An Emotion-Based Perspective of Family Purchase Decisions

Jonghee Park, Dong-guk University, South Korea
Patriya Tansuhaj, Washington State University
Eric R. Spangenberg, Washington State University
Jim McCullough, Washington State University
ABSTRACT - Consumer behavior literature has largely ignored the role of emotion in family decision making in favor of more rational, economic based models of this process. This paper proposes and describes the components of a model incorporating emotion into the family decision making process. The model is based on the overarching proposition that emotion influences decisions by changing the relative influence of marital partners at various stages in the decision process.
[ to cite ]:
Jonghee Park, Patriya Tansuhaj, Eric R. Spangenberg, and Jim McCullough (1995) ,"An Emotion-Based Perspective of Family Purchase Decisions", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, eds. Frank R. Kardes and Mita Sujan, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 723-728.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, 1995      Pages 723-728


Jonghee Park, Dong-guk University, South Korea

Patriya Tansuhaj, Washington State University

Eric R. Spangenberg, Washington State University

Jim McCullough, Washington State University


Consumer behavior literature has largely ignored the role of emotion in family decision making in favor of more rational, economic based models of this process. This paper proposes and describes the components of a model incorporating emotion into the family decision making process. The model is based on the overarching proposition that emotion influences decisions by changing the relative influence of marital partners at various stages in the decision process.

"The more experience I have had, the more I am convinced that far more of life is governed by automatic emotional forces than man is willing to acknowledge (Bowen 1976, p. 60)."

This statement exemplifies the thoughts of many regarding the importance of emotion in human lives. Recent consumer behavior research has begun to examine feelings and emotions as elements influencing all aspects of human behavior (e.g., Allen, Machleit and Kleine 1992; Gardner 1985; Hirschman and Holbrook 1982; Holbrook, Chestnut, Oliva and Greenleaf 1984; Westbrook and Oliver 1991). The role of emotion in family purchase decisions has, however, been explored only minimally. Most studies of family decision making assume decisions are made in a rational manner by choosing among alternative courses of action with little regard for emotional factors. Park, Tansuhaj and Kolbe (1991, p. 651) offered a richer description of human interactions in a family setting:

"The relationships between family members which create notions of hearth and home are centered on the deep-seated affection members have for one another. The implications of such interpersonal affection pervades all family decisions."

Although often neglected by consumer behavior researchers, emotion-related constructs (such as love, affection, sympathy, anger and guilt) have taken a prominent place in the study of marriage and family relationships in other disciplines (e.g., Gottman and Levenson 1986; Sprecher 1986; Kerr and Bowen 1988).

This study suggests how the family purchase decision-making process and its outcomes are influenced by emotions. Specifically, we review the literature relevant to emotion and family decisions from various disciplines and propose relationships between emotion and the family purchase decision process in order to guide future research.

In this study, we refer to the family unit as consisting of the husband and wife. Future studies should extend this emphasis on emotion to include children who also play an important role in decision processes. Here, the decision process is seen as varying by product, depending upon the importance of, or preference for, a particular product to each spouse, (cf., Corfman and Lehmann 1987; Ekstrom et al. 1987; Gupta, et al. 1983).


Previous Lack of Emotional Emphasis

Past family decision research has focused on issues such as: Who influences the decision (e.g., Cosenza and Davis 1981; Davis 1970; Ekstrom, Tansuhaj and Foxman 1989; Kelly and Egan 1969; O'Conner, Sullivan and Pogorzelsk 1985; Qualls 1982, 1984; Woodside 1975), or who makes the decision (e.g., Brinberg and Schwenk 1985; Davis 1971; Green and Cunningham 1975; Imperia, O'Guinn and MacAdams 1985; Munsinger, Weber and Hansen 1975; Sharp and Mott 1956; Walgast 1958; Wilkes 1975). Although a few studies have attempted to explain the entire decision making process such as Qualls' (1984) sex-role oriented model, Corfman and Lehmann's (1987) power-based group decision-making models, and Sheth's (1974) family decision model, research has not emphasized the role of emotion in joint family decisions. Emotional relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, or among family members have been disregarded in decision process modeling.

Previous studies of group decision processes are influenced primarily by theories from sociology and economics (e.g., exchange theory, game theory, resource theory, and power theory), and focused more on non-family settings such as business and government. It is assumed the decision maker in these cases is rational, acting without emotion, and focused on efficiency or maximization of personal utility. These assumptions may hold for corporate entities making relatively impersonal decisions. Among families, however, familial goals, values and emotional needs certainly influence decisions. Park, Tansuhaj and Kolbe (1991) strongly suggested this in discussion of the care taking, nurturing and socialization roles of the family. Relative importance is viewed herein as the level of motivation to acquire a product or service derived from the product or service's ability to satisfy individual wants (Seymour and Lessne 1984). Each individual, husband and wife, is likely to hold different perceptions of importance for products because of different beliefs, values, and traits that individuals bring to a decision situation. Thus, emotion will likely be a factor in familial decision processes moderated by relative importance of the decision.

Although underresearched, there has been increasing attention toward emotion in marketing focusing on responses to products, advertisements, or emotion as an individual experience (e.g., Allen et al. 1992; Hirschman and Holbrook 1982; Westbrook and Oliver 1991). More closely related to the familial decision process are a few studies that explore components such as interpersonal needs (Seymour and Lessne 1984), empathy (Burns 1977; Burns and Granbois 1976), and support relationships (Corfman and Lehman 1987). Emotional need as a construct, however, has not been fully conceptualized and/or operationalized. For example, Burns (1977) conceptualized empathy as the ability to accurately recognize other's thoughts, feelings, and actions, and operationalized the construct as cognitive ability, rather than as an emotional response. One of the primary assumptions in previous studies of the family decision-making process was that each family member employs an economic model of rational or cognitive decision making, not taking into consideration how they are affected by personal feelings. That assumption, however, fails to incorporate the basic idea that humans are not wholly rational decision makers, but operate through emotion with its different rules and processes (Gelles and Straus 1979).

Similarly, little attention has been given to the family setting of these interactions. Family members, with intimate contact over extended periods of time, form strong emotional bonds (positive or negative). The emotional bond developed in a family relationship will undoubtedly influence the decision process and its outcomes. Emotional constructs (such as love, affection, sympathy, anger and guilt) may be associated with several stages of the family purchase decision making process.


Several terms are used to describe the effects of emotion on consumers. Among others, research on emotion has addressed the issues of how emotions change as physiological or bodily sensations change (Izard 1977; Tomkins 1982); how emotions have evolved (Hamburg 1963; Scott 1980); and emotions as psychological phenomena (Arieti 1970; Brenner 1980). This paper views emotion as an inclusive label viewing feelings, sentiments, and moods as states of emotional experience.

Several studies have attempted to clarify emotions at the individual level (Fehr and Russell 1984; Shaver and Schwartz 1984). An important issue in this area is whether or not some emotions are primary, or more fundamental (innate of biological nature) than others, or whether all emotions may be socially constructed as pride and shame are (Kemper 1987). Primary emotions proposed by many researchers include fear, anger, sadness, loneliness, joy, love, anxiety, satisfaction, and disgust (Epstein 1984, Fehr and Russel 1984, Plutchink 1980, and Scott 1980). Kemper (1987) proposed guilt, shame and pride as socially constructed emotions. The constructs of love, guilt, and shame are normally posited as emotional states. No less impactful, however, are emotional traits C personality characteristics that can vary across individuals in relationships. Empathy is one such trait that is of particular interest to researchers in the area of family decision processes. Because they occur more intensely in family settings than in other relationships or settings, this paper focuses on the emotional constructs of love, guilt and shame, and on the emotional trait of empathy. Conceptual definitions of the above emotions and explanations for how they may influence family decision making will be provided.

Positive and Negative Emotions

A recent study divided emotions broadly into two dominant, and relatively independent groups: 1) positive, and 2) negative (Watson, Clark and Tellegen 1988, p. 1063). They described positive emotion as "an energized and alert state of mind" and negative emotion as a state of "distress or aversive moods".

Previous studies have found that negative emotions are related to high stress and poor coping (Watson and Clark 1988; Schafer and Lazarus 1981), health complaints (Beiser 1974), frequency of unpleasant events (Stone 1981), and the use of coercion or withdrawal during interpersonal conflict (Downey and Coyne 1990). Attribution researchers have found that couples who experience more negative experiences are more likely to make casual attributions that undermine or neutralize positive spousal behavior and accentuate the impact of negative behaviors (e.g., Zelen 1987).

Averill (1982) reported that most people experience anger from several times a day to several times a week. In a later study, Averill (1983) showed that the target for one's anger was usually either a loved one or a friend. He suggested that people are more likely to become angry at friends and loved ones than at strangers, and disliked others because of more frequent contacts and a strong tendency to respond to the loved one's anger. This behavioral target and frequency suggests ample evidence that the state of negative emotions can influence an individual's attitude and behavior, or influence the decision process and respective outcomes in a family setting.

Positive emotions are related to social activity and satisfaction (Watson 1988). Isen and Means (1982) found that subjects holding positive affect tend to use less information in decision making and are more likely to ignore information considered unimportant. They also found that subjects experiencing positive-affect are likely to use the strategy of "elimination by aspects" (eliminating from further consideration alternatives that did not meet a criterion on a single selected important dimension). Thus, although limited, existing evidence and logic suggest that positive emotions may also influence the process of decision making in a family environment since families are groups of individuals.

An important positive emotion influencing familial decisions is that of love. Diverse, and often conflicting, views exist concerning love. Freud (1955) viewed love as one's sexuality and sexual desires which have been converted by social and cultural norms from a primitive state to an acceptable state. Thus, he suggested that the emotion of love be viewed as an instinctive sexual desire. Fromm (1956), on the other hand, saw love as a need for overcoming separateness from others which is a source of guilt, shame, and anxiety. Because of these uneasy feelings, it was suggested that people try to maintain a close love relationship. A view developed later by Rubin (1973) conceptualized love more broadly as consisting of affiliative and dependent need, a predisposition to help, and exclusiveness and absorption; this conceptualization was adopted for our paper. Characteristics of love identified in previous studies imply that it is a critical variable in family decision making. For example, when a couple disagrees, the spouse more in love is likely to avoid engaging in conflict to maintain family solidarity. Therefore, it is reasonable to expect that the greater the feeling of love, the greater level of the consensus and joint decision making between husband and wife, because one spouse may be oriented toward subordinating his or her (decision) interests, and this orientation creates the environment of the joint decision making.

The negative emotions of guilt and shame occur during negative self-evaluation when an individual realizes his/her behavior does not conform to a given moral value (Ausubel 1955). Fromm (1956) suggested guilt and shame as a state of tension or anxiety caused by a loss of self-love or self-respect. Homans (1974) and Walster, et al. (1978) argued that guilt and shame are experienced by the family member who over-benefits in a relationship. The person who experiences guilt and shame tends to be depressed, and shows low self-esteem (Hoblitzelle 1987). According to attribution theory, it is suggested that the painful feeling and low self-esteem resulting from guilt or shame may be attributed to the partner (e.g., "how could you make me feel that way"), which, in turn, leads one to reject or disagree with their spouse's suggestions. Feelings of shame and guilt may lead one to withdraw from joint decision making.


Shott (1984) described empathy as the ability to assume another's mental position and feeling; the ability to cognitively predict the thoughts, feelings and situations of another individual. Mehrabian and Epstein (1972) perceived empathy as emotional involvement in others' feelings. Several studies have demonstrated that empathy is a significant motivator of altruistic behavior (e.g., Aronfreed 1968; Krebs 1975). This construct could explain why Rodman's (1972) resource theory does not explain family decision making processes adequately. According to this theory, individuals with more resources have more decision making power. For example, if one spouse has more education than the other, the more educated spouse should have more decision power. Yet, empathy from the more educated spouse could alter the manifestation of this power balance. That is, the potential for use of power may exist, yet not be exercised.




It is apparent that the inclusion of the construct of emotion would further explain family decision making beyond existing research assumes rationality. Stages in the family decision model are adapted from Qualls' (1987) model, with the addition of the degree of conflict. Possible relationships between emotion and components or stages of the family decision process are discussed in this section. Elements include: Relative Importance, Preference Agreement, Conflict, Conflict Resolution, and Decision Outcome. Figure 1 shows posited relationships of these constructs within the family decision-making process. The arrows in the Figure show hypothesized relationships between emotion and relevant constructs discussed below. A plus sign indicates a direct relationship and a negative sign indicates an indirect relationship. In the interest of clarity, interactions between emotions and traits are not included.

Preference Agreement

Corfman and Lehmann (1987) found that individual preference is the most important variable in predicting who makes decisions. It can reasonably be assumed that each spouse's attitudes and values are developed and formed in different family backgrounds. These discrepancies can be sources of preference discord between spouses. When there is an incongruity of preference, a spouse can try to influence or control to get his or her way, or follow his or her partner's way. Thus, the difference existing between spouses' individual preferences will influence the degree of conflict and decision outcome. It is suggested that the level of preference agreement is affected by a spouse's emotions. Thus, two propositions are:

P1.1: The level of preference agreement is positively influenced by love and empathy.

P1.2: The level of preference agreement is negatively related to guilt and shame.


Two persons living together are likely to face disagreement and conflict. When each spouse influences or exercises power to achieve their respective preferences, conflicts arise. Here, degree of conflict is conceptualized as the level of disagreement resulting from different philosophies and values, and the initiation of a joint purchase decision. Degree of conflict is related to the direction and intensity of emotions experienced. Frequent past disagreements may influence the marital relationship negatively, which in turn, will create more negative emotions. The experience of these negative emotions reinforces a spouse to maintain their preference and, as a result, enter into more disagreement or conflict. Related propositions are thus:

P2.1: Degree of conflict is negatively related to love, and empathy.

P2.2: Degree of conflict is positively related to guilt and shame.

Conflict Resolution

When a couple encounters disagreements or conflict of any sort, they will desire resolution before a decision can be reached. Conflict resolution refers to methods used by spouses in resolving a joint purchase conflict. It is expected that the mode of conflict resolution is influenced by the emotions experienced. It is reasonable to expect that with greater positive emotion and love experienced, less threatening conflict resolution will be implemented in the decision process. Coercion (punishments, threats, and authority) will occur when negative emotions are present as principal emotions and will not be found when love, and empathy dominate. Similarly, avoidance (withdrawal and egocentrism) should not accompany positive emotions, love, and empathy, but would be more common with negative emotion, guilt, and shame. Three propositions are then stated according to Nelson's (1988) conflict resolution type:

P3.1: The use of coercion (punishments, threats, and authority) is negatively related to love, and empathy.

P3.2: The use of coercion is positively related to guilt, and shame.

P3.3: The use of avoidance (withdrawal and egocentrism) is negatively related to love, and empathy.

Decision Outcome

Decision outcome has been conceptualized in previous studies as relative influence on the purchase within the family (cf., Burns and Granbois 1977; Qualls 1987). Information as to who influences, and who makes decisions, regarding purchases within families is very important to market researchers and the development of marketing strategies. Family decision process researchers have attempted to measure similar concepts as dependent variables although different terminology has been used. Relative influence between spouses is likely to relate to the intensity of emotion. In households where both spouses experience positive emotion or romantic love, couples are more likely to make final decisions jointly. Positive emotion, love and empathy in the family may result in more joint decisions, as opposed to individual member decision-making dominance, while negative emotion, guilt, and shame in the family may result in fewer joint decisions. Thus,

P4.1: Greater love and empathy in the family will result in more joint decisions, as opposed to individual dominated decision-making.

P4.2: More guilt, and shame in the family will result in fewer joint decisions and more individual dominated decision-making.


Theoretical Contribution

Adding emotional constructs to the existing family decision making paradigm will provide further explanation for the complex set of phenomena in family settings. The introduction of emotions will help researchers look at different perspectives of the family, not only the rational aspects of a family. A family decision-making model describing decision processes and outcomes is proposed and propositions intended to measure how emotions influence decision processes and outcomes are suggested. An associated theoretical contribution would be new research directions such as the influence of parental emotions on children's purchase behavior and the influence of family socialization on children's emotional responses to products.

Practical Contribution

Sheth (1974) suggested that knowledge about family decision-making processes would be beneficial for marketers in persuading the appropriate decision-maker(s) or obtaining valid data about family preferences, intentions, or behaviors. Understanding the roles of emotion in family decision making might be helpful for marketers trying to predict attitudes and behavioral orientations of family members. This information would also help marketers select more effective marketing strategies (e.g., appeals of emotion rather than those emphasizing tangible attributes). For example, if negative emotions significantly affect processing information about tangible attributes of products, one could develop strategies to induce positive emotions within relationships. Similarly, if emotions are important factors in family purchase decision making, consumer contact people (e.g., retail salespersons, psychiatrists, and social workers) should recognize families' emotional levels, and attempt to produce and maintain positive emotional states in families by developing emotion-management skills for successful interpersonal interaction.


This paper offers thoughts on issues which are under-researched in the marketing discipline; we have discussed the importance of emotion in influencing family decision making processes. Researchers are urged to examine this topic further for empirical support of the propositions in our paper. Further conceptual work is needed to link emotion to other constructs (such as consumer socialization, sex roles, and family consumption values). These constructs incorporate the role of emotion of children and how they interact with those of the parents. Cross-cultural examinations of the aforementioned topics should also be given research attention. Additionally, the type of emotion displayed by each spouse and how it changes throughout the decision process will effect extent of information search, advertising effectiveness, timing and outcome of the decision, and post-purchase behaviors. Thus, marketing practitioners also stand to benefit from a more in-depth understanding of emotional influence on family purchasing and consumption.


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