Involvement is included in numerous theories and empirical studies of information processing, persuasion, advertising, knowledge acquisition, and other media effects. It is mainly linked with or defined as more elaborative, self-determined, active, and in-depth acting with and processing of media content.
In origin, involvement is rooted in three major research traditions. In the work of Sherif and Cantrill (1947) concerning social judgment theory, ego-involvement plays a central role. If a topic activates central values of the self-concept, a person becomes personally involved in the situation. Ego-involvement is the relatedness of an issue to a person’s self-picture and self-identity (Salmon 1986). According to social judgment theory, a belief change becomes less and less probable the more a person is ego-involved. Furthermore, these authors distinguished task-involvement from ego-involvement. Task-involvement results from the experimental manipulation performed by the researcher and is assumed to be rather volatile. In short, involvement can be described in this context as activated relevance for an issue (Salmon 1986).
In the framework of the dual process theories on persuasion, highly involved recipients are motivated to process the arguments of the message (central route or systematic processing), whereas low-involved recipients use heuristics and select rather peripheral stimuli for a superficial judgment (Chaiken & Trope 1999). Finally, for Krugman (1965), involvement is the number of conscious bridging experiences, connections, or personal references that a viewer makes per minute between his or her own life and a stimulus.
Stimulated by these roots, audience and effects research began to pick up involvement. Specifically, media usage under low-involvement conditions seemed to be of particular interest. The usage of electronic media (radio, television) often occurs only incidentally, in a way that is habitualized and without much attention. Alternatively, within the Uses-and-Gratifications approach, involvement is explicitly integrated as a part of the concept of audience activity. In the three-phases model of Levy and Windahl (1984), before media exposure, involvement is expressed as intent of usage. During media exposure, involvement is understood as the degree to which the individual interacts psychologically with a medium or its message. After the person has been exposed to the medium, involvement can be conceptualized as a long-term identification or parasocial relationship (Levy & Windahl 1984).
In modern communication research, conceptualizations of involvement are multifaceted. Thus, a distinction should be made between different references or “targets of involvement” (for example, the message of the media, the advertised product, a protagonist of a film, a program, or an issue), the “persistence of involvement” (enduring, persistent versus situational, short-term, and volatile), the “components of involvement” (cognitive, affective, conative/motivational), the “valence of involvement” (negative or positive), and the “intensity of involvement” (Wirth 2006). For example Greenwald and Leavitt (1984) discern four intensity levels of involvement: pre-attention, focal attention, comprehension, and elaboration. At least in older conceptions of involvement, there is also a differentiation regarding the locus of involvement: according to this, involvement can be seen as an attribute of a medium, a topic, a situation, or the reception process. At least from the perspectives of reception research and media psychology, in most cases involvement is interpreted as an internal state or process.
Taking all these differentiations together, one can distinguish between a broader and a more confined concept of involvement. Involvement as a meta-concept encompasses a family of related though distinct concepts that inform us of how users are occupied with the media and their content in diverse ways, and how they engage with them in a cognitive, affective, conative, and motivational way (Salmon 1986). In this view, involvement is rather a framework or a research perspective; its multiple interactions with other concepts of media usage and effects can be studied and related to each other systematically.
On the other hand, a concept that includes cognitive responses, felt emotions, attention, recall, information seeking, and discussions about a topic seems to be not very useful and frequently results in contradicting empirical results. Therefore, a more confined sense of involvement would be advantageous. According to this, involvement is an attribute of the information processing itself (Cameron 1993; Greenwald & Leavitt 1984; Slater 2002; Wirth 2006). The process-oriented definition of involvement directly refers to the phase of media usage and encompasses the intensity of an individual’s cognitive, emotional, or conative engagement with the media message. In a similar way, some authors conceptualize involvement as a mode of reception as opposed to a distanced or analytical mode of media usage (e.g. Vorderer 1993).
- Cameron, G. L. (1993). Spreading activation and involvement: An experimental test of a cognitive model of involvement. Journalism Quarterly, 70, 854 – 867.
- Chaiken, S., & Trope, Y. (eds.) (1999). Dual-process theories in social psychology. New York and London: Guilford.
- Greenwald, A. G., & Leavitt, C. (1984). Audience involvement in advertising: Four levels. Journal of Consumer Research, 11, 581–592.
- Krugman, H. E. (1965). The impact of television advertising: Learning without involvement. Public Opinion Quarterly, 29, 349 –356.
- Levy, M. R., & Windahl, S. (1984). Audience activity and gratifications: A conceptual clarification and exploration. Communication Research, 11, 51–78.
- Salmon, C. T. (1986). Perspectives on involvement in consumer and communication research. In B. Dervin, & M. J. Voigt (eds.), Progress in communication sciences. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, pp. 243 – 268.
- Sherif, M., & Cantril, H. (1947). The psychology of ego-involvement: Social attitudes and identifications. New York: John Wiley.
- Slater, M. D. (2002). Involvement as goal-directed strategic processing. Extending the elaboration likelihood model. In J. P. Dillard, & M. Pfau (eds.), The persuasion handbook: Developments in theory and practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 175 –194.
- Vorderer, P. (1993). Audience involvement and program loyalty. Poetics: Journal of Empirical Research on Literature, the Media and the Arts, 22, 89 – 98.
- Wirth, W. (2006). Involvement. In J. Bryant & P. Vorderer (eds.), Psychology of entertainment. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 199 –213.