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Cognitive Complexity --> Rhetorical Design Logic --> Sophisticated Communication --> Beneficial Outcomes

Explanation of Theory:

People who are cognitively complex in their perceptions of others have a greater capacity for sophisticated communication that will achieve positive outcomes. They can employ a rhetorical message design logic that creates person-centered message that simultaneously pursues multiple communication goals. (Griffin 3rd ed., pp. 493-4)

Theorist: Jesse Delia

Date:  1982

Primary Article:

     Delia, J. O’Keefe, B., & O’Keefe, D. (1982). The constructivist approach to communication. Human Communication Theory. New York: Harper and Row, 147-91.

Individual Interpretations:

As a theory, Constructivism is concerned with the cognitive processes that proceed the actual communication within a given situation. Measuring and observing these cognitive processes can be a difficult task. While I agree that people who are able to adapt their messages to particular situations and audiences are more successful than those who are not able, saying that those who are more cognitively complex are always more successful is probably misrepresenting the truth. 

Metatheoretical Assumptions:

Epistemologically, Constructivism allows for multiple truths depending on both the abilities of the communicator and receiver in creating and understanding cognitively complex messages. Ontologically, some people have the ability to act (humanistic) using a rhetorical design logic while others are forced to react (scientific) through the use of either expressive or conventional design logic. Axiologically this theory is value-conscious because while it recognizes the capacity for value influence, it does not subscribe to any particular patterns.


Constructivism is a scientific theory that attempts to explain why some people are more successful in attaining their interpersonal communication goals than others. It also makes predictions that people who are more cognitively complex will be more successful because of their ability to use rhetorical design logic in sending messages. Attempting to study cognitive processes is a difficult task and can make a situation quite complicated; therefore the application of this theory is not very simple. However, this theory does a good job in laying the foundations for some important future research about what role the cognitive process plays in people’s communication effectiveness.

Ideas and Implications:

Those who are more cognitively complex in their formation of messages are more capable of achieving their interpersonal communication goals. These people are also better suited for interpreting messages in a more clear manner.


In a situation where a student might have an argument with a teacher about a grade he or she received, an example of a statement that might use expressive design logic would sound like this:

 “You are so unfair. You are always out to get me!”

An example of a statement using conventional design logic might sound like this:

 “I worked hard on this project. Your expectations of me are higher than anyone else in this class because I am the only one who is a major.”

An example of a statement that uses rhetorical design logic might sound like this:

 “I would like to sit down with you and go over the grading of my project. I believe that if I have the chance to explain a bit more about what I did, you might be able to re-evaluate my grade. Additionally, I am unclear about some of the comment you made. I hope that through discussing it, I might get a better idea about exactly what it is that you expected to be done for this assignment.”

Relevant Research:

Location in Eight (8) Primary Communication Theory Textbooks:

     Anderson, R., & Ross, V. (1998). Questions of communication: A practical introduction to theory (2nd ed.). New York: St. Martin's Press. 129-130.

     Cragan, J. F., & Shields, D.C. (1998). Understanding communication theory: The communicative forces for human action. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon. 210-212.

     Griffin, E. (2000). A first look at communication theory (4th ed.). Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill. 110-120.

     Griffin, E. (1997). A first look at communication theory (3rd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill. 128-139.

      Infante, D. A., Rancer, A. S., & Womack, D. F. (1997). Building communication theory (3rd ed.). Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press. 81-85.

      Littlejohn, S. W. (1999). Theories of human communication (6th ed). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. 112-125.

      West, R., & Turner, L. H. (2000). Introducing communication theory: Analysis and application. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield. N/A 

       Wood, J. T. (1997). Communication theories in action: An introduction. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. 182-184.