Examining Family Decision-Making Processes

Susan P. Douglas, New York University
ABSTRACT - Family decision-making research appears in recent years to have shifted emphasis from the study of the roles played by different family members in various family decisions to a focus on the decision-making process itself, and the strategies used by families to arrive at decisions. The two papers discussed here both reflect this trend, and suggest some interesting direct ions for future research.
[ to cite ]:
Susan P. Douglas (1983) ,"Examining Family Decision-Making Processes", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 10, eds. Richard P. Bagozzi and Alice M. Tybout, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 451-453.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 10, 1983      Pages 451-453


Susan P. Douglas, New York University


Family decision-making research appears in recent years to have shifted emphasis from the study of the roles played by different family members in various family decisions to a focus on the decision-making process itself, and the strategies used by families to arrive at decisions. The two papers discussed here both reflect this trend, and suggest some interesting direct ions for future research.


The importance of understanding the process by which decisions are reached in families was recognized by Davis (1976) in his seminal review of research in household decision-making. He pointed out that much previous research in consumer behavior had been focused on examining the outcomes of decision-making rather than how families actually reached decisions. Borrowing an analogy from Sprey (1971), he noted that this was like trying to understand the game of chess by looking at outcomes of the game while ignoring the strategies used by each player.

Following this, a number of studies have been conducted, which focus more specifically on the actual decision-making process. Studies have, for example, been conducted looking at the impact of involvement, empathy and authority in conflict resolving behavior (Burns 1976, Burns and Granbois 19773. Differences in perceptions of family conflict and modes of conflict resolution among family members have also been examined for a number of products and decision areas (Belch, Belch and Scilimpaglia 1980). The impact of information processing behavior on household decision-making has also been examined (Curry and Menasco 1979). Similarity of the decision net plans of husband and wives in purchasing a home have also been compared (C. Whan Park 1982).

The two papers discussed here follow essentially this approach: one provides a conceptual framework linking sex-roles to decision-making strategies, the other suggests a novel methodological approach to studying these decision-processes. Each is next discussed in more detail.


Buss and Schaninger (1983) present an interesting conceptual structure for examining family decision-processes, linking sex-role norms and their antecedents to conflict management strategies and their outcomes. The stated purpose is not to provide a comprehensive model of family decision-making, but rather a structure to identify key research issues in studying the impact of sex-roles on decision-processes and their outcomes.

With this objective in mind, a number of issues arise with regard to the proposed conceptual framework and its components, and also, its implementation.

In the first place, the limitation of the model to the husband-wife dyad and hence, the omission of children is disappointing. This in particularly the case in view of the growing body of research (Atkin 1978, Filiatrault and Ritchie 1980, Szybillo and Sosanie 1977, Ward and Wackman 1977 which reveal the involvement of children in many family purchase decisions, and their influence on the outcome of these decisions. Furthermore, support of children may be evoked in bargaining and negotiating strategies.

Secondly, greater attention to the role of the scenario or constraints under which a decision is being made, would appear desirable. The strategies which are employed to avoid or resolve potential conflict, may depend not only perceptions of desirable ends and means, and individual attitudes of either spouse, but also the time available for making the decision, distraction factors such as interruptions by children, phone calls, pressure to leave for work etc. (Davis 1976). Whether discussion is taking place and a decision being made in the house, in a retail outlet, and whether or not others are present, may also influence what tactics are used (Burns and Devere 1977).

Thirdly, in applying this conceptual framework, a key issue is that of the linkages between the various blocks of the model. The authors cite a number of these in their paper. In addition, questions arise as, for example, whether conflict management can be separated from decision behavior. If both spouses shop together, potential choice conflicts may be resolved on the spot, by multiple brand purchases or "trade-offs" between different purchases, etc. It has, for example, be questioned as to whether purchases actual] v involve decision-making (Olshavsky and Granbois 1979).

Finally, the development of appropriate operational definitions and measures of the constructs contained in the model appears an important priority in further research. While work has been done in the development of measures of sex-role norms and lifestyle factors, that in relation to conflict management strategies is considerably more sparse. (For some exceptions see Blood 1960 Davis 1960 Sheth & Cosmas 1975). Here, appropriate methodological procedures pose a major difficulty, since many of the procedures commonly used in family decision-making research such as verbal self-report measures or laboratory experiments are likely to be subject to bias. Doubts have been expressed as to whether respondent are aware of, or able to articulate clearly decision-making processes (Nisbett and Wilson 1977) Verbal responses, or behavior in a laboratory situation may also tend to disguise conflict management procedures and reflect what is perceived as socially desirable, rather than actual behavior patterns. (For a review of methodological issues in family decision-making see Dunsing & Hafstrom 1975, Olson and Gromwell 1975.)


Gupta, Hagerty and Myers (1983) suggest a novel methodological approach, applying a game-theoretic perspective in developing an experimental procedure for studying family decision-making. This is in marked contrast to the survey approach typical of much consumer-related family decision-making research.

This approach appears particularly appropriate where attention is focused on examining the decision-making process and the negotiating and bargaining strategies used by families in arriving at decisions. Precedent for an experimental approach is also to be found in the family sociology literature (Kenkel 1963, Straus and Tallman 1971), though to the author's knowledge only one application has been made in consumer research (Arndt and Crane 1975).

As in the case of the Buss and Schaninger Model, the approach might also be strengthened, if it were extended beyond the dyad bargaining situation to multiple person negotiations. The role of children in family decision-making might then be examined. Inclusion of outside influences on the negotiation process, as for example, sales-persons, might also be an interesting avenue for investigation.

Secondly, as with any experiment conducted in a laboratory setting, the issue of external validity arises. While the power construct can be explicitly manipulated, the extent to which the task captures the highly complex and dynamic character of family decision-making is open to some question (Zelditch 1970) In particular, the environment in which the experiment is conducted, may differ significantly -from that typical of much family decision-making. Decision-making is likely to take place early in the morning before leaving for work or in the evening. As noted previously, it may be subject to interruptions and distractions by children and others, and may cake place under conditions of time-pressure or when one or both spouses are tired. All of these factors may affect ability or willingness to concentrate on the task at hand, and tactics used in negotiating.

Furthermore, the dynamics of family life may affect decision-making strategies. Decisions may have to be made concurrently, requiring the establishment of priorities. Spouses may not perceive or define problems in the same way (Aldous 1971) Consequently, negotiation may center on what decision to make or what aspects are relevant, rather than the decision itself. This is in contrast to the clearly defined task of the laboratory situation. In addition, since families generally intend to stay together, a major objective in decision-making may be to reduce or minimize tension in family life and to satisfice, rather than rigorously analyzing and negotiating each decision.


Attention to the study of the decision-making process thus makes an important contribution to furthering our understanding of family decision outcomes. In this regard, a number of suggestions may be made with regard to aspects which may prove fruitful avenues in further research.

1. In the first place, the highly complex, dynamic and interrelated character of many family decisions, suggests that decision-making processes should be studied across decisions, rather than in relation to a given decision independently. While this gives rise to issues with regard to the appropriate decisions to be studied, it seems, nonetheless, more likely to capture the essence of family decision-making.

2. Secondly, the role of third party influences on decision-making strategies and -negotiations, suggests the need for a broader view of the relevant unit of analysis. This might include not only the husband-wife dyad, but also children, sales people and any relevant others.

3. Thirdly, increased attention to the impact of the environment and conditions in which decision-making takes place would appear desirable. In an in-home environment, examination of the effects of distraction factors, time pressures, mood and fatigue of participants might prove enlightening. In an in-store environment, the role of sales people, in-store promotions, and displays, time available for shopping, accompanying family members, and the degree of planned vs. unplanning shopping might, for example, be investigated.

4. Finally, the significance of environmental factors as well as the limitations of self-report measures and potential reactivity of laboratory techniques suggest t he need for increased use of in situ techniques such as observation or collection of in-store protocols. In the home. decision-making might, for example, be monitored (O'Rourke 1963, Wright 1978) using tape-recording equipment. Although difficult to analyze and open to criticism of reactivity and subjectivity, such data are often rich in insights into the decision-making process.


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