In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Implicit Measurement

  • Introduction
  • Background
  • Definitions
  • Assumptions

Communication Implicit Measurement
Lisa Vandeberg, Edith G. Smit, Jaap M. J. Murre
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 January 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0163


Since the early 1980s, the literature in social sciences has seen a large upswing in publications on implicit measurements of the psychological processes that underlie human behavior. This development is driven by researchers who agree that explicit measurements, such as people’s self-reported thoughts and feelings, fail to give a complete view of people’s mental content. Though self-reports may give valuable insights into certain conscious and elaborative thoughts that may occur in an experimental setting, they are unable to reflect people’s mental processes on a subconscious level, simply because people cannot explain that of which they are unaware. Given that different domains in communication science aim to measure the impact of communicative message in different media on individuals and groups, and given that this impact occurs through processes in which people themselves have little or no insight, implicit measures are used more and more in communication research. This article will focus on implicit measures from the field of psychology that are relevant for those research domains that examine communication effects on individuals. The cited literature will therefore stem mainly from psychology, marketing, advertising, and consumer research. This article will discuss implicit measures that are designed to tap into the psychological processes that underlie behavior. The focus will be on behavioral rather than psychophysiological measures. The presented literature will start with the most-influential discussions about implicit versus explicit measures, as well as their dissociations (differences), and what these can tell us about the underlying processes. For the sake of clarity the presented literature will be divided into implicit measures of memory and implicit measures of associations and affect, a distinction that originates largely from cognitive and social psychology, respectively, and relies on somewhat different definitions and assumptions. The origins and uses of implicit measures will be discussed, as well as relevant applications that have led to novel insights in persuasive, political, and health communication research.


Nisbett and Wilson 1977 and Wilson and Brekke 1994 clearly explain how self-report measures are unable to give a complete and honest view of people’s mental processes. An important reason for this is that people can be influenced without being aware of this influence. Nisbett and Wilson 1977, as well as Chartrand 2005, discusses three levels at which people can be influenced without awareness: (1) An input level at which the person may be unaware of the features in the environment that trigger a certain psychological process, (2) a process level at which the person is “introspectively blank” on what psychological process will lead to a certain behavior, and (3) an output level at which the person is unaware of the actual resulting behavior. Given that the input level is relatively easy to manipulate and the output level is relatively easy to measure, the challenge lies in assessing the process level. This level is therefore the topic of much ongoing research, and the focus of this article.

  • Chartrand, Tanya L. 2005. The role of conscious awareness in consumer behavior. Journal of Consumer Psychology 15.3: 203–210.

    DOI: 10.1207/s15327663jcp1503_4

    In this article, the author identifies three different stages in which consumer behavior can be influenced, and she distinguishes different combinations of consumer awareness across these stages. She argues that a comprehensive model of subconscious processes in consumer behavior requires such a distinction, and describes empirical evidence acquired with implicit measures that addresses various combinations.

  • Nisbett, Richard E., and Timothy D. Wilson. 1977. Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes. Psychological Review 84.3: 231–259.

    DOI: 10.1037/0033-295X.84.3.231

    In this highly influential paper, the authors distinguish the three levels at which people can be influenced without awareness. They argue that people have no introspective access to these processes and that self-reports are therefore based on a priori causal theories. They examine cases in which reports are erroneous, concluding that they can be accurate only when input is both mentally accessible and a plausible cause of an outcome.

  • Wilson, Timothy D., and Nancy Brekke. 1994. Mental contamination and mental correction: Unwanted influences on judgments and evaluations. Psychological Bulletin 116.1: 117–142.

    DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.116.1.117

    This paper discusses how unconscious or uncontrollable mental processes in combination with people’s lay beliefs may lead to “mental contamination”: a process that leads to biased self-reported judgments and evaluations. Strategies for avoiding or correcting mental contamination are explored.

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