Reactivity vs. Interactivity: Impression Formation Effects of Message
Contingency in Political Websites
Justin Brown & Sriram Kalyanaraman (PhD Students)
Dr. S. Shyam Sundar
For a complete report of this research, see:
Sundar, S. S., Brown, J., & Kalyanaraman, S. (1999, May). Reactivity
vs. interactivity: Impression formation effects of message contingency
in political websites. Paper presented to the Communication and Technology
Division at the 49th annual conference of the International Communication
Association (ICA), San Francisco.
A previous study (Sundar,
Hesser, Kalyanaraman, & Brown, 1998) examined the relationship between
website interactivity and psychological affinity toward a candidate on
a website. The present study attempts to posit the existence of two distinct
conceptualizations of website interactivity-the Dialogue View and the
Contingency View. The previous study (Sundar et al, 1998) investigated
the psychological effects of interactivity using the Dialogue conceptualization.
This study was designed to replicate it by using the Contingency View.
Specifically, it examines the relationship between website interactivity,
the level of political apathy and the level of positive impressions of
the candidate as well as his policy positions.
The present study operationalized three levels of website interactivity
based on the Contingency model of interactivity. This leads to the following
H1: Participants' perceptual ratings of a website's interactivity will
be a direct positive function of the degree of message contingency present
in the site.
If message contingency is psychologically relevant to subjects' perception
of interactivity, this study should replicate the main-effect of interactivity
found in a previous study (Sundar et al, 1998). This leads to the following
H2: Increased interactivity of a political website leads to more positive
impressions of the candidate as well as his policy positions.
According to the Elaboration Likelihood Model, (ELM), attitude change
can occur when an individual has the motivation, ability, or involvement
to process the central arguments of a message (central route). However,
when an individual does not have the resources to process the central
arguments of a message, attitude change occurs as a result of some simple
cue (peripheral route). This study seeks to measure subjects' impressions
of not only the candidate as a person but also his policy positions. Based
on ELM, and considering website interactivity as a peripheral cue, impression
formation as an indicator of attitude change, and political apathy as
an indicator of (lack of) motivation/involvement, the following hypothesis
H3: The relationship between website interactivity and impression formation
proposed in H2 will be more pronounced among apathetic voters than among
In a between-participants experiment, sixty participants were randomly
assigned to one of three conditions (low
interactivity; high interactivity).The content and layout was similar
across all three conditions. After entering the lab, participants were
asked to fill out a pre-questionnaire containing measures of political
involvement and knowledge. They were then exposed to the website and asked
to go through the information as carefully as possible. After exposure,
participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire pertaining to measures
of impression formation and website content.
The dependent measure of psychological affinity was divided into four
factors called 'Caring,' 'Charismatic,' 'Qualified' and 'Appealing.'
H1: Supported. Participants in the low interactivity condition perceived
the website as being less interactive than participants in the medium
interactivity condition, who in turn perceived it as being less interactive
than participants in the high interactivity condition.
H2: Partially supported. This follows an inverted-V pattern. Moderate
interactivity seems to enhance candidate's appeal as well as his caring
nature, but high interactivity seems to detract from it. Similarly, the
level of voter agreement with the candidate's position on policy issues
is enhanced with moderate interactivity, but not with high interactivity.
H3: Not supported. The interaction term between interactivity and apathy
did not attain statistical significance.
An important contribution of this study is that it empirically demonstrates
the conceptual distinction between two important views of interactivity
in communication research. While previous studies encourage us to consider
interactivity as a feature of the medium, the operationalization of interactivity
in this study prompts us to consider interactivity as a message feature.
The results also show that a non-content feature of online communication
such as interactivity can contribute significantly to individuals' psychological
responses to mediated content. This finding is of importance to not only
traditional media effects researchers but also political communicators.
A clear practical implication for website developers is that, when it
comes to message contingency, reactivity is sometimes more effective than