Conflict in Family Decision Making: an Exploratory Investigation

Michael A. Belch, San Diego State University
George E. Belch, University of California, Irvine
Donald Sciglimpaglia, San Diego State University
ABSTRACT - A survey of 270 families was conducted to examine perceptions of family conflict and conflict resolution in family decision making. Three specific issues were examined including: the determination of whether various family members perceive conflict existing across different types of products and within specific decision areas; the modes of conflict resolution most often employed in respect to these product areas; and, whether or not family members' perceptions are in agreement in respect to the amount of conflict and resolution mode employed.
[ to cite ]:
Michael A. Belch, George E. Belch, and Donald Sciglimpaglia (1980) ,"Conflict in Family Decision Making: an Exploratory Investigation", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 07, eds. Jerry C. Olson, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 475-479.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 7, 1980     Pages 475-479


Michael A. Belch, San Diego State University

George E. Belch, University of California, Irvine

Donald Sciglimpaglia, San Diego State University


A survey of 270 families was conducted to examine perceptions of family conflict and conflict resolution in family decision making. Three specific issues were examined including: the determination of whether various family members perceive conflict existing across different types of products and within specific decision areas; the modes of conflict resolution most often employed in respect to these product areas; and, whether or not family members' perceptions are in agreement in respect to the amount of conflict and resolution mode employed.


While much of the research on consumer decision making has focused on the individual, in reality many purchase decisions are actually family decisions. The role of family members in the decision making process is of fundamental importance to marketers in understanding how family purchase behavior may occur. This area has received considerable research attention from marketers (cf., Davis, 1970, 1971; Woodside, 1972; Ferber and Lee, 1974; Davis and Rigaux, 1974; Hempel, 1975; Munsinger, Weber and Hansen, 1975) as well as sociologists and social psychologists (cf., Blood and Wolfe, 1960; Kenkel, 1963; Centers, Raven and Rodrigues, 1971).

Studies of family decision making have generally focused on issues such as the decision making structure in the family and/or bases for role differentiation, usually limiting the investigation to involvement of husband and wife. Most of these studies have focused on the outcomes of family decision making rather than considering the process that has led to these outcomes. As noted by Davis (1976) in his excellent review of the household decision making literature, research is needed to explain how families make decisions rather than simply who is involved.

An important aspect of the family decision making process which has received very little research attention concerns the conflict that arises during this process and the strategies used to resolve this conflict. This paper presents the results of a study which examined family members' perceptions of the amount of disagreement or conflict that arises over specific decision areas for different products, and the strategies used to resolve this conflict.

Conflict in Family Decision Making

The potential for disagreement among family members during the decision making process has been recognized by several theorists. Blood (1960) argues that the involuntary and diffuse character of family relationships and the family's small size and changing developmental tasks lead to a high degree of conflict. Sprey (1960) suggests that treating the family as though the normal state were one of agreement and stability is inadequate, since decisions are frequently an ongoing confrontation between members having interest in a common situation.

The issue of conflict among family members during the purchase decision process has been addressed by several consumer behavior theorists including Sheth (1974) and Davis (1976). In his theory of family decision making, Sheth (1974) uses March and Simon's conceptual framework of inter-person conflict as a basis for examining potential conflict that may occur during joint decision making among families. According to March and Simon, the sufficient conditions for inter-group conflict are: (1) differences in goals and (2) differences in perceptions about relevant alternatives or goal objects. Sheth suggests that both of these conditions are present in family decision making, since each family member has a specifically defined cognitive structure which may include different purchase motives (goals) and evaluative beliefs (perceptions about alternatives).

Sheth suggests that the presence of inter-member conflict in joint buying decisions entails attempts to resolve it that are tactically different and varied in appropriateness, depending on the cause of the conflict. Four forms of conflict resolution are suggested by Sheth, including problem solving, persuasion, bargaining and politics.

Problem solving is viewed as a common form of resolution when the conflict is the consequence of disagreement on evaluative beliefs rather than buying motives. The problem-solving process may lead to more information search, in order to evaluate alternatives and/or reliance on "credible'' personal sources from outside the family.

Persuasion may be used as a mode of conflict resolution when there is agreement at a fundamental level, but disagreement as to specific subgoals. Persuasion entails interaction among family members in order to resolve the conflict and no attempt to gather more information is involved.

The use of a bargaining process to resolve conflict is suggested when there is fixed disagreement by family members over buying motives. Sheth suggests that in bargaining strategies the concept of distributive justice or fairness is often evoked and the existence of conflict is explicitly acknowledged by family members.

The fourth mode of conflict resolution suggested by Sheth is politics which is likely when there is disagreement about not only specific buying motives, but also about the style of life of the family. This mode of conflict resolution may result in the formation of coalitions and subgroups in order to isolate the family member with whom there is disagreement and to force this individual to join the majority.

The issue of conflict in family decision making has also been considered by Davis (1976). Davis suggests two "ideal" representations of group decision making--a con-sensual model and an accommodative model. Consensual decision making occurs when there is agreement among family members about what the goals or desired outcomes of a decision should be and includes strategies such as role structuring, budgeting and problem solving.

Under the accommodative model, family members recognize that priorities and preferences are irreconcilable and conflict is likely to occur since there is disagreement over purchase goals. Davis suggests two types of accommodative strategies which might be used by the family, persuasion and bargaining.

Persuasion strategies involve forcing a family member to make a decision he or she would not otherwise make and include a variety of methods including criticism, intuition, coercion and coalition (the latter being synonymous with Sheth's notion of politics as a conflict resolution mode). Bargaining strategies involve long-term considerations whereby a family member may be willing to make a sacrifice in a certain decision area in return for first consideration in a later decision. Bargaining methods include waiting for the next purchase (which is similar to Sheth's concept of fairness or distributive justice as part of the bargaining process), impulse purchasing and procrastination.

Purpose of the Study

While these different theories and propositions concerning the presence of conflict in the family decision making process and strategies for its resolution have been advanced, there is very little empirical evidence which is relevant to this area. The only empirical work in this area is a study by Sheth and Cosmas (1975) which examined the use of the four alternative decision strategies identified by Sheth (1974) for automobile, vacation and furniture decisions.

Sheth and Cosmas found that persuasion was by far the dominant conflict resolution tactic indicated by spouses, followed by problem solving. Bargaining and politicking were rarely mentioned as conflict resolution tactics, a finding which may reflect a reluctance to indicate the use of such tactics due to negative connotations of these behaviors. Sheth and Cosmas also found that socioeconomic status and family life cycle were significantly related to modes of conflict resolution.

The purpose of this paper is to report the results of a survey study of family decision making which considered the amount of conflict that exists in the family decision making process and the different strategies which might be used in resolving this conflict. Specifically, this study addresses three particular issues:

1.  To what extent does conflict occur in specific decision areas during the family's purchasing process of different products?

2.  What particular strategies are used to resolve the conflict that occurs in specific decision areas for different products?

3.  Are there variations in family members' perceptions of the degree of conflict that exists for various decision areas and the modes of conflict resolution used for these particular decision areas?


Questionnaires were distributed to approximately 300 households in a major metropolitan area on the West Coast. While essentially a convenience sample, specific criteria for inclusion in the data base were established. Only those families in which both husband, wife and at least one child were currently living at home were included. The child had to be no less than 13 years of age and those families in which more than one child completed the questionnaire (n=1) were not considered in this study. Three questionnaires were administered to each family with specific instructions for each family member to complete his or her form separate from the other family members.

This study differs from most investigations of family decision making in that it considers children's perceptions of the family decision making process, as well as the perceptions of husband and wife. Nearly all conceptualizations of family decision-making structure have been derived from studies of the conjugal power structure. The role of children has not been considered in most studies, even though observational studies have shown that children do have an effect on decision outcomes (cf., Turk and Bell, 1972). It is likely that children have an impact on the family decision making process, particularly as they grow older and their requests are recognized as being more legitimate.

Family members were asked to indicate the extent of disagreement that occurred among family members in specific decision areas for six products, including automobiles, appliances, furniture, television, vacation and breakfast cereal. These products were selected since they reflect moderate or high levels of individual involvement and generally syncratic decision roles. (The exceptions include automobiles, which tend to be marginal between autonomic and syncratic, and breakfast cereal which is perhaps lower in involvement but might demonstrate more influence from children.) The specific decision areas varied according to the particular product class, but generally included issues such as when to buy the product, where to buy the product, how much money to spend, style, make, model, etc.

Family members were then presented with seven modes of conflict resolution and asked to indicate the extent to which each mode was used in resolving any disagreement that occurred during the family's decision making process for a product/decision area. The seven modes of conflict resolution used here were based on the theoretical work of Sheth (1974) and Davis (1976) discussed above and were as follows:

Problem Solving Strategies

1)  The gathering of more information before making the decision.

2)  Family discussion of the problem.

3)  Having the family member most knowledgeable in the area make the decision.

Bargaining Strategies

4)  Promise of future consideration was made to a family member for agreeing to the choice.

5)  Delaying of the decision.

Persuasion Strategies

6)  Forming of a coalition by two or more family members was used in order to convince an individual to agree to a choice.

7)  Exertion of authority on the part of a family member was used.

A sample of 270 families resulted after elimination of those respondents who did not meet the criteria established and/or those who did not complete the questionnaire in its entirety. The mean ages of the family members were as follows: mother 46, father 50, and child 17. Average education of both the mother and father was some college, with average incomes of $12,000 and $23,000 respectively. Approximately 56% of the children responding were male.


Two forms of data analysis were performed. For determination of objectives one and two as listed, frequency tabulations were employed to provide descriptive results. In addition, a one-way analysis of variance was utilized to determine whether or not significant differences in the family members' perceptions existed.

The different family members' perceptions of the amount of disagreement that occurred during the decision making process are shown in Table 1. This table shows the family members' perceptions of conflict for the different products, as well as for specific decision areas within each product category.



Overall, the results in Table 1 indicate that very little disagreement occurs among family members during the decision process. The amount of disagreement indicated by the three family members is quite low across all the products surveyed. However, there does appear to be some variation by product class.

The amount of perceived disagreement is highest for automobile and vacations. Since these are two product categories where all family members are likely to take an active role due to their direct participation in the consumption of these products, these results are not surprising. For example, children may be very much involved in these decision areas, since they are or will be driving the car and will be required to go on the family vacation.

The amount of perceived disagreement is relatively low for appliance and breakfast cereal. The low amount of conflict perceived for appliances may suggest that purchase of this product class may be viewed as a nondebatable decision by the family members. The purchase of a breakfast cereal is a very routine purchase decision and would not really generate a great deal of concern among the family members.

Examination of Table 1 also indicates that there are variations in the amount of conflict perceived across specific decision areas. The amount of disagreement is relatively low across all products for decisions such as where to buy and when to buy. For the decision concerning how much money to spend, the amount of disagreement is relatively high in comparison to the other decision areas, particularly for television, appliances and furniture.

It is interesting to note that the amount of conflict perceived in aesthetic decisions such as style, color, fabric, model, etc. is relatively low for furniture and appliances but somewhat higher for automobiles. These results may be due to the fact that the mother makes aesthetic decisions for appliances and furniture (cf., Davis, 1970) while these decisions involve all family members when the family purchases an automobile.

A second major area of interest here concerns the strategies used by the family to resolve any disagreement that occurs during the decision-making process. Table 2 presents the family members' perceptions of the extent to which each conflict resolution model was used across the different products.



Examination of Table 2 reveals that the problem solving strategies of information search, family discussion, and delegation to the most knowledgeable family member were used the most for all products except breakfast cereal, where the persuasion strategy of one family member exerting authority was used.

The use of the bargaining strategy of promising future considerations was quite low across all product categories, as was the strategy of delaying the decision. The use of the persuasion strategy of two or more family members grouping together also was relatively low for most product categories. However, the exertion of authority by a particular family member was somewhat higher for some product categories, particularly for breakfast cereal and automobiles. This may suggest that a particular family member was exercising his or her relative expertise in these particular decisions.

Finally, one notes very little differences in the way family members perceive the amount of conflict existing and the modes of resolution employed. Overall, the children seem to perceive the existence of conflict more so than do the parents, as noted by the decision areas considered for automobiles, vacation, television and cereal. Interestingly, the perception of the modes of conflict resolution employed as perceived by the child reflect less use of problem solving and a greater reliance on bargaining and persuasion. It may be speculated that perhaps the child is not brought into the problem-solving environment, and thus is obviously less likely to consider this resolution strategy as a method frequently employed. This position is supported by the fact that the child's perception of the use of family discussion as a conflict resolution mode was significantly lower than at least one of the parents across all six products.

Those specific areas demonstrating differences in perceptions of conflict (as shown in Table 2) included how much money to spend--which was high across all products but particularly so for television, appliances, and furniture --and where to go and how much time to spend on vacations. As one might expect, the perceived differences on decisions such as where or when to buy are usually low. Interestingly, the child's perceptions of decisions relating to cereals often differed from the mother's, possibly an indication that the child may not like what the mother buys.


Inspection of the results of the study tend to suggest a high degree of face validity. As noted, the products chosen for inclusion were selected on the basis of earlier studies indicating higher degrees of involvement and of syncratic decision making modes. Analysis performed across products and on the specific decisions within each product category demonstrate consistent and somewhat to-be-expected results.

In summary, the results indicate that generally very little differences exist in respect to the amount of conflict perceived either across product categories or within specific decision areas (with specific exceptions noted). Family members generally agree that Low levels of conflict are the rule--at least among the areas considered in this report.

With respect to the modes of conflict resolution employed, family members generally agree that problem solving is the form most utilized, with bargaining and persuasion less often considered. Children tend to see the problem-solving strategies used less often than do the parents, particularly the family discussion. A possible explanation may be that the child is not part of the decision process for those products considered, or that discussions of this nature are carried out outside the presence of children. It is interesting to note that the findings here indicating a heavy reliance on problem solving relative to bargaining and persuasion are opposite those found by Sheth and Cosmas (1975) in their examination of conflict resolution modes.

Finally, lesser differences in perceptions between family members are evident for either the amount of conflict existing or the mode of resolution most often employed. Where significant differences were demonstrated, they were in decision areas that make intuitive sense. Greater differences in perception were most frequent for decisions involving the automobile and for those regarding the family vacation. As all family members are likely to be involved in the vacation and in the use of the automobile, the amount of involvement in the decision is certain to increase, leading to different goals and objectives and thus differences in perceptions. Differences in perceptions of conflict were lowest for appliances and furniture, as might be expected. Appliances and furniture--while consumed by the household unit--are less likely to stimulate as much direct decision-making involvement among all family members. Essentially, such products are more likely to be purchased when they need to be replaced and while still joint decisions, are likely to be more wife-dominant (cf., Davis and Rigaux, 1974).

It is possible that these results are limited by several factors. In using a self-report methodology, respondents were asked to report their perceptions of decision-making processes. Such a procedure can suffer from lapses in memory, particularly if many of the decisions may have been made at a much earlier time. Secondly, it is possible that such self-report measures may be difficult to comprehend for some respondents or too vague for others.

In addition, there is also the possibility of socially desirable response factors. For example, with respect to modes of conflict resolution, bargaining and persuasion may be seen as less socially desirable strategies, leading to higher reported scores for problem solving.

To develop a more thorough understanding of family decision-making conflict resolution, it may be necessary to resort to other methods of study, such as observation or depth interviewing. However, the results reported here do indicate some interesting findings and may warrant future consideration by those studying family decision making.


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