Information-Processing Functions of Generic Knowledge Structures and Their Role in Context Effects in Social Judgment
Social scientists have long recognized the possibility that research data may be affected by seemingly theoretically irrelevant contextual factors such as the ordering of response items in multiple-measure designs. There are many situations in research in which the ordering of measures or manipulations is theoretically uninteresting, but the results obtained may nevertheless be significantly affected by these contextual variations. Although an obvious concern in survey research (e.g., Fienberg & Tanur, 1989; Schuman & Presser, 1981; Sudman & Bradburn, 1982), inadvertent context effects can arise in most social and psychological research, including such diverse topic areas as personality testing (Knowles et al., chap. 15, this volume), lateralization of brain function (van Eys & McKeever, 1988), and countless others. One obvious motivation in seeking to understand the causes of context effects is the desire to control their influence or eliminate their occurrence. Indeed, the procedure of counterbalancing measures and manipulations is a staple of experimental design that is intended to control order effects. Although they have frequently been regarded as a nuisance factor in research, context effects can also be viewed as providing information about the processes involved in the generation of behavioral responses in experiments and surveys. From this perspective, they constitute a potentially important source of data about human thought processes (cf. Loftus, Feinberg, & Tanur, 1985). Understanding the psychological underpinnings of context effects thus becomes more than just a methodological issue.
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