Attitude Importance and Memory for

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Attitude Importance and Memory for

    Attitude Importance and the Accumulation of Attitude-Relevant Knowledge in Memory

    Allyson L. Holbrook

    University of Illinois at Chicago

    Matthew K. Berent

    The Ohio State University

    Jon A. Krosnick

    Stanford University

    Penny S. Visser

    University of Chicago

    David S. Boninger

    Three Rivers | Out Front

    December, 2004


    Some of the data reported here were described in a master‟s thesis submitted by the second author to The Ohio State University. Study 9‟s data were described in a doctoral dissertation submitted by the fourth

    author to The Ohio State University. Study 3‟s data were described in a doctoral dissertation submitted by the first author to The Ohio State University. This research was conducted partly while the third author was a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation (SBR-9022192). National Institute for Mental Health Grant 5T32-MH19728-03 provided a predoctoral fellowship to the fourth author during her work on this project. Studies 1, 2, 5, 6, 7, and 8 were supported by grant BNS-8930430 from the National Science Foundation to the third author. The national survey described in Study 4 was funded by the National Science Foundation (grant SBR-9731532), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Ohio State University, and it was sponsored by Resources for the Future. Jon Krosnick is University Fellow at Resources for the Future. The authors thank Richard Petty, Lee Jussim, Charles Judd, Mark Pitt, Mari Jones, and Tim Johnson for their helpful comments and suggestions. Correspondence concerning this manuscript should be addressed to Allyson L. Holbrook, Survey Research Laboratory (MC 336), 412 S Peoria Street, Sixth Floor, Chicago, IL 60607 ( or to Jon A. Krosnick, Stanford University, McClatchy Hall, 450 Serra Mall, Stanford, California 94305 (e-mail:

    Attitude Importance and the Accumulation of Attitude-Relevant Knowledge in Memory


    People who attach personal importance to an attitude are especially knowledgeable about the attitude object. In this paper, we describe nine studies testing an explanation for this relation: that importance causes the accumulation of knowledge by inspiring selective exposure to and selective elaboration of relevant information. Study One showed that after watching televised debates between presidential candidates, viewers were better able to remember the statements made on policy issues on which they had more personally important attitudes. Studies 2-4 showed that importance motivated selective exposure and selective elaboration: when given the opportunity to choose, people chose to acquire information about policies toward which they had more personally important attitudes, and they chose to think more about these policies. Studies 5-8 showed that greater personal importance was associated with better memory for relevant information encountered under controlled laboratory conditions and that manipulations eliminating opportunities for selective exposure and selective elaboration eliminated the importance-memory accuracy relation. Study 9 showed that people do not use perceptions of their knowledge volume to infer how important an attitude is to them but that importance does cause knowledge accumulation. These findings help to clarify the impact of attitude importance on information processing and refine our understanding of the relation between attitudes and memory.

    Attitude Importance and the Accumulation of Attitude-Relevant Knowledge in Memory

    A centerpiece of human socialization and development is learning the gathering of knowledge

    about how the world works. Such knowledge equips people to manage their existences: to enhance their acquisition of rewards, to minimize their experience of punishment, and in the extreme, to ensure their survival. But learning is not only of instrumental value enlightenment is viewed by many scholars and

    philosophers as a source of intrinsic psychological satisfaction and fulfillment, rewarding in and of itself, regardless of whether it is used to manipulate day-to-day experiences. For example, Maslow (1999) spoke of the “sheer delight and satisfaction of knowledge and understanding per se. It makes the person bigger,

    wiser, richer, stronger, more evolved, more mature. It represents the actualization of a human potentiality, the fulfillment of that human destiny foreshadowed by human possibilities (pp. 74-75).”

    Given the importance of knowledge as an instrumental tool and as a source of material and psychic satisfaction, our focus in this paper is on the forces that instigate and direct knowledge-gathering. This is an especially important question in light of the inescapable reality that there is too much information available in the social world for any one perceiver to acquire and store it all in memory. So people must be selective in their learning. Maslow (1999) argued that “curiosity and exploration are „higher‟ needs than safety (p. 75),” so people will not seek knowledge broadly unless they have satisfied lower needs, such as security. But once a person has satisfied such lower needs, other theories are needed to explain how people choose what to learn about and what knowledge to forego.

    One focus of social psychological research on knowledge acquisition has been on intra-psychic processes involving cognitive consistency (Festinger, 1957), and other work has focused on the impact of experiences that lead people to be exposed to information (Nie, et al., 1996; Roberts & Maccoby, 1985; Robinson & Levy, 1986; Wood, et al., 1995). The work in this paper complements that work by adopting a perspective from the attitude strength literature and considering the possibility that the personal importance of a person‟s attitude toward an object may play an instigating role in knowledge acquisition.

    Personal importance and the amount of information a person has about an object have both been


    recognized for some time as attributes related to the strength of the person‟s attitude toward the object. The more importance a person attaches and the more knowledge she or he has, the more likely the attitude is to be resistant to change, persistent over time, and influential in directing thinking and action (see Krosnick & Petty, 1995). And we have known for some time that importance and knowledge volume are positively correlated with one another (e.g., Bassili, 1996; Krosnick et al., 1993; Prislin, 1996; Visser, 1998). But we do not know why they are correlated with one another - what gives rise to this association.

    The principal hypothesis tested in this paper is that importance instigates knowledge accumulation. We conducted a series of studies to examine whether attaching personal importance to an attitude leads people to learn more about the object of that attitude, and we explored two mechanisms of this effect: that personal importance may lead people to selectively expose themselves to attitude-relevant information, and once exposed to such information, personal importance may instigate people to process that information more deeply and richly, thereby facilitating later retrieval.

    We begin below by setting the stage for our investigation by reviewing past work on the causes of knowledge accumulation. Then we outline a set of hypotheses about how and why importance may instigate the accumulation of attitude-relevant knowledge, and we review existing evidence relevant to those hypotheses. Finally, we report the results of nine studies designed to test these hypotheses with a focus on a particular type of attitude: evaluations of government policies.

    The Documented Causes of Knowledge Accumulation

    Festinger (1957, pp. 127-129, 163) proposed that people experiencing cognitive dissonance may seek out information about an object in order to reduce the dissonance, particularly when there is reason to expect that information will be dissonance-reducing. And Festinger proposed that people experiencing dissonance should be especially likely to avoid exposure to information they have reason to believe may be dissonance-exacerbating. An absence of dissonance, Festinger claimed, should not motivate either active seeking out of information, or active avoidance of information exposure

     Thus, increasing levels of dissonance were thought to be associated with increased information-


seeking, especially of information likely to reduce the dissonance.

    Remarkably little research has tested this hypothesis (though for related work, see, e.g., Adams, 1961; Frey & Wicklund, 1978; see Eagly & Chaiken, 1993 for a review). Instead, researchers have devoted much more effort to investigating a hypothesis that Festinger did not explicitly offer: that people prefer to expose themselves to information consonant with their own views, regardless of whether or not they are experiencing dissonance (see, e.g., Klapper, 1960). This seemingly-plausible notion has met with a largely disappointing body of empirical evidence, revealing that people prefer exposing themselves to attitude-consistent information only under a specific set of circumstances (e.g., Frey, 1986; Jonas, et al., 2001). Other studies have shown that de facto selective exposure also occurs, whereby people‟s locations in the world bring them into contact with information primarily in line with their attitudes by coincidence, not as the result of active selectivity (see Freedman & Sears, 1965).

    Additional work has explored variation in people‟s retention of information to which they have been exposed. Some early studies suggested that people have a tendency to remember attitude-consistent information and to forget attitude-challenging information (e.g., Levine & Murphy, 1943; Watson & Hartmann, 1939), and an initial meta-analysis suggested this tendency was reliable but weak (Roberts, 1985). However, a later, more thorough meta-analysis showed that well-designed studies produced a near-zero “congeniality effect” (Eagly, et al. 1999). And Eagly, Kulesa, Brannon, Shaw, and Hutson-Comeaux

    (2000) showed that this is so because people devote a great deal of cognitive effort to thinking about attitude-inconsistent information (generating counterarguments), which makes this information as memorable as attitude-consistent information (which has other memorial advantages).

    Beyond these literatures, all focused on notions of cognitive consistency, relatively little work has sought to identify the social psychological constructs that drive people to gather and retain information in their memories about particular objects and to forego learning about others. Wood, Rhodes, and Biek (1995) noted that direct behavioral experience with an object enhances knowledge about it. Informal discussion with others about an object can educate a person (Robinson & Levy, 1986), as can exposure to information through formal schooling (Nie, Jun, & Stehlik-Barry, 1996) and through the news media


    (Roberts & Maccoby, 1985). But which psychological motivators instigate such information-gathering is left largely unanswered by past work.

    New Hypotheses Regarding Attitude Importance and Knowledge

    To outline our hypotheses about the relation of importance to knowledge accumulation, it is useful to begin with a general account of the processes by which information relevant to an attitude object is presumed to accumulate in memory (see, e.g., Atkinson & Shiffrin, 1968; Craik & Lockhart, 1972). Although learning can take place via automatic, unconscious processes (e.g., Berry, 1994; Stadler & Frensch, 1998), we propose that importance is likely to influence knowledge acquisition via a series of conscious steps. The first step is information exposure, during which a person encounters a piece of information in the social environment. Second, a perceiver devotes perceptual attention to that information, bringing it into short-term or working memory (Baddeley & Hitch, 1974). Amidst the “buzzing, blooming confusion” (James, 1890) that fills people‟s social environments, selective attention is a necessity. People are able to attend to multiple stimuli simultaneously (e.g., Treisman, 1964), but attention is not devoted to everything that a person encounters. Information that is unattended may be stored in long-term memory (e.g., Bornstein & D‟Agostino, 1992), but information that attracts a person‟s attention and thereby makes its way into working memory has a memorial advantage in the long run.

    Information in working memory that undergoes elaboration is likely to be encoded into long-term memory, where associative links are built, connecting new information to previously-acquired information through elaborative rehearsal and other such mechanisms (Craik & Lockhart, 1972). The deeper the processing of this incoming information, the stronger the neural trace and the more likely it is to be available for later retrieval (e.g., Craik, 1977; Tyler, Hertel, MacCallum, & Ellis, 1979).

    When characterized in this fashion, it is clear that the process of accumulating knowledge is often a cognitively demanding one. It is also a process at which we are well-practiced, and such practice no doubt makes the process relatively easy to implement (e.g., Smith, Branscombe, & Bormann, 1988). But accumulation of knowledge appears to be at least in part a zero-sum game: the more a person is exposed to information about a particular object, and the more resources she or he devotes to attending to that


    information and elaborating on its relation to other knowledge she or he already possesses, the less likely other available information is to be stored in long-term memory and available for later retrieval (e.g., Kahneman, 1973). Thus, which information makes its way into long-term memory via selective exposure and elaboration seems likely to be a function of people‟s motives and desires.

    Dissonance theory points to some motives that may be consequential in this context. To maintain intra-psychic harmony, people may sometimes prefer to encounter information that is consistent with their beliefs and to avoid or discard information that challenges their beliefs. This account treats memory as an end in itself, as a repository of facts that can make a person either happy or uncomfortable simply by their existence. But memory can also be thought of as a tool bag, filled with items that can allow a person to navigate effectively through the social environment. Therefore, information acquisition may be inspired by more pro-active desires to understand and control pieces of the social world.

    Another possible motive is suggested by the positive correlation between the amount of knowledge a person possesses about an object and the personal importance of the person‟s attitude toward the object. People describe themselves as more knowledgeable about an object when their attitudes toward it are more important to them (e.g., Bassili, 1996; Krosnick et al., 1993; Prislin, 1996; Visser, 1998). People for whom an attitude is more important are in fact able to retrieve more information about the attitude object from memory (Berent & Krosnick, 1995; Krosnick et al., 1993; Wood, 1982). And the knowledge accompanying more important attitudes appears to be unusually accurate (Krosnick, 1990).

    These associations may be due to the role of attitude importance as a motivator of information acquisition and retention. Attitude importance is a subjective judgment a person‟s sense of the concern,

    caring, and significance she or he attaches to an attitude (see Boninger, Krosnick, Berent, & Fabrigar, 1995). Perceiving an attitude to be personally important leads people to use it in processing information, making decisions, and taking action (for a review, see Boninger et al., 1995). If attaching importance to an attitude motivates people to use the attitude in these ways as guides for thinking and action, then having a substantial amount of knowledge about the attitude object seems likely to be quite useful to facilitate effective attitude use. Consequently, attitude importance may motivate the acquisition of


relevant knowledge in long-term memory by creating what Burnkrant (1976) called “need for

    information” and what James (1890) called “voluntary attention.”

    This general attention-focusing motive may manifest itself in a number of ways. First, attitude importance may help to determine to which information in a person‟s environment he or she attends. People may prefer to encounter information relevant to their more important attitudes, a preference that seems particularly likely to influence information-gathering when information about multiple topics are available and when cognitive resources or time are limited, so individuals are not able to attend to all information available in their environments. Furthermore, this sort of selective exposure seems most likely to occur when information is labeled by cues that facilitate selectivity (e.g., newspaper headlines).

    Once exposed to information, people probably process it more deeply if it is relevant to more important attitudes, again because such processing is likely to serve strategic purposes later. So this new information is more likely to be encoded and stored in long-term memory, and associative links between the new information and information already stored in memory are more likely to be established in the process. Because greater linkage facilitates retrieval of information from memory (e.g., Raaijmakers & Shiffrin, 1981), people may be better able to remember information relevant to more important attitudes. Selective elaboration and the resulting increase in probability of retention are only likely to occur, though, when people have the requisite resources (e.g., cognitive capacity, time). When these resources are limited, elaborative processing is not possible, even if the relevant attitude is very important.

    Taken together with previous research on the origins of importance and knowledge, our hypotheses about these constructs in the context of governmental policies can be summarized by the diagram in Figure 1. A person presumably comes to attach personal importance to an attitude either because his or her own material interests are at stake, because people with whom he or she identifies are materially affected by the object or consider their attitudes toward the object to be important, or because the object is perceived to be relevant to his or her values (see, Boninger, Krosnick, & Berent, 1995). Importance is thought to inspire selective exposure to and intensive elaboration of information relevant to the attitude object, which each increase the likelihood that a person will accumulate a large volume of


information about the attitude object.

    Shown at the bottom left of the figure is a previously established cause of knowledge volume in the political domain: nonselective exposure to news coverage of political events (see Delli Carpini & Keeter, 1997; Roberts & Maccoby, 1985). The flowing nature of television and radio news programs does not easily afford viewers/listeners opportunities to select to watch/hear some stories and not others. Therefore, choosing to watch or hear such programs probably brings with it nonselective exposure to information on many topics. Attitude importance is not the sole determinant of knowledge accumulation but rather presumably instigates a set of supplementary topic-specific processes.

    Overview of the Present Studies

    The nine studies we report in this paper test the hypothesis that attitude importance yields better memory for attitude-relevant information due to selective exposure to and selective elaboration of such information. These studies combine the virtues of “everyday” memory research done in the field with the virtues of tightly-controlled laboratory studies (see, e.g., Banaji & Crowder, 1989; Neisser, 1988).

    Our first study tested whether there is a relation between attitude importance and memory for attitude-relevant information acquired naturally during daily life. Participants were interviewed before and after they watched a televised presidential debate in their own homes under natural conditions, and we assessed whether memory for statements made during the debate was related to the importance of relevant attitudes. Our second, third, and fourth studies tested whether attitude importance inspires selective exposure to and selective elaboration of attitude-relevant information. Studies 2 and 3 used laboratory data to test these hypotheses directly. Study 4 used longitudinal survey data to test the direction(s) of the causal relation(s) between importance and selective elaboration. Studies Five, Six, Seven, and Eight were conducted under controlled laboratory conditions using stimuli explicitly designed for experimental purposes. In these studies, we tested the mechanism(s) responsible for the effects of attitude importance on memory by manipulating participants‟ ability to selectively expose themselves to and/or selectively elaborate upon information. Study Nine used structural equation modeling to test whether importance causes knowledge accumulation and whether people infer attitude importance by


observing the amount of information they have about an attitude object.

    Study One

     Study One explored whether greater importance is associated with naturally occurring knowledge volume increases outside the laboratory in a general public sample.



    An RDD sample (Waksberg, 1978) of adult residents of the Columbus, Ohio, metropolitan area was interviewed by telephone by nine trained and carefully supervised interviewers. Initial interviews were conducted the evening before the October 13, 1988, U.S. Presidential debate between George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis. A total of 134 participants were contacted and answered questions about their candidate preferences and political ideology. Sixty-three of these participants (47%) were successfully re-interviewed the day after the debate.

    Recontact Interview

    During the debate, the candidates made enough statements of those positions to permit construction of recognition memory measures on only three issues: taxes, capital punishment, and defense spending. Each candidate made two statements about taxes, one about capital punishment, and three about defense spending. Statements from President Bush reflected conservative positions (opposition to raising taxes, support for capital punishment, and support for increased defense spending), and statements from Governor Dukakis reflected liberal positions on two issues (opposition to capital punishment, and opposition to increased defense spending), and a conservative position on the third (opposing tax increases). During the follow-up interviews, participants completed cued recall and recognition memory tasks focused on those issues, reported their attitudes on the issues, reported the personal importance of those attitudes, and completed a six-item political knowledge quiz.

    For the cued recall task, participants were first asked whether they remembered hearing any discussion about each of the target issues during the debate. Participants who indicated that they remembered discussion of an issue were asked to list the statements they could recall either candidate

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