Subjects' Information Processing in Information Display Board Studies

ABSTRACT - The processing carried out by subjects in information display board studies is examined. A theoretical analysis of the display board task, a review of relevant prior research, and a pilot study using prompted protocol data to attempt to understand subjects' display board usage behavior are reported. The results suggest that curiosity and exploratory behavior may be widespread. Implications for further use of the display board method are considered.


David C. Arch, James R. Bettman, and Pradeep Kakkar (1978) ,"Subjects' Information Processing in Information Display Board Studies", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 05, eds. Kent Hunt, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 555-560.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, 1978      Pages 555-560


David C. Arch (student), University of California, Los Angeles

James R. Bettman, University of California, Los Angeles

Pradeep Kakkar, University of Pennsylvania


The processing carried out by subjects in information display board studies is examined. A theoretical analysis of the display board task, a review of relevant prior research, and a pilot study using prompted protocol data to attempt to understand subjects' display board usage behavior are reported. The results suggest that curiosity and exploratory behavior may be widespread. Implications for further use of the display board method are considered.


Several researchers have recently utilized information display boards to study how consumers acquire information (e.g., Jacoby, 1975, 1977; Jacoby, Chestnut, Weigl, and Fisher, 1976; Bettman and Jacoby, 1976; Payne, 1976a, b; van Raaij, 1977a, b; Bettman and Kakkar, 1977; Capon and Burke, 1977). The typical approach used in these studies has been to present information to consumers using an information display board, essentially a matrix array (with attributes as rows and brands as columns, for example). That is, each row of the board would be labeled with an attribute name for the product of interest, such as price, net weight, or unit price. Each column would be labeled with the name of a particular brand or alternative. In some studies real brand names were used (e.g., Jacoby, Chestnut, Weigl, and Fisher, 1976; Bettman and Jacoby, 1976); in others hypothetical alternatives were presented (e.g., Payne, 1976a, b). In each cell of the matrix there is a pocket or other device for holding information cards. These information cards have the appropriate brand and attribute information for that cell printed on their reverse sides. The subject is asked to choose a brand after selecting as many information cards as desired from the display board, one at a time. As each card is selected, the subject can turn the card over and read the information contained. The sequence of cards selected is then the major data of interest.

These card sequences can be analyzed in many ways. The typical approach has been to consider both how many cards were selected, and also the structure of the transitions between pairs of cards. Two general acquisition strategies used by subjects emerge from such analyses: processing by brand (examining cards for one brand, then moving on to another brand, etc.) and processing by attribute (examining cards for several brands for one attribute, then moving on to another attribute, etc.).

The display board method described above has been used to study the relationships of acquisition strategy to brand loyalty and consumption frequency (Jacoby, Chestnut, Weigl, and Fisher, 1976); effects of information presentation format on acquisition patterns (Bettman and Kakkar, 1977); effects of degree of perceived risk, amount of information, and presence of memory aids (Capon and Burke, 1977); effects of information load (Payne, 1976a, b); consumer choice heuristics (Bettman, 1977); and other phenomena related to consumer information acquisition (e.g., see Jacoby, 1977). Thus the technique has proven useful. However, the implications of some recent research lead to disquieting questions about what subjects are actually doing while acquiring information in display board studies. Accordingly, the purpose of this paper is to examine the available evidence characterizing subjects' information processing in display board studies to raise some of the questions these research results suggest, and to assess the validity of the method in light of this evidence. Three sources of evidence are considered below: a theoretical analysis of the characteristics of the display board task; a review of prior research; and a preliminary report of results of a pilot study designed to examine subjects' processing.


Newell and Simon (1972) have suggested that one can learn a great deal about the processing used by individuals in carrying out a particular task by examining the constraints imposed by that task. A consideration of what a task requires for successful completion can yield important insights into how behavior must be structured to be adaptive in that particular task environment. This theoretical consideration of task properties is termed a task analysis (see also Bettman, 1977). A brief task analysis for the information display board method is now presented.

We focus in the following and throughout the remainder of the paper on display board tasks where real alternatives are used, i.e., where actual brand names are available to the subject. This implies that various strategies are possible for the subject, including the use of memory to supplement or replace examination of the board. Different problems may arise when brand name is not available or if hypothetical alternatives are used (e.g., prior knowledge may not be as great an influence on processing), but consideration of such problems is beyond the scope of this paper. Several aspects characterizing the display board task with known brand names are now considered: the interaction with memory; format considerations; how information is accessed; the types of acquisition possible; the effort required for acquisition; and the obtrusiveness of the method.

Subjects bring some prior knowledge to the task if known brands are used on the display board. This prior knowledge may interact with acquisition. The subject may acquire less from the board and use more information from memory; the subject may check up on information in memory by acquiring the relevant information from the board; the subject may acquire information from the board to see if it looks plausible given what is in memory (i.e., may check up on the experiment); and so on. Thus, memory can impact not only how much information is acquired, but also the purposes underlying some observed acquisition sequence. This interaction of the information acquired with that in memory needs to be examined more closely.

The matrix format used in display board tasks allows either brand or attribute processing to be carried out easily. However, almost all real world information acquisition settings place considerably more constraints on processing. Shelf displays, package information, and many ads are organized by brand. That is, information is presented separately, for one brand at a time. Thus brand processing would be easier than attribute processing. In addition, display boards present the subject with a very well-structured, comprehensive, and organized information display. Although some real world displays are also well-organized (e.g., a table in Consumer Reports), in most cases consumers must piece together information from several different sources, presented in different fashions, perhaps on different attributes for different brands (e.g., acquiring information from television commercials or from manufacturers' brochures). The implication is, therefore, that the format and organization of the display board task does not place the same constraints on acquisition as do most real world environments. For more discussion see Bettman (1977).

The accessing of information also appears to differ between display board tasks and actual consumer information displays. In the display board task, subjects can only acquire one piece of information at a time: acquisition is sequential. In looking at a package or some other displays, however, consumers can see several pieces of information at the same time: acquisition can be (essentially) simultaneous. For example, in examining a nutritional label on a cereal package, a consumer can see the general pattern of the nutrient percentages simultaneously.

Display board tasks tend to focus on intentional or goal-directed information acquisition. That is, for a consumer to acquire a piece of information in a display board study, he or she must specifically pull out a card from the board. This may be contrasted with a consumer's scanning a package visually and "happening" to see some piece of information. This more serendipitous type of acquisition is not possible with display boards, but may be very characteristic of actual information acquisition.

To examine another related property of display board tasks, let us assume that the display board and some visual information display (e.g., a package label or a table) contain the same information. Then the effort required to obtain information from the display board may be relatively high compared to visual search of the other information display. That is, in the display board task, the subject must remove the various cards desired, rather than simply scanning the display. This analysis would also imply that information acquisition would potentially be much slower for display board tasks than for visual search of the same information displayed in a table or on a label. Thus less information in total might be selected in display board tasks than in cases where a package or other display were visually examined. Use of information in memory might also be more widespread in display board tasks than in visual search, due to the greater effort involved in directly examining information from the board (Russo, 1978a), as compared to the effort involved in visual search.

Several of the aspects discussed above can now be brought together to analyze the relative difficulty of acquiring information from a display board or from some real world display. The matrix format and well-structured, comprehensive nature of the display board would tend to make acquisition easier from the board. The greater effort and time required for acquisition from the board and the limitation to sequential rather than simultaneous access would tend to make acquisition from the board harder. Therefore, the difficulty of the display board as compared to some real world display would depend upon which of the above factors is stronger. Some actual information displays would be harder than the board (e.g., cases where information was not available in one place, but had to be pulled together by the consumer, where the information was presented in different formats for different brands, and so on). Thus format and the availability of information in a comprehensive and well-organized display might dominate the effects of how information could be accessed. On the other hand, some actual displays would be easier than the board (e.g., if the same information available on the board were displayed in a Consumer Reports table or on a package label). In this case, the relative ease of visual search compared to choosing cards would dominate the format factor, since the format and organization would be essentially the same for both displays. Even in these cases, however, simply comparing the relative difficulty of the display board and some real world acquisition setting can be misleading, because the factors underlying the difficulties encountered in each task may be very different, as the above analyses demonstrate.

Finally, display board methods are very obtrusive. Subjects may think that the information they acquire is being carefully monitored, and therefore may try to select more "rational" pieces of information. The analyses above suggest that there may be some biases in the display board task. We now turn to an examination of selected prior research using display boards to determine if these studies can shed further light on subjects' processing during such tasks.


Three areas of research which have implications for the type of processing carried out by subjects in display board tasks are considered below: effects of information presentation format; comparison of display board and eye movement acquisition results; and effects of time pressure.

Information Presentation Format Effects

As noted above, display board tasks, with their organized matrix format, may make some kinds of processing (e.g., attribute processing) easier than in actual choice environments. Bettman and Kakkar (1977) tried to directly study the impact of format on acquisition. Subjects were 150 housewives, divided equally into three groups. One group (Matrix) received information on cereals in the standard matrix display board format. A second group (Brand) received information in separate booklets for each brand, and a third group (Attribute) received separate booklets for each attribute. Thus the Brand group's format should encourage brand and discourage attribute processing, with the opposite true for the Attribute group. The results were strongly supportive of the predictions. Subjects in the Brand group used almost exclusively brand processing, and subjects in the Attribute group used attribute processing extensively. Subjects in the Matrix group used both brand and attribute processing.

These results suggest that major variations in display format can have a strong impact on acquisition. They also suggest that the matrix format used in display boards may allow or encourage different acquisition strategies than those characteristic of some real world environments. Thus the theoretical format bias discussed above has empirical support.

Comparing Display Board and Visual Package Search

Several of the theoretical analyses above implied that there might be important differences between acquisition from a display board and visual search of a package or some other information display. It was suggested that if the same information were available from the board and from a visual display, then more information might be acquired and acquisition might be faster for visual search. Van Raaij (1977a, b) reports a study which directly compared display board and visual search behavior.

In Van Raaij's study (1977b), the same twenty housewives participated in an eye movement study and then in a display board study four months later. The same thirteen alternative brands of coffee were used in both studies, each characterized by four attributes. In the eye movement study, actual product packages with the four attribute values affixed to the sides were examined by the subjects, and their eye movements were recorded. The display board study used a standard matrix display. Van Raaij examined both brand name present and brand name absent conditions; only the brand name present study is considered below.

Several suggestive results were obtained. First, subjects acquired more information in the eye movement study (26.2 versus 15.7 different items -- these figures do not count examining the same piece of information more than once as a separate acquisition). Second, of the pieces of information they selected, subjects examined 51.4% twice or more in the eye movement study, but there was no reacquisition in the display board study. These two findings provide support for the notion that acquisition during visual search may in many cases be more accidental, a result of scanning the package, while acquisition from a display board tends to be intentional or consciously goal-directed.

A third finding was that the acquisition sequence measures were very similar for both studies, with more brand processing evident. Finally, the choice times were greater in the display board conditions than in visual search. Hence, more information was examined per unit time in visual search than in the display board study (Van Raaij, 1977a). The results described above imply that there may be some major differences between visual package search and acquisition from a display board in situations where the same information is available on both the display board and the package.

Effects of Time Pressure

Bettman and Kakkar, in an unpublished study, examined the effects of time pressure on acquisition in a display board task. Subjects were 150 housewives, equally divided into three conditions, all using the same display board task for breakfast cereals. In the first condition (No Pressure), subjects were given no instructions about the time they might take to complete the task. In a second condition (Full Time Asked), subjects were told that, on average, other subjects took two minutes to complete the task. They were then asked how much time they would need, and were given the full amount asked for (the average time asked for was 114 seconds). In the third condition (Half Time Asked), subjects were also told that other subjects took two minutes and were asked how much time they would need (the average time asked for was also 114 seconds). However, this group was then told that due to the number of subjects to be run, only half the time they asked for could be allowed.

The results were somewhat surprising. As expected, the time taken to choose a brand differed across the three groups (p < .001). The No pressure group took 108.5 seconds, the Full Time Asked group 69.7, and the Half Time Asked group 45.3. However, there was not a significant difference in cards taken (p = .147) although there was a trend in the expected direction (No Pressure - 7.4; Full Time Asked - 6.5; Half Time Asked - 5.1). There were significant differences in time taken per card (p < .01), with the Half Time Asked group taking the least time and the No Pressure group the most. One other unexpected result was that although the Half Time Asked group felt more hurried than the No Pressure group, the Half Time Asked and Full Time Asked groups did not differ in feelings of being hurried or being under time pressure. Finally, the acquisition sequence measures (types of transitions) did not differ across groups.

These results seem to imply that subjects adapted to the attempt to impose time pressure by simply speeding up their processing. This may mean that subjects could speed up because they were checking up on things they already knew. If this were the case, it might raise serious questions about subjects' goals for examining information in display board studies. However, it might also mean that subjects were processing in a fairly leisurely fashion in the No Pressure and Full Time Asked groups, and that there was a good deal of "slack" time available. Hence, subjects might have been able to speed their processing easily, without really burdening themselves. This speeding up observed could be a method generally used to adapt to tasks when time available for processing is decreased. If time pressure were made quite severe, subjects might not be able to adapt by speeding up, and might have to resort to other strategies (e.g., restricting the brands and attributes they examine). However, Bettman and Kakkar apparently did not impose this much time pressure with their manipulations.

The theoretical analyses and review of prior research have indicated that there may be some serious biases or problem areas in display board tasks. The major issues appear to be: (1) The impact of prior knowledge about the alternatives on acquisition from the board; (2) Impacts of format on acquisition, with some evidence that display board formats may encourage or allow different kinds of processing than some kinds of real world environments; (3) Apparently substantial differences between display board and visual search acquisition, including how much information can be simultaneously accessed, whether acquisition can be accidental or is more goal-directed, how much time is taken, and how often information is re-examined; and (4) Impacts of time pressure on acquisition.

The above discussion has presented only an aggregate view of subjects' processing in display board tasks, and the picture is complex. It is still very difficult to characterize what subjects are actually doing while they are acquiring information from a display board. In particular, there is very little direct knowledge of the goals underlying subjects' information acquisition or of the effect of subjects' prior knowledge on acquisition. Thus there is limited hard evidence about details of subjects' processing, although there are many possible hypotheses (not necessarily mutually exclusive). For example, subjects may be (1) Acquiring information as they would in a store; (2) Checking to see if the information in the display board is the same as they think it should be (i.e., seeing if the experimenter is "tricking" them); (3) Exploring brands they know very little about, or exploring brands used previously but not currently; (4) Using the opportunity to "educate" themselves about their current brand; and so on. An exploratory study was carried out by Arch and Bettman to attempt to gain some more detailed insights into subjects' processing. Preliminary results of that study are now reported.


The study used two main approaches to try to increase understanding of subjects' processing. First, an attempt was made to measure prior knowledge for the brands used. Second, prompted protocols were obtained from subjects after they had selected their information cards.


Subjects were ten female shoppers, ranging in age from 18 to 49. They were recruited by interviewers in a shopping mall and asked to answer some questions about consumer products. They were told this would take about 20 minutes, and were paid for their time.

Subjects were led by an interviewer into a partitioned area within the mall, where they answered questions about frequency of purchase and familiarity with breakfast cereals. Subjects were then asked to fill out a Brand Characteristic Summary, in an attempt to gather fairly structured information about prior knowledge. The Brand Characteristic Summary was a table with eleven characteristics (attributes) for cereal listed along the rows, and ten brands of cereal listed along the columns (thus there were 110 cells or boxes in the table). The subject was instructed to put a 1 in those boxes corresponding to characteristics of brands that they knew a lot about and would not need to check in the store; a 2 if they knew a little or a fair amount but would want to check it in the store; a 3 if they knew almost nothing but would want to check; and to leave the boxes blank for those brands and characteristics they would not want to check even if they knew little. This task was designed to elicit what pieces of information subjects might check while in the store shopping, so that the information acquired later in a display board task could be compared to it. There may be some bias in the Brand Characteristic Summary task, in that subjects may overstate what they know and what they claim they would want to check in the store. This is discussed more fully below.

Since subjects were later to be given a display board task for cereals, some intervening tasks were included between the Brand Characteristic Summary and the display board to diminish possible attempts at consistency by subjects trying to appear "rational." Accordingly, subjects also filled out some questions and a Brand Characteristic Summary for steam irons. Then the subjects went to another table where they tried samples of lip balms and answered several questions about these samples.

Subjects were then given a standard display board task for cereals, using the same attributes and brands as in the Brand Characteristic Summary. No subject connected these two tasks in post-task debriefings. After completing the display board task and choosing a brand, subjects answered several questions about their reactions to the task (e.g., certainty they had made the best choice, confusion with the task, whether they felt they behaved the same as in the store, which brands of cereal they purchased most frequently). While the subject was doing this, the interviewer took the sequence of cards selected by the subject from the display board, and put X's in the boxes of a new Brand Characteristic Summary table for those cards selected.

After the subject finished the questionnaire, the interviewer gave her the deck of cards she had selected and the table marking those cards, and told her that the X's on the table represented the cards chosen. The interviewer then asked the subject to go through the deck of cards in the order they were originally selected and to talk about what was going through her mind when she first took these cards. This verbal report, which was tape recorded, has been called a prompted protocol (e.g., Russo and Rosen, 1975), prompted by the sequence of cards taken. Such prompted protocols are related to, but not the same as, protocols taken simultaneously, during the actual acquisition task itself (e.g., Payne, 1976a, b). Prompted protocols differ from simultaneous protocols in several ways. First, since the prompted protocols are taken after the display board task has been completed, there are no problems with the protocol's interfering with or biasing the acquisition behavior observed. Second, the prompted protocols have proven useful in other studies (Russo and Rosen, 1975) at providing a somewhat more structured view of the processing undertaken than is usually obtained with simultaneous protocols. However, there is also potentially a major disadvantage to prompted protocols, in that, since they are not taken while the behavior is occurring, there is more danger of rationalization or retrospection about "why I did that" (Nisbett and Wilson, 1977). On balance, it was felt that the somewhat more structured view provided by prompted protocols and the fact that the acquisition behavior would not be biased were more overriding concerns in the present study.

Following the prompted protocols, the interviewer took out the original Brand Characteristic Summary and compared that to the cards taken, asking the subject about selected differences (e.g., items marked with a 1 on the Brand Characteristic Summary (know a lot, don't need to check) but then acquired, items marked with a 2 or 3 (know some or a little, need to check) but later not acquired, and so forth). This was also tape recorded.

The description of the procedure is lengthy. To summarize, the major data available are measures of purchase frequency and familiarity, Brand Characteristic Summary information, the sequence of cards selected from the display board, reactions to the display board task, prompted protocols taken after the display board task, and some probes for differences between the Brand Characteristic Summary and display board tasks. One can then examine characteristics of the display board acquisition patterns, characteristics of the Brand Characteristic Summary data, the relationship between the Brand Characteristic Summary measures and the information acquired from the display board, and the prompted protocol data.


Display Board Results. In the aggregate, the display board results agree with prior research. Subjects selected an average of 10.2 cards, or roughly 9% of the 110 available. Subjects' acquisition sequences were classified, using the criteria in Bettman and Kakkar (1977). Seven subjects used brand processing, two used attribute, and one used another strategy. This agrees with the Bettman and Kakkar results, which showed that more experienced shoppers tend to use more brand processing. Subjects also seemed reasonably certain they had made the best choice (a mean of 5.2 on a 7-point certainty scale) and claimed that their behavior on the display board task was very much like their in-store behavior (a mean of 6.2 on a 7-point scale with end-points 1 = Not at all like I behave in the store and 7 = Exactly like I behave in the store). This latter result should certainly be viewed with some skepticism, since subjects' responses may be biased upward by desires to please the experimenter, i.e., to let the experimenter know they were cooperative.

Brand Characteristic Summary Results. Subjects claimed to have a good deal of prior knowledge in the Brand Characteristic Summary. On average, subjects checked 18.1 items with a 1 (know a lot, wouldn't need to check); 22.4 items with a 2 (know some, would want to check), and 28.8 items with a 3 (know little, would want to check). Thus subjects marked an average of 69.3 items of 110, or 63%. Also, subjects claimed they would check in the store 51.2 (the sum of the 2 and 3 responses) of 110 items, or 46.5%.

Comparing the Display Board and Brand Characteristic Summary Results. At the aggregate level, it is obvious that subjects claimed in the Brand Characteristic Summary that they would check a great deal more information than they actually did examine in the display board task -- 51.2 items (46.5%) in the Brand Characteristic Summary versus 10.2 items (9%) in the display board task. In addition, not all of the cards selected in the display board task correspond to responses of 2 or 3 (know some or a little, want to check) in the Brand Characteristic Summary. In fact, of the average of 10.2 cards taken from the display board, 3.6 were items checked with a 1 (know a lot, don't need to check) in the Board Characteristic Summary; 2.8 were items checked with a 2 (know some, want to check); 2.6 were checked with a 3 (know little, want to check); and 1.2 were blank (don't want to check). Thus subjects actually selected cards for a higher percentage of the items they had marked with a 1 (and hence said they wouldn't need to check) than for items they had marked with a 2 or 3 (and hence said they would want to check).

These results show that subjects sometimes do not acquire information in the display board task, even though they claimed they would in the Brand Characteristic Summary. Subjects actually acquired at least one card in the display board task for 51% of the attributes and for 44% of the brands they checked in the Brand Characteristic Summary.

The results also indicate that subjects acquire information they earlier claimed they would not need to examine. Those cases where subjects marked items with a i in the Brand Characteristic Summary and then selected the corresponding cards in the display board task were examined, using subjects' tape recorded responses to the interviewers' probes. Subjects' stated reasons varied. Some of these instances simply appear due to unexplained inconsistency in the subjects' responses; some appear to be due to subjects' checking items to see if the information is what they believe it to be; and some are due to subjects' checking attributes that they feel they know for their store, but which might vary from store to store (e.g., price). One other reason appears which is quite interesting, and which may shed some light on the differences between the Brand Characteristic Summary and display board results. Subjects may say they know a lot and don't need to check when they know a characteristic's general level -- e.g., they know protein content is 'high.' They may then later check that item to refine their knowledge, to find out that 'high' protein is 10 grams. Thus 'knowing' a lot may mean knowing general ranges to the subject, not knowing an exact amount.

The discussion above amply documents that there are substantial disagreements between subjects' claims in the Brand Characteristic Summary and their acquisition behavior in the display board study. There are several possible reasons for this. First, it may be that the Brand Characteristic Summary task encourages overstatement of intended search, since this appears rational. Second, the Brand Characteristic Summary, as asked, may not have been seen by the subjects as being specific to their own shopping behavior. That is, rather than responding with what they would actually want to check if shopping for cereal in the store, subjects may have responded with what they might check if they were to consider some brands in the future, or what they might check if they had time. On the other hand, subjects made many comments in the protocols characterizing the display board task as a shopping task (which of course does not necessarily mean it was really treated that way). Although the evidence is scanty (mostly subjects' comments), the second reason seems more likely.

Insights from the Prompted Protocol Data. The contents of the prompted protocol data were judged by the authors. In our future research on this topic, with more subjects, independent judges will be used. Thus these preliminary results are only suggestive. The prompted protocol data suggest two main findings. First, there seems to be a great deal of exploratory or curiosity-based information acquisition in the display board task. Subjects spent a good deal of time checking on brands they had previously purchased but no longer bought, saying they did this because they were curious about what these old brands were really like (this occurred for five of ten subjects). Subjects also spent time exploring new brands they knew little about (for four of ten subjects). One of these subjects said, "I didn't know too much about the cereals I did check. That is why I was going through them .... " Finally, subjects also used the display board task to explore or educate themselves about their current favorite brand (for five of ten subjects). Thus there is curiosity about brands previously bought, relatively unknown brands, and the consumer's current brand. In many of the cases where exploratory behavior was observed, there appeared to be little explicit comparison of alternatives carried out.

A second finding is that some display board acquisition appears to be aimed at checking on the experiment (this may have occurred for three of the ten subjects). As one subject stated, "I wondered what your card was going to say."


The results of the exploratory study suggest two broad areas for discussion: how to measure prior knowledge, and how to interpret the curiosity findings.

The discrepancies noted above between the display board and Brand Characteristic Summary tasks suggest that more work needs to be done on the measure of prior knowledge used. One must first distinguish between general knowledge (protein is high) and specific knowledge (protein is 10 grams). Subjects appear to interpret the Brand Characteristic Summary as asking for general knowledge. The Brand Characteristic Summary may have failed as a good measure of this general knowledge because subjects did not relate it to their actual shopping behavior, but responded more with what they might do sometime. Thus, one might strengthen the Brand Characteristic Summary by being very specific, attempting to tie it to shopping behavior (e.g., asking subjects to indicate what they would do in the store the next time they shopped for cereal, or what they did the last time). One might try to validate such a measure (and the display board findings as well) by measuring actual search behavior, perhaps in an artificial store setting, but this may be very difficult. For specific, as opposed to general, knowledge, one may have to test actual values. It is not clear whether measures of general or specific knowledge would be more related to acquisition behavior..

The curiosity findings in the display board task are intriguing. They may, of course, be spurious. One could argue that this exploratory behavior is a result of low involvement with the task. Subjects may decide that they are in an experiment, they might as well get something out of it, and that the situation is one which is well-suited for learning about new brands, old brands, or one's current brand, since an array of information is available. On the other hand, these findings could be real. There is very little evidence about exploratory behavior in actual choice situations, a major gap in consumer research. However, subjects claim that they treated the board like a shopping situation. Although this is weak evidence at best, the exploratory behavior results seem definitely worth pursuing.


Three sources of evidence about display board tasks have been considered: theoretical arguments, prior research, and the preliminary study reported above. The evidence itself is very hard to characterize; however, some conclusions seem warranted. First, display board tasks appear to have some serious biases, which may limit the range of phenomena they can be reasonably used to study, but also possess some strengths for researching other areas. For example, display board tasks may be very useful for researching curiosity-based or exploratory behavior, a phenomenon which has proven extremely difficult to research. Also, display board tasks may be very suited for studying the goals consumers develop for information acquisition. That is, the consumer may set up some goals for search, for what information to examine. The information acquired in a display board task may relate to these goals, since intentional or goal-directed search is largely what is observed.

Display board tasks, because of their biases, do not seem as suitable for some real world visual search tasks. As noted in the Van Raaij (1977a, b) findings above and in the theoretical task analysis, the display board task diverges from some visual search tasks in many crucial respects. In particular, the above arguments imply that display board tasks may not be appropriate for studying acquisition of package information, especially where fairly complete information is available on the package. As a specific example, results of display board studies might be particularly misleading for drawing public policy implications about providing package information. One major aim of providing information on a package may be to have consumers learn about that information over time by "accidentally" acquiring it while scanning the package. As noted earlier, display board tasks do not allow for this type of phenomenon to any great extent. Thus actual acquisition of information over time and its eventual impact may be severely understated by results of display board studies. Eye movement analyses seem best suited to studying most visual search tasks (Russo, 1978a, b).

One final comment seems necessary. Both the display board task and eye movement studies suggested above are obtrusive tasks. There is probably a consumer research counterpart to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle: one cannot measure process without impacting that process. Thus process methodologies will have impacts; the problem is to understand those impacts.


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J. Edward Russo, "Adaptation of Cognitive Processes to the Eye Movement System," in J. W. Senders, D. F. Fisher, and R. A. Monty, eds., Eye Movements and the Higher Psychological Functions (Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1978a).

J. Edward Russo, "Eye Movements Can Save the World: A Critical Evaluation," in H. Keith Hunt, ed., Advances in Consumer Research, Volume V (Chicago: Association for Consumer Research, 1978b).

J. Edward Russo and Larry D. Rosen, "An Eye Fixation Analysis of Multi-Alternative Choice," Memory and Cognition, 3 (May 1975), 267-76.

W. Fred van Raaij, Consumer Choice Behavior: An Information Processing Approach (Voorschoten, The Netherlands: VAM, 1977a).

W. Fred van Raaij, "Consumer Information Processing for Different Information Structures and Formats," in William D. Perreault, ed., Advances in Consumer Research, Volume IV (Atlanta: Association for Consumer Research, 1977b, 176-84).



David C. Arch, (student), University of California, Los Angeles
James R. Bettman, University of California, Los Angeles
Pradeep Kakkar, University of Pennsylvania


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 05 | 1978

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