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Chapter 15: the concept of value ratio and its role in visitor attention

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This chapter provides a summary of papers presented at conference sessions during the last four or five years. The first paper was an overview of the general value theory. The three studies following the first paper were all completed in a laboratory setting with university students as participants.


General Value Theory: An Umbrella for Cost-Benefit Phenomena

Stephen Bitgood

Presented at the 2006 Visitor Studies Conference
Major theories in biology, psychology and economics share the basic assumption that the ratio between costs and benefits is a major predictor of choice behavior. These theories include, but are not limited to, optimal foraging theory in biology (Stephens & Krebs, 1986), information foraging in information science (Pirolli & Card, 1999), and temporal, probabilistic, and effort discounting in psychology and economics (Critchfield & Kollins, 2001). Optimal foraging theory hypothesizes that a predator chooses a prey based on the ratio of energy obtained from consuming the prey (benefit) over the time for searching and handling the prey (costs). In information foraging, information replaces the prey, and searching and handling of this information are the costs. Rounds (2004) has suggested a similar analysis for visitor behavior in museums.
Discounting theory, another major cost-benefit explanation, assumes that the value of a reward/experience is decreased, or discounted, as the costs (e.g., temporal delay, lowered chance of obtaining the reward, effort) are increased. Thus, temporal discounting occurs when an individual chooses a smaller, immediate reward over a larger, delayed one. Effort discounting would refer to the selection of a lower quality, low-effort choice over a higher quality, high-effort one.
The above theories (foraging and discounting), as well as other theories such as social exchange theory, can be subsumed under the umbrella of general value theory (Bitgood, 2005). The value of an experience/reward is determined by both the quantity of the outcome and by the costs in obtaining the outcome. The basic assumptions of a general value theory are: (1) choice behavior is a function of the comparative “value” of alternatives available; (2) “value” depends on the ratio of benefits divided by costs (and this function is nonlinear, probably hyperbolic in shape); (3) costs can be perceived or actual and are defined by resources used (e.g., time, effort, money); benefits can also be perceived or actual and are defined in terms of outcomes (positive or negative rewards/experiences).
General value theory helps explain a number of diverse choice behaviors such as a lack of self control (e.g., drug abuse, overeating), failure to engage in preventive health measures, and failure to invest in retirement. In addition, Bitgood & Dukes (2006) have suggested that walking patterns in public places such as museums and shopping malls conform to the principle of minimal costs (fewest number of steps) for maximum benefits (arriving at a destination quickly).
This session describes three applications of general value theory related to visitor behavior. The first reports on a simulated art museum study in which respondents rated art prints’ interest level and then were given the choice of reading all, some, or none of the text materials (labels) associated with the prints. The second study presented participants with successive choices between shorter, lower quality humorous passages with longer, higher quality ones. Finally, the third study involved choice between shorter, lower rated films with longer, higher rated ones. These study all required making decisions based on a combination of benefits (quality, interest level) and costs (time and/or effort).


Bitgood, S. (2005). General value theory: The cost-benefit ratio as a predictor of choice. Jacksonville State University. Unpublished manuscript.

Bitgood, S., and S. Dukes. 2006. Not another step! Economy of movement and pedestrian choice point behavior in shopping malls. Environment and Behavior 38 (3), 394-405.

Critchfield, T., & Kollins, S. (2001). Temporal discounting: Basic research and the analysis of socially important behavior. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 34: 101-122.

Green, L., & Myerson, J. (2004). A discounting framework for choice with delayed and probabilistic rewards. Psychological Bulletin, 130(5), 769-792.

Pirolli, P. & Card, S. (1999). Information foraging. Psychological Review, 106(4), 643-675.

Rounds, J. (2004). Strategies for the curiosity-driven museum visitor. Curator, 47(4), 389-412.

Stephens, D., & Krebs, J. (1986). Foraging theory. Princeton: Princeton University Press.


Stephen Bitgood, Stephany Dukes and Layla Abbey

Presented at the 2006 Visitor Studies Conference

It is often observed that visitors read very little exhibit text material in museums. Numerous reasons have been offered: “there is too much to read,” “visitors never read,” “there is little interest in the topic,” “visitors have a different agenda,” etc. General value theory (Bitgood, 2005) suggests that, to a large extent, the decision to read is determined by a cost-benefit or value ratio. Museum visitors are likely to perceive the benefits of reading as low if there is low interest in the subject, and the costs of reading as high if there is significant effort required.
The current study simulated a museum experience in order to assess the contributions of interest level and effort on reading of text passages. Interest level in reading about an art work is assumed to be a perceived benefit, and length of text passage is assumed to be a cost (amount of effort). The study was able to separate interest from effort by requiring participants to rate the interest of art prints before exposure to the text material.


Forty-three undergraduate students from Jacksonville State University served as participants and given extra credit in their course for their time. They were shown 20 prints of well-known paintings from famous artists and asked to rate each one from “1”(low) to “10” (high) indicating their degree of interest in viewing information about the art work. After an interest rating was obtained, participants were instructed to turn the print over and view a text passage. They were then instructed to make a choice between reading none of the passage, reading some of the passage or reading all of the passage. Participants were instructed to read out loud so that the amount of reading could be determined. Passages varied between 49 and 315 words.


Both interest and effort predicted reading as shown in the following table which summarizes the multiple regression analyses for each reading outcome (none, some, or all of the text passage).

t-Values and Probabilities (in parentheses)

Variable No Reading Some Reading Read All
Number of words 0.790 (.4402) 4.382 (.0004)** 6.533 (.0002)**

Interest ratings 2.714 (.0147)* 1.964 (.0662) 1.180 (.2543)
[Statistical significance was indicated by either p < .05 (*) or p < .01 (**)]
Interest rating was significant for the “No Reading” passages (p = .0147); it approached significance for the “Some Reading” passages (p = .0662), and it was non-significant for the “Read All” passages (p = .2543). Number of words, on the other hand, was non-significant for “No Reading” (p = .4402), but significant for both “Some Reading” (p = .0004) and “Read All” (p = .0002).


Clearly, the number of words was shown to predict how much of the passage is read while interest level predicted whether or not any reading occurred. The shorter labels were read whether or not interest level was high; however, reading longer labels required high interest. Reading the entire label was very much predicted by the length of the label – very few long labels were read in their entirety

This study suggests that both benefits (satisfying interests) and costs (reading effort) are important in understanding why visitors read or don’t read exhibit labels. Given the size of statistical outcomes, the costs (number of words) may be the more important factor! Such a result may also indicates that, at least in some cases, the design of the exhibit (e.g., text length) is more important than what visitors bring to the museum.


Bitgood, S. (2005). General value theory: The cost-benefit ratio as a predictor of choice. Jacksonville State University. Unpublished manuscript

VIEWING TIME OF FILMS: Why Visitors Don’t View Long Films in Museums
Stephen Bitgood & Layla Abby

Presented at the 2007 Southern Society of Philosophy & Psychology

Miles (1989) reported a meta-analysis of studies of audiovisuals conducted at the National History Museum, London and reported that audio-visuals (AV’s) tend to have poor attracting and holding power, especially longer duration media. It is paradoxical that, in movie theaters, the public pays for movies that are typically two or more hours in length! Temporal discounting may account for at least some of this discrepancy.
Temporal discounting occurs when individuals choose a smaller, immediate reward when the time interval is long, but when the time interval is long, preference is for smaller rewards (e.g., Critchfield & Kollins, 2001). The current study attempted to assess whether this phenomenon occurs when films are selected that differ in terms of duration and critical rating. Discounting would be observed if participants chose the longer, higher-rated of two films when the durations were short (e.g., 5 versus 10 min films), but the shorter, lower-rated of two films when the durations were long (40 versus 80 min films). This situation is similar to museum visitors being confronted with a large number of choices, many of them between media that may require a shorter versus longer time with unknown payoffs in terms of satisfying curiosity. Temporal discounting may explain why visitors are not willing to invest large amounts of time in an AV when there are alternatives (e.g., exhibits) that require less time.


Sixty-five participants were presented with a film festival scenario in which they had to choose between shorter, lower-rated films versus longer, higher, critically-rated films. The films varied between 5 and 80 minutes with choices always between a value and its double (e.g., 5 versus 10, 20 versus 40, etc.). Critical ratings were given as either high, medium, or low. Thus, combinations of film length and critic ratings included comparisons such as: 5-min, low rated versus 10-min, medium rated, etc. The study was conducted during the class periods of two psychology classes (introductory and positive psychology).


As Table 1 indicates, a temporal discounting effect was found: participants chose the longer film when the intervals were short (e.g., 5-10 minutes), but chose the shorter film when the intervals were long (40-80 minutes). In addition, when the choice was between a low, rated versus a high rated film, participants were more likely to choose the longer, highly rated film than the shorter, lower rated one compared to films that were given a low versus medium rating. Both duration of film and magnitude of difference between perceived benefits (critic rating) were statistically significant using a Chi-square test.

Table 1

Percent Choice of Film When Duration and Critical Ratings Vary
Low-Medium Rating Comparison Duration of Film

5-10 min 20-40 min 40-80 min
Shorter/lower rated film 15.4% 63.5% 76.9%
Longer/higher rated film 84.6 36.5 23.1


Low-High Rating Comparison Duration of Film

5-10 min 20-40 min 40-80 min
Shorter/lower rated film 5.8% 13.5% 63.5%
Longer/higher rated film 94.2 86.5 36.5



Results of this study found a temporal discounting effect with choices of films that differed in terms of both duration and critical rating. In addition, the magnitude of comparison (low versus medium; low versus high) was also shown to be a significant factor. The cost-benefit ratio (quality of film divided by the duration of A-V) may also explain visitors’ choices of media in a museum environment. Visitors are confronted with a choice of viewing an exhibit for a short time versus a film for a longer time period. Unless the film is perceived as having a high benefit, it is not likely to hold attention for very long.


Critchfield, T., & Kollins, S. (2001). Temporal discounting: Basic research and the analysis of socially important behavior. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 34: 101-122.

Miles, R. (1989). Audiovisuals: A suitable case for treatment. In S. Bitgood, A. Benfield, & D. Patterson (eds.), Visitor studies: Theory, research, and practice, Vol. 2. Jacksonville, AL: Center for Social Design. Pp. 245-252.




Stephen Bitgood and Stephany Dukes

Presented at the 2006 Southeastern Psychological Assocation
If visitors choose to read exhibit labels based on a cost-benefit ratio, they are likely to engage in discounting as the amount of effort and interest level varies (i.e., choose to read higher interest rather than lower interest labels when the label length is short; but choose lower interest labels when the length is long). Temporal and probability discounting have been found in many studies (Critchfield & Kollins, 2001; Green & Myerson, 2004). However, we could not find a discounting study conducted with humans that demonstrated effort discounting. Effort discounting would occur if individuals choose a low-effort alternative (fewer words) when the quality is low (e.g., less interesting), but a higher-effort alternative (e.g., more words) when the alternative is high quality (e.g., more interesting).
This study had two purposes. The first was to assess whether a discounting effect could be produced with choice between combinations of effort (number of words to read) and ratings of funniness (low, medium or high) of jokes. Thus, would participants select a longer, funnier joke when the number of words is low, but a shorter, less funny joke when the number of words is high? A second purpose of the study was to test two methods of presenting the choices. One method exposed the decision maker to a visual comparison of the jokes and the other method involved a verbal comparison (i.e, “Would you like to read a 25-word, low rated joke or a 50-word, high-rated joke?”). Visitors choose to read exhibit labels based on a visual inspection of the perceived effort. There may be a difference when the perceived effort is presented verbally rather than visually.


The study attempted to produce a discounting effect by giving participants a series of choices between a less funny, shorter joke and a funnier, longer joke. Jokes ranged from 25, 50, 100, and 200 words. Based on independent ratings, they were given ratings of high, medium, or low in terms of funny. Two procedures were compared. The first (visual condition) required participants to select between two jokes based on visual inspection of the jokes. The second condition (verbal condition) required participants to select a joke based on verbal description (e.g., “Would you like a 50-word joke rated low, or a 100-word joke rated high?”). For both conditions, the participant was required to read the joke after the selection. A total of 40 participants (20 in each condition) were recruited from psychology classes at Jacksonville State University.


As indicated by Table 1, the two conditions produced different results. The visual conditions produced a discounting-like effect (participants chose longer jokes 69% of the time when the comparison was between 25 and 50 words, but only 38% of the time when the comparison was between 100 and 200 words. However, in the verbal condition, a high percentage of longer jokes were selected across all combinations of number of words.

Table 1

Percent Choosing Jokes with More Words
25-50 words 50-100 wrds 100-200 words
Visual presentation 69% 51% 38%

Verbal presentation 74 72 70_____

An apparent effort discounting outcome was found when the jokes were selected visually, but not when the choices were presented verbally. Since visitors select exhibit text based on visual inspection, it is likely that a discounting effect would occur with label reading in museums as well.


Critchfield, T., & Kollins, S. (2001). Temporal discounting: Basic research and the analysis of socially important behavior. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 34, 101-122.

Green, L., & Myerson, J. (2004). A discounting framework for choice with delayed and probabilistic rewards. Psychological Bulletin, 130(5), 769-792.

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