The Role of Need For Closure on Motivations to Assess Credibility When Information Seeking Online

Some long-form thoughts on Need for Closure and credibility. Nothing submission worthy, but something I’ve been thinking about (read as, these ideas need further development, and considerable improvement).

Introduction

The Internet is often regarded as a tool for widespread information distribution. A popular perspective suggests that individuals access the Internet to seek and share novel information. Accordingly, some scholars have considered the important role the Internet plays in facilitating everything from cultural production to personal and political freedom (Benkler, 2006; Jenkins, 2006; Lessig, 2000, 2004, 2006). But this idea is not universally accepted. Scholarship challenging this viewpoint worries that individuals selectively expose themselves to information, utilizing the Internet to confirm existing beliefs while filtering out dissenting information (Anderson, 2006; Johnson, Bichard, & Zhang, 2009; Sunstein, 2007).

In an attempt better understand the extent to which these conflicting perspectives are actually occurring, this paper considers the impact of need for closure (Kruglanski & Webster, 1996) on motivations to assess credibility (Metzger, 2007). The resulting hypotheses suggest that information seeking on the Internet is dependant on individual motivation. At times, individuals seek novel information, while other times opting to seek confirmatory information. Finally, implications and opportunities for future research are discussed.

Expectations and Impact of the Internet

The Internet, originally developed in the 1960s, has grown substantially since its inception. Initially, the Internet was primarily used among universities and military institutions. Today in America, 78% of adults and 95% of teens 12-17 years old use the Internet compared to just 15% in 1995 (Lenhart et al., 2011; Pew Internet & American Life Project, 2011). Globally, Internet usage continues to increase. The pervasive nature of the Internet often results in a misguided belief that this relatively new medium is fully matured (Turkle, 2011).

This is not to say that the Internet has not changed over the years. At onset, so-called counter culture values of the 1960s and 1970s shaped the early development of the Internet by emphasizing the importance of open and ubiquitous access to information (Markoff, 2005). Traditionally, information production and dissemination was a costly enterprise; however, the Internet has dramatically reduced these costs, allowing individuals to create and share more information than ever before (Benkler, 2006). A motivating force shaping early development of the Internet was the philosophical ideal of using technology to reduce costs associated with information production (Turner, 2006). This value was grounded in a utopian belief that increased access to information would open the world up to new information, augmenting human capability while creating spheres where dissenting thoughts could be readily accessed, discussed, and shared (Markoff, 2005; Turner, 2006).

This philosophy is readily identifiable in modern scholarship. A well-known argument is that increased access to information afforded by the Internet allows for new forms of cultural production that are vital to modern democracy (Jenkins, 2006; Lessig, 2000, 2004, 2006). Similarly, new media tools (e.g. blogs, social networking, websites) democratize information production and dissemination by shifting publishing power from traditional media industries to the individual (Benkler, 2006). The rise of social media, especially for collective action, extends this democratizing narrative in a new and important direction.

Yet, there is increasing skepticism about the true impact of increased access to information afforded by Internet technologies. For instance, Johnson, Bichard, and Zhang (2009) have observed the limiting role that selective exposure plays when individuals seek political information on blogs. More startlingly, Sunstein (2007) argues that emerging technologies will increasingly allow individuals the ability to control the information they are presented by filtering out dissonant opinions. The end result is what Anderson (2006, p. 184-185) refers to as “massively parallel culture” where increased access to niche information reshapes the very nature of culture.

Despite Anderson’s flair for the dramatic and Sunstein’s worrisome predictions, contradictory evidence suggests that such fears may very well be overstated. Recent research extending uses and gratifications theory to political information seeking online suggests that social motivations, regardless of the strength of the social connection, play a strong factor in the decision to seek additional information (Parmelee & Perkin, 2010). Selective exposure concerns are also mitigated by source credibility and the desire to sample a variety of perspectives (p. 96). Furthermore, Webster (2008) contends that while mental and technical shortcuts are utilized to manage information seeking, these heuristics do not dramatically limit exposure to novel or contradictory information.

These scholars approach the impact of Internet technologies on information from differing epistemic traditions, possibly explaining some of the variance in research results. Still, the implications offered by either side are as dramatic as they are important to understand. In an effort to make sense of these two conflicting viewpoints (i.e. the Internet is increasing selective exposure verses the Internet is increasing access to multiple viewpoints), this paper will attempt to unify need for closure theory (Kruglanski & Webster, 1996) with a dual processing model of Web site credibility assessment (Metzger, 2007). The result suggests that information seeking is individually motivated. A set of hypotheses are proposed, predicting the extent to which individuals will seek information, how much emphasis will be placed on information credibility, and how likely individuals are to prefer selective exposure to information.

Need For Closure

Kruglanski & Webster (1996) introduce need for closure (NFC) theory as a means for understanding the way in which individuals seek answers, or closure, to nonspecific questions. This motivated model of information seeking consists of two components. First, closure-inducing information is sought out in the seizing phase. Subsequently, individuals freeze on this information, solidifying it as knowledge. The moment between seeking and freezing on information is known as crystallization.

NFC can be thought of as existing on a continuum where a high NFC at one end, and a low NFC at the other (Kruglanski & Webster, 1996). Given that NFC is a motivated construct, the degree to which one experiences NFC can be influenced by personality characteristics, or situational factors such as: time pressure, difficulty of information processing, task related interest, mental and physical fatigue, social pressure, and the extent to which a judgment is required (p. 279). Similarly, NFC can be decreased when the cost of closure is greater than the cost of openness, concerns exist over making a valid judgment, or ambiguity is preferable (p. 264).

There are several important characteristics associated with high NFC. Specifically, those high in NFC are likely to consult less information overall, feel more confident in their decision-making, rely more on early information, and utilize stereotypes when making judgments (Kruglanski & Webster, 1996, p. 265). As a result, individuals high in NFC tend to dislike those who present opinions that threaten consensus, prefer to associate themselves with others who are also high in NFC, share similar viewpoints, and help facilitate a group consensus (p. 265). Most striking, when high in NFC, individuals prefer general as opposed to specific knowledge as such information can be more readily applied across a greater domain of ideas (p. 265).

Need for Closure and Information Seeking Online

While NFC has been explored across a number of domains, few have considered the role of NFC when information seeking online. Some of the relatively few applications of NFC to the Internet are more applied in nature, such as an exploration of NFC as related to interactive banner advertisements and the formulation of brand opinions (Jung, Min, & Kellaris, 2011). More relevant to this inquiry, Amichai-Hamburger, Fine and Goldstein (2004) observed the impact of NFC on desired level of interactivity for websites. Their results suggest that when information seeking online, without time pressure, those who score high on the NFC scale prefer flat sites, or those without hyperlinks. Those scoring low in NFC prefer interactive sites, or those with hyperlinks.

The limited exploration of NFC as related to online information seeking is somewhat surprising given that high NFC predicts for a level of selective exposure (Kossowska & Van Hiel, 2003). Given the abundance of information available on the Internet, it seems there is ample opportunity to consider the role NFC plays when information seeking online. Specifically, how do individuals decide what information to consider during the seizing phase, how is freezing maintained when new information is readily available, and what are the implications for selective exposure? A look at the literature on credibility assessments for online information provides a guide for answering these questions.

Credibility Assessments of Online Information

With the abundance of information available online, it is important to understand how information is perceived as credible and what mechanisms allow this credibility assessment to take place. Historically, “digital literacy” advocates have emphasized the importance of “checklist” approaches to assessing information credibility in online contexts (Metzger, 2007). However, there is a mismatch between these approaches and actual user behavior. Empirical evidence suggests that individuals infrequently rely on careful credibility assessments when observing information online (Flanagin & Metzger, 2007; Metzger, Flanagin, & Medders, 2010).

Instead, when assessing credibility online, “a common strategy employed by Internet information seekers is to minimize cognitive effort and mitigate time pressures through the use of heuristics” (Metzger, Flanagin, & Medders, 2010, p. 434). There are five, sometimes simultaneously utilized, heuristics for credibility assessment. The first relies on name or reputation recognition where as the recognized source is perceived as more credible than the unrecognized source (p. 426 – 427). Second, when information is endorsed by a trusted source, it is more likely to be perceived as credible (p. 427 – 428). Additionally, judgments related to the consistency of information compared to what is shown on other websites impact credibility assessments (p.428 – 429). Similarly, expectancy violations (e.g. is the website visually appealing, does it present unexpected content like popup advertisements, is the spelling and grammar correct) impact assessments on information credibility (p. 429 – 432). Finally, websites perceived to as trying to be persuasive are often viewed as less credible (p. 432 – 433).

Recognizing that credibility assessments are impacted by user motivation and efficacy, Metzger (2007) proposed a dual processing model of Web site credibility assessment (see figure 1). This model separates credibility assessments into three distinct phases: exposure, evaluation, and judgment. Interestingly, the model first considers a users motivation to assess a website’s credibility. If there is little motivation, the individual will produce either no credibility assessment, or perform a cursory assessment of the information presented. Conversely, if there is motivation to assess credibility, the user’s cognitive abilities determine the efficacy of the credibility assessment.

Figure 1: Dual processing model of Web site credibility assessment (Metzger, 2007, p. 2088)

This model serves to elucidate under what circumstances individuals will make a credibility assessment, as well as observe how this credibility assessment is ascertained (Metzger, 2007, p. 2088). A motivation to seek accurate information will result in information seeking that values credibility. Conversely, time pressures, or the desire to seek information that confirms an existing belief may result in less emphasis on a credibility assessment. With this in mind, ways in which NFC might impact an individual’s motivation to assess credibility start to become clear.

The Role of Need For Closure on Motivation to Assess Credibility When Information Seeking Online

Need for closure is a model that emphasizes the role of motivation on information seeking (Kruglanski & Webster, 1996, p. 264). Similarly, the dual processing model of Web site credibility assessment considers motivation as a starting point for credibility assessments (Metzger, 2007, p. 2087). The emphasis both models place on motivation allows for the opportunity to consider NFC and the dual processing model of Web site credibility assessment together as a way of understanding how individuals seek information online. More specifically, NFC should predict for the level of motivation to assess information credibility in an online setting.

When experiencing high NFC, individuals are more likely to quickly seize on early information (Kruglanski & Webster, 1996). This is because the primary goal of information seeking is closure and increased information seeking results in a delay of closure. Conversely, when experiencing low NFC, individuals are less likely to seek immediate closure when closure is costly, validity concerns exist, or ambiguity is preferable (p. 264). Establishing the credibility of online information takes additional time and cognitive resources (Flanagin & Metzger, 2007; Metzger, Flanagin, & Medders, 2010); therefore, two hypotheses are proposed:

H1: In a high NFC state, individuals are less motivated to evaluate online information credibility as such an evaluation delays closure.

H2: In a low NFC state, individuals are more motivated to evaluate online information credibility as this delays closure.

Kruglanski and Webster (1996) contend that NFC is mediated by an urgency (pre-crystallization) tendency, as well as a permanence (post-crystallization) tendency. The above hypotheses consider NFC as a predictor of motivation to assess credibility in the seizing, or pre-crystallization phase. But there are also implications for the freezing, or post-crystallization phase. Those high in NFC are motivated to maintain closure by avoiding information that dislodges previously held beliefs where as those low in NFC are motivated to seek new information as a means of avoiding validity errors. Therefore, those high in NFC are less receptive to conflicting information than those low in NFC. Thus, two additional hypotheses are put forth when considering post-crystallization credibility assessments:

H3: Those high in NFC are less motivated to perform credibility assessments of conflicting information as this threatens already established closure.

H4: Those low in NFC are more motivated to perform credibility assessments of conflicting information as this limits threats to validity.

When considering all four hypotheses, the role NFC plays on the motivation to assess credibility becomes clear – high NFC predicts for less emphasis on information credibility. The remaining sections of this paper consider theoretical implications as well as opportunities to empirically test these predictions.

Theoretical Implications

When considering the implications of these hypotheses, it is important to remember that NFC is influenced both by personality characteristics and situational factors (Kruglanski & Webster, 1996). It is difficult to imagine an Internet structure that promotes increased information seeking and credibility assessments among those whose personality characteristics predispose a high NFC. However, solutions designed to limit the situational impact of Internet technologies on inducing NFC are more readily apparent. Thinking about time pressure and NFC, websites might focus on providing an overview of various perspectives on a subject. This may be a meaningful strategy in a handful of domains (e.g. heath or political information), but less applicable in others. Still, an emphasis on carefully and generally summarizing multiple perspectives may help increase the ability of individuals to process difficult information, further mitigating the impact of high NFC on selective exposure.

Furthermore, if high NFC does reduce motivations to perform credibility assessments, attempts to elucidate credibility cues may improve the quality of information sought. The heuristic cues identified by Metzger, Flanagin, and Medders (2010) provide a reasonable starting point. Website recognition is a prominent and readily utilized feature (Parmelee & Perkin, 2010) when assessing website credibility. The same can be said for expectancy violations (Metzger, Flanagin, and Medders, 2010; Parmelee & Perkin, 2010). However these cues alone do not fully implicate information credibility.

As the Internet becomes increasingly “social,” it may become easier to provide endorsement information. This already takes place to some extent through social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook (think “liking” something, or sharing a link as a status update). Is there an opportunity to extend this beyond social circles? For instance, organizations might opt to endorse online information. A website featuring cancer related health information might be perceived as more credible if the American Cancer Association could easily sanction, or “like” the content.

Increasing opportunities for credible sources to endorse websites may improve the ability of individuals to quickly and easily seek reliable information. Unfortunately, it is optimistic to assume that credible sources such as the American Cancer Association will have the inclination or resources to scan the Internet, looking for information to endorse. Additionally, this may very well exaggerate the risk of selective exposure by limiting searching only to sites with an endorsement, or to sites where the endorser is an advocate of a particular ideology (e.g. political, religious).

When trying to decide what information to access, search engines are often utilized as a tool for information seeking. The top results are often the first information accessed (Granka, Joachims, & Gay, 2004). Much hope has been placed in the role search engines play in returning results that have a semblance of credibility (Webster, 2008). However, Introna and Nissenbaum (2000) point out that these search results represent a systematic, and sometimes problematic, limiting of available information. With the above hypotheses as a guide, it is conceivable that those low in NFC will opt to select multiple links returned by a search engine. Similarly, we might expect those high in NFC to only select a top result. Thus search engine results might become overly problematic for those high in NFC as they elicit a perception of credibility while serving to reduce further information seeking.

Finally, while much of the selective exposure literature concerns political information seeking, the role of NFC on credibility assessments has broader application. If the above hypotheses are valid, they have important implications for contemporary understanding of information seeking on the Internet across a variety of domains (e.g. political, health, education, news). Moreover, these hypotheses fail to unanimously confirm or disconfirm selective exposure worries. Instead, they suggest that high NFC not only predicts for selective exposure, but also for low to non-existent assessments of credibility. This concern is further compounded by an increased susceptibility to persuasion experienced by individuals high in NFC when lacking prior information (Webster & Kruglanski 1994). Those experiencing high NFC become the most at-risk users of the Internet.

Opportunities for Future Research

The Internet promises nearly unlimited access to a diversity of information. Tools such as hyperlinking, bookmarking, search engines, and social recommendations are employed to cope with the abundance of information (Anderson, 2006; Benkler, 2006; Webster, 2008). It is unclear whether individuals high in NFC more readily utilize a particular method of information seeking. Equally unclear is the degree to which a particular method will produce a credible result, regardless of motivation to assess credibility. Webster (2008) contends that prominent search engine results and elaborate recommendation systems (as offered by Amazon.com and Netflix) represent a form of credibility. Future research should explore the specific resources utilized for information seeking when experiencing high NFC as well as the resulting impact on credibility assessments.

As discussed earlier, endorsements are an important heuristic in the assessment of information available online (Metzger, Flanagin, and Medders, 2010). While implications of how to improve endorsements were discussed, additional research should explore existing sources of exposure to socially sanctioned information. Social networking sites are widely used and information shared on these networks carries an implicit credibility endorsement. Furthermore, social networking sites are utilized as a means for information seeking, and sometimes this information conflicts with existing beliefs (Evans, Kairam, & Pirolli, 2009; Metzger, Flanagin, and Medders, 2010). Given that roughly half (47%) of all adult Internet users participate in at least one social networking site (Hampton, Goulet, Rainie, & Purcell, 2011), observing the impact of NFC on credibility assessments of information encountered on social networking sites is a logical next step.

Finally, future studies should be careful to distinguish between situationally instigated NFC and NFC as a personality characteristic. This would help flesh out further impactions for how to mitigate the impact of high NFC on the motivation to assess credibility. Special attention should also be paid to the impact of moderating variables such as socioeconomic status, computer experience, and digital literacy on search-efficacy (Granka, Joachims, & Gay, 2004).

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