Skip Navigation

Perceived Message Cognition Value


Perceived message cognition value is a message counterpart to the need for cognition individual difference concept, just as perceived message sensation value is a message counterpart to need for sensation (Zuckerman, 1988, 1991). Recent research has attempted to characterize messages based on perceived message cognition value in order to inform message design on message attributes that would appeal to individuals high on need for cognition (Cacioppo & Petty, 1982; Cacioppo, Petty, Feinstein, & Jarvis, 1996). Need for cognition is an individual's tendency to engage in and enjoy effortful cognitive activity (Cacioppo & Petty, 1982; Cacioppo, Petty, Feinstein, & Jarvis, 1996). As message sensation value targets individuals with high need for sensation, message cognition value is designed to target individuals with high need for cognition.

Message cognition value (MCV) is a characteristic of a message regarding its complexity and implicitness (Harrington et al., 2003). Messages with high cognition value are more complex and implicit whereas low cognition value messages are more simple and explicit. Message cognition value, however, should not be understood as the content or quality of the message. Messages designed to vary in their cognition value should contain the same arguments with similar argument strength (Harrington et al., 2003).

The PMCV scale assesses several indicators related to message features, and not an individual's assessments of processing effort or effect. So message effects may interact with individual differences (e.g., Harrington et al., 2003; Palmgreen, Donohew, Lorch, Hoyle, & Stephenson, 2001), but the perceptions of message characteristics should not systematically vary by individual (e.g., Morgan et al., 2003; Stephenson & Palmgreen, 2001).

The value in manipulating MCV is to help inform message strategies to increase the effectiveness of persuasive messages, especially in the context of media based health campaigns. PMCV is a measure of how message features are perceived, and thus, could be of value as a manipulation check.

The seminal work to date on perceived message cognition value has been performed by the Kentucky School (Lane, Harrington, Donohew, & Zimmerman, 2006). They found a three-factor structure of perceived message cognition value based on participants' ratings of four television commercials. The three factors were clarity, cognitive challenge, and credibility. They argue that a message's cognition value should "require viewers to think about persuasive message arguments directly rather than expend cognitive resources in an attempt to understand what is going on in a message" (Lane, et al., 2006, pp. 157-158).

Suggested Measure

Perceived Message Cognition Value Scale

Lane et al., (2006) developed and validated the PMCV scale with 322 college students. The scale has three dimensions: clarity, credibility, and cognitive challenge. Each item below shows bipolar anchors. Each item was measured on a 1-7 scale (α = .75)

Clarity (α = .82)

  • Not at all understandable/Very understandable
  • Not at all comprehensible/Very comprehensible
  • Does not make sense/Makes sense
  • Confusing arguments/Clear arguments
  • Unclear information presented/Clear information presented

Credibility (α = .78)

  • Credible information presented/Information presented not credible*
  • Valid claims/Invalid claims*
  • Presented accurate information/Did not present accurate information*

Cognitive Challenge (α= .77)

  • Not intellectually stimulating/Intellectually stimulating
  • Not intellectually engaging/Intellectually engaging
  • Would make people think/Would not make people think*
  • Not at all thought-provoking/Thought-provoking
  • Did not really make me think/Really made me think

*reverse coded.

  • Advantages

    • Short
    • Simple to administer
  • Disadvantages

    • Inability to distinguish message relevant cognitive challenges (encouraging message relevant thinking) from sense-making cognitive challenges (effort directed at trying to understand the message)
    • Scale developed in response to only four total messages (2 low MCV; 2 high MCV)

Rationale for Selection

Perceived message cognition value could be a useful took to ensure that messages contain the features that would appeal to target audiences high in need for cognition.


Only one study has obtained reliability estimates to date (Lane et al., 2006). The reliability of the entire index is .75; the subscales range .77-.82.

Additional Commentary

The goal of the research that generated the perceived message cognition value measure was to find a way to measure message features that would appeal to individuals high in need for cognition. The impetus for this approach was the success of the relationship between message sensation value and need for sensation. Future research will inform whether or not this attempt is fruitful for health message designers.


Cacioppo, J. R. & Petty, R. E. (1982).

The need for cognition.
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 42, 116131.

Cacioppo, J. R., Petty, R. E., Feinstein, J. A., & Jarvis, W. B. G. (1996).

Dispositional differences in cognitive motivation: The life and times of individuals varying in need for cognition.
Psychological Bulletin, 119, 197253.

Harrington, N. G., Lane, D. R., Donohew, L., Zimmerman, R. S., Norling, G. R., An., J., et al. (2003).

Persuasive strategies for effective anti-drug messages.
Communication Monographs, 70, 16-38.

Lane, D.R., Harrington, N.G., Donohew, L., & Zimmerman, R.S. (2006).

Dimensions and validation of a perceived message cognition value scale.
Communication Research Reports, 23, 149-161.

Morgan, S. E., Palmgreen, P., Stephenson, M. T., Hoyle, R. H., & Lorch, E. P. (2003).

Associations between message features and subjective evaluations of the sensation value of anti-drug public service announcements.
Journal of Communication, 53, 512526.

Palmgreen, P., Donohew, L., Lorch, E. P., Hoyle, R. H., & Stephenson, M. T. (2001).

Television campaigns and adolescent marijuana use: Tests of a sensation seeking targeting.
American Journal of Public Health, 91, 292296.

Stephenson, M. T. & Palmgreen, P. (2001).

Sensation seeking, perceived message sensation value, personal involvement, and processing of anti-marijuana PSAs.
Communication Monographs, 68, 4971.

Zuckerman, M. (1988).

Behavior and biology: Research on sensation seeking and reactions to the media. In L. Donohew, H. E. Sypher, & E. T. Higgins (Eds.),
Communication, social cognition, and affect (pp. 173194). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Zuckerman, M. (1991).

Psychobiology of personality.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.