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Negativity_Effect

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270䉷 2002 by JOURNAL OF CONSUMER RESEARCH, Inc. ● Vol. 29 ● September 2002All rights reserved. 0093-5301/2003/2902-0009$10.00Re-InquiriesHow Prevalent Is the Negativity Effect inConsumer Environments?ROHINI AHLUWALIA*The negativity effect, or the greater weighing of negative as compared with equallyextreme positive information in the formation of overall evaluations, is widely be-lieved by media planners and appears to be a well-proven phenomenon in con-sumer psychology. Although this effect has been extensively documented underconditions of moderate to high processing involvement in the literature, its ro-bustness in consumer environments may be overstated. Specifically, there areimportant differences between the experimental settings in which this effect hastypically been obtained and marketplace conditions. For instance, subjects in paststudies have typically evaluated unknown or hypothetical targets with the goal offorming an accurate impression. In the marketplace, consumers may be familiarwith brands and likely to process brand-related information with a variety of otherprocessing goals, such as impression and defense motivation. Using two experi-ments, this re-inquiry delineates conditions under which the negativity effect islikely to emerge and those under which it may be less likely to occur.Media gurus often give negative news quadruple weightas compared with positive news, in accordance withthe Merriam formula used to compute the persuasiveness ofmedia (Kroloff 1988). In other words, the negativity effect,or the greater weighing of negative as comparedwith equallyextreme positive information in the formation of judgments,is a well-accepted assumption by both managers and aca-demics (e.g., Bunker 1996; Herr, Kardes, and Kim 1991).The extensive use of negative advertising in the most recentas well as past presidential campaigns attests to the strongbelief of the media managers in this assumption.Although the negativity effect is a robust finding in thisliterature, some exceptions have emerged in recent years(e.g., Block and Anand-Keller 1995; Skowronski and Carls-ton 1987). Specifically, it has been absent when the negativeinformation is not considered to be diagnostic or informative*Rohini Ahluwalia is associate professor and Charles W. Oswald FacultyFellow at the School of Business, University of Kansas, Summerfield Hall,Lawrence, KS 66045 ([email protected]). The author acknowledges the help-ful input of the editor, associate editor, and reviewers. In addition, theauthor thanks Bob Burnkrant and Zeynep Gurhan-Canli for their insightfulcomments on a previous version of this manuscript. This research wassupported by a grant from the General Research Fund at the University ofKansas.(e.g., Skowronski and Carlston 1987). A related stream ofresearch on message-framing effects in public service cam-paigns has uncovered additional exceptions. In this research,information is framed as either a benefit of performing (pos-itive) or a negative consequence of not performing (nega-tive) the advocated behavior, with a negativity effect im-plying greater persuasion with negative as compared withpositive framing. The persuasive advantage of negativeframing, however, has not been observed under conditionsof low information elaboration, for example, low issue in-volvement (Maheswaran and Meyers-Levy 1990) and highmessage efficacy (Block and Anand-Keller 1995), both ofwhich reduce the need to carefully scrutinize the message(see Shiv, Edell, and Payne [1997] for an exception).The current re-inquiry examines two additional factorslikely to moderate the well-known negativity effect underconditions previously known to be conducive to it (moderateto high involvement). Importantly, these factors focus onthe differences between the settings of past research studiesand conditions found in naturalistic environments and raisequestions relating to the generalizability of this phenomenonto consumer settings. For instance, in research settings inwhich the negativity effect has been obtained, subjects eval-uate targets with the goal of forming an accurate impression.NEGATIVITY EFFECT IN CONSUMER ENVIRONMENTS 271In contrast, consumers tend to process information aboutbrands with a variety of personal and situational processinggoals, such as defending their prior beliefs and managingtheir impression with others (Chaiken, Giner-Sorolla, andChen 1996). Also, the negativity effect typically has beenexamined in the context of unknown targets, while consum-ers are more likely to be familiar with brands they use. Thesedifferences are the focus of this re-inquiry.Two experiments were conducted to examine these issues.Experiment 1 examines the role of brand familiarity, whileexperiment 2 manipulates the processing motivation of theconsumer. The results suggest that pervasiveness of a neg-ativity effect may be overstated on the basis of past liter-ature. Conditions under which this effect is likely to emerge,be attenuated, and even be reversed in the marketplace arediscussed.CONCEPTUAL FOUNDATIONThe Negativity Effect and the Role ofDiagnosticityConsistent with past research (e.g., Herr et al. 1991; Ma-heswaran and Meyers-Levy 1990), the negativity effect isdefined here as the greater weighing of negative as comparedwith equally extreme positive information in the formationof evaluative judgments. It is assessed via the relativeweightgiven to negative versus positive information in the for-mation of evaluations.It has its roots in the impression formation research inthe 1970s and 1980s, which focused on evaluations of un-known targets under conditions of accuracy motivation (e.g.,Anderson 1981; Wright and Weitz 1977). The most acceptedexplanation for the negativity effect is that negative infor-mation is perceived as more useful or diagnostic than pos-itive information for categorizing targets into evaluative cat-egories (Herr et al. 1991). Therefore, negative informationreceives greater weight in evaluations. This explanation im-plies that the negativity effect should be attenuated if theperceived diagnosticity of negative information is lowered.Consistent with this rationale, Skowronski and Carlson(1987) demonstrate a reversal of the negativity effect in thecontext of ability-related human behaviors, a domain inwhich the diagnosticity of negative information tends to below. This is because an individual’s successes are moreinformative about his abilities than his failures.Although negative information


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