The Resolution of Conflict in Joint Purchase Decisions By Husbands and Wives: a Review and Empirical Test

Margaret C. Nelson, State University of New York at Albany
ABSTRACT - This paper critiques existing literature on interpersonal conflict resolution. It then advances the literature by examining the behaviors used by husbands and wives in resolving joint purchase conflicts. A nationwide sample of 284 married individuals is employed. Four factors seem to underlie reported conflict management behaviors: the use of punishments, threats, authority, and negative emotion; the use of positive emotion and subtle manipulation; the use of withdrawal and egocentrism; and the use of persuasion and reason.
[ to cite ]:
Margaret C. Nelson (1988) ,"The Resolution of Conflict in Joint Purchase Decisions By Husbands and Wives: a Review and Empirical Test", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 15, eds. Micheal J. Houston, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 436-441.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 15, 1988      Pages 436-441


Margaret C. Nelson, State University of New York at Albany


This paper critiques existing literature on interpersonal conflict resolution. It then advances the literature by examining the behaviors used by husbands and wives in resolving joint purchase conflicts. A nationwide sample of 284 married individuals is employed. Four factors seem to underlie reported conflict management behaviors: the use of punishments, threats, authority, and negative emotion; the use of positive emotion and subtle manipulation; the use of withdrawal and egocentrism; and the use of persuasion and reason.


Although the consumer decision making literature has increasingly begun to recognize the importance of the family (or household) as a unit of analysis, until recently published knowledge of consumer decision making dealt almost exclusively with the buying decisions of individuals. Those investigations which have dealt with family purchase decisions have tended to focus largely on the outcomes of the decision processC i.e., who actually decided or "who won." Recently, writers have begun to address the need to more completely understand the intricacies of the family decision making process. Thus, the focus is beginning to shift from "who decides" to just how purchase decisions are made within the family (Davis 1976).

Within this sphere, the topic of intra-family conflict regarding a purchase remains a relatively neglected area of inquiry. "Conflict" here is equated with Kelly and Egan's (1969, p. 251) "divergence," meaning "disagreement, explicit or implicit, between husband and wife on the rationale or outcome of a decision." Although a scale has been developed to measure spousal conflict arousal (Seymour and Lessne 1984), little has been done to study its resolution. The existing literature here has been largely non-empirical, and among the meager number of empirical investigations, there exists much disagreement over the nature of conflict management strategies. A simplifying structure is needed to integrate the results of previous work, and to suggest more standardized terminology for future investigations.


A useful method of organizing the conflict management literature has been suggested by the work of David Kipnis (e.g., Kipnis and Schmidt 1983). As Kipnis points out, a major part of the literature on conflict management behaviors is comprised of "deductive" typologies -- i.e., lists of conflict management strategies based only on the author's theoretical bent and/or personal observations. These are distinguished from "inductive" typologies -- i.e., lists of conflict management strategies derived in an empirical setting.

Deductive Classifications of Influence Strategies

Deductive classifications of influence strategies have been proposed by authors in various social science disciplines. Many such listings were developed by social or industrial psychologists to deal with dyadic interactions other than those of husband and wife. Some of the more well-known deductive typologies include those of French and Raven (1959), Thibaut and Kelly (1959), Blood (1960, 1962), Thomas (1976), and Tedeschi, Schlenker, and Bonoma (1973). Two deductively derived lists of conflict management strategies have been proposed in the family purchasing context: Davis (1973, 1976) and Sheth (1974).

Research based on Deductive Classification Systems: Several research investigations have employed one or a combination of these deductive typologies. The objective has typically been to examine the relationship between specific independent variables and one's choice among influence strategies. Subjects are usually asked to choose, from a list, the conflict management behaviors they would use in a specific situation. Most of the studies employ individual strategies as the dependent variables; however, two (Perreault and Miles 1978; Spiro 1983) focus on the choice of an influence strategy mix, using cluster analysis to determine the mixes. Overall, the results of these studies seem to indicate that one's choice of influence strategy is affected by various personality (Kilmann and Thomas 1975), attitudinal (Baxter and Shepherd 1978; Scanzoni 1978; Spiro 1983), demographic (Granbois 1971; Scanzoni 1978; Sheth and Cosmas 1975; Spiro 1983), and lifestyle (Sheth and Cosmas 1975) variables, as well as by the relationship between the parties involved (Baxter and Shepherd 1978; Kipnis et al. 1976; Michener and Schwertfeger 1972; Perreault and Miles 1978) and the nature of the conflict or decision (Granbois 1971; Scanzoni 1978; Sheth and Cosmas 1975).

Critique of Deductively-Based Typologies and Research: Numerous problems are evident with regard to these deductive typologies and the studies based OD them. As several authors (e.g., Kipnis and Schmidt 1983; Kipnis, Schmidt, and Wilkinson 1980) have pointed out, though the typologies often overlap, they fail to agree on either the type or number of conflict management behaviors. Most of the deductive typologies represent purely static listings, with no conception of underlying structure (Sprey 1975). The remaining deductive typologies make untested assumptions that the strategies are organized along particular dimensions (e.g., Davis 1973, 1976; Tedeschi et al. 1973). We do not know which of the proposed dimensions are truly independent from one another, which combination is exhaustive, etc. A related problem (cf. Kipnis and Schmidt 1983) is the tendency of some authors to assume that certain influence tactics are necessarily used under specific conditions. For instance, in the Davis (1973, 1976) model, it is assumed that specific strategies will be used if family members agree about the goal, and other strategies used if they do not. Sheth (1974) is even more specific about the circumstances which would dictate the use of each strategy in his model.

A more serious concern is the construct validity of the deductive typologies. These lists do not match the sets of strategies actually elicited from subjects in an empirical fashion (cf. Kipnis et al. 1980; Kipnis and Schmidt 1983). They tend, on the one hand, to exclude strategies which are actually used (Clark 1979; Cody, McLaughlin, and Jordan 1980; Falbo 1977; Kipnis et al. 1980; Kipnis and Schmidt 1983), and on the other, to include strategies which are apparently not used (Kipnis et al. 1980; Kipnis and Schmidt 1983).

The studies based on these typologies vary widely in methodological rigor. Their self-report techniques are especially prone to social desirability biases, given the topic of personal influence. Some of the studies rely extensively on recall ability (e.g., Sheth and Cosmas 1975); others use hypothetical conflict situations (e.g., Michener and Schwertfeger 1972). Statistical analyses in some of the studies are limited (e.g., Belch, Belch, and Sciglimpaglia 1980) or nonexistent (e.g., Sheth and Cosmas 1975). Student or other convenience samples are frequently used.

Furthermore, though it is worthwhile to investigate parameters related to the choice of influence tactics, this seems premature while we remain in doubt as to the nature of the conflict management strategies themselves. Likewise, it also seems premature to treat influence strategy mixes as the dependent variable, when the elements of which these mixes are constituted are based on deductive reasoning.

Inductive Classifications of Influence Strategies

In a few recent studies, lists of behaviors used in conflict resolution have been empirically derived. None of these studies has examined the tactics used by husbands and wives in resolving a joint purchase conflict, however. This is a significant omission given that conflict management behaviors appear to vary with the relationship of the parties (i.e., husband and wife), and with the nature of the conflict (i.e., a purchase decision).

In general, these inductive studies have had a dual purpose. The first objective has been to empirically identify the behaviors employed in conflict management, and their underlying structure. A second objective has usually been -- as before -- to investigate various parameters which might correlate with one's choice of influence strategies.

Typically in these studies, an initial sample of subjects is asked to indicate the strategy they would use, either in response to a given hypothetical conflict situation (e.g., Clark 1979; Cody et al. 1980) or in a paragraph on "How I get [or got] my way" (e.g., Falbo 1977; Falbo and Peplau 1980; Kipnis, Cohn, and Catalano 1979; Kipnis et al. 1980). The resulting list is then analyzed to determine its underlying factors or dimensions. When multidimensional scaling has been used for this analysis, either the researchers and other "experts" provided the dissimilarity ratings (Falbo 1977; Falbo and Peplau 1980), or a second sample of subjects sorted the strategies (Cody et al. 1980). When factor analysis has been employed, a second group of subjects has rated the strategies according to their own frequency-of-use (Kipnis et al. 1980). A few studies used a set of conflict management behaviors empirically derived in another investigation. These studies extracted frequency-of-use data from a new sample, for factor analysis (Fitzpatrick and Winke 1979; Kipnis et al. 1979, Study 3) or cluster analysis (Kipnis and Schmidt 1983).

Findings of Inductive Studies: Regarding the lists of conflict management behaviors and their underlying structure, even these empirically derived classification systems exhibit quite a bit of divergence from one another. They reveal from two (Cody et al. 1980; Falbo 1977; Falbo and Peplau 1980) to eight (Kipnis et al. 1980) factors or dimensions of conflict management, with only partial overlap in the underlying structures. With regard to parameters affecting one's choice of strategy, the results support earlier findings that choice of influence tactics varies with the relationship of the parties involved (Falbo and Peplau 1980; Fitzpatrick and Winke 1979), and with the nature of the conflict or goal (Cody et al. 1980; Kipnis et al. 1980; Kipnis and Schmidt 1983). Choice of influence strategy also seems to be related to the actual or perceived relative power in the relationship, and to the actual or expected amount of resistance encountered in the influence attempt (Falbo and Peplau 1980; Kipnis et al. 1979; Kipnis et al. 1980; Kipnis and Schmidt 1983). It also appears that certain personality variables such as Machiavellianism and conformity are related to choice of influence strategy (Falbo 1977), while certain demographic variables, such as age of influencer (Falbo and Peplau 1980) and nationality (Kipnis and Schmidt 1983), are not. Finally, there is conflicting evidence regarding sex differences in choice of conflict management strategies (cf. Falbo and Peplau 1980; Fitzpatrick and Winke 1979; Kipnis et al. 1979; Kipnis et al. 1980).

Critique of inductive Investigations of Influence Strategies: A major problem with these investigations is that of external validity. In all the studies the dependent variable consists of self-reported, rather than actual, choice of influence tactics, and in a hypothetical rather than a real conflict situation. Second, almost all the studies (except Kipnis et al. 1980) employed student samples. These findings highlight the fact that the influence strategies students say they use in hypothetical conflict situations may be quite different from the strategies actually used by some other population of influencers and/or targets (e.g., husbands and wives) in an actual conflict situation (e.g., divergence over a joint purchase).

Three studies used multidimensional scaling to analyze the lists of strategies. Two of these (Falbo 1977; Falbo and Peplau 1980) used "experts" to provide dissimilarity ratings, so the resulting solutions show how the experts view the underlying structures, not necessarily how the subject population would view them. In the third scaling study (Cody et al. 1980), new subjects sorted the strategies based on similarity. Though a different scaling was done for each of three hypothetical conflict situations, it was decided a priori that in all cases a two-dimensional solution would be used. This resulted in a rather odd collection of "dimensions," several of which are difficult to conceptualize as ends on a continuum.

Other problems characterized the factor analytic studies (i.e., Fitzpatrick and Winke 1979; Kipnis et al. 1979; Kipnis et al. 1980). Here, subjects responded to statements of compliance-gaining behavior by estimating how frequently they had used each strategy over a period of several months. Besides the obvious recall problem here, there is also the potential for social desirability biases to be operating. (At least one study, Falbo 1977, found choice of conflict management behaviors to be related to scores on the Marlowe-Crowne social desirability scale.)

These results leave many questions unanswered. Most importantly, the underlying nature of influence strategies is still unclear. As was true of the deductive typologies, there exists definite overlap among the empirically derived lists; yet once again, none of the structures match. Any attempt to summarize the dimensions reported in these studies leads back to deductive speculation as to which categories are independent from, and which equivalent to, others. Again, studying the relationship between specific variables and one's choice of influence tactics should logically await further knowledge of the tactics involved.

Based on this literature review, the present study sought to address the following empirical question:

What factors underlie the conflict management strategies reported by husbands and wives in resolving joint purchase-related conflicts?



Subjects consisted of 284 individuals, living throughout the United States, who were either married (92%) or exclusively involved with another person (8%). (Only one person from any given household was used; see Discussion. The term "exclusively involved" allowed cohabitating and/or engaged individuals to participate in the study, provided they could recall a recent joint purchase disagreement with their "spouse.") The respondents were 56% male and ranged in age from 20 to 77 years with a mean of 43.0 years. The sample was somewhat upscale, with the mean level of education slightly above two years of college, individual income averaging about 525,000 per year, and 45% in professional or managerial occupations.


A mailing list of 2900 randomly selected individuals who had purchased a new car was obtained from R. L. Polk, a nationally syndicated marketing research data supplier. A survey packet containing a cover letter, questionnaire, and postage paid reply envelope was mailed to each of the 2900 potential respondents. The recipient was asked to respond only if he/she was married or exclusively involved with another individual, and could recall a recent joint purchase disagreement with the spouse. This initial mailing produced a total of 214 responses, of which 185 (86%) were useable. Approximately one month after the initial mailing, a follow-up containing another complete survey packet was mailed to all nonrespondents. This mailing produced a total of 170 responses, of which 99 (58%) were useable.


As noted, there is disagreement even among the empirically derived typologiesCas to the number and nature of interpersonal conflict management tactics. Thus, a measure was developed by combining all the previous empirically-derived tactics into one questionnaire. The resulting "strategy rating measure" listed 38 behaviors in a random order (see Table 1). After answering several questions regarding the specific joint purchase on which they and their spouse had disagreed, subjects were asked to indicate the likelihood that they, themselves, had used each of the 38 behaviors in settling this particular conflict. A five-point rating scale was employed (I definitely did NOT use; Unlikely that I used; 50/50 chance that I used; Likely that I used; I definitely DID use).


Nature of the Joint Purchase Disagreement

Subjects reported on a variety of joint purchase disagreements, from the new car mentioned in the cover letter, to furniture, vacations, and major entertainment appliances. The majority of purchases involved large expenditures.

Factor Structure

In order to address the research question, subjects' scores on the strategy rating measure were submitted to a factor analysis using the SPSS-X statistical package. Using the maximum likelihood algorithm, four factors were extracted for the final solution. This decision was based on the "Kaiser" (eigenvalue) criterion, parsimony, and the interpretability of the rotated factors. An oblique rotation (delta=0) was performed, to more adequately represent what were assumed to be naturally intercorrelated underlying factors. The rotated factor loading (pattern) matrix was examined to see which strategies loaded most heavily on each of the factors. Table 2 presents the conflict management behaviors with loadings greater than .40 OD each of the four factors. A brief description of each factor follows.

Factor 1 represents the use of punishments, threats, authority, and negative emotion in dealing with the spouse. Strategies loading most heavily on this factor include refusing to do chores, threatening punishments, behaving angrily, and stating that the spouse has no right to disagree.

Factor 2 depicts the use of positive emotion and subtle manipulation. Loading heavily on this factor are strategies such as putting the spouse in a receptive mood, appealing to the spouse's love and affection, and promising to do something nice in exchange for compliance.

Factor 3 suggests the use of withdrawal and egocentrism. Included here are behaviors such as denying affection, "clamming up," and looking hurt.

Factor 4 involves the use of persuasion and reason. It includes actions in which the respondent uses logic or persistence to convince the spouse to change his point of view.


Each of the four factors can be clearly tied to previous work on conflict management. (A table is available from the author showing parallels between the present factors and both inductive and deductively derived conflict management behaviors.) Yet, while these results provide support for many of the conflict management behaviors proposed in the deductive typologies, the underlying structure does not match any of the deductive systems. Notably, neither the Davis (1973, 1976) nor the Sheth (1974) typology received empirical support.

The number of factors is fairly consistent with the results of the inductive studies. For instance, both Falbo (1917) and Falbo and Peplau (1980) presented two-dimensional solutions; the fact that each dimension is bipolar implies that at least four kinds of strategies were being expressed in these studies. Cody et al. (1980) had decided to use two-dimensional solutions a priori, and the same dimensions did not emerge across their three experimental situations. Thus, they. eventually suggested five separate types of strategies as potentially important (direct/rational, exchange, manipulation, threat, and expertise). And although Kipnis et al. (1979) found three factors to emerge from their factor analysis (strong, weak, and rational), Fitzpatrick and Winke (1979), using a similar methodology, reported five (manipulation, nonnegotiation, emotional appeal, personal rejection, and empathic understanding). Only Kipnis et al. (1980) reported a much larger number of factors (i.e., eight: assertiveness, ingratiation, rationality, sanctions, exchange of benefits, upward appeal, blocking, and coalitions), and some of these may be peculiar to the organizational context in which conflict resolution was studied.



The nature of the factors also seems reasonable in light of the inductive studies. For example, with the exception of "emotional appeal," each of the factors in the Fitzpatrick and Winke (1979) study has an approximate parallel in the present results. Similarly, with the exception of the use of withdrawal and egocentrism, each of the factors derived in the present study has a parallel in the results of Kipnis et al. (1979). There is also much similarity between the present factors and the First four of those derived in Kipnis et al. (1980).

Several limitations of the present study should be noted. First, the generalizability of the results is limited by the upscale nature of the sample. Second, the conclusions are still based on self-report, recall data, though the reliance on recall was greatly reduced over previous studies (see below). There is also the possibility that the results were affected by the need to offer socially desirable responses. Relating to the factor analysis, it should be noted that the final solution accounted for only 35% of the total variance in the conflict resolution strategies. This may have resulted from error in the measurement process, the skewed nature of the sample, the possibility that entire factors were omitted from the strategy rating measure, or the chance that a parsimonious factor structure simply does not exist. Finally, the response rate was low; useable questionnaires were returned by just under 10% of the 2900 individuals contacted. Two potential explanations for this may be offered. First, the experimental task was rather demanding; the questionnaire consisted of four densely packed pages, and requested information which may have been considered of a sensitive nature. More importantly, it is unknown what portion of the 2900 questionnaire recipients were qualified to participate in the study in the first place (i.e., were both married and able to recall a recent joint purchase disagreement). At least 80% of the "unusable" questionnaires received were from people who wanted to participate in the study, but could not (mostly because they did not meet the requirements specified in the cover letter). Thus, a major part of the refusal rate might be accounted for by inability (rather than unwillingness) to participate in the study.



Several strong points of the study also bear repetition. Our knowledge of the process of conflict resolution has been advanced by integrating and augmenting the findings from a recent trend of inductive studies. The present findings were not biased by preconceived (deductive) notions regarding the strategies used to resolve conflicts. In addition, by integrating all the strategies found in the available inductive studies, this investigation was able to include a broader range of conflict management behaviors than would otherwise have been the case.

The use of a nationwide sample of married individuals is clearly a strength of the present study. As noted earlier, even the previous inductive studies tended to use student samples. Besides the gain in external validity, this strength is particularly important in view of the fact that individuals tend to bargain differently based on the nature of their relationship with the person they are trying to influence.

The experimental task was not an artificial one, as had been the case in some of the previous work on conflict management Subjects responded to the questionnaire with regard to a specific, recent, joint purchase conflict of their choice. They were asked not to participate in the study if they could not recall such a conflict. Thus, recall bias was minimized. These facts compare favorably with previous investigations which either used hypothetical conflict situations (e.g., Cody et al. 1980) or asked subjects to recall the frequency with which they had used various conflict management strategies over a period of several months (e.g., Kipnis et al. 1976). The nature of the experimental task also invited a variety of different purchase decisions to be reported on. Thus, the results are not constrained by the examination of only one type of product.

These conclusions lead to several suggestions for future research. Most obvious is the need to replicate the procedure, especially with those of lower socioeconomic status, in order to determine the stability of the factor structure. The influence of children should eventually be examined, as well as the comparative findings from two members of the same dyad. (In this study dyads were not used, as the issue of consensus was not essential to the development of the structural model.) Additional -contributions would be made by examining conflict resolution through observational techniques. Such alternative methodologies would help establish the construct validity of the findings. It will also be useful to develop standardized measures of the various factors, so that a common vocabulary and an ability to generalize across studies may begin to develop. Once such standardized measures exist, it will be beneficial to resume the examination of such variables as personality, attribution of power, sex, length of marriage, etc., which might relate to the individual's choice of conflict resolution behaviors.


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