if it is likely that one manipulation (e.g., source credibility) may have unintentionally affected the measure of a different manipulation (e.g., an involvement manipulation check). If a confound occurs, it is important to determine the degree of confounding present. This can be accomplished by analyzing the effect size (e.g., with omega-squared) of the confounded relationship. This effect size should not be larger than that of the intended relationship. One additional issue is whether or not the confounding variable is theoretically important in relation to the primary dependent measures. For example, in an experiment manipulating involvement, a confound with ability or opportunity may severely limit interpretation of the results (for additional details see Perdue and Summers 1986).

While it is acknowledged that it is difficult to capture true low involvement conditions in the laboratory, we should be careful not to combine both involvement and opportunity under low involvement treatments. For example, efforts made to induce low involvement processing by directing attention away from the target ad's content include: gift choices for other products advertised; having subjects search for alliteration, rhymes, hyperholes, etc. in the ad; and asking subjects to view a commercial thinking about a friend's illness. Under these processing strategies, it is quite possible that both one's involvement and opportunity to respond are affected. Therefore, unless appropriate confounding checks are included, any causal implications for involvement may be confounded with opportunity as well. Future research should make use of confounding checks to avoid operational problems associated with the manipulation of motivation, ability, and opportunity conditions.

An Illustration

The following example illustrates one possible use of manipulation and confounding checks in the context of experimentation with motivation, ability, and opportunity constructs.

Consider the following hypothetical experiment of print advertising. A researcher employs a 2 x 2 factorial design by manipulating involvement in the advertising message (high vs. low) and message argument strength (strong vs. weak). Significantly greater attitude change is predicted for high involvement subjects exposed to strong (as opposed to weak) message arguments. The researcher follows conventionally accepted involvement (varying the personal relevance of the advertised message) and argument strength (varying the cogency of an equal number of message arguments) manipulations (cf., Petty, Cacioppo, and Schumann 1983). The state of involvement in the advertising message is checked via multiple items assessing the degree to which subjects focused on, concentrated on, and were engrossed in, engaged in, and involved in processing the message claims. Argument strength is checked by the degree to which subjects found the message arguments to be strong, persuasive, convincing, good arguments, etc. The reliability of both measures is then analyzed, followed by a full-factorial ANOVA model of both factors for each of the two manipulation checks. The involvement manipulation should have significantly affected the involvement manipulation check with no evidence of interaction or argument strength effects. Similar reasoning can be applied to the argument strength manipulation check. Confounding checks are also necessary to ensure that related concepts of opportunity, ability, or mood have not been inadvertently affected by the manipulations. Finally, for comparability and understanding of results, the researcher should be cognizant of the relative level at which the involvement and argument strength variables have each been manipulated. This also holds true for the relative levels of related constructs (e.g., opportunity, ability) held constant in the experiment.

Internal Analysis

If an experimenter's manipulation is unsuccessful, and confounding checks do not uncover any inadvertent confounding of the manipulation, an internal analysis (Carlsmith, Ellsworth, and Aronson 1976) may be used to determine whether or not the hypotheses still hold true. For example, if an involvement manipulation was unsuccessful, the experimenter can re-analyze the data by a median split on the manipulation check separating those who are truly involved (regardless of the manipulation) from those who aren't. The re-analysis of the data using these two groups and primary dependent measures will indicate whether or not the hypotheses still are relevant. However, the researcher can not make any causal claims from the analysis.

If the re-analysis of the data proves unsuccessful, the researcher may desire to perform an internal analysis on the confounding checks to determine if the related constructs have influenced the primary dependent measures. The internal analysis can be a useful tool in suggesting new hypotheses and interpretations of the data, and could be especially helpful in the analysis of antecedent conditions of message elaboration.


For interpretative and causal reasons, it is important to establish the conceptual distinctiveness of the motivation, ability, and opportunity antecedents to message elaboration. For example, one may have the desire to be involved in an advertised message, possess sufficient knowledge to process its claims, but distraction may severely limit the message processor's opportunity and ultimately reduce message elaboration. In addition, to infer that an involvement manipulation was the sole influence on cognitive response production assumes that the involvement concept has been found to be independent from related, but theoretically distinct, concepts such as ability and opportunity.

Although the variables are recognized as being conceptually distinct, the success of the manipulation of one antecedent condition (e.g., motivation) can ultimately depend on the level at which other conditions (e.g., opportunity) are held constant. Therefore, it is important for researchers to understand the relative level at which a variable is manipulated as well as levels used to hold constant other theoretically related variables.

Because of the practical considerations found in developing successful manipulations of motivation, ability, and opportunity conditions, it is important to go beyond traditional manipulation check measures and include confounding checks as well. This procedure is important to ensure that a manipulation of one condition (e.g., motivation) will not inadvertently affect the perceptions of other non-manipulated conditions (e.g., opportunity). Internal analyses of manipulation and confounding checks can provide researchers with helpful suggestions in the redesign of motivation, ability, and opportunity experiments.


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J. Craig Andrews, Marquette University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 15 | 1988

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