Observing Stages in Consumer Decision Processes

Johan Arndt, The Norwegian School of Economics and Business Administration [Professor of Business Administration, the Norwegian School of Economics and Business Administration.]
Edgar Crane, University of Houston [Professor of Marketing, University of Houston, and Visiting Professor at the Norwegian School of Economics and Business Administration at the time when this study was undertak
[ to cite ]:
Johan Arndt and Edgar Crane (1975) ,"Observing Stages in Consumer Decision Processes", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 02, eds. Mary Jane Schlinger, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 63-70.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, 1975      Pages 63-70


Johan Arndt, The Norwegian School of Economics and Business Administration [Professor of Business Administration, the Norwegian School of Economics and Business Administration.]

Edgar Crane, University of Houston [Professor of Marketing, University of Houston, and Visiting Professor at the Norwegian School of Economics and Business Administration at the time when this study was undertaken.]

One-hundred husband-wife dyads were asked to determine among themselves how a hypothetical monetary gift was to be spent. The discussions were observed and tape-recorded by field workers. The messages exchanged were coded by the Bales Interaction Process Analysis system. The results showed some tendency for the interaction to change from a main emphasis on solving problems of orientation, to problems of evaluation, and subsequently to problems of control. Over the decision process, the relative importance of positive reactions increased.

Most current formulations of consumer decision making postulate that consumers go through a specified sequence of mental and behavioral steps in their decision processes. (Engel, Kollat, and Blackwell, 1973; Howard and Sheth, 1969; and Robertson, 1971.) A common feature of many of the formulations is that they build on hierarchy-of-effects models claiming that on their way from ignorance of a product to purchase, consumers move in one direction through a given sequence of cognitive, affective, and conative stages.

While such models at first sight seem to have an appealing intuitive validity, there is so far actually little direct empirical evidence that they adequately describe typical purchase decisions. Some of the studies purporting to support the hierarchy-of-effects model are interview studies in which the researcher seems to have induced respondents to accept the model (before being able to answer questions about communications behavior in the various stages), while other studies using less structured methods may have been subject to response bias as respondents may have attempted to rationalize their decision processes. Palda who critically reviewed the literature in this area, including survey studies as well as longitudinal approaches and field experiments, found little evidence that positive changes in either cognitive or affective states preceded purchase (Palda, 1966).

From a theoretical viewpoint, the hierarchy-of-effects model may be too narrow in scope, first by dealing with individual rather than family or other group purchase decisions and, second, by being stimulus oriented rather than oriented toward the consumer problem solving process.

The study to be reported here was undertaken to find whether small group theory and method may contribute to a better understanding of the anatomy of intrafamilial decision processes on spending matters.

In the behavioral sciences, a large body of theory and research findings on small group processes is available. A substantial part of this literature is concerned with the interaction in a group involved in developing group solutions to various types of problems (Collins and Raven, 1969; and Kelley and Thibaut, 1969). A priori one might think that this literature should be particularly important for consumer behavior studies, particularly those focusing on group behavior such as is the case in intrafamilial decision making. However, so far small group theory seems to be neglected in the marketing literature. An exception is Davis and Silk (1971).

In the present study, both the theoretical framework and the method utilized have been developed by Bales.


In a variety of research settings, Bales and his colleagues have found that the problem solving processes of small groups are more effective if some prescribed order were followed. More specifically, in so-called full-fledged problem solving, the Bales group has found that decision makers in their interaction move qualitatively from a relative emphasis upon problems of orientation ("what is it"), to problems of evaluation ("how do we feel about it") and subsequently to problems of control ("what shall we do about it"), and that the relative frequencies of both positive and negative reactions tend to increase toward the end of the process ( Bales and Strodtbeck, 1951). It is assumed that this pattern is natural because earlier stages are "functionally prerequisite" to later ones.

Bales has developed a method for studying intragroup interaction referred to as Interaction Process Analysis. The heart of the method is that the interaction is observed, and that the individual interaction acts are recorded and classified by a 12-category system (Bales, 1950). A simplified statement of the system is shown in Table 1. In this scheme, categories 6 and 7 are viewed as dealing with problems of orientation; 5 and 8 deal with problems of evaluation; 4 and 9 with problems of control; 1, 2, and 3 with positive reactions; and finally 10, 11, and 12 with negative reactions.

An observational method such as the Bales approach does not rely on respondents' reconstructions of their decision processes or is subject to bias because the researcher superimposes a scheme of stages on the respondents. Instead, the method will detect the natural tendencies that exist in the data within the constraints given by the research setting and the classification system for the interaction acts.


[Appreciation is extended to the following students who participated in planning and implementing the study: Hans A. Brandsnes, Bent Bugge, Arnt Buvik, Kjell E. Grude, Inge Rylandsholm, Age H. Salin, Vemund P. Smordal, and Agnar S. Tjeldnes.]

The field approach utilized is an extension of an approach earlier applied by Kenkel, who studied intrafamilial decision processes in the U.S. around 1960 (Kenkel, 1957; Kenkel, 1961a; and Kenkel, 1961b).

One-hundred husband-wife dyads selected by random sampling from public records in five electoral districts in Bergen, Norway, were asked to assume that they had received a monetary gift [Fifty couples "received" an amount of N.kr. 500 (about $90), while the amount for the other 50 dyads was N.kr. 3,000 ( about $550). In the part of the study to be reported here, however, we will not be concerned with this experimental variation.] and were then asked to determine between themselves just how this money should be spent, with the stipulation that the amount could not be saved. Each interaction process was observed by a field worker who made a tape recording of the discussion. The messages exchanged were coded by the Bales system. In addition, some background information about the respondents was obtained.




[Other findings from this study are reported in Johan Arndt and Edgar Crane, Marital roles in intrafamilial decision making on spending matters, paper presented at the 1974 Marketing Educators' Conference of the American Marketing Association in Portland, Oregon.]

The average discussion lasted for only 3 minutes and 36 seconds, suggesting a decision process very compressed in time. A total of 3,044 interaction acts (including answers from the field workers to direct questions from husbands or wives) were recorded. The mean interaction rate of between 8 and 9 acts per minute found is in line with findings reported by Willett and Pennington who used the Bales scheme to analyze customer-salesman interactions in retail stores (Willett and Pennington, 1966, pp. 606-607), while smaller than the rate reported by Bales for problem solving groups - 15 to 20 acts per minute (Bales, 1958, p. 438). The relative frequencies shown in Table 1, with predominance of categories 5 and 6, are similar to patterns reported by Bales (1958, pp. 438-439) and Willett and Pennington ( 1966, pp. 607-608).

Let us now return to the question of stages in the decision processes as proposed by Bales.

To test the Bales hypothesis, first, the cycle of operations (or the number of interaction acts) in each discussion was divided into three thirds so as to produce a first, second, and third phase. This was in this case roughly equivalent to a division based on time. Second, the relative number of the five types of interaction categories was computed. The results which are presented in Table 2 show a significant departure from chance expectations. In other words, there was a relationship between phase and relative importance of interaction type. However, all relationships were fairly weak, and in several cases the relationships were in a direction other than expected. Nevertheless, the main pattern in Table 2 seems to give at least some support to the Bales hypothesis. Hence, orientation acts culminated in the first phase and evaluation acts in the second, while the relative importance of positive reactions increased over the time cycle. Control acts culminated unexpectedly in the second and not in the third phase. It is interesting to note that toward the end of the cycle, negative acts tended to be displaced by positive ones. In this respect, our results parallel findings of Willett and Pennington for customer-salesman interactions resulting in a transaction (Willett and Pennington, 1966, pp. 614-616.).



A possible explanation for the somewhat weak results may lie in the fact that the average dyad considered about 4 alternative items, of which about one-half was accepted. There may have been tendencies for all three phases to emerge for each alternative considered.

We then devised a second test relating to the time sequence of acts by type. In Table 3 where the results are shown, positive and negative reactions have been combined as no prior hypothesis existed as to which one was expected to precede the other.



As suggested by the large Chi Square value, there was a relationship between act and type of preceding act. Orientation acts tended to be followed by other orientation acts, while evaluation acts were particularly likely to be followed by orientation acts or other evaluation acts. The likelihood that the succeeding act was concerned with control problems increased when the type of act changed from orientation, through evaluation, to control. A similar relationship was found for succeeding acts of the positive or negative reactions type. For instance, as many as 38 per cent of the acts following control acts were of this type. A possible explanation is that control acts impair the social-emotional relations in the group and disturb the equilibrium and hence create a need for social-emotional acts to reduce tension.

While the relationships in Table 3 were fairly weak as was the case in Table 2, the overall pattern seems to be to some extent consistent with the Bales hypothesis.


This exploratory study of husband-wife decision making has used a theoretical framework and a method developed by Bales. The results give some support to Bales' hypothesis stating that the process tends to move qualitatively from a relative emphasis on solving problems of orientation, to attempts to solve problems of evaluation, and subsequently to attempts to deal with problems of control. Toward the end of the decision process, positive reactions were found to increase in importance.

The relationships found, however, were not strong, and there were also several deviations from the theoretical expectations, suggesting some "noise" in the data. Nevertheless, the results seem interesting enough to warrant farther work in this area in order to search for "natural" stages in interfamilial or other collective decision making.


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