Adolescents' and Mothers' Perceptions of Relative Influence in Family Purchase Decisions: Patterns of Agreement and Disagreement

Ellen R. Foxman, Washington State University
Patriya S. Tansuhaj, Washington State University
ABSTRACT - Mothers' and adolescents' perceptions of relative influence in family purchase decisions are compared over a wide range of product types and costs. Their perceptions of influence vary depending upon who will be the primary user of particular products, and on product cost. Both mothers and adolescents rate adolescents as having at least some influence for the majority of the 14 products studied. Product importance is also found to be directly related to perceptions of relative influence for some products.
[ to cite ]:
Ellen R. Foxman and Patriya S. Tansuhaj (1988) ,"Adolescents' and Mothers' Perceptions of Relative Influence in Family Purchase Decisions: Patterns of Agreement and Disagreement", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 15, eds. Micheal J. Houston, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 449-453.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 15, 1988      Pages 449-453


Ellen R. Foxman, Washington State University

Patriya S. Tansuhaj, Washington State University


Mothers' and adolescents' perceptions of relative influence in family purchase decisions are compared over a wide range of product types and costs. Their perceptions of influence vary depending upon who will be the primary user of particular products, and on product cost. Both mothers and adolescents rate adolescents as having at least some influence for the majority of the 14 products studied. Product importance is also found to be directly related to perceptions of relative influence for some products.


Research has shown that children play a significant role in some family purchase decisions and their influence varies by product categories and decisional stages (Moschis 1987). In general, for products in which the child is directly involved in consumption, the child is expected to have at least some influence on the decision. Few studies, however, have attempted to distinguish patterns of influence by product user (i.e., products for child, for parents, or for family use); and most studies have measured children's influence only for the purchase of breakfast cereal, or for major family purchases. There has also been no investigation of the relationship between product importance perceptions and children's perceived influence in family decision making.

This study examines adolescents' perceived influence in family purchase decisions for a variety of product classes used by different family members and representing a broad range of prices. Mothers' and adolescents' perceptions of influence are compared graphically and statistically, and the relationship of importance perceptions to decision influence ratings is also examined. Essentially, the study asks the following research questions:

1. To what extent do mothers and adolescents agree in their perceptions of adolescent influence in family purchase decisions?

2. To what extent do product importance and product user affect mothers' and adolescents' perceptions of influence in family purchase decisions?

Although children at all ages have been shown to exert influence and to have "resocialized" their parents, this study focuses on adolescents. They are the age group with full cognitive development (Piaget 1970), and have been demonstrated to understand economic concepts (Strauss 1952) and consumer skills related to information processing (Roedder 1981; Wackman and Wartella 1977). They are also expected to model their behavior on that of adults to at least some extent (Lerner and Shea 1982). Adolescents thus appear to be an appropriate age group for investigating children's influence in family purchase decisions. As adolescence is not an easily defined period in terms of physical development (Chumlea 1982), we included only teenagers (i.e., ages 11 to 19) in the study.

Consumer Socialization

When investigating consumer behavior of parents and children in a family setting, most studies in the marketing discipline may be described as focusing on two main categories: they either investigate how parents and/or other agents (e.g., mass media, peers) socialize their children in acquiring values and skills related to purchasing and consumption (e.g., Douglas 1983; Filiatrault 1980; Moschis and Churchill 1977, 1978; Szybillo et. al. 1977); or on how parents yield to younger children's requests, particularly for food products (Atkia 1978; Berey-and Pollay 1978; Maholtra and Torger 1977; Ward and Wackman 1972).

As a child becomes an adolescent, his/her role in "resocializing" parents appears to become greater. Canadian adolescents have been found to affect their parents' attitudes and behavior in such areas as sports, leisure, drug use, sexuality, youth, and minority groups (Peters 1985). Adolescents have also been found to attempt to influence their parents' behavior regarding personal appearance, day-to-day activities, repair and redecorating, and car purchase (Baranowski 1978).

In marketing, recent studies have reported evidence of adolescents' influence (as perceived by mothers) on specific family decisions, varying by product class, decision stage, and geographic areas (Darley and Lim 1986; Moschis and Mitchell 1986). Belch et al.'s (1985) study obtained similar results in comparing perceived influence rated by fathers, mothers, and children. While such influence may not be the same -- as the more long lasting socialization process, Moschis (1987) explains that children's influence on purchase decisions may help parents redefine their consumer roles to incorporate the child's expectations, thereby resulting in resocialization to a modified consumer role.

Family Decision Making

Consumer behavior research on family decision making has generally focused on how husbands and wives handle purchase decisions, ignoring the presence of children and their possible role in such decisions. Such studies (e.g., Davis 1970; Davis and Rigaux 1974; Bonfield 1977) have classified family purchases into four decision influence categories: husband dominant, wife dominant, autonomic (separate), and syncratic (joint). This classification may reasonably be adapted for use in examining adolescents' relative influence in family purchase decisions. There is, however, no basis for expecting that decisions found to have been syncratically handled by husbands and wives will prove to be syncratic for parents and children. For this reason, the present study assesses influence over a wide range of product types and cost.

The most commonly used method of assessing husband-wife influence in family decisions has been a self-report, nominal, five- or three-point scale, e.g.: 1 = husband had the final say, 2 = joint decision, 3 = wife had the final say (cf. Davis 1976, Burns 1977, Green and Cunningham 1975, Rigaux-Bricmont 1978). A relative measure of influence clearly simplifies the investigation of family decision influence, as it requires respondents to view decisions in a family context rather than from their own egocentric perspective. The present study employs a five-point relative influence scale to avoid potential problems caused by the separate measure of individual family members' decision influence.

Some early studies of husband-wife decision making or parental yielding to children's requests drew their conclusions based on the self-reported responses of just one family member, usually the wife or mother (e.g., Atkin 1978; Szinovacz 1978).

Most recent studies of family decision making have obtained influence assessments from either husband and wife or mother and child, with one study (Belch et al. 1985) of children's influence obtaining data from mother, father, and one child. The present study contains influence assessments from mothers and adolescents regarding relative parent-child decision influence.


Research Hypotheses

1. Mothers and adolescents disagree in their ratings of adolescents' decision influence relative to parents.

2. The relative purchase decision influence attributed to adolescents varies depending upon:

a. who will be the primary user; and

b. perceived product importance.


The sample for the study consisted of 193 pairs of mothers and adolescents in three small northwestern towns. Middle school and high school officials were contacted, and four schools agreed to participate in the survey. Questionnaires were administered to students in class; each student was then asked to take a questionnaire home for his/her mother to complete and return to school in one week. Of 525 students who filled out the "adolescent" version of the questionnaire, 193 (37.1%) brought back the "mother" survey. The adolescent sample consisted of male and female middle school and high school students, with an average age of 15 years old and an age range of 11 to 18 years old. Males and females were represented almost equally in the study. Adolescents were from primarily middle-class families, with an average household income of between $30,000 and $40,000 annually. Most mothers were between 30 and 50 years old and had at least a high school diploma (34%) or some college education (5490). The demographic characteristics of the sample are summarized in Table 1.


Perceived Influence: Perceived influence in family purchase decisions was measured by asking both adolescents and their mothers to rate the relative decision influence of parents and children on a one-to-five scale, with 1 indicating parents made the whole decision, 2 indicating parents have more say than the child, 3 indicating a decision in which parents and adolescents had an equal say, 4 indicating the child had more say than the parents, and 5 indicating that the adolescent made the whole decision. Influence ratings were obtained for 14 products, six for family use, six for the adolescent's own use, and the remaining two for use by parents. The product set included both high-involvement products (e.g., automobile, computer, dress clothes) and low-involvement products (e.g., toothpaste, groceries). Most of these products were used in previous parent-child studies; we have added a few more contemporary products such as computers, cable TV, and magazine subscriptions. We also attempted to examine products both for children's use and for family or parents' use. The fourteen products included in the study are listed in Table 2.



Product Importance: The importance of products included in the study was measured using a five-point scale in which a one rating indicated "really important" and five rating indicated "really unimportant." Mothers and adolescents were each asked to rate the importance of all 14 products.


Influence Perceptions of Mothers and Adolescents

The extent of agreement in mothers' and adolescents' perceptions of relative influence in family decisions was first tested using analysis of variance. The dependent measure in the analysis was perceived influence, and respondent (mother or child) and product (each of the 14 included in the study) were the independent variables. The analysis of variance was significant overall (F = 354.12, p = 0.0001), and both respondent and product were significant sources of variation in influence ratings (each p = 0.0001). The two variables together accounted for approximately half of the variation in influence ratings (R2 = 0.50).

Perceived Influence and Product Categories

Adolescents' mean perceived influence rating across products was 2.52, and mothers' was 2.25. A Scheffe's test of these groups indicated that the means were significantly different (alpha = 0.05): that is, adolescents overall rated their decision influence as greater relative to parents than did mothers. Table 2 presents mothers' and adolescents' perceived influence ratings for the 14 products.



It was felt that a graphical presentation of influence ratings showing individual responses from mothers and adolescents by product might yield greater insight into the extent and occasion of agreement/disagreement between respondents. This comparison of influence responses appears as Figure 1.

Davis and Rigaux's (1974) method of depicting relative influence was adapted for use in the present study. The method plots responses for product categories along two axes, mean relative influence (vertical) and degree of role specialization (horizontal -- the percentage of respondents who indicate the decision is a joint one). Products are classified into one of four decision categories based on their plotted position: child dominant, parents dominant, syncratic (joint decision), or autonomic (separate).

Figure 1 indicates a considerable amount of adolescent influence in family purchase decisions. Records for the child are the only product for which mothers and adolescents agree that the adolescent is dominant; however, both mothers and adolescents agree that adolescents have some decision influence (sometimes more than parents) in the purchase of products for their own use, including dress clothes, bicycles, and magazine subscriptions. (The Figure indicates a similar but statistically nonsignificant pattern of influence for home computers for the child and toothpaste for the child.)

The Figure also provides more information about the relationship between influence ratings of mothers and adolescents. It illustrates what the Scheffe test indicated: that adolescents consistently rate themselves as having more influence relative to parents than do mothers. Additionally, for nearly all products, a greater percentage of adolescents state that decisions are made jointly (i.e., give a 3 rating of "equal say") than do mothers.

The exceptions to this are for records for the child and magazine subscriptions for the child, suggesting that mothers more than children perceive it is right to involve themselves in decisions regarding entertainment and reading matter to which their child will be exposed. Finally, the Figure also shows that adolescents have the least influence in decisions regarding products for the parents' own use (e.g., magazine subscriptions), and for products that represent major, infrequent family expenditures (e.g., living room furniture).

Perceived Influence and Product Importance Perceptions

The relationship of perceived product importance to perceived decision influence was investigated by examining Pearson correlation coefficients for the two variables by separate product and respondent. With 14 products and 2 respondents, a total of 28 correlation coefficients were examined. The results were essentially negative: over half of the correlations (17) were not statistically significant, and the correlations which were significant were very low (ranging from 10.141 to 10.281). The highest correlations were as follows: 1) mothers' perceptions regarding toothpaste for child, at r = 0.28 (p = 0.0004)-indicating that the more important mothers perceive toothpaste for the child to be, the more they will perceive parents to be influential in its purchase; and 2) mothers' and adolescents' perceptions regarding cable t.v., at r = -0.26 and -0.23 (p = 0.001 and 0.007) for adolescents and mothers respectively --suggesting that the more important respondents considered cable t.v. subscriptions, the more likely they were to rate adolescents as influencing their purchase.

Products were grouped by primary user -- child or family/parent-and the correlations between importance and influence perceptions were examined by product and respondent. For the eight products for family or parental use, mothers' responses indicated only two statistically significant correlations between importance and influence perceptions-for toothpaste for the family and cable TV subscriptions. Adolescents' responses revealed only one statistically significant relationship -- for cable TV subscriptions.

Relationships between importance and influence -and disagreement regarding such relationships -- were more often observed in the set of products used primarily by the child. Adolescent responses displayed significant positive correlations between perceived importance and influence or four of six products used primarily by them - records, personal computer, bicycle, and magazine subscriptions. Mothers' responses also displayed significant correlations for four of six products used primarily by the child -- records, personal computer, toothpaste, and dress clothes. Mothers' perceptions of influence and importance agreed with adolescents' for records and personal computers; however, the more important mothers perceived toothpaste and dress clothes to be, the less decision influence they perceived adolescents to have in purchasing such products.




The research hypotheses are supported, except for the hypothesized relationship between product importance and decision influence perceptions. Consistent with findings in previous studies, mothers and adolescents do differ in their perceptions of adolescent influence in family purchase decisions; the difference is statistically significant but fairly small in magnitude. Children consistently rate their decision influence as greater relative to parents than do mothers, and more children perceive purchase decisions to be made jointly than do mothers. Adolescents' perceived influence in purchase decisions also varies depending on the user and the cost of a product. The relationship of product importance perceptions to perceived decision influence is less clear. Fewer than half of the correlations for respondents and products are statistically significant, and correlations which are significant are small.

Despite a relatively low response rate, the present study yields ample evidence to show that adolescents are active participants in family purchase decisions, with significant decision influence even in the purchase of some products that are expensive or not for their own use. Future studies can expand our knowledge base of family decision making by assessing fathers' and other family members' influence perceptions.

Examining more than just influence on decision outcomes (as did Belch et al. in 1985) will certainly improve our understanding of family influence relationships. The findings of the present study clearly suggest that future studies need to include a broad range of purchase decisions, not just the more or less standard list from previous husband-wife studies. Furthermore, because of the natural tendency for influence ratings to differ across respondents, resulting a significant F test and large R-square, future family dyad research should attempt to determine sources of such differences.

Finally, we greatly need to develop and test models explaining the reasons family members perceive particular patterns of relative influence. Differences do exist in importance-influence perceptions between mothers and adolescents across products groups by primary user, but the reasons for those differences are not at present clear. A few partially tested explanatory models of husband-wife decision making do exist (e.g., Buss and Schaninger 1983, Hill and Scanzoni 1982), but children's roles cannot just be tacked on to these models. The presence of children changes the relationship between husbands and wives, and over time changes (resocializes) each parent. For this reason, models of family decision making must differ from models of husband-wife decision making.


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