Communication Information Processing
Paul Bolls
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 February 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0077


Information processing broadly refers to the mental activity emerging from processes the human mind engages in while processing information encountered in an individual’s environment. These mental processes have become particularly important to study in the context of communication research because features of communication-related stimuli— present in both mediated and interpersonal communication—construct the most meaningful parts of the social environment in which individuals engage in information processing. Historically, information processing has been considered to be representative of a distinct research approach as much as it defines a set of phenomena investigated by communication scientists. Information processing as a research approach emerged as part of the cognitive revolution in psychology, which brought about a significant paradigm shift in how researchers working in psychology attempted to understand the human mind. Scholars working in psychology at that time suggested that rigorous theoretical explanations of human nature and behavior could only emerge from research directed at systematically and objectively observing mental processes engaged in the minds and brains of individuals engaged in processing meaningful information in their environment. The adoption of this approach led to the establishment of new research methodologies involving psychophysiological measures in addition to self-report and behavioral measures designed to aid researchers in observing the human mind/brain at work. Communication scientists—particularly those interested in studying processes and effects of media—have adopted an information-processing approach to go beyond insight provided by traditional media-effects research and probe mental processes that may underlie the observed influence of mediated messages on individuals. The term “information processing” is biased toward describing more purely cognitive rather than emotional processes. Research in the field of neuropsychology demonstrates the fallacy of viewing cognition and emotion as isolated processes; thus, the term “information processing” is viewed as having limited utility in describing the more complex, integrated cognitive and emotional mental-activity that scientists engaged in this area investigate. The more general term “mental processing” or “mental processes” will be used here to more accurately describe the phenomenon that communication scientists involved in studying what has been historically considered information processing actually investigate. The first three headings of this bibliography have been included to present references that should provide foundational theoretical and methodological knowledge required to study information processing as mental processes engaged by communication activities, primarily media use. References provided in the remaining sections feature examples of recent information-processing research conducted in important areas of media research.

Mental Processes

The following entries have been selected to provide a brief review of the history of information processing, as well as a discussion of the nature of mental processes. Communication scientists wishing to study mental processes evoked during communication episodes must develop a foundational understanding of the human mind/brain. This requires a familiarity with foundational articles discussing the nature of human cognition and emotion as well as more recent literature that discusses the dynamic and complex nature of the human mind/brain. Massaro and Cowan 1993 provides an overview of information processing. Kahneman 1973 as well as Posner and Petersen 1990 offer a foundational theoretical review of human attention. Craik 2002 and Baddeley 2003 provide recent theoretical consideration of the nature of human memory—a mental process extensively studied by communication scientists. Cacioppo, et al. 1990 describe motivated processing as a more recent theoretical view on how the human affect system processes information. Duncan and Feldman Barrett 2007 discuss the integration of cognition and emotion, and entries by Roser and Gazzinga 2004 and Ratey 2002 provide a foundational understanding of the nature of the human mind/brain.

  • Baddeley, A. 2003. Working memory: Looking back and looking forward. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 4:829–839.

    DOI: 10.1038/nrn1201E-mail Citation »

    This article presents theoretical groundwork for the development of a general theory of working memory that integrates an understanding of the interactive nature of both short-term and long-term memory processes. A three-component model of working memory originally proposed by Baddeley and his colleague Hitch is reviewed. The article expands on the basic model of working memory by considering the mapping of memory processes in the brain.

  • Cacioppo, J. T., W. L. Gardner, and G. G. Berntson. 1999. The affect system has parallel and integrative processing components: Form follows function. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 76.5: 839–855.

    DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.76.5.839E-mail Citation »

    A theoretical review of the structure of motivated information processing is offered in this article. Motivated information processing is proposed to consist primarily of affective processes associated with approach-and-withdrawal responses to social information. This is a foundational theoretical article for researchers studying the interaction of emotion and cognition in information processing.

  • Craik, F. I. M. 2002. Levels of processing: Past, present … and future? Memory 10.5–6: 305–318.

    E-mail Citation »

    This article reflects the most recent theoretical thinking concerning how levels of processing are instantiated in memory on both a neurophysiological and mental processing level across the lifespan. This article presents a formal hierarchical model depicting Craik’s view of how information is mentally represented in memory. A thorough discussion of the nature and interaction of mental processes in memory is offered.

  • Duncan, S., and L. Feldman Barrett. 2007. Affect is a form of cognition: A neurobiological analysis. Cognition and Emotion 21.6: 1184–1211.

    DOI: 10.1080/02699930701437931E-mail Citation »

    This article provides a comprehensive discussion of the integration of cognition and emotion as mental processes that are biologically and functionally interdependent. Information contained in this article is a critical prerequisite to understanding the fallacy of focusing on cognitive processing, in studying information processing. The authors discuss how the emotion-cognition distinction is primarily experiential rather than neurologically based.

  • Kahneman, D. 1973. Attention and Effort. Prentice-Hall Series in Experimental Psychology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

    E-mail Citation »

    This is a classic book, often cited by researchers studying how attention varies with features of communication episodes. Kahneman’s theoretical propositions about the nature of mental processes underlying attention are still at the root of how attention is conceptualized in the context of communication research. According to Kahneman’s model, attention is conceptualized as limited capacity information processing resources that are allocated to the mental tasks of perceiving and remembering information presented in our sensory environment.

  • Massaro, D. W., and N. Cowan. 1993. Information processing models: Microscopes of the mind. Annual Review of Psychology 44:383–425.

    DOI: 10.1146/ Citation »

    Theoretical assumptions that the first scholars working under the information-processing approach made about the nature of mental processes and the value of studying them are reviewed. Evidence supporting the existence of stages of processing and the fact that information can be processed in both a serial and parallel manner is discussed. This is the most recent article to explicitly claim to review information processing.

  • Posner, M. I., and S. E. Petersen. 1990. The attention system of the human brain. Annual Review of Neuroscience 13: 25–42.

    DOI: 10.1146/ Citation »

    A thorough review of underlying mental processes involved in attention is offered in this article. The focus of this article is on describing the functional anatomy of the human attention system. Specific mental processes that communication scholars need to understand in order to study attention within the context of human communication are discussed. These processes involve orienting to sensory stimuli, selection, and vigilance.

  • Ratey, J. J. 2002. A user’s guide to the brain: Perception, attention, and the four theaters of the brain. New York: Vintage.

    E-mail Citation »

    This reader-friendly book provides an easy-to-understand discussion of brain functions, including functions important in the context of communication research such perception, attention, memory, emotion, as well as the social nature of brain function. The discussion of neuroanatomy underlying these functions should help scholars develop theories of the mental processing involved in communication episodes that are biologically consistent with the nature of the human brain.

  • Roser, M., and M. S. Gazzinga. 2004. Automatic brains-interpretive minds. Current Directions in Psychological Science 13.2: 56–59.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.0963-7214.2004.00274.xE-mail Citation »

    This article discusses how conscious and unconscious processes implemented in the human brain in a modular fashion interact to yield mental representations of complex social stimuli. A review of neuropsychological research on the nature of brain activity underlying consciousness is provided, along with a convincing argument concerning how a significant portion of mental processing unfolds in an unconscious manner.

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