A goal dependent model of certainty and information seeking

Sharlene He, Derek Rucker

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Information seeking and processing represents a central domain of inquiry within consumer behavior. A core tenant of many theories and models is that consumers' desire for information is driven by a need to reduce uncertainty (e.g., Chaiken, Liberman and Eagly 1989; Driscoll and Lanzetta 1965; Maheswaran and Chaiken 1991; Weary and Jacobson 1997). Consumers can often be relatively certain or uncertain about brands they encounter. Based on the principle of uncertainty reduction, consumers should be more likely to search for information about more uncertain brands. The present research proposes that the uncertainty reduction principle is far less invariant than captured in current models. In particular, we explore the idea that the opposite can often be true: consumers may engage in less information search about options accompanied by uncertainty. Specifically, we introduce and test a goal-dependent model that proposes individuals interpret uncertainty in the context of their overarching goals. Although uncertainty increases information processing when a knowledge goal is focal, uncertainty decreases information processing when an efficiency goal is focal. In prior paradigms demonstrating the classic effect (i.e., uncertainty increasing information seeking and processing), the active goal pertained to knowledge acquisition (Lanzetta and Driscoll 1968; Weary and Jacobson 1997). Under a knowledge goal, greater uncertainty signals larger deficiency in knowledge, thus acquiring information about an uncertain (vs. certain) brand enables more progress towards the knowledge goal. This is consistent with existing explanations of the classic effect. However, consumers might often have efciency goals, such as making a purchase decision under time constraint (Duncan and Olshavsky 1982; Punj and Staelin 1983). In this situation, information is a means to an end and consumers need to allocate their time and energy to reach a decision. We propose that, under an efficiency goal, greater certainty signals a higher likelihood of goal attainment. Consequently, seeking information about a relatively certain (vs. uncertain) brand enables more progress towards the goal. We test our goal-dependent account in five experiments with different manipulations of uncertainty. Manipulation checks assessing uncertainty were included in each experiment and showed that the manipulations had the intended effect. Although we replicate the classic effect when a knowledge goal is present, we consistently show a reversal when an efficiency goal is present, such that consumers engage in greater information seeking for more certain as opposed to more uncertain options.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)472-473
Number of pages2
JournalAdvances in Consumer Research
StatePublished - Jan 1 2016

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Applied Psychology
  • Economics and Econometrics
  • Marketing


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