Human Information Processing

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Because human information processing has to do with how people receive messages, it is a critical topic in communication study. Message reception consists of paying attention to particular messages in the environment and then using them as a guide to behavior. This is a very active process that consists of three separate but related activities: information selection, interpretation, and retention.

Information Selection

Humans operate in an environment that is filled with signals of various kinds. These may be in the form of sights (visual cues), sounds (auditory cues), touch (tactile cues), taste (gustatory cues), or smell (olfactory cues). The number of such cues that are available to individuals at any instant is almost limitless, and were individuals to try to pay attention to all these, they would immediately find themselves in a total information overload situation. It is therefore necessary for people to select and use some of these cues, while ignoring others. This is an extremely important and complex activity, one that people perform repeatedly every waking moment. At the same time, it is a process that occurs in the background of individuals' experiences, and in a manner of which they are often only minimally aware. For example, consider what happens when a person arrives at an unfamiliar airport terminal at the end of a flight. The person exits the plane through the jetway and walks through the door into the terminal. At that instant, the person is bombarded with any number of visual and auditory messages that compete for his or her attention—far more than the person could possibly fully attend to at one time. There are signs, people talking, people moving this way and that, messages being announced over the speakers in the building, vendors, stores, newspaper racks, and so on. Depending on the person's goals—to find luggage, for example—and his or her prior experience in similar situations, the person begins to attend selectively to the messages in the environment, taking particular note of those that are appropriate to the successful accomplishment of the goal. Appropriate messages in this situation might include signs and the direction in which other people getting off of the same flight are walking. The person must ignore other messages that seem less vital in terms of meeting the immediate goal. If the person's intentions were different, he or she might well tune into and use a completely different set of messages. For example, if the person were going to have a two-hour layover while waiting for a connecting flight and had not eaten in several hours, he or she might tune into and use a set of visual, auditory, and olfactory messages that would help in locating a place to purchase a meal or snack.

Information Interpretation

Interpretation consists of attaching meaning to the messages to which individuals selectively attend. Whenever people take note of any message, they make some basic interpretations; they decide if the message is amusing or alarming, true or untrue, serious or humorous, new or old, or contradictory or consistent. When a person decides to watch a television program or movie, for example, he or she makes all of these determinations as a viewer, often without thinking all that much about the process. Similarly, in the case of the airport example mentioned above, noticing various signs was one component of message reception. However, to be useful, the messages on the signs must also be interpreted. People must know what exactly the words or arrows mean.

In all situations, people's actions will ultimately be based on the meanings they attach to the messages that they have selected. While the above examples may imply that selection, interpretation, and action are simple "1-2-3" activities, this is clearly not the case. Individuals cycle through each of these three activities in such a rapid-fire manner, that it is really quite difficult to identify which component is occurring and in what order. With the airport signs, for example, the person must determine that these were, in fact, signs (and therefore appropriate places to look for messages about directions) even before he or she selectively attended to them and began to interpret the specific words and drawings..

Information Retention

Retention (i.e., memory) plays an indispensable role in selection and interpretation, as the previous examples imply. An individual's memory of previous message-reception activities tells the person how to approach any new message-reception situation. Even though the person may be in an airport that he or she has never been in before, memories about airports in general help guide that person through the new situation in terms of previous experiences in circumstances that are judged to be similar. Thus, for example, through message retention, the person knows what signs look like and he or she knows that they usually provide information that is helpful for navigation.

The ease with which remembered information is available to people seems so natural that it is easy to overlook the complexity of the underlying processes that are involved. People have little difficulty recalling the information that they need in order to go about their daily routines. This includes such information as where to locate things in the home, how to start and operate an automobile, how to travel from home to work, how to perform duties at work, and so on. Morton Hunt (1982, p. 6) provided an excellent description of this complex retention process:

Although every act of thinking involves the use of images, sounds, symbols, meanings, and connections between things, all stored in memory, the organization of memory is so efficient that most of the time we are unaware of having to exert any effort to locate and use these materials. Consider the ranges of kinds of information you keep in, and can easily summon forth from, your own memory: the face of your closest friend… the words and melody of the national anthem… the spelling of almost every word you can think of… the name of every object you can see from where you are sitting… the way your room looked when you were eight… the set of skills you need to drive a car in heavy traffic… and enough more to fill many shelves full of books.

Because of the information retention process, individuals can answer in a split second, and with great accuracy, questions such as "Who was the first president of the United States?" or "What was the address of the house in which you grew up?" Moreover, individuals can perform these operations in far less time than it would take to retrieve the information from any other source, including the fastest computer.

Factors That Influence Message Reception

Many factors influence message selection, interpretation, and retention. A number of these factors have to do with the individual receiver. Others are related to the nature of the message and the source, as well as to the media and environment.

Receiver Influences

Physical, social, and psychological needs play an important role in human information processing behavior. When an individual is hungry, for example, this need will be likely to influence the cues to which he or she attends and the way in which those cues are interpreted. Pretzels in a food stand in the airport are not nearly as likely to be noticed or purchased by a passenger who has just eaten a meal as they are by one who has not.

Attitudes, beliefs, and values are also important influences on how individuals select, interpret, and retain messages. For example, a prime rib dinner that is seen as a mouth-watering delight by some people will be viewed very differently by a vegetarian or by someone whose religious beliefs suggest that the cow is a sacred animal.

In any situation, goals have a great influence on message reception. One example was provided earlier in the airport illustration. A person with the goal of proceeding to the baggage claim area engages in much different message-reception behavior than does a person in a similar environment who has two hours to "waste" while waiting for a connecting flight. One's goals—whether related to specific short-term activities or long-term personal or occupational agendas—are very influential factors in message reception.

Differing capabilities lead to differing message-reception patterns. Most obvious is the example of language capability. The message-reception possibilities and probabilities of a bilingual individual are considerably more extensive than those of someone who speaks only one language. For the same reasons, people who are trained in particular professional and technical fields have access to materials and documents that others do not. Having a specific use for messages also influences selection, interpretation, and retention. For example, reading a book over which one will be tested is generally a quite different information processing experience from reading a book for pure enjoyment.

Individuals differ in their styles of communication, and these differences often lead to differences in message reception. Generally, those people who have highly verbal communication styles (i.e., who talk extensively about their own thoughts and opinions) are likely to have exposure to less information produced by others in interpersonal situations, simply because of the limitations that their style places on the contributions of others. As another example, if that highly verbal person generally uses a questioning style in interactions with others, this will elicit more information from others, and, in turn, the availability of more information becomes an influence on message reception.

Experience and habit are powerful forces in message reception. Once learned, information-reception patterns are likely to be repeated, and hence, habit and prior behavior are important influences and predictors of future information-reception behavior.

Message Influences

Most of the messages that individuals attend to have other people as their source. However, some messages come from the physical environment, and there are other messages for which the individuals themselves are the source. In many situations, people have choices as to which type of messages to attend to and use, and the presence or absence of alternatives is a significant influence on message reception. In the airport scenario, for example, the person could seek the necessary directions by looking at a sign, by watching the flow of pedestrian traffic, or by asking someone. These alternative messages may be more or less easy to attend to, interpret, and retain. A person having a preference for one approach over another is affected by personal style, past experience, and other factors. Messages also vary in their form—in the communication modality involved—and this often influences the likelihood that they will be noticed and acted on. For example, the smell of rotten and decaying garbage is generally more attention-getting that a picture of rotten garbage. Signals may also vary in their physical characteristics (e.g., their color, brightness, size, or intensity), and these factors may well influence message reception. In terms of getting attention, large headlines in a newspaper, for example, are generally more effective than small headlines, and color pictures are generally more effective than black-and-white pictures.

How elements of a message are organized and how novel a particular message is are two additional factors that influence message reception. The way in which information is presented in newspapers is a good illustration of how message organization can influence message reception. Newspaper articles usually begin with a lead paragraph that summarizes all key facts and then provide subsequent paragraphs that provide supporting details. This organization permits and encourages readers to get the general themes of articles without having to read through all of the details. If another organizational approach were used (e.g., if the first section of the article included a variety of details without highlighting key issues), the change would probably have a substantial influence on selection, interpretation, and retention. Novel messages stand out and gain attention simply because they are unfamiliar. Advertisers and marketers make frequent use of this insight by including novel images and approaches in the hope of increasing the amount of attention that is paid to their messages. An advertising message that has text and images printed upside down is one example of a device being used to increase attention. Opening the hoods of all cars in a car lot as a means of gaining attention is another.

Source Influences

Proximity can be an important factor in communication. Generally speaking, the closer individuals are to a particular information source, the more likely that source is to become an object of attention. This is one explanation for the generally influential role played by family members, neighbors, peer group members, friends, and the community. In the most literal view, proximity refers to physical distance, but in an age when technology so permeates the lives of individuals, the limitations of physical distance are sometimes less significant that those of virtual, or electronic, distance. That is, in some sense, a person who is easily available on e-mail, in a chat room, or through a "buddy list" may have as much or more proximity—and hence as much influence—as someone who is quite close physically.

The way in which individuals process messages often has a good deal to do with how attractive— physically or socially—they find a message source to be. Simply said, individuals who are perceived as being attractive have the good (and sometimes not so good) fortune of having their presence and their messages taken account of more than other people do. The influence of attraction often extends beyond selection; it can influence interpretation and retention as well. What is often referred to as to the "magnetism" or "charisma" that is attributed to celebrities, athletes, or political leaders who capture public favor probably has its foundation in a factor as basic as attraction. Also important to message reception is similarity. Generally speaking, people are drawn to—and hence are more likely to engage in communication with—others who are similar to them. Sometimes, these similarities have to do with factors such as gender, level of education, age, religion, race, occupation, hobbies, or language capacity. In other circumstances, the similarities that are important are needs, beliefs, goals, or values.

When sources are considered to be credible and authoritative, their messages are likely to attract more attention than the messages of people who are not considered to be credible or authoritative. These characteristics are also likely to influence the interpretation and retention of messages. Sometimes, the credibility of a source is associated with particular topics about which the source is considered to have special expertise. For example, an individual who is a stockbroker may be regarded as a good source of information on the stock market industry. In other cases, an individual's credibility might span a number of subjects because of the combination of his or her occupation, education, and celebrity. The intentions and motives that people associate with a sender in a particular situation are also important message-reception influences. If people believe an individual has their best interests at heart, their response to the individual's messages is likely to be quite different from what it would be if they assume that the individual's intentions or motives are simply to sell or deceive.

The manner in which messages are delivered also influences message selection, interpretation, and retention. In the case of spoken messages, volume and rate of speaking, pitch, pronunciation, accents, and the use of pauses and nonfluencies (such as "ummm" or "you know" or "like") can all influence communication. Visual cues such as gestures, facial expressions, and eye contact may also be significant factors.

Status—position or rank—can also be a factor in message reception. Power and authority refer to the extent to which a source is capable of dispensing rewards or punishment for selecting, remembering, and interpreting messages in a particular manner. These factors may come into play in communication situations with a parent, teacher, supervisor, or any other person who occupies a position of authority. The significance that people attach to the positions that are occupied by these individuals or to the power that they have over valued resources (e.g., grades, salary, praise) often has a dramatic influence on message reception.

Media and Environmental Influences

Media can account for significant differences in the selection process and in the nature of interpretation and retention. A message may well be reacted to quite differently depending on whether it arrives in the receiver's environment through a newspaper, the television, the Internet, a videotape, an e-mail, or face-to-face interaction. Of all media, television has received the most attention from researchers. Newspapers are probably second in line in terms of the amount of attention that they have attracted from researchers. As the relatively newer media—such as computers, the Internet, e-mail, teleconferencing, and wireless telephones—have risen in popularity, the amount of research dedicated to these topics has increased. This is a trend that will no doubt continue.

Environmental considerations, such as whether one is at home or at work, alone or with a group, crowded into an overheated movie theater or watching an outdoor concert on a rainy day can and do influence human information processing. These factors are examples of influences that are associated with what might be termed the "setting" or "context" of a communication event. Other environmental influences have to do with factors such as repetition, consistency, and competition. If a particular message is presented just once or twice, such as when a telephone number is provided when someone calls an operator for "information," it is unlikely to have a lasting influence on message reception. On the other hand, if it is a message that is presented over and over, as with a telephone number that is used on a regular basis, the effect is quite different. Repetition can and does affect the way in which people select, interpret, and retain messages.

Closely related to repetition is the concept of consistency. The consistency of messages is often an important factor in message processing. If a person repeatedly heard the phrase "Spain is a wonderful place to live" from a variety of different sources, for example, the consistency is likely to influence the person's message reception. However, if the person also heard a number of people saying that "Spain is a horrible place to live," this competition, or inconsistency, would have a different influence on the person's message reception. For this reason, if individuals hear only good things about a political candidate about whom they had little prior knowledge, the effect on information processing will be quite different from that of individuals who hear an equal number of positive and negative messages. In the former instance, the individuals would be influenced by message consistency; in the latter instance, they would be influenced by message competition.


Communication scholars and professionals recognize that human information processing is a vital part of communication. People who lack familiarity with communication theory tend to assume that communication outcomes are simply the result of what is said or done by a sender and how it is said or done. However, as is apparent from the above discussion, message reception is an extremely complex process—one for which it is very difficult to predict results.

It is certainly the case that the sender and message are important to message reception as it is commonly understood. However, the most significant factors—both because of their number and importance—are probably the factors that have to do with the receiver. An extreme example would be a situation where a receiver cannot understand the language or concepts of a message, has little need or concern about the part of the message that he or she can discern, and has little or nothing in common with the sender. The receiver is unlikely to take much away from the communication situation other than frustration, despite the best efforts of a persuasive speaker and careful attention to the planning and execution of the message. A less extreme example, but one with the same outcome, would be a situation where the receiver does not like the sender, the sender is trying to convince the receiver to support a political candidate whose views are inconsistent with the receiver's beliefs, and the discussion is taking place in an environment in which the receiver is surrounded by friends who share his or her views about the sender and the candidate. How likely is it that the receiver will be influenced in the direction that the sender intends? Not very. It is also because of the complexity of message reception that simple messages such as "just say no" or "smoking can be hazardous to your health" are seldom as influential as senders hope they will be.

Because of the complexity of reception—and the resulting difficulty in predicting communication outcomes—being mindful of these dynamics and the influences that are involved provides the best available assistance for improved communication understanding and effectiveness.

See also:Advertising Effects; Communication Study; Culture and Communication; Models of Communication.


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Brent D. Ruben

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Human Information Processing

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