The Development of Consumer Information-Processing Skills: Integrating Cognitive Development and Family Interaction Theories

ABSTRACT - Consumer socialization is defined in terms of children's developing skills to process information pertaining to consumer behavior. Two influences on this process are (1) cognitive abilities, indexed by age-related stages in cognitive development, and (2) environmental influences -- particularly interpersonal events between parent and child. An attempt is made to integrate these two diverse theoretical traditions. Three alternative models of the families' impact on consumer socialization are proposed and evaluated.


Scott Ward, Daniel Wackman, and Ellen Wartella (1977) ,"The Development of Consumer Information-Processing Skills: Integrating Cognitive Development and Family Interaction Theories", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 04, eds. William D. Perreault, Jr., Atlanta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 166-171.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, 1977   Pages 166-171


Scott Ward, Harvard Business School and Marketing Science Institute

Daniel Wackman, University of Minnesota

Ellen Wartella, Ohio State University


Consumer socialization is defined in terms of children's developing skills to process information pertaining to consumer behavior. Two influences on this process are (1) cognitive abilities, indexed by age-related stages in cognitive development, and (2) environmental influences -- particularly interpersonal events between parent and child. An attempt is made to integrate these two diverse theoretical traditions. Three alternative models of the families' impact on consumer socialization are proposed and evaluated.


My purpose in this paper is to advance some conceptual and theoretical ideas about the process of consumer socialization, defined as the process by which young people acquire skills, knowledge and attitudes relevant to their functioning as consumers. [This paper is based on a forthcoming book: Children Learning to Buy: The Development of Consumer Information-Processing Skills, by S. Ward, D.B. Wackman and E. Wartella; to be published in 1976 by Sage Publishing Company, Inc.] My interests here are far beyond questions of children's consumer behavior, however, I would hope that this paper stimulates those interested in other areas of consumer behavior --in particular, research and theory which attempts to integrate intra- and inter-personal processes. That is, behavioral research over several decades has clearly demonstrated that social environment mediates cognitive processing, e.g., persuasion research on how social factors mediate attitude change. But, in consumer behavior research, a vexing problem remains as to how to conceptually and analytically integrate inter-and intra-personal processes portrayed in comprehensive models. I believe we have made some advances in this area, in our attempts for the joint influence on developmental and family variables on consumer socialization outcomes among children.

Our program of research on consumer socialization has proceeded from two premises. First, we view consumer socialization as essentially the development of in-formation-processing skills, i.e., how people select, evaluate and use information relevant to consumption decisions. This conceptual viewpoint means that we focus on the cognitive processes which link stimuli to responses. In much past research in this area, functional relationships have not been sought; rather, investigators have examined inputs to consumer socialization (e.g., content analysis of advertising content -- Barcus, 1971; Winick, 1974) or outputs, e.g. descriptions of various things different-aged children buy, (McNeal, 1969) or children's affective reactions to television commercials (Wells, 1965).

Our second premise is that, while age is an obviously important variable in describing information-processing at different points in the socialization process, it is: (1) a descriptive variable with no inherent explanatory value; and (2) incomplete, since family variables and other external influences may have varying impacts, even with the same age level. Consequently, we utilize concepts advanced in cognitive development theories (Piaget, 1952, 1954, 1960; Kohlberg, 1971) to explain age-related differences. Additionally, we argue that information-processing explanations must take environmental and social influences into account, rather than simply focusing on intra-individual cognitive processing. In the case of information-processing approaches to consumer socialization research, this means that attention must be paid not only to children's cognitive abilities (based on cognitive development theories) but also the impact of "external influences," e.g., advertising and family influences.


The primary variables of interest in our studies of consumer socialization are included in the pictorial model in Figure 1.



We have been particularly concerned with the influence of television advertising and the family on children, recognizing that other influences, such as peers, school, etc. may also influence children's consumer socialization. Previous research in child development leads us to expect the "family" (referring particularly to mother-child relations) to influence children in three primary ways: children may observe parents' own consumer behavior (i.e., husband-wife discussions about spending priorities), parents may directly discuss consumption with their children (e.g., discussions about how to spend allowances, etc.), and parents may exhibit some degree of supervision over children's opportunities for independent spending. These family processes will be discussed in more detail later in this paper.

Consumer socialization proceeds in terms of developing information-processing abilities, which we divide into "initial" and "central" processing. The former refers to initial "screening" children may engage in --selective processes in searching out and attending to various kinds of information (e.g., thumbing through a store catalogue for Christmas gifts) as well as differing patterns of attention to television commercials during a viewing period.

Considerably less research attention has been devoted to "central" processing, although researchers in other areas have traced the sequence of consumer decision-making (Bettman, 1970, 1971), examined the quality of information (Jacoby, et al., 1974) and assessed the thoughts consumers have while attending to marketing communications (Ward and Ray, 1974).

While the pictorial model (Figure 1) is a static representation, its primary interest for theorists and researchers rests in age-related differences in the process itself -- how do the functional relationships among the variables depict change over the course of socialization? The behavioral dependent variables depicted are primarily of interest of marketing practitioners and policy makers. The principle outcomes depicted are how children use money (including money use norms), spending and savings patterns, and -- since children often obtain goods and services via parents -- another outcome is the frequency and content of purchase requests.

In the remainder of this paper, I will describe our conceptualizations of the impact of the family on consumer information-processing skills.


In spite of interest in environmental influences, few developmental theorists have examined precisely how the environment interacts with developmental processes, or even suggested theoretical guidelines for research. Consequently, we reviewed literature on the amorphous area of "family influence" studies on child development, and classified them in terms of (1) variables studied, (2) bases of impact, and (3) family patterns.

Examining variables studied, one could further classify research in terms of variables conceptually "distant" from outcomes in child development (e.g., family ethnicity, structure, social class), to those "closer to" developmental outcomes (e.g., parent-child interaction about consumption).

The specific variables selected for a study generally depend upon assumptions the investigator makes regarding influence processes. For example, researchers assuming a reinforcement learning model choose variables assessing rewards and punishments, e.g., affection, types of punishment, etc. Researchers assuming a vacarious learning model choose variables assessing the parental behaviors which are modeled for the child. Psychoanalytic researchers assess children's identification with parents. Role learning researchers select variables assessing the norms and expectations parents have for children.

Studies may also be classified in terms of the basis of impact assumed. Much research assumes a learning model, i.e., what child behavior is being rewarded or punished, under what circumstances.

Finally, different conceptualizations of family patterns are evident. Early studies conceptualize family patterns in terms of a unidimensional continuum. "Ideal types" represent the end-points which involve a set of highly correlated specific behavior dimensions, e.g., Miller and Swanson's (1958) entrepreneurial and bureaucratic families. The evidence for high relationships among the various dimensions that make up the major continuum is not impressive. For example, Kagan and Moss (1962) found only two or three correlations among maternal behaviors to be statistically significant in early periods of childhood. More recently, the development of two dimensional typologies has resulted in somewhat better prediction than a simple linear combination of the two underlying variables. Finally, multi-dimensional approaches conceptualize family patterns by viewing each family as a vector of responses, e.g., affection, parental power, etc., as various family or parent behavior dimensions are included in, most often, regression analyses.

We conclude from this review of literature on family impact on child development that: (1) the frequency findings of low correlations between family dimensions and child behavior is probably due to the fact that some conceptual mechanism is necessary to link parent variables with child variables: the "leap" between cause and effect is considerable, particularly if one attempts to relate variables which are conceptually "distant" from developmental outcomes. (2) The "linkage" might best he represented by considering the situation in which learning occurs. (3) Moreover, we postulate that children actively select situations, and aspects of situations to attend to, rather than simply assuming that ail or even many relevant parental behaviors influence a child.

When combining these conclusions from family impact studies with studies in cognitive development, two other conclusions are reached: (1) different learning processes characterize different stages, because (a) parents treat different-aged children differently, and (b) developmental theory provides a basis for predicting differences in the "quality" of learning at different stages. (2) The researcher should expect that the same variable might have quite different impacts on different-aged children's learning.

This conceptualization led us to select three kinds of "family variables" and assess their impact within as well as across three age groupings (kindergarten-aged children, third- and sixth-graders). [Our conceptualization also led us to assess the variation in mothers' behavior across a variety of specific situations (e.g., product purchases on various occasions, different kinds of purchase requests by the child, etc.), and develop a series of response tendencies in each situation. These results are not presented here but see S. Ward, et al., op. cit., p. 1.] In the family context, there appear to be three main ways in which a child can learn information-processing skills relevant to consumer behavior: (1) by observing his parent's behavior; (2) by interacting with his parents in consumption situations -- either parent- or child-initiated interaction; (3) by engaging in consumption activity under some degree of parental guidance, i.e., "child opportunity" variables. Additionally, mothers' goals for their children as consumers were expected to impact on socialization outcomes. These four classes of family content variables consist of twenty-six individual measures which are independent variables in the analyses to follow (see Table 1). We set out to examine the importance of these variables in the consumer socialization process.




The dependent variables used in the study are listed in Table 2. These were reduced from a larger set of variables, often through combining dichotomous or trichotomous measures into more reliable scales. Essentially, "skill behaviors," involve consumption-related activities which have a cognitive basis in that they involve information-processing capabilities that generally follow cognitive growth; the distinction between lower and higher level skills refers to the use of relatively concrete, perceptual attributes in processing, versus the use of more abstract, conceptual, or functional attributes. "Non-skill" consumer activities do not have cognitive bases or follow the course of general cognitive development.



Our next step in the analysis was to analyze the relative impact of age compared to all the other independent variables on the child's behavior. Third, we conducted separate regression analyses for each grade level, regressing the four classes of family context variables on each dependent variable. [Regression results for all analyses are presented in a separate technical appendix, which may be obtained by writing the authors.] Finally, we conducted several analyses with kindergarteners designed to assess alternative roles the family may play in children's consumer socialization.

As would probably be expected, age was the best predictor variable for all but four of the twenty-four child variables. Even when the zero-order correlation between age and the dependent child variable is rather low, age is a better predictor in most instances. There would seem to be three plausible explanations for this result.

First, it may be the case that none of the family context variables we identified and measured has much impact on children's consumer learning. This explanation would lead us to reject our key hypotheses, or at least to severely question our selection of variables and measures. Second, it may be that age is strongly related to most family context variables, and as a consequence, age "overpowers" these variables in the regression analyses. However, we found that age is not related to most family context variables; indeed the average correlation between age and these variables is only .11. Thus, it would appear that we can reject this explanation because of the generally low relationship between age and the independent variables. A third explanation is that the family context variables of significance for any particular child behavior may differ for the three age groups. As noted earlier, the socialization literature suggests that environmental factors may operate quite differently on children at different ages. If this is the case, the impact of a single family context variable important in only age group might be substantially diminished when all three age groups are combined in the analysis. This kind of condition is analogous to an "interaction," but it is difficult to identify adequately using a linear additive model such as a multiple regression approach. By conducting multiple regression analyses separately for each of the age groups, it was possible to determine whether or not this explanation is plausible. At the same time, separate subgroup regressions make possible an evaluation of the first explanation -- that none of the family context variables has much impact on children's consumer learning.

It was found that the various classes of family context variables did appear to have different impacts on children's behavior at the three grade levels examined separately. Thus, the data suggest that the most plausible explanation of our initial regression analysis with the total sample is the third, "interaction" prediction. The family context variable did increase our explanatory power, but the importance of specific independent variables changed, between kindergarten and third grade. In particular, mother-child interaction variables were consistently important for the development of kindergarteners' consumer skills. On the other hand, mothers' own consumer behavior appeared to be consistently important for older children's skill development.

These results suggest that a change occurs in the learning process of consumer skills between kindergarten and third grade such that the younger children learn more through a relatively direct "teaching" process and the older children learn more indirectly through observation.

Future research should examine this possible change in the learning process underlying consumer socialization, but it should be remembered that the largest changes in children's consumer skills -- particularly higher level information-processing skills -- are a function of age-related changes, perhaps primarily those involving the development of more sophisticated cognitive capabilities.

Alternative Processes in the Development of Consumer Skills

To say that the largest changes in children's consumer skills are a result of age-related cognitive changes does not mean that environmental influences are unimportant. Cognitive development theory suggests that a child's interaction with his environment propels cognitive changes, but the theory is only beginning to address the key question of how these changes actually occur. The data in the present study present a limited opportunity for examining possible alternative developmental processes in terms of three sets of variables: general cognitive abilities, consumer skills, and family variables. Although there may be a number of developmental processes which involve these classes of variables, three seem to be particularly plausible.

The first process would occur in the following sequences: the major impact of the family would be on the development of general cognitive abilities which, in turn, would be the major determinant of the child's use of consumer skills. This process can be diagrammed as follows:

(1) family ----------- cognitive ability ----------- consumer skills

With this process, we would expect a substantial relationship between the family variables and the child's cognitive abilities. Further we would expect substantial correlations between the child's cognitive abilities and his use of consumer skills. Finally, because the influence of the family is on the cognitive abilities, we should expect rather low relationships between the family variables and the consumer skills when the child's general cognitive ability is controlled.

The second process involves a substantially different role for the family. In this process, the family is viewed as having little impact on the development of the child's general cognitive abilities. On the other hand, the family is seen as having a major impact on the child's application of his cognitive abilities in specific situations. This process may be represented as follows:


(2) cognitive ability ------------------------------------- consumer skills

If this process is applicable, we would expect little relationship between the family variables and the child's general cognitive ability. We would expect a substantial relationship between the cognitive ability and consumer skills, but this would expect that cognitive ability is a necessary condition for the performance of the consumer skills such that children with low cognitive ability would not be able to perform the skill. On the other hand, children with high cognitive ability would be able to perform the skill; whether they did so, however, would depend upon the family context. In this way, then, the family's main impact on development would be in motivating the child to use his general abilities in a specific area of application -- in this case, consumer skills.

The third possible process involves another substantially different role for the family. The family could have its primary impact directly on the child's learning of consumer skills, and the performance of consumer skills is not related to the child's general cognitive ability. Schematically:

(3) family --------------------------------- consumer skills

Here, we would again expect little relationship between the family and the child's general cognitive ability, and we would expect little relationship between cognitive ability and the child's performance of consumer skills. However, we would expect substantial relationship between the family variables and the consumer skills.

We assess which of these alternatives is most appropriate, utilizing the following data:

cognitive ability -- measured by "perceptual boundedness"

family variables -- the four classes of family context variables used in the regression analysis

consumer skills -- the five higher level information processing skills

We have restricted our analysis to the higher level information processing skills because it is for these variables that we expect the greater relationship with the child's general cognitive ability. Furthermore, we are limiting our analysis to kindergarteners since only with this group are there substantial numbers of children with low cognitive ability. Thus, only kindergarteners will provide an adequate test of the three development processes. We will examine each process in turn.

Family Impact on Development of General Cognitive Ability

When we perform a regression analysis of the family context variables on perceptual boundedness, we find that we are able to account for 16.9 percent of the variance -- a figure comparable to that for the higher level information-processing skills themselves. Furthermore, of the seven variables entering the equation, three are mother-child interaction variables and one is socioeconomic status. This is similar to the pattern for family influences on the child's consumer skills. Thus, it is possible the family's main impact on children's performance of higher level information-processing skills is indirectly occurring through its influence on their general cognitive ability, measured here by perceptual boundedness.

Perceptual boundedness is also substantially related to each of the information-processing skills too. The average correlation is .28 with a range of .21 (with the information-processing skill of "use of ingredient and functional attributes in comparing products") to .43 (with "awareness of commercials"). However, when regression analyses are performed on these five skills with perceptual boundedness included as an explanatory variable, substantial amounts of variance are still explained by the family variables. For these five skills, the family context variable accounts for an average of 11.8 percent of the variance. In contrast, perceptual boundedness only accounts for an average of 7.8 percent of the variance.

It would seem, then, that family consumer socialization variables have some impact on the development of the child's general cognitive ability, but its impact on the child's performance of skills is not entirely filtered through cognitive ability. Rather, the family also has an independent influence on the performance of these skills.

The next question to examine is whether this influence occurs more as a function of family influences on children's application of general cognitive ability, or as a function of teaching children specific consumer skills.

Family Impact on Application of Cognitive Ability

To determine the extent of family influence on motivating children to apply general cognitive ability, we divided the kindergarteners into two groups. The first group is comprised of children who scored low in cognitive ability, i.e., in differentiating between common objects in their environment, they did so almost exclusively in terms of physical, or perceptual, characteristics of objects. Children high in cognitive ability, on the other hand, also differentiated between objects' performance, as well as physical characteristics. We were interested here in determining whether this cognitive ability was a necessary condition for the performance of the consumer skills.

For the consumer skills measured, there appears to be some tendency for cognitive ability to function as a necessary condition for the performance of the skills. Although the patterns is not as strong as it was with awareness of commercials, less than one-third of the low cognitive ability kindergarteners perform these skills at more than a low level, suggesting that, cognitive ability may be essentially a necessary condition for performance of these skills as well.

For these three skills, the family context variables have a substantial impact on their performance among high cognitive ability children. Within this group of kindergarteners, family context variables account for an average of 23.7 'percent of the variance relating to these three consumer skills.

Thus, the necessary conditions analysis and subsequent regression analysis with higher cognitive ability kindergarteners would appear to provide them some support for the second developmental process we suggested: the interpretation of the family's major role is one of helping children to apply cognitive ability in the consumer area.

Direct Family Impact on Learning of Consumer Skills

The relationship between cognitive ability, and performance of two other skills was examined: awareness of brands, and use of ingredients and functional characteristics in brand comparison. Results suggest that cognitive ability is not a necessary condition for performance of these skills among kindergarten aged children. Cognitive ability was only weakly related to use of ingredients and suggest that children's abilities to use rather "sophisticated" criteria in brand comparison does not depend on cognitive ability.

For both of these consumer skills, family context variables account for more than one-sixth of the variance in the child's performance of the skills. Perhaps it is with these skills that parents most directly "teach" the consumer skills in line with the third development process described above.


The data provide some support for the three alternative roles of the family in the development of consumer information-processing skills:

1) The family has a direct impact on the development of general cognitive abilities and, therefore, an indirect impact on the development of consumer skills.

2) The family has an impact on motivating children to apply general cognitive abilities in areas of consumer behavior.

3) The family has an impact by directly teaching consumer skills which are not highly integrated with cognitive abilities.

It appears that the family's role in the development of children's consumer skills is probably greater than our earlier analyses would have suggested. We had found that family variables accounted for only about 10 to 15 percent of the variance in children's use of consumer skills at each of the three grade levels. We are essentially examining family impact on motivating children to apply cognitive abilities, and effects of direct consumer skills teaching in these analyses. However, our analysis of the relationship between family consumer socialization variables and the child's perceptual boundedness indicated that mother's consumer behavior even had an impact on the child's acquisition of this general cognitive ability. Thus, the family's impact on children's development of consumer skills functions both in direct and indirect ways. This indirect impact would probably be even greater if other aspects of the family context which also have impacts on the child's general cognitive ability had been measured.

Clearly these results are tentative ones, and they contain some inconsistencies, i.e.. lack of relationship between perceptual boundedness and use of nonphysical attributes in brand comparisons. Furthermore, when combined with results from earlier analyses indicating the shift in the family context variables of significance between kindergarten and third grade, the data suggest a rather complicated role for the family in the child's socialization as a consumer. In short, these data are suggestive in pointing to a highly important area for further research -- the alternative roles the family plays in the child's consumer socialization.

Two developments will be particularly important in helping us to begin to understand the complexity of the process. First are functional conceptualizations of the role of the child's experience in his cognitive and behavioral development. In these functional conceptualizations, the active role played by the child in both creating his experience and in interpretation then must be highlighted.

Second, research designs must be utilized which will capture the changes in cognitive abilities and in consumer behaviors. To some extent, over-time measurements must be taken, but this need not imply only elaborate long-term longitudinal studies. Reasonably short-term longitudinal studies and field and laboratory experiments may be of substantial value in more precisely specifying the interaction of the family and children's cognitive abilities over the process of consumer socialization.


F. Earl Baracus, "Advertising in the Sunday Comics," Journalism quarterly, XXXIX (Spring 1962), 196-202.

J.R. Bettman, "Information Processing Models of Consumer Behavior," Journal of Marketing Research, 11, 1, (1970), 370-376.

B.J. Balder, T.S. Robertson, and J.R. Rossiter, "Children's Consumer Information Processing," Communication Research, 2, 3, (1975), 307-316.

J. Jacoby, D.E. Speller and C.A. Kohn, "Brand Choice as a Function of Information Load," Journal of Marketing Research, 11, 1, (1974), 63-69.

H. Kagan and H. Moss, Births to Maturity (New York: Wiley, 1962).

James U. McNeal, "An Exploratory Study of the Consumer Behavior of Children," in McNeal (Ed.), Dimensions of Consumer Behavior (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1969).

D.R. Miller and G.E. Swanson, The Changing American Parent (New York: Wiley, 1958).

S. Ward and D.B. Wackman, "Effects of Television Advertising on Consumer Socialization," Marketing Science Institute, Cambridge, Massachusetts, September 1973.

S. Ward and M.L. Ray, "Cognitive Responses to Mass Communication: Results for Laboratory Studies and a Field Experiment," working paper, Marketing Science Institute, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

William D. Wells, "Communicating with Children," Journal of Advertising Research, 5, (June 1965), 2-14.

Charles Winick, L.G. Williamson, S.F. Chuzmir and M.P. Winick, Children's Television Commercials (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1973).

J.F. Wohwill, Cognitive Development in Children, Five Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).



Scott Ward, Harvard Business School and Marketing Science Institute
Daniel Wackman, University of Minnesota
Ellen Wartella, Ohio State University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 04 | 1977

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