The Development of Consumer Information-Processing Skills: Contributions From Cognitive Development Theory

ABSTRACT - The combined theoretical perspective we have been using in studying consumer socialization--cognitive development theory and an information processing model--are described. Some data from our prior research is presented to illustrate the usefulness of the perspective. Lastly, directions for further research with the combined perspective and its relevance for policy questions are discussed.


Daniel B. Wackman and Scott Ward (1976) ,"The Development of Consumer Information-Processing Skills: Contributions From Cognitive Development Theory", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 03, eds. Beverlee B. Anderson, Cincinnati, OH : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 531-535.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, 1976      Pages 531-535


Daniel B. Wackman, University of Minnesota

Scott Ward, Harvard University and Marketing Science Institute

[To appear in Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. III, (Proceedings, Association for Consumer Research Annual Meeting, Cincinnati, Ohio, October 1975).]


The combined theoretical perspective we have been using in studying consumer socialization--cognitive development theory and an information processing model--are described. Some data from our prior research is presented to illustrate the usefulness of the perspective. Lastly, directions for further research with the combined perspective and its relevance for policy questions are discussed.

In recent years, researchers, practitioners, and policy makers in industry and government have evidenced considerable interest in the topic of "consumer socialization.'' Under this rubric, the specific interest is often in one of three areas. First, researchers have been concerned with television advertising practices affecting children, and related policy issues (e.g., Ward, 1972; Rubin, 1972; Shimp, Dryer and Divita, 1975). Second, researchers have been interested in marketing management issues involved in promoting to children (McNeal, 1964; James, 1971; Schiele, 1974). Third, recent attention has been devoted to the topic of consumer socialization itself. The topic is usually defined as having to do with the processes by which children acquire knowledge, skills and attitudes related to consumer behavior. Specific research attention in this area has focused on such topics as parent-child interaction (Ward and Wackman, 1972; Berey and Pollay, 1968), adolescent consumer learning (Moore and Stephens, 1975), and theoretical issues involved in consumer socializations processes (Ward, 1974; Calder, et al, 1975). In short, the area is an appealing one for research, since it can target on immediate policy questions, management questions, and longer-term developmental issues.

The area of consumer socialization is an appealing one for other reasons, as well. It suggests some reasonably well-defined problems, and the investigator is led rather directly into a set of reasonably comprehensive theories which are relevant to the problems. This is in marked contrast to the reverse process which typically occurs in consumer behavior research, i.e., investigators borrow theories from behavioral science, and search for applications in "real" marketing problems.


Consumer socialization can be viewed as a particular aspect of more general socialization processes. That is, the interest is in how children acquire knowledge, skills and attitudes relevant to marketplace activities, as distinct from other activities. Two theoretical approaches have been particularly useful to consumer socialization researchers to this point: learning theory approaches (e.g., Goldberg and Gorn, 1974; Calder, Robertson and Rossiter, 1975), and cognitive development theory.

Learning theory is a broad term, and its relevance to socialization research would seem to stem from three particular approaches: neo-Hullian, neo-Skinnerian, and social learning theory (see Zigler and Child, 1969, pp. 465-468). The latter has been cited as holding much promise for consumer socialization research, among learning theory approaches (Calder, Robertson and Rossiter, 1975; Atkin, 1975).

We have found cognitive development theory to be most useful for three primary reasons. First, cognitive development theory, stemming primarily from Piaget (1928, 1952 and 1954), is directly relevant to issues relating to children's information processing of consumer stimuli. That is, developmental concepts are useful in understanding and predicting children's selection, evaluation and use of information in consumption decisions. Second, cognitive developmental theories are directly relevant to policy issues, and we believe that one criterion for theory is its utility for employing concepts and generating research which is relevant to practice. Developmental theory postulates age-related changes in cognitive abilities which clearly bear on children=s information processing abilities and strategies; consequently, the theory is useful in guiding policy decisions concerning what are and what are not appropriate marketing stimuli for children. Finally, widespread application of cognitive development theory has resulted in a high degree of face validity for research results. In our own research, for example (Ward and Wackman, 1973) we were able to predict several dimensions of children's reactions to commercials on the basis of cognitive developmental concepts, and used several methods to test individual hypotheses concerning stage related differences in these reactions. As Calder, et al, (1975) accurately point out, cognitive development theory specifies "limitations" on cognitive processing abilities among children, and the theory cannot be extended too far in explaining particularistic phenomena (e.g., children's selection of bits of information from specific kinds of commercials). It is misleading to conclude, however, that developmental theory lacks explanatory or predictive power. In any case, the issue really concerns what we expect from theory. Our position is that many crucial issues concerning child-rents developing abilities to process consumer-related stimuli are well accounted for by cognitive developmental concepts.


As with all cognitive developmental theories, Piaget's theory posits a cognitive representational or coding process intervening between a stimulus and a child's response, These cognitive representations are organized into cognitive structures, or integrated patterns of thought and behavior which change with age. Kohlberg (1971) refers to these cognitive structures as "rules used for processing information and connecting experienced events." The qualitative changes in thought which children undergo are conceptualized as "stages," which are considered as (1) distinct, qualitative differences in children's modes of thinking or problem solving; (2) invariant so that environmental facts may influence the pace of development, but not the sequence; (3) structured wholes, so that a child at a given stage will show thinking typical of his stage in diverse situations; and (4) not in conflict with one another--each successive stage encompasses lower stages into higher levels of organization.

Piaget posits four developmental stages: (1) sensori-motor (birth to two years); (2) preoperational (two to seven years); (3) concrete operational (seven to eleven years); (4) formal operational (eleven through adulthood). The age ranges are approximate, but the stage-age relationship has been well established (Favell, 1963).

Of particular interest in current research are the differences between preoperational and concrete operational thinking since children in these two stages are the focal age group in current policy controversies. Pre-operational thinking is characterized by developing symbolic abilities (such as language and mental imagery)~ but the child at this stage is very much "perceptually bounds" i.e., reality is understood primarily in terms of the immediate perceptual environment, By the concrete operational stage, the child has developed conceptual skills which enable him to effectively mediate perceptual activity, but only when dealing with concrete objects. Children at the concrete operational stage can focus on more dimensions of a situation than can younger, preoperational children, who tend to focus on one dimension (the concept of "centration"). Other cognitive abilities differentiate preoperational and concrete operational developmental stages too, but our research has primarily focused on this perceptual boundness dimension,


Developmental concepts are useful in understanding differences in children's selection of information, and evaluation and use of information, in making consumer-related decisions, These processes are portrayed in Figure 1, as "initial" and "central" processing.



Data relevant to children=s "initial processing" of information are seen in studies by Ward and Wackman, 1973; Wartella and Ettema, 1974, and Ward, Wackman and Wartella, 1976). In these studies, the basic proposition was that younger (preoperational children) would exhibit greater responsiveness to perceptual characteristics of commercials, The expectation was supported, as indexed by attention behavior, and by post-exposure verbal data, in which younger children were most likely to recall and describe commercials in terms of salient visual stimuli.

It was also found that children exhibit qualitative differences in recall of commercials, as well as differences in the amount of material recalled, Data in Table 1, for example, show clear developmental differences in the degree of organization of recalled information, as predicted by development theory.



Another aspect of initial information processing focuses on the types of information children select in order to evaluate a product. Developmental theory would lead one to predict that preoperational children would be more likely to use perceptual (physical) attributes as a primary basis of evaluations compared to older, concrete operational children, who should use more attributes, particularly "abstract" ones, in product evaluations. Data in Table 2 support this prediction: when asked about the kind of information they would want if they were buying a television set, most children requested information about physical attributes (how big is the screen?), but older children were considerably more likely than younger children to also request information about performances price and functional (e.g., how long will it last) attributes.



As an aspect of "central processing," (see Figure 1), developmental theory was used to predict age-related differences in the number and kind of attributes children use to compare brands. Data in Table 3 show the mean numbers of attributes children used to compare two brands in three product groups (peanut butter, milk additives and toothpaste). All three age groups are similar in mentioning perceptual attributes of the products, but older children are more likely to mention ingredients and functional attributes which are more conceptual in nature (e.g., "the way the milk additive mixes with water" or "the toothpaste keeps you from getting cavities").



We should point out that the results reported here are not particularly surprising: older children use more, and more "sophisticated" kinds of information in their developing consumer information processing skills. The point is that the results are predicted from cognitive development theory,


Up to this point, our research has focused on the content of children's consumer information--the kinds of information children select and use relative to consumption, The next step in our research will be to shift our focus to the processes children use in selecting, storing, and handling consumption related information, Two major areas of interest will receive our attention initially: representational processes and information use processes, These correspond quite closely to the distinction between initial processing and central processing depicted in Figure 1.

Representational processes refer to the processes by which children select information and store it in memory, Our research strategy to the present has been to ask children open-ended questions, thereby trying to tap verbally what children have stored. But, as Rossiter (1975) properly points out, alternative representations (e.g., visual) are possible and, indeed, they are likely, as his data show, Of particular interest in the area of representational processes will be examination of questions regarding how children store product-related information,

Information use processes refer to the processes by which children utilize information in reeking decisions, Recent consumer research has focused on a variety of strategies adults can--and do--use in choosing brands, e.g., various compensatory models, lexicographic models, conjunctive models, etc. To what extent children use simplified versions of these models--or entirely different ones--will be of central interest in our research, And obviously how a child represents information will have a major impact-on the strategies he can adopt in making consumption decisions,

In terms of guiding this future research, we expect the cognitive development literature to be just as useful as we have found it in our previous research. Specifically, we expect it to be useful in providing concepts descriptive of specific cognitive operations that can stipulate necessary conditions for utilizing different representational and information use processes,

For example, in focusing on the question of how children store information regarding various brands within a product category, we can ask what are the cognitive skills necessary to build an object/attribute matrix. We can stipulate a sequence of cognitive operations and the resultant representation that can be made when each operation is added:

1. Ability to see an object as separate from properties of the object (i.e., attributes)--having this ability makes it possible to construct a one object, one attribute matrix.

2. Ability to classify objects according to whether they possess an attribute or not and ability to compare two objects on an attribute dimension having these abilities makes it possible to construct a two object, one attribute matrix.

3. Ability to order a series of objects on an attribute dimension--having this ability makes it possible to construct a multiple object, one attribute matrix.

4. Ability to utilize more than one dimension--having this ability makes it possible to construct a multiple object, multiple attribute matrix. [It should be noted that these cognitive operations assume that the information may be stored in various codesCverbal, visual and other types of representations are possible.]

In shorts specification of the operations necessary to building a full-matrix and the kinds of matrices implied by having only a partial set enables us to conceptualize--and then test--the kinds of representation children of various ages (and skill levels) are likely to have. Each of these cognitive operations, and the sequence of their development are discussed in cognitive development theory.

Similarly, different types of logical operations identified by cognitive development theorists will help in specifying different kinds of information use processes children might utilize in making consumption decisions. Cognitive developmental concepts that may be candidates for suggesting necessary conditions for utilizing various information use strategies include sereation, inferential ability, and transitive reasonings etc. In generals it is to be expected that the child's ability or inability to perform various logical operations will (a) limit or expand the number and types of decision strategies a child can use, and (b) reduce or increase his flexibility in shifting strategies.

Besides suggesting a variety of interesting research questions, we believe the combination of cognitive development theory with an information processing model is highly relevant to many policy questions too. For examples take the premium advertising issue, An important question concerns whether advertising of a premium tends to sell the premium itself to the child, or whether it sells the primary product which has "premium" as one of its attributes. In our conceptual terms, this becomes a question of the child's representation of the information about the product and premium, At least two alternatives are clearly possible, (1) The product, such as a cereal, and the premium are seen as two separate objects. (2) The premium is seen as an attribute of the primary product, perhaps a very important one, but nevertheless clearly a part of the product.

In Rossiter's (1975) research reported in this volume, a large percent of the children drew a premium on a cereal box when asked to draw a cereal box. He interprets this as indicating that children see premiums as an attribute of cereal. However, when he asked the children to verbally describe their favorite cereal, few made any reference to premiums; instead, they mentioned taste, sweetness, etc. This suggests the possibility that the subjects in Rossiter's study were responding to two different objects. On the one hand, they were asked to draw a cereal box, and for the children, premium is an important attribute of the object "cereal box." On the other hand, they were asked to describe their favorite cereal, and for them, premium is not an important attribute of the object "cereal." If this alternative interpretation is corrects then it would appear that most children are representing premium and cereal as two different objects. Of course, this would increase the likelihood that advertising of a premium is indeed selling the premium to the child, rather than the primary product. In any case, the example clearly indicates the relevance of questions raised when an information processing perspective is utilized.

To summarize our position briefly, we believe our prior research has shown that the combination of an information processing perspective and cognitive development theory is an extremely useful conceptual marriage in guiding our research and in providing explanations for our results. As we continue to pursue consumer socialization research--shifting our attention to questions regarding the processes children utilize in representing and using information--we are convinced it will continue to be extremely useful.


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Daniel B. Wackman, University of Minnesota
Scott Ward, Harvard University and Marketing Science Institute


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 03 | 1976

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