Systematic Model of Processing

Will you remember this discussion post?  Will you process the information contained in this discussion post systematically, heuristically, or some combination of the two?  According to the myriad research, the answer to these questions depends on a number of factors related specifically to each type of processing.

Systematic processing is considered to be deeper, more considered, thoughtful, reflective, analytical, encompassing prior knowledge, and ultimately results in an informed evaluative judgment and/or decision (Chaiken, 1980; Chaiken & Maheswaran, 1994).  Systematic processing is dependent upon ample motivation and cognitive resources. “Systematic processing will only occur when an individual possesses adequate levels of both cognitive capacity and motivation” (Zuckerman & Chaiken, 1998, p. 621).  Reduction in either can result in decreased systematic processing and increased heuristic processing.  Information content, i.e., the message, is important in systematic processing.

One of the prerequisites for systematic processing is motivation.  Motivation to systematically process information is determined by the gap between desired confidence and actual confidence in judgment (attitude), otherwise referred to as the sufficiency principal (Zuckerman & Chaiken, 1998).  The larger the gap between actual and desired confidence in judgment regarding the message, object, or person, the more likely the person is to utilize systematic processing to increase their confidence.  Hence, higher motivation to use systematic processing.  Motivation (the gap in confidence) is increased when the judgment is deemed important, personally relevant, or the individual is held accountable or responsible for their decision/judgment.

Another prerequisite for systematic processing is cognitive capacity, which is considered in finite supply.  Therefore, anything that hinders the use of cognitive capacity such as distraction, limited knowledge of the subject matter, person, object, or time constraints can significantly reduce cognitive capacity resulting in a reduction in systematic processing and increased reliance on heuristic processing.  “Finally, even if one has sufficient motivation for systematic processing, the heuristic systematic model postulates that he or she may still not engage in such processing if cognitive capacity is inadequate.  This means that any number of factors are operating to limit cognitive resources, such as time constraints, knowledge constraints, or the presence of simultaneous processing tasks” (Zuckerman & Chaiken, 1998, p. 625).

Heuristic processing, on the other hand, is considered to be far simpler, typically based on situational cues and/or simple decisional rules often resulting in less considered evaluative judgments (Chaiken, 1980; Chaiken & Maheswaran, 1994).  Heuristic processing is dependent upon availability and accessibility of an appropriate or relevant heuristic.  For instance, evaluating an advertised product positively based upon consensus, or because an expert regales you with its features or attributes.  “Numerous experiments have shown that attitude judgments of low-motivation or low-capacity subject are influenced very little by the caliber of a message’s persuasive arguments but are influenced quite substantially by heuristic cues such as source credibility” (Chaiken & Maheswaran, 1994, p. 460).  Context or situational cues are important in heuristic processing.

Understanding how individuals’ process information has important implications for many fields, including political, academic, professional, and health.  At this point, it appears that individuals falling within the low motivation and/or low cognitive capacity are much less likely to utilize systematic processing to understand persuasive messages, academic arguments, or even political debates, unless researchers are able to determine how to artificially motivate someone to systematically process information or increase our inherent cognitive capacity.  As the latter is unlikely, despite many researchers’ best efforts, the former has come into play in the research I reviewed for this assignment.

Maheswaran & Chaiken (1991) examined the question of how to trigger systematic processing in low-motivation settings.  This issue can be particularly relevant in educational settings where students are disinclined or disinterested in the information being “taught” and are, therefore, less motivated to process information presented thoroughly.  It was hypothesized that if the perceivers’ confidence was manipulated such that the gap between actual and desired confidence in judgment were increased, perceivers would utilize systematic processing over heuristic processing of information to increase their confidence levels.  Further, the researchers hypothesized that incongruency between initially provided information and subsequently provided information would lead perceivers who were explicitly led to believe their task was unimportant and hence inducing a low motivation state, to increase systematic processing of the information.  The results of the study supported the hypotheses.  In the task important condition (high motivation state), perceivers significantly utilized systematic processing in evaluating the information presented.  In the task unimportant condition, congruent information (low motivation state) perceivers relied heavily on heuristic processing in evaluating the information.  In the task unimportant condition, incongruent information condition (low motivation state) perceivers again relied on systematic processing to evaluate the information.

The results of this study adds yet another extension to the heuristic-systematic model of processing information in that it is possible to induce a high motivated stated or high sufficiency threshold through manipulation of the perceivers’ confidence levels.



Chaiken, S. (1980). Heuristic versus systemaic information processing and the use of source versus message cues in persuasion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39(5), 752-766.

Chaiken, S., & Maheswaran, D. (1994). Heuristic processing can bias systematic processing: Effects of source credibility, argument ambiguity, and task importance on attitude judgment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66(3), 460-473. Retrieved from

Maheswaran, D., & Chaiken, S. (1991). Promoting systematic processing in low-motivation settings: effect of incongruent information on processing and judgment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61(1), 13-25. Retrieved from

Zuckerman, A., & Chaiken, S. (1998). A heuristic-systematic processing analysis of the effectiveness of product warning labels. Psychology & Marketing, 15(7), 621-642.<621::AID-MAR2>3.3.CO;2-L


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