New Research on Limited Cognitive Capacity: Effects of Arousal, Mood and Modality


Nader T. Tavassoli (1995) ,"New Research on Limited Cognitive Capacity: Effects of Arousal, Mood and Modality", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, eds. Frank R. Kardes and Mita Sujan, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 524-525.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, 1995      Pages 524-525


Nader T. Tavassoli, University of Minnesota

Consider a "normal" exposure to an advertisement. Even if the advertisement captures the audience's attention that audience may not be willing or able to fully process its content. Indeed most advertisement exposures are characterized by the availability of low cognitive capacity, such as, low involvement or contextual distractions (e.g., Hawkins and Hoch 1992). The session addressed three different variables which may limit cognitive capacity: arousal, positive mood and presentation modality. Moreover, in a combined seven studies the presenters focused on a variety of effects of limited capacity in the realm of persuasion, memory, and inference-making. Dipankar Chakravarti of the University of Arizona commented on the three presentations and moderated the ensuing discussion.


The first presentation by Michel Tuan Pham of Columbia University examined how cognitive capacity is influenced by arousal as generated by intense emotions or physical exercise (e.g., Sanbonmatsu and Kardes 1988). Three studies provide a clever test of processing strategies people employ when cognitive capacity is limited. The results of these studies provide coherent and convincing evidence that there are two distinct effects of limited capacity on persuasion. First, a representation effect causes information which requires at least moderate cognitive effort to process to be superficially encoded or to be misrepresented. This notion is similar to an increased impact of easy-to-process peripheral cues and a decreased impact of capacity-demanding central claims under low motivation or low ability to process information in the Elaboration Likelihood Model (Petty and Cacioppo 1986).

A second effect qualifies this logic, however. A selection effect will increase the impact of diagnostic cues on the persuasion process regardless of their capacity demands. Using a creative design, Pham demonstrated that easy-to-process non-diagnostic cues have a lower influence, and capacity-demanding but diagnostic claims have a higher influence when capacity is constrained by arousal. Pham's work should be of particular interest to persuasion researchers and for the use of peripheral cues (e.g., attractive endorsers or spokespersons) in advertising practice.


The second presentation by Angela Lee of Toronto University tested the moderating role of positive mood on information processing. Lee contrasted two popular views. The first view proposes that positive mood decreases cognitive capacity available for elaboration by (a) decreasing the motivation to engage in extensive processing (i.e., mood protection), or (b) by activating and retrieving mood-congruent materials which occupy capacity in short-term memory (e.g., Mackie and Worth 1989). The second view proposes that the activation of mood-congruent material increases its accessibility but does not occupy capacity in short-term memory (i.e., the information is not retrieved). Instead, the increased activation may aide elaborative processes such as categorization and inferencing. This should have a positive effect on memory.

In addition Lee examined the differential effect of cognitive capacity limitations on explicit memoryCtypical ad-copy measures like free recallCversus implicit memoryCan emerging area in consumer research which relates to consideration-set formation and stimulus-based factors that affect low-involvement choice. Preliminary results of an experiment favor the second view, namely that positive mood facilitates elaboration and does not decrease available mental capacity. Both explicit memory (recall of brand names) and conceptual priming benefited from a positive versus a neutral mood state. Perceptual priming, which is less sensitive to differences in elaboration, remained unaffected by the mood manipulation. In addition to providing new insights on the moderating role of positive mood on types of memory, Lee's research should have special appeal to the measurement of ad-copy effectiveness which primarily relies on explicit measures of memory.


The third presentation by Nader Tavassoli of the University of Minnesota focused on the presentation format of verbal information (i.e., spoken and written). In the print media it is written, on the radio it is spoken, and on television it is either spoken, written, alternating between the two modes (or it is bi-modal). A dominant view is that the presentational features of a message are shallowly processed and that semantic features are deeply processed (Craik and Lockhart 1979). Tavassoli argued that depth-of-processing is dependent on the format of presentation, for example, via differences in available cognitive capacity. Two types of processing were explored in three studies: item-specific and relational (Meyers-Levy 1991). For example, an item-specific elaboration on "compact car" could be the thought "parking would be easy." A relational elaboration is one that integrates claims such as "compact car" and "fast acceleration" and may prompt the bridging thought "I wonder if it's safe."

Based on the notion of separate mental channels for the processing of spoken versus written information (Penney 1989), cognitive capacity available for elaboration should be maximized within each channel by alternating the presentation of verbal information between the spoken and written modality. Compared to a uni-modal presentation there should be less interference between successive advertising claims if these are alternating spoken and written. In other words, the level of item-specific elaboration should be higher in the alternating mode than in uni-modal presentations. Conversely, the mechanism that maximizes item-specific elaborations, that is, separate channels, should also decrease relational elaboration between successive items of information compared to a uni-modal presentation. More simply stated, there should be less relational elaboration (integration) between information in different modalities compared to in the same modality. The first two studies found overall support for item-specific and relational memory. The third study extended the notion of separate channels to deep levels of elaboration, that is, to item-specific and relational inferences using a response latency approach. Besides theoretical contributions, Tavassoli's findings have implications for ad-copy design, public policy issues (memory for warning labels versus integration with brand information) and the selective interference of advertising context.


Craik, F.I.M. & Lockhart, R.S. (1972). Levels of Processing: A Framework for Memory Research. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 11, 671-84.

Hawkins, S.A., & Hoch, S.J. (1992). Low-involvement Learning: Memory without evaluation. Journal of Consumer Research, 19, 212-225.

Mackie, D.M., & Worth, L.T. (1989). Processing Deficits and the Mediation of Positive Affect in Persuasion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57, 27-40.

Meyers-Levy, J. (1991). Elaborating on Elaboration: The Distinction between Relational and Item-specific Elaboration. Journal of Consumer Research, 358-67.

Penney, C.G. (1989). Modality Effects and the Structure of Short-term Verbal Memory. Memory & Cognition, 398-422.

Petty, R. E. & Cacioppo, J.T. (1986). Communication and Persuasion. NY: Springer.

Sanbonmatsu, D.M. & Kardes, F.R. (1988). The Effects of Physiological Arousal on Information Processing and Persuasion. Journal of Consumer Research, 15, 379-85.

Worth, L.T., & Mackie, D.M. (1987). Cognitive Mediation of Positive Affect in Persuasion. Social Cognition, 5, 76-94.



Nader T. Tavassoli, University of Minnesota


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22 | 1995

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