Measuring Conflict in Household Decision Behavior: Read My Lips and Read My Mind

William J. Qualls, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Francoise Jaffe, University of Michigan
ABSTRACT - In the present paper we empirically test the premise that husbands and wives, when involved in a joint decision task, experience both manifest (explicit) and cognitive (implicit) conflict. While manifest conflict affects the specific decision task at the time of the decision, cognitive conflict affects the current as well as future decision tasks. Results are presented from a field study of husband and wife households which indicates that significant conflict exists in household decision behavior and that husbands' and wives' similarity/dissimilarity affect the degree of household conflict and the method of conflict resolution.
[ to cite ]:
William J. Qualls and Francoise Jaffe (1992) ,"Measuring Conflict in Household Decision Behavior: Read My Lips and Read My Mind", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, eds. John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 522-531.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, 1992      Pages 522-531


William J. Qualls, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Francoise Jaffe, University of Michigan


In the present paper we empirically test the premise that husbands and wives, when involved in a joint decision task, experience both manifest (explicit) and cognitive (implicit) conflict. While manifest conflict affects the specific decision task at the time of the decision, cognitive conflict affects the current as well as future decision tasks. Results are presented from a field study of husband and wife households which indicates that significant conflict exists in household decision behavior and that husbands' and wives' similarity/dissimilarity affect the degree of household conflict and the method of conflict resolution.


Research on household conflict is relatively sparce, and mostly conceptual. Little attention has been given to how conflict evolves in the event of a joint decision making task and to the ensuing conflict resolution process that takes place. However, it is our contention that household conflict plays a far more central role in the understanding of family decision making (FDM) than what its present treatment in the literature indicates. We agree with the conclusion of both Davis (1976) and Granbois (1971), that "understanding household conflict is critical to understanding the dynamics of household decision behavior and the decision strategies employed in family decision making".

A theoretical paradigm called interpersonal conflict proposed by Hammonds (1965, 1973) provides a useful framework for examining the process of conflict in household decision behavior. Specifically the interpersonal conflict paradigm suggests that when two people involved in a joint problem solving task experience conflict; they experience both explicit (manifest) and implicit (cognitive) conflict. Hammonds (1965, 1973) contends that the cognitive conflict experienced by an individual affects not only the current decision but future decisions as well. The process of conflict and conflict resolution is in effect a learning experience which the individual uses to update his/her understanding of the decision making preferences of other household members. If indeed one views FDM as a dynamic process in which every decision constitutes a learning experience for the participants, then the events which lead to conflict and the way conflict is resolved will constitute important pieces of information. The purpose of the present paper is twofold: 1) To examine the efficacy of the interpersonal conflict paradigm for explaining household decision behavior, 2) To develop and test an objective measure of conflict and conflict resolution.


The theoretical paradigm underlying the present study is based on social judgment theory (Hammonds 1973). The paradigm is conceptualized in a way that lends itself well to the formulation of a framework from which to examine interpersonal conflict in household decision behavior. The basic premise of the Hammonds paradigm is that in addition to the existence of manifest conflict, two people in a joint problem solving task also experience a degree of cognitive conflict. Manifest conflict is defined as the explicit conflict individuals experience when there are differences over desired outcomes or disagreements over the perception of influence. Cognitive conflict is defined as the difference between an individuals' own desired outcome or perceived influence and what the indivdual thinks his/her partner desired outcome or influence perception will be.

Hammonds (1973), recommends certain conditions under which the cognitive conflict paradigm is best illustrated, and suggests that the cognitive conflict paradigm is best described as the interaction between two people who: 1) Attempt to solve mutual problems, 2) Have mutual utilities (ability to gain or lose), 3) Receive different training in a solution to a problem, 4) Find that their answers differ, 5) Provide a joint solution as the correct one,6) Adapt to one another as well as to the decision task.

Households in which family members engage in joint decision making typically can involve family members with different preferences and attitudes who are motivated to reach a joint solution. To reach their joint solution, family members may have to modify their original preference positions or attitudes to ensure that a decision is made.


The assumptions implicit in our conceptual model are as follows: 1) conflict in a household occurs when both husbands and wives have different percetions regarding the distribution of influence or differrent preferences about the object of the decision; 2) these preferences and/or role perceptions occur as a result of the different socialization experiences of these individuals; and 3) husbands and wives have learned over the course of their relationships about the other one's preferences and should be able to predict these preferences, even though they themselves may disagree with them.

The conceptual model presented in Figure 1 outlines the proposed relationships between a husband and wife involved in the evaluation of a product to be used by both the husband and wife. The model suggests that three types of judgments are of relevance when husbands and wives are involved in a joint decision task: 1)Individual judgments (i.e., product preferences, attribute importance), 2)Prediction of their spouses' individual judgments (for the same product preferences, or attributes), 3)Joint consensus judgments (of the same products, or attributes)



Individual judgments are needed to measure the existence of manifest conflict (i.e. difference between h/w individual judgements and joint product evaluations), while the prediction of a spouses' judgment is needed to measure the extent of cognitive conflict ( differences between H/W individual judgements nad perceptions of spousal judgements). Finally, joint evaluations represent the household utility associated with a specific decision outcome.

Unlike the original paradigm proposed by Hammonds (1965) the present model treats individual differences as a natural phenomenon resulting from the socialization of husbands and wives as a couple. Rappoport (1969) found that subjects who are different in the way they interpret information are more likely to experience conflict. Several variables have been found by FDM researchers that differentiate the decision behavior of husbands and wives, namely sex role orientation (Qualls 1987,Rosen and Granbois 1983), perception of influence (Davis and Rigaux 1974), and decision importance (Morgan 1961). A spouse's sex role orientation helps to determine the gender attitudes held by spouses which impacts the perception of influence (Qualls 1987). The perceptions of influence held by husbands and wives determine the extent of involvement in decisions. The perception of influence and its impact upon FDM practices is well documented in the research literature (Davis 1970, 1971). Finally, the importance of the decision helps determine the exercise of influence (Morgan 1961).

Based on the importance of these constructs as an explanatory variable in previous research, it is hypothesized that an individual spouse's perception of their 1) sex role orientation, 2) influence, and 3) decision importance can be used as a measure of the similarity or dissimilarity between husbands and wives perceptions. As such we propose to test the following hypothesis:

H1 Husbands and wives with similar perceptions regarding sex roles, decision influence, and decision importance will exhibit less conflict than husbands and wives with dissimilar perceptions.

Park (1982) found that it was fairly easy for husbands and wives to determine the other spouses' preference levels on salient objective dimensions as opposed to salient subjective dimensions. Such evidence suggest that the learning of each other's preferences by husbands and wives affects spouses' individual preference positions. The question of the degree of learning is yet unanswered but work by Davis, Hoch, and Ragsdale (1986) suggests that husbands and wives can better predict their spouse's ratings with their own ratings than they can by guessing the preference ratings of their spouse. Both studies appear to suggest that there is an exchange of information exchange that takes place between husbands and wives, which can contribute to learning. This process of learning enables spouses to resolve pontential conflict between husband and wife individual preferences cognitively before any interaction over the decision between spouses. Such behavior may lead to low levels of manifest conflict.

Burns and Granbois (1977) found (using the difference between first choices of husbands and wives) revealed very little discrepancy between husband and wife preferences, resulting in low levels of household conflict. We propose that the similarities in first choice preferences between husbands and wives may reflect the process of interpersonal learning and masks the presence of cognitive conflict. If cognitive conflict occurs, then there would be agreement between spouses on what the first choice is, however, underlying disagreement over subdecisions, or alternative individual preferences. The presence of individual preferences that do not match the joint preferences exhibited by a household, represents disagreements that are not manifested but concealed. In the above scenario, husbands and wives know what their spouse's choice might be, agree with their spouse to reduce conflict, but still hold on to their original preference positions. On the other hand, in the absence of interpersonal learning, spouses show their differences immediately on their first choices, as husbands and wives do not have any information on the preference position of their spouse. Conflict can be caused by either the exercise of influence by one family member or of the frustration of one spouse whose individual preferences are not met by the actual decision outcome. The difference in origin is important as the exercise of influence is an indicator of manifest conflict, while unfulfilled perceptions of influence or decision preferences would result in cognitive conflict.Based on this discussion, it is hypothesized that:

H2 The greater (less) the degree of manifest conflict, the less (more) likely cognitive conflict will occur.

Household conflict is highly probable when one considers that the individual preferences of multiple family members must be combined and reconciled into a joint preference before any purchase decision is made. Thomas (1976) contends that conflict resolution behavior can be conceptualized as a function of 1) the extent to which a party tries to satisfy his/her concerns and 2) the extent to which a party tries to satisfy the concerns of others. Thomas' idea can be extended here to mean that the reason that one party tries to satisfy the concerns of the other reflects their ability to do so. In the present study it is suggested that in households that are similar, spouses will attempt to reach a compromise through bargaining and negotiation because of their understanding of each others preference positions or household roles. However, in cases of dissimilar households spouses will be unable to understand the other one's position and will not have the ability to understand the needs of the other party. In that case it is expected that the most likely mode of conflict resolution will be concession by one of the spouses. Accordingly, it is hypothesized that:

H3a Households which share similar husband/wife perceptions will compromise and bargain more frequently than households which are dissimilar

H3b Households with dissimilar husband/wife perceptions structures will concede and avoid conflict more often than households with similar perceptions.

The hypotheses and the proposed relationships in the conceptual model are examined and tested in the next section.


Subjects for the study consisted of 63 husband and wife households recruited from a cooperative housing complex which catered to married graduate students,located in a midwestern college town. Each couple was paid an honorarium of 20 dollars for their participation. Households were told they were participating in a survey by a major automobile firm who wanted to know their feelings on a new automobile to be marketed in the future. Only those couples who had indicated a probability of purchase of 70 percent or higher were recruited to participate in the study.

The automobile purchase decision was selected as the household decision task because it has proven to be a joint decision,important to husbands and wives and a product likely to be used by both spouses in previous rese arch (Davis 1970, Green and Cunningham 1975). Based on the medium-sized car category, nine product concepts were created. Each concept was composed of several different product attributes known to be important criteria in the decision to purchase an automobile. The attributes included, color (red, blue, grey, tan), price ($10,000, $14,000, $20,000), city mileage per gallon (12, 16, 20), manufacturer warranty (3 years/30,000 miles, 4 years/40,000 miles, 5 years/ 50,000 miles), and predicted repair record (above average, average, below average).

Data for the study was collected in two phases. In phase one, husbands and wives were asked to individually evaluate the automobile product concepts and to rank order these concepts according to their preferences. In addition, information was collected to capture the individual's sex role orientation, importance of the decision, and perception of influence across the product attributes. The second phase of the study, which immediately followed the first phase, was a joint decision task in which husbands and wives were asked to jointly rank order their preferences. The session took about 50 minutes to complete. If couples could not agree, they were allowed to stop the interview, but only after attempting to resolve any conflict.



The primary measurement variables are summarized in Tables 1 and 2. An index of husband/wife similarity was developed and used as criteria on which the households were classified. Specifically, the index was calculated by defining household cognitive structure (HCSI) as:



HsWs =Husband/wife sex role orientation

HpiWpi =Husband and Wife perception of influence

HdiWdi=Husband and wife decision importance

If the HCSI is greater than .55 the family was classified as cognitively different and if the HCSI is less than .45 the household was classified as cognitively similar. Those households that fell in between .45 and .55 were excluded from the final sample. Only three households fell in the middle, reducing the original sample to 60 households.

Previous research has relied heavily on a single measure of conflict. In the present study, the construct of conflict is based on multiple measures which were calculated from the information obtained from key theoretical variables measured with paper and pencil tests.

1) Overall relative influence -- is calculated as the difference between the correlations between husbands' and wives' perceptions of influence.

2) First Choice -- is determined by the difference between the correlation of husbands' first choice preferences and wives' first choice preferences.

3) Overt Conflict -- is the difference between the correlation of the product evaluations produced individually by the husband and wife.



4) Cognitive Conflict -- is the difference between the correlations of the perceptions husbands/wives hold of how their spouses would rank order product concepts and the rankings produced individually by the husband and wife.

5) Husbands' Conflict -- is the difference between the correlation of husbands' product concept evaluations and joint household preference rankings.

6) Wives' Conflict -- is the difference between the correlations of wives' product concept evaluations and joint household preference rankings.

The final set of measures employed in the present study was that of conflict resolution mode. A multiple measure of conflict resolution is employed to tap both the objective and subjective dimensions. A 20 item scale was developed and tested to confirm the strategies used, specifically, four modes of conflict resolution were hypothesized a priori to exist:

1) Competition - represents attempts by a spouse to completely dominate a decision.

2) Concession - involves a spouse adhering to the preferences of the other spouse either unconditionally or conditionally in return for some future consideration.

3) Bargaining - efforts by husbands and wives to achieve a balance between their original individual preference positions.

4) Avoidance-Withdrawal - refers to inactivity or lack of action on a decision issue.

5) Capitulation-is defined when one spouse gives in to the pre ferences of the other, which was operationalized as the correlations between a spouse's individual preferences and spouses'with their joint preferences.

6) Compromise occurs when neither the first choice of the husband or wife is chosen jointly as the household choice.

Canonical correlation is used to evaluate the nature of the conflict relationship and examine the hypothesis that husbands and wives with similar cognitive structures will exhibit less conflict than those spouses with dissimilar cognitive structures. It is especially suited for examining phenomena which incoporate multiple dependent variables and multiple independent variables.


Tables 2 and 3 provides an illustration of the results of the canonical correlation analysis used to test hypothesis 1. As indicated in Tables 2 and 3, the first canonical variate is made up largely of husbands' and wives' perception of influence for cognitively similar husbands and wives with a corresponding canonical correlation of .80.

Conversely, for dissimilar husband/wife households, the first canonical variate is determined by husbands' and wives' product preferences, with a canonical correlation of .53. As expected, husband/wife similar households exhibit less conflict than husband/wife dissimilar households. Stated another way, in husband/wife similar households, husbands and wives share similar perceptions of the levels of influence, first choices, product preferences, and spousal preferences.

For husband/wife similar households, the major discrepancy lies with the perception of influence and how it should be distributed between husbands and wives, while husband/wife different households disagree on the preference rankings between husbands and wives.

Table 4 presents the results of the canonical correlations used to test hypotheses 2. The predictive canonical variate is based mainly on husbands' and wives' perception of influence (.708), wives' conflict (.626), and husbands' conflict (.606). The first canonical variate is largely determined by the perception of decision importance perceived by husbands and wives (-.824), and their joint preference rankings (-.676). The canonical correlation is .967, which when squared suggests that the level of explanatory power is .93 percent. It appears that as the level of decision importance increases and joint decision behavior takes place, households experience the greatest conflict between husbands' and wives' perceptions of household influence, and husband and wife conflict over individual preferences. The fact that discrepancies between husbands' and wives' perception of influence is larger than the correlation between wife and husband conflict provides support for hypothesis 2.

Examination of the second canonical variate suggests the overt conflict (-.695) and wives' conflict (.578) are correlated at the .805 level primarily with husbands' preference rankings (.615). As Table 2 illustrates the second dependent variate is mostly composed of overt conflict, wives' conflict, and conflict between husbands' and wives' perceptions of influence. The source of this conflict appears to be related to the husbands' preference rankings, with approximately 64 percent of the unexplained variance captured. The results suggest that there is a large discrepancy between wives' preference rankings and the final choice, which closely resemble husbands initial choices.

The one underlying theme observed in the results is the dominant role that wives' conflict, cognitive conflict and overt conflict play in determining the level of household conflict. Conversely, the effect of first choice differences between husbands and wives is minimal and almost nonexistent beyond the first canonical variate.

The second hypothesis examines the extent of cognitive conflict exhibited through first choice differences, as a measure of household conflict, when compared to alternative measures of conflict. Although the first choice measure (.615) contributed to the power of the overall measure of conflict, it did not act as the dominant or sole source of household conflict. Beyond first choices significant conflict occurs as a result of differences between individual spousal preference positions and the joint household decision. Such results also provide support for the hypothesis and the contention that multiple measures of conflict are better suited for measuring the true extent of house hold conflict. The use of multiple measures reveals a high level of conflict in household decision behavior. This contradicts the findings of earlier studies which relied on more objective measures such as the differences between first choices.


Figure 2 illustrates the results of the canonical correlation analysis performed to test hypothesis 3. As Figure 2 illustrates there is a strong correlation between the mode of conflict resolution and the characteristics of husbands and wives from both husband/wife similar and husband/wife different households. For husband/wife similar households, the conflict resolution mode of bargaining is largely determined by the level of decision importance perceived by husbands and wives. This is to say that the more important the decision is to the household, the more likely bargaining will be employed to resolve conflicts between husband and wife preferences.







Conversely, for husband/wife different households, the most common form of conflict resolution appears to be capitulation and avoidance-withdrawal, largely determined by the importance of the decision to wives' and husbands' perception of influence. While avoidance-withdrawal and capitulation are the conflict resolution modes of choice for husband/wife different households, concession, bargaining and compromise are also used frequently to resolve household conflicts. Given these results, only partial support can be claimed for hypotheses 3a and 3b.


The results presented in the analysis of the study's hypotheses are strongly supportive of the premise that significant conflict exists in most household decisions involving the joint participation of two or more family members. The hypothesis that differences in husbands' and wives' similarity/dissimilarity affect the degree of household conflict, which constituted the premise of this study, is supported.

The present study developed and tested a framework to capture the nature of household conflict and conflict resolution. Husband and wife interaction as the result of household conflict causes family members to consider information and decision criteria that they may not have considered individually. The process of how husbands and wives make decisions is related to the strategies a household uses to resolve conflict. The research described here suggests that the role of cognitive processes of husbands and wives in household decision making remains to be understood.


A complete set of references are available upon request from the authors.

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