Information behaviour, an interdisciplinary perspective

Chapter 6 Information processing and use

6.1 Introduction

The fact that a situation demands information to fill cognitive gaps, to support values and beliefs, or to influence affective states, and that sources of information are available and accessible to the searcher is no guarantee that the information will be 'processed' (that is, incorporated into the users' framework of knowledge, beliefs or values) or used (that is, lead to changes in behaviour, values or beliefs).

One of the problems with this aspect of information behaviour is that information processing is as subjective as information need and, like information need, is not directly observable, since it takes place in the mind of the individual. Another difficulty is that the association between information processing and learning is so close as to be almost identical and learning theory has been covered only incidentally in this review.

Most of the literature we have reviewed appears to take information use as non-problematical: the concern is mainly with the factors that create the need for information and the factors that affect the choice of information sources and channels. Thus, Wilson's (1981) conclusion that information use was an under-researched area appears to be borne out in areas of research other than information science.

The exceptions to this general conclusion are found in the fields of innovation research and research into decision-making in organizations. Consequently, this chapter will focus on contributions from these areas, together with such work from psychology and consumer research that appears to be relevant.

6.2 The implementation of innovations

The seminal researcher in the field of the diffusion of social innovations is Rogers (1983), whose work has been taken into over into a number of fields, including that of social cognitive theory (Bandura, 1986). Howze & Redman (1992), drawing upon Bandura, 1986; Rogers & Shoemaker, 1971, and Rogers, 1983, note that the factors that can affect the acceptance or rejection of a social innovation include:

...(1) the characteristics of the innovation that make it more or less attractive; (2) the role of opinion leaders and change agents; (3) the characteristics of adopters and their culture and the configuration of the culture's communications; (4) the extent to which the innovation must complete with other innovations for adopter attention and resources; and (5) the vigorousness with which the innovation is marketed.

We might hypothesize that these some factors are likely to affect the acceptance of innovative information, such as research findings and research utilization has also been studied within Roger's diffusion of innovation model. For example, Barta (1995) examined the perceived barriers to research utilization by nursing educators and related the extent of innovation to information sources. From an information provider's point-of-view her results are interesting in that the top three sources of information were, 1) nursing journals, 2) nursing texts, and 3) the Cumulated Index of Nursing Literature. Barta also found that, 'Respondents who selected nursing journals were more likely to have a higher mean Total Innovation Adoption Score than those who did not...'.

Bandura's (1986) Social Cognitive Theory, also proposes that successful diffusion efforts have four distinct phases:

  1. Selection of an optimal setting for introducing innovation.
  2. Creation of the necessary preconditions for change.
  3. Implementation of a demonstrably effective program.
  4. Dispersion of the innovation to other areas through the aid of successful examples.

Given the extent to which the diffusion of innovations depends upon the transfer of knowledge and information, these factors suggest that knowledge and information on their own will not accomplish the goals of a diffusion process if other factors are not present and if the phases of a programme have not been effectively designed. In a very real sense, therefore, the use of information is as dependent upon the context of use as information need is dependent upon the situation under which it arises.

6.3 Presentation format

Presentation format has been extensively in consumer behaviour as a key factor in information processing (for example, Bettman & Kakkar, 1977). Some of the work is laboratory-based, involving display boards (Jacoby, et al., 1976) and eye-movement tracking , and seemingly rather artificial for that reason, but the results are interesting from a general perspective. Bettman & Kakkar report on two investigations and conclude that:

...the strategies used to acquire information are strongly affected by the structure of the information presented. In effect, consumers process information in these studies in the form it is given. Acquisition strategies are totally adapted to the task environment.

In discussion of the results the authors point to the general principle that merely presenting information is not enough: 'Even if information is available, if it is not easily processable it cannot be used by consumers.' That is:

...if certain methods of processing information are easier to carry out or more effective for consumers than others, information must be presented in a format congruent with those methods of processing.

These ideas are fully in accord with the ideas advanced by Tufte (1983, 1990) in his work on the visual presentation of data, and by Dolby & Clark (1982) on 'the language of data'.

6.4 Information processing and learning

As noted earlier, the link between information processing and learning is close - indeed, learning has been conceptualized as a process of 'intuitive hypothesis testing', with individuals adapting their beliefs in order to make sense of new information (Bower & Hilgard, 1981).

Three main processes in cognitive learning are suggested:

Iconic learning: in which beliefs are formed through repetition of the message. This proposition underlies much research in advertising, the argument being that, '...preference is created simply from repeated exposure, with no associated cognitive activity' (Aaker, et al., 1992, citing Zajonc, 1968). Further work suggests that, '...people do process income information at a "preattentive" level before they decide if it is worth paying attention to' (Aaker, et al., 1992);

Modelling: in which observation and imitation of others provides the basis for learning. Bandura (1977) discusses both participant modelling, where the individual is encouraged to engage in otherwise threatening activities so that he or she can learn to cope more effectively with fear, and vicarious experience where the individual can learn the same kind of coping strategies through the observation of others. Although Bandura is discussing these strategies in terms of their value in psycho-therapies, the same modes of learning by modelling are clearly part of all cognitive learning; and

Reasoning: which is generating and restructuring previously acquired information held in memory. It is this form of learning that we most usually associate with the acquisition of information from formal sources, assuming that the information is processed in such a way as to make it available for reasoning.

6.5 Selectivity and information relevance

A discussion of the concept of selective exposure was presented earlier, in Chapter 4, where it was seen as relating to a tendency to select those information sources and that information that was likely to confirm prior held beliefs, attitudes and knowledge.

However, at the level of examining information to determine its value, the same selective processes are likely to be in play. This, indeed, is confirmed to a degree by Yzerbyt & Leyens (1991) who carried out experiments to test the theoretical proposition that people would request less information when presented with negative information on the personalities of individuals than they would if the earlier information was positive. In other words, more information was requested when the incoming information confirmed initial perceptions of the person than when those perceptions were disconfirmed.

6.6 Information in decision-making

Research into the relationship between information and decision-making is undertaken in a number of fields outside of information science, including management, psychology, and social psychology.

One school of work might be called the micro-analysis of decisions from a psychological perspective. For example, Payne, et al. (1988) report on, ' closely the efficient processing patterns for a given decision problem identified by [a] simulation correspond to the actual processing behavior exhibited by subjects.' Clearly, this is work undertaken in the psychological laboratory, rather than in real working situations, even given that the second stage of the research involved students who were given course credit for involvement in the laboratory experiments. However, work of this kind has revealed that information processing in decision-making is contingent upon, '...many task and context variables (Payne, 1982) such as the number of alternatives.'

The particular focus of the research by Payne, et al. (1988) was to determine how decision-makers varied their strategies for making decisions according to the pressures they were under. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was found that time pressure was a significant variable:

Under severe time pressure, people accelerated their processing, focused on a subset of the information, and changed their information processing strategies. There was more attribute-based processing and more variance in the proportion of time spent on various attributes as time pressure increased.

It is dangerous to suggest that laboratory-based findings can carry over to the real world of information systems design, but these results are of interest, since they point to ways in which the information provider - at least one who is in close contact with the decision-makers - could configure the information provided to a user so as to enable more effective decision-making under time pressure.

According to Ghosal & Kim (1986):

'...information that is received in the course of the decision-making process has a far greater chance of being used than information that is stored within the organization. Going from files to user-friendly, on-line, relational databases has clearly eased the problem but has not solved it. By and large, information stored in files or computers is used mostly for packaging proposals and rarely for learning or initiating and evaluating courses of action.'

The authors also point to the fact that environmental intelligence is usually received too late to be of use in the decision-making process, '...and at too high a level in the hierarchy', since, by the time a proposal reaches top management, so much has been invested (in terms of psychology and power relationships) at lower levels, that it is difficult to change without major disruption.

Also of relevance to information systems design is the fact that:

'...there is a complex set of interactions between information and its source that influences the way information is perceived and acted upon by managers. The same piece of informatoin is seen differently when it is received from a favorite and trusted subordinate than when it is received from the manager of the intelligence section...'

Other researchers have also drawn attention to the essentially social character of information use in decision-making. For example, among the factors listed by O'Reilly (1983) as determining whether the information comes from a powerful or credible source; whether the information will cause conflict in the organization; and whether the information is supplied directly or through a third party. Koopman (1990) notes that managers rely largely on oral communication and that, '...a manager's relationship to the messenger largely determines the credibility of the message'.

Koopman (1990) also draws attention to the organizational culture within which the decision-making takes place, suggesting four models of the process: the Arena Model, which is dominated by negotiations among parties who form coalitions, which he relates to Mintzberg's (1979) concept of the professional bureaucracy; the Open-end Model, '...characterised by a limited view of the goals or or the means by which to achieve them', related to Mintzberg's adhocracy; the Bureaucratic Model, in which decision-making is '..."constricted" by rules and regulations', a phenomenon of Mintzberg's machine bureaucracy; and the Neo-rational Model, which ' characterised by strong centralisation, combined with low formalisation and confrontation', and which is associated with Mintzberg's simple structure, or Handy's (1985) Zeus or power culture.

Clearly, the literature on information processing and use deserves a review of its own, and we have been able to do little more here than draw attention to some of the main lines of investigation. However, perhaps enough has been done to alert information scientists to the need to see this aspect of information behaviour as one needing further investigation from an information science perspective, and for information providers to understand that mere delivery of the information to the intended user is no guarantee of use in decision-making.