Information behaviour, an interdisciplinary perspective

Chapter 4 Intervening variables in information-seeking behaviour

Whatever the situation in which a person perceives a need for information, engaging in information-seeking behaviour is not a necessary consequence. As the previous section suggests, in relation to health information, blunters have the ability to set aside their concerns and to cope with stress by, in effect, ignoring stress. This suggests that the individual's personality, perhaps coupled with other factors, may offer its own resistance to information-seeking behaviour. However, there are clearly a number of other potential impediments between the recognition of a need to be informed and the activation of a search for information. Most obvious are the other elements of the situation, particularly the role-related, social or inter-personal elements. Given that the situation of need may be affected by the environment within which the role is performed, or within which the inter-personal activity is played out, it is also possible that the environment may impose barriers of an economic, political, geographic or other nature.

In Figure 2, three sets of "barriers" to information-seeking behaviour are shown, which are related to the dimensions of the situation in which the person finds himself or herself:

personal barriers;
social or role-related barriers; and
environmental barriers.

This formulation has been repeated in one form or another by other writers, some of whom use what we propose as the preferred term, intervening variables.

There is, however, a certain difficulty in positioning the barriers between the identification of information-seeking as a suitable coping strategy and the information-seeking behaviour itself. In fact, the barriers, particularly those at the level of the person, may act to prevent the initial emergence of a coping strategy, or may intervene between the acquisition of information and its use. However, with this caveat in mind, it is convenient to deal with the barriers in one place.

4.1 Intervening variables

As with other aspects of information-seeking behaviour., the intervening variables have been quite exhaustively discussed in the study of personality, health communication literature, consumer research, and innovation studies. The other areas considered in this review (decision-making and information system requirements) contribute rather less. Drawing from several sources, we can identify work on the following sets, categorized under the above headings:

Personal characteristics
Emotional variables
Educational variables
Demographic variables
Social/interpersonal variables
Environmental variables
Economic variables
Source characteristics

4.1.1 Personal characteristics

Cognitive dissonance

The psychological literature focuses on the concept of cognitive dissonance as a motivation for behaviour: briefly, this concept suggests that conflicting cognitions make people uncomfortable and that, consequently, they will seek to resolve the conflict in one way or another (Festinger, 1957). One of the ways in which dissonance may be reduced is by seeking information either to support existing knowledge, values or beliefs, or to find sufficient cause to change these factors.

Thus, Aaker, et al., (1992), reporting work on advertising and its effects on changes in attitudes towards products, note that where an advertisement matches the belief held by a person, that person is more likely to advance supporting arguments for choosing the product. However, where there are discrepancies between the communication and the previously held belief, the person is likely to bring forward counter-arguments to the claims being made in the advertisement.

On the other hand, Sorrentino & Short (1986) suggest that:

...many people are simply not interested in finding out information about themselves or the world, do not conduct causal searches... and do not give a hoot for resolving discrepancies or inconsistencies about the self.

This seems to return us to the idea of people having different levels of cognitive need, which may be the ultimate driver of information behaviour.

Selective exposure

The point made by Sorrentino & Short, above, may be included within the idea of selective exposure, which Rogers (1983) has explored. He suggests that, 'Individuals generally tend to expose themselves to ideas that are in accordance with their interests, needs or existing attitudes. We consciously or unconsciously avoid messages that are in conflict with our predispositions.' This appears to be a variation of Krohne's idea of cognitive avoidance (sect. 2.5 above).

Johnson & Macrae (1994) tested the proposition that people are more likely to bias their information search towards information that matches their stereotypical image of a group rather than towards that which does not match their stereotype. They demonstrated that when a group of students, '...could control the amount and nature of information they received about a group, they displayed the anticipated preference for stereotype-matching information.' However, when the students' information acquisition was controlled by the researcher, '...a reduction in their stereotype-based impression of the group' was observed.

Clearly, these ideas present interesting ethical dilemmas for information providers!

Physiological, cognitive and emotional characteristics.

In a study of the information-seeking behaviour of cancer out-patients (Borgers, et al., 1993) it was found that certain characteristics of the patient could act as barriers to seeking information during a consultation with the doctor. These included physiological characteristics such as hearing problems (experienced by 5% of the sample), cognitive characteristics such as the lack of medical knowledge (5%) and verbal limitations (5%), as well as nervousness (20%) perhaps signifying emotional problems. The study concluded that three factors determined the information-seeking behaviour of patients:

  1. 1. The characteristics and perceptions of the patient.
  2. 2. Certain characteristics of the patient's companion and the specialist.
  3. 3. Characteristics of the organization and situation.

An Australian study (Kassulke, et al., 1993) of health information seeking found that, '...emotional barriers proved to be most significant in limiting access to health services". These 'emotional barriers' were said to be, 'a construct consisting of questions relating to an inability to make decisions about health and to take advantage of existing health services', and the precise nature of the barriers was not explained.

Educational level and knowledge base

Level of education has been explored as an intervening variable by a number of researchers. For example, in the study by Kassulke discussed above, educational level was associated with risky behaviour in relation to cigarette smoking and excessive alcohol consumption, and with risky behaviour by women in relation to a number of health factors, such as checks for breast cancer and cervical smear tests. In the field of consumer behaviour, Ippolito & Mathios (1990) show that,

...the flow of information about the health benefits of fiber consumption was not uniform across the population in 1985. In particular, information was disproportionately incorporated into the behavior of those with advantages in acquiring and processing information and those with higher valuations of health.

In this study, the concept 'advantages in acquiring and processing information' was measured through three variables, GRADE, an educational measure; INCOME, that is, the total household income; and MHEAD, signifying whether there were two adults in the household.

Ippolito, et al., (1979) had shown that college graduates were more likely to give up smoking following the publication of the US Surgeon General's 1964 Report on Smoking, and Schucker, et al., (1983) had found a relation between level of education and reactions to the US government's requirement that warnings about saccharin should be placed on soft-drink labels.

Perhaps related to education, Harris (1992) in a study of out-patients at a New Zealand hospital found that medical terminology was a barrier to information exchanges with doctors: 3% of respondents commented specifically on this point.

The effect of the individual's knowledge base has been explored in the field of consumer behaviour. For example, Bettman & Park (1980) suggested that highly knowledgeable people may feel less need to search for more information, while MacInnis & Jaworski (1991) proposed that the more knowledgeable the individual, the easier they would find it to encode information, thereby making further information acquisition easier. Finally, Moorman & Matulich (1993) found that high knowledge levels did indeed facilitation information acquisition but also that, when health motivation is high, those with higher health knowledge will perform more health behaviours than individuals with lower knowledge levels.

The situation appears to be more complex than even these studies suggest, however, since work by Radecki and Jaccard (1995) suggests that an individual's perception of their own knowledge is influenced by their perception of a friend's knowledge and that personal perceptions of knowledge influence decision-making and behaviour to the extent that people may seek less information on topics they feel knowledgeable about. The study also found that the perceived importance of a topic tends to bias perceptions of knowledge: the more important a topic is to individuals, the more likely they will view themselves as knowledgeable about the subject. In conditions of privacy it was found that persons with less perceived knowledge (that is, lower self-perceptions) searched more. In public settings the relationships were more complex but, over all, the study concludes that perceived knowledge is a central construct in the analysis of information-seeking behaviour, perhaps more so that actual knowledge.

Demographic variables: age, sex & other factors

Connell & Crawford (1988) found that the amount of health information received by urban residents from all sources declined with age, but that older rural women received a great deal of information from a variety of sources and that the amount declined only slightly with age. Older men received far less information than younger men.

Slevin, et al., (1988) in a study of a national cancer information service (BACUP) found that use of the service was mainly (80%) by women (although men are marginally more at risk), either in the 30-49 years age group (52%) or over 60 years of age (17%). More than 85% of enquirers were in non-manual occupations and 97% were white (1.2% came from the Indian subcontinent, compared with 3.6% in the population as a whole). The authors commented that, '...lower social classes make much less use of community health and preventive services', although, again, there is a slightly higher incidence of cancer in the lower socio-economic groups.

Connell & Crawford (1988) found women reported receiving more health information than men from all sources and attributed this to women's traditional role as a care-giver and 'lay health care provider'.

Feick et al. (1986) studied women's searching behaviour for nutrition information on food labels. The study found that participants with children searched for nutrition and ingredient information on particular products, without showing an overall interest in more general nutrition information, suggesting that concern for their children was the motivating factor in information search.

4.1.2 Economic barriers

The economic issues related to information-seeking behaviour fall into two categories: direct economic costs, and the value of time. These may apply either to the process of information-seeking itself, or to the consequent actions.

These factors have been extensively explored in the field of consumer behaviour, where a key piece of economic research (Stigler, 1961) has stimulated a great deal of activity. Stigler's work was intended to show, '...that some important aspects of economic organization take on a new meaning when they are considered from the viewpoint of the search for information', and he used the case of the discovery by a searcher of the market price for a product:

Prices change with varying frequency in all markets, and, unless a market is completely centralized, no one will know all the prices which various sellers (or buyers) quote at any given time. A buyer (or seller) who wishes to ascertain the most favorable price must canvass various sellers (or buyers) - a phenomenon I shall term "search."

In Stigler's model, 'The cost of search, for a consumer, may be taken as approximately proportional to the number of (identified) sellers approached, for the chief cost is time.' Stigler notes that this cost will not be the same for all persons, since the cost of time is higher for persons with larger incomes. He also notes that, 'The assimilation of information is not an easy or pleasant task for most people, and they may well be willing to pay more for the information when supplied in an enjoyable form.' From the point of view of manufacturers, '...uncertainty concerning his price is clearly disadvantageous' since the cost of search is part of the total cost of purchase, but, 'To keep the buyers in a market informed on the current prices of all items of consumption would involve perhaps a thousandfold increase of newspaper advertising'.

However, Jacoby et al., (1978) report studies that have found evidence of negative or zero relationship between wages and search effort, suggesting that the wage value of time may not be the only factor: for example, people may shop for a variety of reasons other than to discover alternative prices - such as simple enjoyment (see, for example, Marmorstein et al., 1992; Beatty & Smith, 1987).

Stigler predicts that when choice alternatives are similar, search efforts will be reduced as the gains to be made are reduced. This is at variance with psychology's uncertainty theory, which suggests that when choice alternatives are similar, search effort will increase in an effort to reduce uncertainty (Urbany, et al., 1989).

4.1.3 Social/interpersonal barriers

Interpersonal problems are likely to arise whenever the information source is a person, or where interpersonal interaction is needed to gain access to other kinds of information sources.

Borgers et al. (1993) found cancer patients identified several barriers to successful information seeking during consultations, these included the attitude of the specialist, and the presence of other people, such as clinical assistants during the consultation.

In innovation research, the '...established behavior patterns for the members of a social system' (Rogers, 1983) may also act as a barrier to change and, hence, as a barrier to information-seeking leading to change.

Social factors may also act as barriers to access to information and so frustrate an information-seeker. Thus, Howze & Redman (1992), discuss the attempts of the Health Promotion and Education Council of Virginia to reduce premature and preventable death through legislative action on health promotion. They comment:

Among the impediments to the diffusion of social innovations is resistance by vested or privileged groups than benefit from the status quo. Resistance may take many forms including efforts to discredit the innovation. The Council was surprised by two editorials attacking prevention, which appeared in the... Richmond Times-Despatch at times just prior to key committee votes... Although the editorials appeared to be arguing for less government and fiscal restraint, it seemed likely that the hand of the tobacco lobby was at work.

In examining the behaviour of scientists in acquiring information relevant to research and development, Sheen (1992) notes that:

...some technologists effectively manage to draw a boundary round their expertise in order to protect their position and status within a firm: external information sources are utilised but then internalised and used to develop a personal power base.

4.1.4 Environmental/situational barriers

Research shows that the immediate situation of information-seeking activity can include elements that represent barriers to continuing that activity, and that the wider environment can also present problems.


Cameron et al. (1994) found information exchange between patients and doctors was inhibited by the lack of time available, the stress of the situation and the use of unfamiliar terminology. Hannay et al. (1992) (cited in Marcus & Tuchfield, 1993) found that a typical consultation with a doctor lasted between 12 and 15 minutes, during which time any examination, diagnosis and explanation of treatment necessary had to be made, which left little or no time for the doctor to act as a source of other forms of health information.

A study of information-seeking by cancer outpatients (Borgers et al., 1993) found that the duration of a consultation and interruptions such as telephone calls were barriers to information-seeking.


Connell & Crawford (1988) also found that the age and geographic location of study participants affected the health information they received. The amount of information received from all sources decreased with age for urban residents, but for the rural residents a high amount of information was received in the 30-44 years age group, levels then dropped in the 45-65 years age range, but rose again for the over 65 years. Older rural women were found to receive a large amount of information from a variety of sources and the levels of information these women received only dropped slightly with age, compared to older men who received far less health information than their younger counterparts.

National cultures

Differences in national cultures are particularly significant for the transfer of innovations and the associated information, and may also affect the way members of different cultures view the possibility of information acquisition.

The main work in this area is that of Hofstede (1980) who proposed and tested four dimensions in which cultures might differ. These are: power distance, or the acceptance of unequal distribution of power in organizations; uncertainty avoidance, or the extent to which a society feels threatened by uncertain situations and so tends to avoid such situations; individualism-collectivism, which is rather self-explanatory; and masculinity-femininity, or the prevalence of masculine values of materials things, etc., versus that of feminine values such as caring for others. In a later work (Hofstede, 1991) a fifth dimension was added, that is, long-term/short-term orientation to life.

On the basis of Hofstede's work and confirmatory work by others, it can be argued that these five dimensions are the crucial dimensions of cultural difference. If so, we might expect to find differences in information-seeking behaviour and information use across cultures correlating with the five dimensions. Thus, we can hypothesize that, in cultures with high power distance measures, information exchange in organizations is likely to be inhibited, whereas it is likely to be facilitated in cultures with high collectivism scores. On the other hand, when one examines Hofstede's analysis of these two factors across fifty countries, it is interesting to see that countries with a strong tradition of public library development appear in the small power distance/high individualism quadrant (for example, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, the USA, Canada, the Netherlands) - perhaps the building of infrastructures to foster individualism is at work here.

Uncertainty avoidance has already appeared in the treatment of the stress/coping theory and has been shown there, in individual behaviour, to be associated with information-seeking. It seems likely that cultures that score high on uncertainty avoidance are likely to foster information-seeking behaviour, and, again, the countries noted above as having a tradition of public library development, are high on the uncertainty avoidance scale.

The significance of cultural differences is recognized in Shore & Venkatachalam's (1994) suggestion that the transfer of information technology is more likely to work effectively where the cultural gap between the countries is least. They note, for example, that, '...when an application is transferred to a different national culture, users may be bound in ways that make it unlikely for them to even think about their "information needs"'. They propose a model for cultural prototyping which would ensure that the cultural differences were recognized and dealt with.

4.1.5 Information source characteristics


A fundamental requirement for information-seeking is that some source of information should be accessible. The lack of an easily accessible source may inhibit information-seeking altogether, or may impose higher costs than the enquirer is prepared to pay.

In a study of consumer health information needs in a community hospital (Phillips & Zorn, 1994) found that more than two-thirds of the consumers viewed access to health information as a problem, compared to less than half of the physicians surveyed. Consumers, '...overwhelmingly indicated their personal physician or other health professional [as the first point of call]. The second most frequent source...was the public library...' 92% of consumers indicated that they would use a special consumer health library if the local hospital provided one. The physicians covered by the survey also indicated that they would use and advise their patients to use, a local consumer health library.


If a seeker of information discovers that an information source is unreliable in the quality and accuracy of the information delivered he or she is likely to regard the source as lacking in credibility. As may be expected, this is a subject of considerable interest in consumer research, since advertisers must persuade consumers to believe their claims for products and services.

In distinguishing between advertisements and publicity - the former paid for, while the latter is not - Kotler (1991) notes that publicity has higher credibility than advertisements, since the connection between the manufacturer and the information is not so directly perceived. Ray (1982) also notes that the introduction of an apparently 'objective' context, such as a news report, also lends credibility to publicity.

Lord & Putrevu (1993), in reviewing the literature on advertising versus publicity, note that:

Publicity... delivers information to the consumer as part of 'the news' - a forum upon which consumers are socialized to depend as an accurate, objective and generally sufficient source of information. Whereas the perceived role of an advertiser is to sell his/her product, that of a journalist is to report the facts. Hence a consumer exposed to marketing information conveyed as part of such news, feature or editorial coverage is unlikely to suspect or search for an ulterior motive on the part of the source or presenter, assuming the message to partake of the same level of credibility associated with other journalistic reports.

Channel of communication

Although not strictly a characteristic of the source, the communication channel through which the information is received is sufficiently closely tied to the source to be considered here. In a study of bicycle safety helmet use (Witte, et al., 1993) it was found that threatening information (that is, on the dangers of non-use of safety helmets and the need for use) was more effectively presented through interpersonal channels, such as through telephone conversations, rather than through the mass media: 'Threatening messages given over mass media channels may simply be ignored by the audience, whereas threatening messages given interpersonally may force audience members to evaluate a given health risk.'

Johnson & Meischke (1991b) found that interpersonal sources of information (consultations with a physician were the preferred source) can be more effective in reducing uncertainty for cancer patients because they provide immediate feedback and social support. Both of these factors give the patient confidence in the advice received. Johnson & Meischke (1991a) also found that interpersonal sources are, '...better suited to handle special individual needs and questions', due to the immediate feedback available from the source.

This phenomenon is well-supported in the information science literature where studies of information-seeking behaviour have frequently shown other people to be the commonest source of information.