Family Decision Making As Conflict Management

Harry L. Davis, University of Chicago
[ to cite ]:
Harry L. Davis (1974) ,"Family Decision Making As Conflict Management", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 01, eds. Scott Ward and Peter Wright, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 532-535.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, 1974    Pages 532-535


Harry L. Davis, University of Chicago

[This abstract is drawn from Chapter 4 of the author's forthcoming book: Family Purchasing Behavior.]

Researchers who view consumer behavior as collective rather than individual decision making, often study the following question: Who in a group (i.e., organization, family) makes what decision? An interest in "who" within the context of a group implies the concept of role (i.e., duties and responsibilities that are assigned to positions). Emphasis is thus placed on collecting information about "who decides," "who wins," and/or "who does." An interest in "what decision" has most often led researchers to employ one or more of the decision process models. In relation to household consumers these models may include traditional formulations such as problem recognition, search for information, alternative evaluation, final decisions, purchasing, and post-purchase evaluation. For the industrial buying organization, these same steps have been even more elaborated--e.g., anticipation or recognition of a problem, determination of characteristics and quantity of needed item, search for potential sources, acquisition and analysis of proposals and selection of an order routine, performance feedback, and evaluation (Webster and Wind, 1972). Respondents are asked, often retrospectively, to identify their role or that of others at each stage in the decision process, and sometimes, the influence of advertising, salespeople, and friends.

Few marketing researchers would maintain that the information collected in response to this question has not been interesting or useful. Several studies have shown the way in which roles change by product category, stage in the decision process, etc. Such research has corrected oversimplified stereotypes about marital roles as, for example, that "the car is the husband's decision," or "-wives decide about furniture." The use of traditional formulations in marketing has also enabled researchers to make comparisons with previous studies in social psychology. At the same time, however, there are several conceptual problems with the question as posed which restricts its value for future research.

Is the concept of role sufficient for understanding the parts played by family matters in decision making? Only in the most static of organizations and societies is the answer likely to be "yes." In this situation, roles will be good predictors of "who wins" or "who decides" since family members have obligations to let the other person win or assume responsibility. When, on the other hand, families hold attitudes of mutuality, give and take, or companionship, roles become much less predictive of actual decision outcomes. If such attitudes represent a widespread definition of the marriage relationship, is it really so surprising that spouses have so much difficulty in predicting who will win or will play the dominant role? Moreover, since the concept of role focuses upon the outcomes of decision making rather than the process which 1 has lead to this outcome, little is learned about how families reach decisions. [An excellent discussion of this issue is found in Sprey (1971).] To use an analogy, it is as though one tries to understand the game of poker by looking only at the outcomes of each hand, ignoring entirely the strategy used by each player.

Are traditional formulations of consumer decision processes a realistic way of viewing family economic behavior? Attempts to model decision making as a process have perhaps been motivated by concerns with both predictability and respectability--the former because marketing strategies attempt to influence consumer behavior before a choice is made; the latter because a large literature of normative decision models already exists in such prestigious disciplines as economics and statistics. While these motives are certainly justified (any researcher must necessarily simplify in order to study a complex phenomenon),this formulation makes very restrictive assumptions regarding the individual and his environment. Traditional economic-logical models assume that a decision maker, completely informed about all courses of action and their outcomes, chooses among them so as to maximize something. Even with Simon's (1955) attempt to cast the decision maker into a more intuitively appealing role, many questions remain unanswered. Do individuals always know what they want in selecting a product or service, or do they often imitate the behavior of other consumers with the hope of finding more interesting and satisfying goals? Is it reasonable to assume that goals remain stable while various alternatives are processed and evaluated, or is it equally likely that goals change over time and/or experiments with different goals are tried? Decision making in a group context raises even more difficult questions. Is it realistic to assume that decision making is consensual--i.e., that family members agree about the desired outcome, or is it often the case that decisions are accommodative--i.e., members realize that preferences are irreconcilable and proceed to find an acceptable solution via bargaining or coercion?

These conceptual limitations with normative decision models have a counterpart at the methodological level. To what extent can respondents decompose a decision into many different stages for the purpose of reporting their role as well as the kinds of influence (personal and nonpersonal) at each stage? For small routine decisions, the length of the decision process may be so short that consumers as respondents probably have difficulty even conceiving different stages. For important decisions made over longer periods of time, consumers as respondents have to deal with difficult problems of recall, and the involvement of different family members at various phases of the decision process who may have had different goals. Is it any wonder that they enjoy responding to highly structured questions that confirm the logic, rationality, and careful thought given to past decisions? Sometimes events rather than people initiate a decision process (as described in the paper by Nelson Foote). Yet, questionnaires invariably ask "WhO suggested buying a new . . . .?"

These comments do not necessarily imply that the two concepts of role and formal decision process are not a useful way of studying consumer decision making even within the context of the family. Decisions that are most often assigned to one spouse or the other as well as those where there is agreement about goals may really fit into such a framework. But why model other decision situations in this manner, particularly when describing group decision making which may often be characterized by differences of preference and priority among the members?

In an attempt to develop a broader view of family decision making, at least two questions are relevant: 1) In what specific areas does conflict occur in household decisions?; and 2) what strategies are used by family members to manage decision-related conflicts?

Researchers have traditionally been preoccupied with disagreements concerning alternative selection--i.e., either when each spouse has a different rank ordering of alternatives due to a different assessment of outcomes using the same criteria, or a different rank ordering of alternatives due to different criteria. Interviews with groups of husbands, wives, couples and teenage children also revealed that conflicts arise in other areas. For example, the need for making a decision is sometimes defined differently by each spouse. This may involve different solutions for satisfying the same need, different definitions of how legitimate is the need, or different preferences as to when to make the decision. Conflicts about goals and roles were also described in the interviews. These represent unique aspects of collective rather than individual decision making. Regarding the former, a husband and wife may have different images of a desired life style or different levels of expectation about what life style is realistic. Conflicts about roles may involve different expectations about who should make the decision, different expectations about how the decision should be made (e.g., amount of search, reliance on the advice of friends), or different expectations about who is going to implement the decision.

How are these various family conflicts managed in decision making? An analysis of the group interviews revealed several alternative strategies used by husbands and wives. These were grouped into those situations where family members agreed about goals and those where there was goal disagreement. In terms of the former, respondents discussed role structure (namely, the presence of a specialist within the family), budgets, and problem solving as common means of dealing with conflict. When goals were in conflict, persuasion strategies (e.g., coalition formation) and bargaining strategies (i.e., distributive justice) were employed.

These results suggest that problem solving is only one of the strategies used by families in reaching decisions. Future research should endeavor to determine the relative importance of these alternative strategies by product category as well As the extent to which families (as differentiated by social class, race, the wife's employment status, etc.) differ in their reliance on each strategy. To the extent that problem solving is found to represent only a part of reality, researchers will have to develop less structured measures in order to collect valid data about marital roles in decision making.


Simon, H. A. "A Behavioral Model of Economic Choice," Quarterly Journal of Economics, 69 (1955), 99-118.

Sprey, J. "On the Management of Conflict in Families," Journal of Marriage and the Family, 33, 4 (November, 1971), 722-31.

Webster, F. E., and Y. Wind. Organizational Buying Behavior (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1972.