Spousal Involvement and Empathy in Jointly-Resolved and Authoritatively-Resolved Purchase Subdecisions

Alvin C. Burns, University of West Florida
ABSTRACT - Unique characteristics of spousal involvement and empathy in product-feature subdecisions are discussed and depicted on an involvement-empathy graph. A general relationship between spouses' locations on the graph and mutually designated joint subdecisions is described. A similar, but opposite association with recognized authority subdecisions is presented. Implications are discussed.
[ to cite ]:
Alvin C. Burns (1976) ,"Spousal Involvement and Empathy in Jointly-Resolved and Authoritatively-Resolved Purchase Subdecisions", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 03, eds. Beverlee B. Anderson, Cincinnati, OH : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 199-207.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, 1976      Pages 199-207


Alvin C. Burns, University of West Florida


Unique characteristics of spousal involvement and empathy in product-feature subdecisions are discussed and depicted on an involvement-empathy graph. A general relationship between spouses' locations on the graph and mutually designated joint subdecisions is described. A similar, but opposite association with recognized authority subdecisions is presented. Implications are discussed.


The study of husband and wife purchase decision-making has progressed significantly in the past five years. Quite recently, Safilios-Rothschild (1970) criticized work in the area for its naive conceptualizations, methodological inconsistencies, and lack of sensitivity to process. Similar views were expressed by Davis (1970) and Granbois (1971). Largely as a result of these constructive criticisms, there has come about an increase in activity yielding a host of empirical studies, which, although fragmented, has served to restructure thinking about husband and wife decision-making to a considerable degree. For example, the existence of dimensions and stages in spousal purchase decision-making has been documented (Davis, 1970; Davis and Rigaux, 1974); attention has been focused on husband and wife role structure as it varies across product types and decision categories (Davis, 1970; Ferber and Nicosia, 1972; Hempel, 1974; Woodside, 1974); new techniques have been applied to the measurement of perception and influence (Davis, 1971; Ferber and Lee, 1974; Hempel, 1974) and fresh conceptualizations have been suggested (Scott, 1970; Sheth, 1971; Granbois, 1972).

Very recent studies have placed attention on antecedent conditions or determinants of husband and wife role structure. Hempel (1974) and Woodside (1974) have investigated relationships between family role structure and demographics, prior decision-making experiences, and/or psychographics, particularly in the identification of syncratic and spouse-dominant decision areas. While significant associations were found in isolated cases, both authors report considerable unexplained variation and recommend further research. The present study responds by concentrating on predictor variables which are hypothesized to characterize joint and spouse-dominant purchase decision areas. For the purpose of this study, the basic unit of analysis is the point at which spouses settle differences between their first choice preferences for a product feature or subdecision. Justification for concentrating on this phase of the process, i.e., the final choice, is derived from two sources. Logic suggests that it is the juncture wherein a number of forces must interact in order to determine an ultimate choice, if possible. Thus, one might expect to find the maximum impact of determining factors at this point in the husband and wife purchase decision-making process. Moreover, studies (Davis and Rigaux, 1974, for example) have determined that this stage has unique properties.

Use of product-related decision areas is consistent with the trend toward breaking a generic product purchase decision down into more specific subdecisions. Davis (1970) and Woodside (1974), for example, have discussed the subdecisions involved with automobile as well as rugs and carpet purchases; Hempel (1974) has treated the housing purchase decision in a similar manner, as have Munsinger, Weber, and Hansen (1975). The present study utilizes thirty-nine product feature decisions which represent a sampling of wife-associated, husband-associated, and joint decision areas. Several automobile and television subdecisions were purposely included as part of a larger study. The remaining subdecisions pertain to purchases ranging from housing decisions to clothing decisions. All share a common theme, however, in that the family budget would be affected by the product purchase. (See Table 1 for a listing of the thirty-nine subdecisions.)


Three husband and wife decision-making variables are discussed in this paper. The three variables are: involvement, empathy, and recognized authority. Each variable has been treated in some respect as a determinant or characteristic of husband and wife preference discrepancy resolution; however, none has been subjected to extensive empirical investigation in the author's knowledge.

Involvement pertains to the importance of the subdecision outcome to the individual spouse. The variable is stated in personal terms (i.e., "How important is it to me .... ") and is assumed to be an element contributing to the tenacity with which a spouse defends his or her first choice. Origins of this factor are evident in Morgan (1961) who discusses the strength of a spouse's preferences as derived from the expected subjective utility of the anticipated outcome of the decision. Similar constructs have been suggested as factors affecting husband-wife purchase decision-making outcomes by Brown (1961), Heer (1963) and Granbois (1971). Pollay (1968) incorporates involvement as a process variable in his model of family decision making. In sum, involvement or importance is well established from a theoretical standpoint.

The second variable in this study is a variable which has also been conceptualized as a determinant of a spouse's strength of preference. Empathy pertains to the importance to the individual that his or her spouse's preferences are accounted for in the final product feature choice. While this factor has not received theoretical development commensurate with the involvement variable, empathy has been discussed by Morgan (1961). Clawson (1961) outlines its role in family decision making, while Pollay (1968) has an expanded treatment in his model. He explicitly takes into account the effects of vicariously-derived spousal satisfaction on the decision-making process.

The final variable under study in this paper is recognized authority, defined to be the mutually understood right of one spouse to resolve disagreement between the spouses' first choices. The recognized authority concept differs somewhat from the usual procedures for the identification of spouse-dominant decision areas. Generally, inferences have been drawn from spouses' statements of anticipated influence distributions (for example: Davis, 1970), recollections (for example: Hempel, 1974) or direct monitoring (Kenkel, 1957). Recognized authority in the current usage pertains to acknowledged decision-making authority in response to the question, "In your own family, who has the right to make the final decision ...?" It is intended to designate mutually acknowledged legitimate authority (or joint) subdecisions rather than inferred ones.


The data for this study were obtained as part of a larger study on husband and wife preference discrepancy resolution conducted during the spring of 1972. The original study secured the written responses and tape-recorded discussions of 101 married couples who were invited to participate in a behavioral laboratory study concerned with husband and wife purchase decision processes. During the first phase of the study the spouses responded separately to a series of identical questionnaires. At one point they were required to designate which (husband, wife, together, or neither one), in that spouse's opinion, was the most probable mode that would be used to resolve differences between their first choice preferences in each of the thirty-nine product-related subdecision areas. Upon completion of the questionnaires, spouses separately performed a card sorting task which comprised the involvement and empathy instrument. Spouses were required to place each of the thirty nine product-related subdecision cards in labeled slots corresponding to the spouse's belief with respect to the importance that his or her preferences should be reflected in the couple's designated final choice (involvement). A second set of the randomly ordered decision area cards was also sorted by each participant according to the importance to that individual that his or her spouse's preferences be reflected in the couple's designated final choice (empathy). The sorting responses were assumed to be equivalent to paper-and-pencil responses on an eleven-point scale, and use of the coded cards reduced keypunching time and error.


Standardized scores were computed for each spouse's responses to the thirty-nine product feature subdecisions on the eleven-point importance scale in order to translate them from an absolute to a relative basis. The z-score transformation converts raw scores into standard units of distance away from a spouse's mean score for the thirty-nine decision areas: the transformed values have a mean of zero and unit standard deviation. Direct comparisons between spouses are more meaningful with the use of z-scores as the issue is whether or not the individual is more involved or more empathic with one decision area relative to other decision areas. Thus, personal dispositions are eliminated as comparisons are based on variability.

Spousal group averages and standard deviations were computed for each of the thirty-nine subdecisions. These are presented in Table 1 and Table 2 arranged in descending order of husbands' involvement averages. In the case of the husbands' average involvement levels, the values range from a low of -1.38 to a high of 1.48, while the wives' averages denote a slightly narrower range from -1.27 to 1.23. A different pattern characterizes the empathy averages with the husbands group presenting a range from -1.22 to 1.08 and the wives group averages ranging from -1.36 to .94. It is interesting to note that even though the empathy ranges are identical in width (2.3 standard deviations), the husbands group defines a higher range than the wives group. Multivariate tests of the significance of differences between and within group means on eleven of the automobile related subdecisions has been reported elsewhere (Burns, 1973; Burns and Granbois, 1975). Significant differences were found at the .001 level between the husbands group means and the wives group means for both involvement and empathy. Within each group and for each variable, significant differences at the .01 level were evident between a number of the subdecisions. It was observed that well-defined multiple levels of involvement and empathy exist for both spousal groups.

Pearson product-moment correlation coefficients were computed for the spousal averages to ascertain the degree of association between the variables. Table 3 reveals that no significant correlation exists between husbands' and wives' average involvement with the thirty-nine subdecisions. Spouses' empathy levels are associated in a moderate negative sense. There is, however, high positive correlation between husbands' involvement with the subdecisions and wives' empathy for husbands' preferences in these subdecisions. Similarly, wives' involvement levels are highly correlated with husbands' empathy levels. Thus it appears that whereas spouses exhibit different responses on the same variable, they are quite compatible across variables, for either spouse's involvement tends to be closely matched with the other spouse's empathy.

Attention was next focused on analysis of the recognized authority responses. Table 4 contains the results of this analysis (the thirty-nine subdecisions are listed in the same order as Tables 1 and 2 to facilitate comparisons). It is important to bring to the reader's attention that the percentages in the table indicate mutually designated response modes, i.e., both spouses indicated the same response. The "other" category refers to a mixed pair such as one spouse indicating "joint" and the other spouse indicating "wife." As expected, the subdecisions present a mix of mutually designated husband-authority, wife-authority, and joint decision areas. Considering only the modal category of these three, there are six decision areas in which the husband is the recognized authority spouse (numbers 4, 5, 9, 15, 19 and 29), eight areas in which the wife is the recognized authority spouse (numbers 30, 32, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38 and 39), and twenty-five areas which are mutually designated as requiring joint resolution (remaining numbers). It is noteworthy that almost all of the husband-authority subdecisions pertain to the family automobile and many of the recognized wife-authority product feature decision areas pertain to homemaking products. The joint decisions, on the other hand, are a more diverse set, as no common theme is discernible at this stage of the analysis. The findings are in large part dictated by the original set of subdecisions, of course, and it is tenuous to generalize at this time. Nevertheless, many of the percentages do support previous findings based upon influence distributions, dominance indices, or observation (see, for example: Kenkel, 1957; Davis, 1971; Woodside, 1972; Davis and Rigaux, 1974; or Hempel, 1974).

An effort was next undertaken to investigate the existence of an association between spousal involvement, empathy, and the designated resolution mode. Visual comparison of Tables 1, 2 and 4 suggests that some relationship does exist between the variables, as the recognized authority mode tends to be matched with low involvement for the nonauthority spouse. At the same time, the authority spouse often indicates low empathy for the nonauthority spouse's preferences. Identification of a clear pattern is hampered, however, by the range of percentages. In an effort to translate involvement and empathy levels into a more graphic form, preliminary analysis entailed plotting husband and wife positions on a two-dimensional graph utilizing involvement and empathy as independent axes. Such a presentation is defensible inasmuch as the association between the two variables for the wives' averages was not significantly different from zero correlation at the .01 level. The husbands' average levels, one will recall, did yield a correlation coefficient which was above the cutoff value at the .01 level. The association was found to be moderate; thus, distortion for husbands' positions is slight. It is reported elsewhere that eleven decision areas support the hypothesis of independence of the two variates for both spousal groups (Burns, 1973; Burns and Granbois, 1975).



The spousal positions are presented in Figure 1 which portrays several of the findings reported earlier. Each spousal group average coordinate is located on the dimensions and connected to the corresponding (other) spousal group coordinate with a line. The numbers beside pertain to the numbers assigned to each subdecision in Tables 1, 2 and 4. Almost without exception the lines slope down and to the right which is the arrangement suggested by the high positive correlations and range comparisons described in the previous discussion. Plainly stated, one spouse tends to exhibit greater involvement than the other spouse in any given subdecision, but the less involved spouse is more empathic. This pattern holds regardless of whether the husband or the wife is more involved.

Presumably the less involved, more empathic spouse assumes a passive role in the decision-making process. However, while Figure 1 depicts involvement and empathy configurations, it is difficult to make direct comparisons between these dispositions and the recognized preference discrepancy resolution mode for a particular subdecision. Interpretation is further confused by some lines which cut across quadrants and others which are contained within a single quadrant. It is apparent that some subdecisions are quite similar with respect to both their perceived importance and the degree to which the spouse's preferences are important. For example, the







"How much to spend on your next summer vacation" (number 11) decision is located approximately in the same place by both spouses in the positive involvement-positive empathy quadrant. Other subdecisions represent quite dissimilar positions: the "Capacity of a new washer-dryer" (number 38) is a good example. The decision was made to use the Euclidean distance measure (squared) as an index of the proximity of spousal positions on the two dimensions. This distance measure is in common use and is applicable even if the variables are correlated (Green and Tull, 1970).

Squared Euclidean distances were computed between the spousal group average z-scores for each of the thirty-nine subdecision areas. Correlation coefficients were computed to assess the association between the squared distances and the percent of the sample which mutually designated a joint decision and the percent which indicated an authority spouse (either one). These coefficients were found to be -.83 and .95 respectively, revealing two strong and opposite linear relationships significant at the .01 level. Both of these associations are readily apparent in Figures 2a and 2b. In the instance of the comparison of the distance measure with the percentage of the sample which mutually designated the preference discrepancy resolution mode as joint, the likelihood of joint resolution diminishes rapidly as the distance between the spousal positions increases. Alternatively stated, one can see that the more similar the spousal positions on the two variables, the more likely the resolution of any preference discrepancies will take the form of joint participation. Thus, regardless of whether both spouses are greatly involved (empathic) or minimally involved (empathic) with the outcome of a particular product-related decision, joint decision making will tend to be reported as long as they occupy similar empathy (involvement) dispositions. Conversely, mutually designated joint preference discrepancy resolution is indicative of similar dispositions, although the precise location on the dimensions is not suggested. The diagram also points out that the relationship is probably nonlinear rather than linear.



The recognized authority percentages and associated distances yield a pattern which complements the one found in the previous comparison. While the points are somewhat more scattered, it is nonetheless clear that the likelihood of a mutually agreed recognized authority figure increases directly with the distance between the spousal involvement and empathy positions. Those product feature decisions which are mutually designated as under the legitimate authority of one spouse (either one) are characterized by large differences between each spouse's perception of the importance of the outcome and the degree of vicarious satisfaction anticipated. Considering other findings in this study, it is also proper to expect that the authority spouse will be more highly involved and less empathic than the non-authority spouse.






It is necessary to preface this section with a description of the sample as it was secured with a nonrandom procedure. Consequently, knowledge of its demographic characteristics will serve to temper comments. The sample conforms to what one might expect would result from a voluntary participation in a study conducted in a mid-western city with a large university population. The average husband age was thirty-nine years, while the average wife age was thirty-seven years. These means exhibited large standard deviations of 10 and 9.5 years respectively. Both spouses were typically college graduates, and the average length of marriage was fifteen and one-half years. Married couples with husbands who were full-time students were not allowed to participate in the study. Substantial variance was found in the sample demographics; nevertheless, it is evident that both spouses were well-educated, mature, financially secure, and had experienced several years of family purchase decision making together.

Keeping these factors in mind, a striking aspect of the findings which deserves discussion is the high degree of compatibility exhibited by spousal involvement with and empathy for the several product-feature areas. Speaking strictly from a speculative standpoint, insight with respect to the dynamics and results of husband and wife preference discrepancy resolution is perhaps evident. Specifically, when one spouse indicates high involvement with a subdecision, the other appears to realize this state and reciprocates with a greater willingness to allow that spouse's preferences to shape the final outcome. Thus, serious conflicts are avoided and the outcome is satisfactory to each spouse but for different reasons. Assuming the outcome of preference discrepancy resolution is dictated by the two variables, the highly involved spouse derives satisfaction by virtue Of the fact that his or her preferences are reflected in the outcome, while the highly empathic spouse derives gratification vicariously. The findings suggest that those decision areas which are within the legitimate decision-making authority of a particular spouse are readily acknowledged and the nonauthority spouse concedes the decision graciously to that spouse. Research into these questions seems justified given the strong associations found in this study. Also, the findings offer support at the descriptive level for Pollay's (1968) husband and wife decision-making conceptualization which utilizes involvement and empathy as dynamic, process variables.

Implications as to the nature of jointly resolved product feature decision areas are also provided by the findings. It is most significant that the proximity of spousal positions on the two dimensions is directly associated with the probability of a subdecision being mutually acknowledged as syncratic. Intuitively, one might suspect that the high-involvement, high-empathy quadrant would be the locus of joint decisions, but this hypothesis is refuted by the fact that joint decisions are found in both the low-low quadrant and across quadrants. An intriguing question which should be addressed in future research is the effect of a sub-decision's joint quadrant location on the exact joint resolution mode. For example, are certain dispositions indicative of compromise, concession, impasse, or some other mode? Furthermore, relative differences between husband and wife locations are another factor which may explain or describe decision-making characteristics. Inasmuch as both variables allude to the tenacity with which a spouse maintains his or her preferences during decision-making, the degree of influence shared in joint decision making is logically associated with them. Consequently, it is appropriate to investigate influence distributions in light of relative involvement and/or empathy differences. Attention should be given to these questions in future research with the ultimate goal of determining the predictive value of spousal involvement and empathy within a particular subdecision. The nature of conflict resolution strategies and outcomes may become more clear if relationships between these variables are documented.

A separate but equally important implication of the study's findings concerns the prospect of vicarious satisfaction within the husband and wife decision making process. While the use of recall and perceptions has been thoroughly discussed in the literature (Ferber, 1955, Safilios-Rothschild, 1970; Davis, 1971), it is important to comment on the interaction which might exist between a spouse's statement of influence in a particular decision or decision sequence and the vicarious satisfaction which that spouse may have gained from the outcome(s) of the decision(s). Consider, for example, an instance in which the authority spouse selects the nonauthority spouse's first preference. If this state arose, the latter might be inclined to report greater participation in the decision regardless of the actual degree of participation. The effects of independently-resolved decisions are similarly implied by the findings, for it would seem that the uninvolved spouse may still derive gratification from the process even when the other acts autonomously or without prior consultation. At this point it seems appropriate to hypothesize that there may be a difference between process-derived satisfaction from outcome-originated satisfaction.

While additional questions are evident in the findings, it is premature to discuss them at length. Instead, the conclusive aspects of the study will serve to terminate discussion. The findings are reasonably conclusive in the sense that they lend support for the division of generic product into product-related subdecisions as advocated and practiced by Davis (1971), Hempel (1974) and Woodside (1974). It is significant that the methodology and variables in this study are different from those used by these authors yet the conclusion is identical. The findings are also reasonably conclusive in that involvement and empathy appear to be productive dimensions with which to describe spousal dispositions. In terms of spouses' predictions, joint decisions are identifiable. In the instance of joint decisions, spouses tend to exhibit similar positions; recognized authority decisions, on the other hand, are associated with dissimilar positions. Future research in this area seems worthy and advisable.


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