Information behaviour, an interdisciplinary perspective

Chapter 5 Information-seeking and acquisition

5.1 Searching and acquisition

Wilson's formulation of the information-seeking processes implicitly takes active searching as the principle mode and Ellis's behavioural model of information-seeking is also concerned with this mode. However, other modes of 'searching' do take place, although two of these may be better termed 'acquisition' (Aaker, et al., 1992). From the research reviewed we can identify:

passive attention: such as listening to the radio or watching television programmes, where there may be no information-seeking intended, but where information acquisition may take place nevertheless;

passive search: which seems like a contradiction in terms, but signifies those occasions when one type of search (or other behavour) results in the acquisition of information that happens to be relevant to the individual;

active search: which is the type of search most commonly thought of in the information science literature, where an individual actively seeks out information; and

ongoing search: where active searching has already established the basic framework of ideas, beliefs, values, or whatever, but where occasional continuing search is carried out to update or expand one's framework. In consumer research, Bloch, et al., (1986) define ongoing search as that which is independent of specific purchase needs or decisions and that the motives are to build knowledge for future purchase decisions and simply to engage in a pleasurable activity.

5.2 Risk/reward theory

Stigler's prediction that when choice alternatives are similar, search efforts will be reduced as the gains to be made are reduced (Section 4.1.2 above) draws attention to the risk and reward model, which may be considered a general theory of information-seeking behaviour. It is normally associated with issues of financial cost, but in setting out to search for information in any context we may be risking not only financial resources but also psychological and physical resources.

Settle & Alreck (1989), working in the field of consumer research, suggest that perceived risk has five components:

performance risk (concerning the probability of a product performing to an accepted standard);
financial risk (is the product affordable, or should a cheaper product be found?),
physical risk (is the product hazardous to the individual or his property?),
social risk (will the product impress friends and colleagues?), and
ego risk (will the product improve the person's state of happiness? (Perhaps 'self-esteem' might be substituted for happiness)).

Murray (1991) suggests six components, adding safety risks and time/convenience loss risks to the above, but ignoring physical risk. Murray also suggests that the amount and nature of perceived risk (in terms of uncertainty about a product) will define information needs: more information will be sought by consumers who perceive high risk. The underlying proposition here is that high risk is associated with high reward - if only the reward of diminishing the risk.

Aaker, et al., (1992) suggest that active search occurs when the risk or uncertainty associated with a product is high, as in the case of a major purchase or purchase of an innovative product. They also suggest that active search is likely to occur just before purchasing a product, when the information is unlikely to change and when it is not likely to be forgotten by the consumer.

Information search practices in special libraries would support this proposition, since, for example, exhaustive searches are common in relation to patent information or legal information, where the financial risks of failure to find the information may be high.

5.3 Social cognitive (or learning) theory

The social learning theory is derived from the ideas of stimulus response theory (Rosenstock et al 1988), its central construct is self-efficacy (or sense of personal mastery), which Bandura (1977) defines in the following way:

An outcome expectancy is defined as a person's estimate that a given behavior will lead to certain outcomes. An efficacy expectation is the conviction that one can successfully execute the behavior required to produce the outcomes. Outcome and efficacy expectations are differentiated, because individuals can believe that a particular course of action will produce certain outcome, but if they entertain serious doubts about whether they can perform the necessary activities such information does not influence their behavior.

Bandura makes a clear link between self-efficacy and coping strategies: 'The strength of people's convictions in their own effectiveness is likely to affect whether they will even try to cope with given situations.' He goes on to note that feelings of self-efficacy will affect how long someone persists in an action and how much effort he or she puts into the action.

Bandura notes that efficacy expectations can be based on four major sources of information: performance accomplishments (that is, carrying out the actions oneself); vicarious experience (or learning from others); verbal persuasion (which may include self-instruction); and physiological states, particularly emotional arousal.

Although Bandura developed the concept of self-efficacy in the field of psychology and intended that it should aid the development of psycho-therapies, there seems to be no reason why the idea should not have more general applicability. Bandura himself suggests that, 'The theoretical framework presented in the present article is generalizable beyond the psychotherapy domain...', and we would argue that it can be applied as a general concept determining information-seeking behaviour.

We can hypothesize, for example, that an individual may be aware that use of an information source may produce useful information, but doubt his or her capacity properly to access the source, or properly to carry out a search. In such a case failure to use the source might occur. We can also hypothesize that one of the motives for information-seeking is to gain information to improve one's self-efficacy in coping with problems of whatever kind.

5.4 The acquisition process

In the field of educational psychology, Armbruster & Armstrong (1993) combined models by Guthrie & Mosenthal (1987) and Dreher (1992) to typify the search process in terms of locating information in text. This combined model incorporated the following four components:

Goal formation: identifying the goal of the search task
Text selection: selection of an appropriate text
Information extraction and integration: integrating the extracted information with prior knowledge
Evaluation: recycling with monitoring and evaluation of progress towards the goal

There are similarities here with work in the field of computing, where Norman (1984) suggests that,

"The interaction between a person and a computer system involves four different stages of activities - intention, selection, execution and evaluation". Where intention is defined as the "mental characterization of the desired goal", selection is the translation of an intention to an action by the selection of one of the available options, execution involves entering the command selected into the computer system and evaluation is a review of the executed action to direct further activity. The process of selection requires the user to know the options available to him. This information can be acquire in one of four ways: the information may be retrieved from the user's memory, the user's memory may be jogged by the system, a manual or another user, the user may construct or derive an option in a problem-solving fashion, or the user may learn the information through external search of manuals, the system or other people.

These four stages have connections to those proposed for organizational decision-making by Simon (1977), who similarly identified four phases in the search for decision-related information: the intelligence phase, where raw data from the environment are obtained and processed to identify problems (which may be seen as preceding Norman's intention phase); the design phase, in which problems are clarified, potential solutions are assessed for feasibility and a course of action is developed (which overlaps with Norman's intention phase); the choice phase, when a feasible solution is selected and implemented (which is clearly identical to Norman's selection); and the review, which equates to evaluation.

Putting these two sets of phases together that from Armbruster & Armstrong would give us:

intention, or goal formation,
choice or selection,
information extraction and integration, and
review or evaluation.

It is curious, but perhaps not surprising in view of the focus on machine operations that neither Simon nor Norman included any phase equivalent to information extraction and integration. Ellis's (1989) behavioural analysis of information-seeking fits into this framework as a detailed elaboration of at least part of the information extraction and integration phase.

5.5 Preferred information sources and channels

Both in consumer research and health communication studies, as well as in media research, attention has been given to the preferred information channels, and the relationship between information and channel.

For example, Johnson & Meischke (1991b) noted that while doctors were the preferred information source for all types of health information there was, 'compelling evidence that respondents perceived the utility of various sources very differently for different types of information'. Marcus & Tuchfield (1993) also found that to satisfy their 'need to know', patients were seeking information from other sources.

Connell & Crawford (1988) found that the rank order of information sources actually used was:

  • 1. printed media;
  • 2. television;
  • 3. informal networks (friends, doctors);
  • 4. radio;
  • 5. organizations.
  • Support for these findings was also discovered by Johnson & Meischke (1991a) who reported the following percentages of use of different channels by women seeking cancer information:

    media 81%
    doctors 38%
    friends/family 37%
    organizations 37%

    The role of media was also reported by Freimuth, et al., (1989), who noted that much public health information was acquired from the media, in spite of a declared preference for other sources.

    However, Johnson & Meischke (1991b) found that, for authoritative information, people's preferences were for:

  • 1. organizations;
  • 2. family; and
  • 3. media
  • The difference may be explained by Stein's (1981) finding that people consult more than one source of information partly as a result of dissatisfaction with the information they receive from one source or another. Thus, if the information dissemination activities of organizations in the health field are inadequate, the principle fall-back source may well be the media.

    Toggerson (1981) found that, where individuals were exposed to information from more than one channel, their information-seeking behaviour increased.

    5.6 Active information-seeking for health information

    Information-seeking in the health field has proved to be a fruitful area of research, with the bulk of the work having an applied psychology flavour and with considerable attention to the sources of information, both formal and informal, that patients, or health-conscious citizens, use. Because much of the work has been done in the context of private medicine in the USA, the research has often been undertaken with a consumer research orientation.

    The reasons for the interest in health information-seeking in the USA are well expressed by Johnson & Meischke (1991a):

    Increasingly, the responsibility for health-related matters is passing to the individual. The social norms which cast doctors and public health officials as the brokers of medical information are yielding to an era in which individuals actively seek information. Individuals have to choose between a variety of information sources, including the relatively new sources represented by organizations, and then use the information they acquire to select options for health, for prevention, and for treatment.

    Elsewhere (Johnson & Meischke, 1993) the authors note that, 'Individual information seeking has become a critical element in determining health behaviours' and propose a comprehensive model of information-seeking synthesizing the health belief model (Rosenstock, 1974), uses and gratifications theory (Rubin, 1986), and a model of media exposure and appraisal (Johnson, 1983). This model, '...suggests that health-related factors provide the motive force for information-seeking actions, which are shaped by information carrier factors': and is expressed diagrammatically as follows:


    Figure 4: Comprehensive mode of information-seeking (Johnson & Meischke, 1993)

    This model was applied to the discovery by women of mammography information in magazines and the results showed very good fit to the model. However, the health-related factors proved to be not as strong as the information-carrier factors, leading the authors to suggest that future work on health information-seeking from mass media should focus on the communicative aspects, rather than the health-related aspects.

    5.7 A general model of consumer information acquisition.

    Bettman (1978) has outlined a general framework for studying consumer information acquisition and search strategies, which fits very well into the framework being evolved here. It is presented in Figure 5, below. It will be seen that for both internal search (i.e., memory) and external search, Bettman proposes three factors: direction - which pieces of information are examined; degree - how much information is sought; and patterns - the organization of the information in memory in internal search, and in external search, the organization of search procedures. The latter point, in consumer research, relates to such issues as whether the consumer searches for brands of products or attributes of products.


    Figure 5: Consumer information acquisition (simplified from Bettman, 1978)

    'Being confronted' is what has been called elsewhere, passive attention, and Bettman proposes is of two kinds, 'true' passive attention, which he terms low involvement learning, and 'attention due to interrupts', that is, having one's attention attracted when some existing behaviour is interrupted.