An Observational Study of the Family Decision Making Process of Chinese Immigrant Families

ABSTRACT - There is a paucity of research on children’s influence in the family decision making process, with even less of other cultures besides those originating from the United States. The study presented in this paper examines the influence of children on the family purchase decision among Chinese immigrant families to New Zealand. An observational approach is used, whereby simulated family interactions are taped and later content analyzed to determine the amount of influence each member has during the decision process. After a close examination of the influence structures within this culture, a comparison is made with the results of a previous study which examined Singaporean and European New Zealand families.


Simon Pervan and Christina Kwai-Choi Lee (1998) ,"An Observational Study of the Family Decision Making Process of Chinese Immigrant Families", in AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, eds. Kineta Hung and Kent B. Monroe, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 20-25.

Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, 1998      Pages 20-25


Simon Pervan, Auckland Institute of Technology, New Zealand

Christina Kwai-Choi Lee, University of Auckland, New Zealand


There is a paucity of research on children’s influence in the family decision making process, with even less of other cultures besides those originating from the United States. The study presented in this paper examines the influence of children on the family purchase decision among Chinese immigrant families to New Zealand. An observational approach is used, whereby simulated family interactions are taped and later content analyzed to determine the amount of influence each member has during the decision process. After a close examination of the influence structures within this culture, a comparison is made with the results of a previous study which examined Singaporean and European New Zealand families.


Although children are recognized as important influencers in family decisions, studies in family decision making rarely included them (Bocker 1986). Whilst there are some studies of other cultures outsideof the United States (for example, Davis and Rigaux 1974; Hempel 1974; Green, Leonardi, Chandon, Cunningham, Verhage and Strazzieri 1983), much more is needed to permit placement of the knowledge regarding purchasing behavior into a cross-cultural context (Green et al.1983). This research contributes one more bit of knowledge to the study of cross-cultural family decision behavior.

The purpose of this paper is to examine the relative influence exerted by Chinese parents and their children by using an observational method. The scale used to judge relative influence is one developed by Lee and Marshall (1998) to measure the influence observed during the family decision process. This will offer a further test of validity of the observed influence scale (OIS). A preliminary empirical test on New Zealand and Singapore families reported evidence of differences in the influence structures as hypothesized based on traditional stereotypes between Chinese and European cultures. This study examines the influence structure of Chinese immigrant families to New Zealand, and this influence structure is compared to that of the Singaporean Chinese and New Zealand families.

The paper begins with a literature review into the characteristics of the Chinese culture which have an impact on the influence of children. The research approach used is then described. This is followed by the results of the study, which is compared to previous research results on New Zealand and Singaporean families.


There is only a limited number of cross-cultural studies on family decision making, and the few which exist do not include children in their research. The few cross-cultural studies available suggest that there are differences in influence patterns between cultures (e.g. Green, Leonardi, Cunningham, Verhage and Strazzieri 1983; Rodman 1972). Hempel (1974), however, found that the differences within cultures were more significant than the differences between cultures. In this study, the Chinese cultural characteristics which have an impact on family decision making are considered. It is suggested, following the argument of Green et al., (1983) and Rodman (1972) and other researchers in comparative family studies, that differences in influence patterns do exist between cultures because of the differences in values and traditions across cultures.

Chinese Cultural Dimensions

In a psycho-cultural analysis, Hsu (1965) maintains that there are four attributes which have persisted since ancient times. These attributes are continuity, inclusiveness, authority, and asexuality. Continuity is the "condition of being, or the attitude of desiring to be in an unbroken sequence with others". This attribute is reflected in the Chinese desire to maintain relationships. Inclusiveness is "the act of incorporating, or the attitude of wishing to be incorporated". The desire to be included is evident in the widening circle of relationships derived from a continuous original relationship. Authority is defined as "personal power that commands and enforces obedience, or the belief on the part of subordinates of the legitimacy or the necessity of obeying commands and of a superior’s right to issue them". Asexuality is simply "the condition of having no connection with sex" (Hsu 1965, pp642-644). This is seen as a regulation of sex to a particular area of society (such as marriage and prostitution), and its non-diffusion to other areas of society (Sung 1985). By contrast New Zealand Europeans have a greater need of control of their environment and are taught to be self reliant and individualistic from an early age (Table 1).

This profile indicates that Chinese family decisions should involve less conflict and have a clearer hierarchical structure than for the European families.

The foundation of the psycho-cultural profile drawn of the Chinese is founded upon the ideas of Confucianism (551-479BC). Although it is no longer an outwardly predominant force which controls the Chinese society, it still influences many facets of Chinese life (Jacobs, Guopei and Heibig 1995), for example, business practices and family structures. The philosophical traditions of Confucianism and Taosim continues to underpin Chinese values and behavior, despite the geographical movement and changing political systems (Bond and Hwang 1986; Cheng 1986; Vance, Mcllaine, Boje and Stage 1992).

The Confucianism value of "ordering relationships by status and observing this order (Hofstede and Bond 1988) is reflected in family relationships between parents and children. Chinese children, influenced by Confucianism values, tend to defer to their parents in order to maintain harmony and hierarchical relationship.

Wong (1985) asserts that the traditional father-son bond typical of old China is replaced by husband-wife relationships in affluent immigrant families in the United States. However, he notes that the husband-wife relationship is not absolutely equal with the wife deferring to the husband for many of the family functions and decisions.



Referring to Hsu’s (1965) psychocultural dimensions, the variable of inclusiveness appears to be challenged in a new environment. In New Zealand, many Chinese immigrant families have acted collectively to confront other contexts in society (Sedgwick 1985). However, they have been largely unable to (due to policy and monetary constraints) form more traditional lineages such as kinship and surname. This is likely to place a lot more emphasis on the family unit which may be reflected in the strengthened husband wife relationships. Furthermore the acknowledged legitimacy of the parent’s power and the desire for family members to maintain continuity in family life sees children take second place in these families with parents maintaining absolute control over their behavior. (The sample taken for this study are typically middle to upper middle class Chinese families.) Therefore Hypothesis 1:

H1:  The parents will have significantly more influence than the children in the family decision.

One characteristic of Confucianism is gender inequality where male children are preferred over female children (Ko 1991). This attribute is due to the Chinese traditional value where men provide the manpower to society and also provide economic support to their own families and their parents when their parents retire. This aspect can be partially explained by the resource contribution theory (Blood and Wolfe 1960) which notes that the person who contributes the most to the family’s coffers maintains the most power in the family decision making process. Male children carry on the family name and enjoy the inheritance of family properties. Hypothesis two is designed to test the proposition that male children are more influential than female children:

H2:  Male children will have more influence in the family decision than will female children.

Whilst the Chinese culture reflects a strong desire for harmony and order, as well as dependency on each other for the good of the community (i.e. collectivism), Sung (1985) identified individualism as a typical cultural attribute of U.S. Citizens. Individualism emphasises self-reliance, control of one’s own destiny, the fulfillment of one’s own desires and ambitions. The New Zealand Europeans are similar with regard to this characteristic, as they too come from a colonial background and have had to strive in relative isolation o fulfill their own ambitions. Children from the European culture, such as New Zealand, are more likely to want to, and have the opportunity to, express their own individualism through influence in the family decision making process. Hypothesis three tests this proposition.

H3:  Children from the Chinese cultural background will have less influence than the European children from New Zealand.


The focus of this paper is to report on an observational study on the influence of children in the Chinese immigrant family decision making process. It is hypothesized that the parents, in particular the father, will exert greater influence in the decision making process than the children.

The problem which plagues research is the measurement of influence between group members. The fallibility of self-reports as a means of obtaining accurate measures of influence is well documented in previous research (Corfman 1989; Kenkel 1963; Spiro 1983). Admittedly most of these studies have been conducted in the US or other western cultures. Whether it is a problem common in Asian cultures is open to conjecture nevertheless its potential impact predicated a unique methodological approach for this study. An observational approach is used to determine influence as it provides a closer representation of the actual decision making process than the respondents’ perceptions of that process (Douglas and Wind 1978). The observations of family interactions were recorded on video and later content analyzed by studying each family member’s verbal and non-verbal communication. Relative influence scores , discussed further, were then calculated. This eliminated the cultural bias that can affect an absolute measure; for example acquiescence bias.

Data Collection

The data used in this study was obtained from videotaped observations of family interactions using a simulated family decision. The research was conducted in the family’s own home. The sample consisted of twenty immigrant families from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Besides the difference in dialect spoken by these families (Cantonese spoken by the Hong Kong families, and Mandarin by the Taiwanese), there are relatively little difference in traditions as both are predominantly from the Han descent (Stewart, Cheung and Yeung, 1992). These families were all nuclear families with two adolescents and have been in the country (New Zealand) for ten years or less.

Each family was presented with a chance to win $150 to spend at a family restaurant for assisting in the research process. Restaurants had previously been noted as offering a situation with some social risk and concern to children (Szybillo and Sosanie 1977; Nelson 1979).

The taped family interactions which were triggered by a simulated situation where by the family had won the prize money and were now required to decide, as a group, their choice of five favored family restaurants. Restaurant names were not provided rather the families generated lists from their own evoked sets.

The data collection process involved two researchers, the main researcher was ethnic Chinese and communicated in the family’s language. While this researcher spoke with the family members, the other researcher set up the video camera which was relatively small to avoid intrusion. The camera was set up at a corner of the room, some distance away from where the family was seated, usually around the dining table. Other attempts to detract the family members from the camera included not mentioning when they were being taped, getting all family members to fill in two lengthy questionnaires before the actual interaction acivity and leaving the room during the actual interaction. One of the questionnaires measured interest in eating out and the other questionnaire measured their sex-role orientation. These are used in another part of the study. The family’s demographic details were filled in at the end of the interaction activity.



Content Analysis

Each family member’s relative influence was judged by studying their verbal and non-verbal communication. The coding sheet used in this content analysis consisted of seven items (Appendix). These include body attitude, facial expression, voice pitch, voice loudness, the amount of time each member spoke during the interaction process, the number of times each member gazes at another and the number of suggestions which were accepted by the group. These items were selected based on the literature as indicative of attempts to influence or dominate others (See for example, Ekman 1982, Harper 1985; Kenkel, 1963; Zivin 1975).

The relative influence of each member was judged using the Observed Influence Scale (OIS). Although the development of the scale and the rationale for using each of these items is found in Lee and Marshall (1998), a brief description is offered here.

Three judges were required to make subjective judgments on each member’s body attitude, facial expression, voice pitch and voice loudness as attempts to influence others in the interaction process. These relative scores are judged on a seven point scale where 1=extremely not influential and 7=extremely influential. These scores were later converted to proportions with a base of 100. That is, if the first child scored 3 for body attitude indicating that he or she was not very influential, this score was later converted to 3/7*100. This is so that all the items in the coding sheet have a common base of a 100 to allow the items to be combined into one score of relative influence.

The judgments of the next three items were more objective as the judges were merely required to count the number of mutual gazes, time how long each member spoke through out the process using a stop-watch and then noting which member’s suggestions were written down as the family choices. These frequency counts were converted into proportions with a base of 100. For example, if the mother spoke for a total of 4 minutes out of a total interaction time of 10 minutes, the relative amount of time the mother spent talking is 4/10*100.

The relative influence of each family member was judged by taking an average of the first six items (body attitude, facial expression, voice pitch, voice loudness, mutual gaze and proportion of time spent talking). The final item, that is, the number of suggestions made by each member which were accepted indicated the final outcome of the decision making process. For example, out of a total of five suggestions, if the father made 3 suggestions, the elder child makes 1 suggestion and the mother makes 1 suggestion, the father’s outcome would be 60/100, the elder child, 20/100, and the mother, 20/100.

The three judges were trained and were aware of the broad objectives of the study though they were not made aware of the specific focus on child influence thus avoiding any acquiescence bias on their part. They understood the meaning of influence and had cultural competence in discerning the verbal and non-verbal communication of the Chinese families which tend to indicate influence. The inter-judge reliability between the three judges was high with correlations of between 0.78 and 0.98.

Coding the stages of the decision process

The relative influence of each family member was judged over three stages in the decision making process. The first two stages of the decision making process was judged using the six items described earlier. The configuration stage is defined as when the group members gear themselves to the decision situation and decide how they would solve the problem. Thusconfiguration was deemed to have taken place if the discussion was centered around the way the decision is to be made. The negotiation stage describes the phase where the members evaluate and discuss each of the options put forth. Negotiation can involve the use of different decision strategies such as bargaining, expertise, legitimate, emotive and coalitions. Two researchers listened and watched the whole interaction process, then decide the points on the tape when configuration and negotiation took place by noting the time periods over which these stages were evident. Configuration usually took place at the beginning of the interaction process, but in some cases, a re-configuration can take place after a series of negotiation. After determining these stages, the judges used the six items to determine observed influence during the configuration and negotiation stages. As noted in the previous section, the number of suggestions each family member successfully made to the group represented the outcome, that is the final stage of the decision process.


The purpose of this paper is to examine the influence of children in the Chinese family decision making process and later compare these results with a previous study which used the same methodology to determine if there are differences between cultures.

The objectives of Hypotheses 1 and 2 is to examine the influence structure of the family. Multivariate analysis was used to ascertain the relative influence of the family members across the three stages of the decision making process. The results showed significant differences in influence patterns (p<.001). The results displayed in Table 2 indicate that the parents had significantly more influence in the decision making process, particularly during configuration and at the final outcome. Although the father had more influence during configuration, the mother had slightly more influence during the other stages. Hypothesis 1 is therefore accepted.

Hypothesis 2 examines the proposition that male children had more power in the decision making process than female children. This hypothesis was not supported. There were no significant results, using T tests, for both the configuration and outcome stages, although the results were statistically significant for the negotiation stage, contrary to the hypothesis, the female children had more influence than the male children (Table 3).





Another objective of this study is in the cross-cultural comparison of influence patterns. Some interesting patterns of influence were observed between Singaporean, New Zealand European and Chinese immigrant families. The study on the Singaporean and New Zealand European families is reported as part of an empirical test for the coding sheet used to derive the influence scores for this particular study (Lee and Marshall 1998). The study uses the same research procedure reported here, with 20 Singaporean families, and 89 European New Zealand families making up the sample. Table 4 examines these results.

The results of the ANOVA test to determine if there are significant differences between the different family members across the three cultures produced some significant results. While there were no overall significant results, there were some differences which should be highlighted. The result of note is the power of the Asian fathers (i.e. both the Chinese immigrant and the Singaporean sample) in comparison to the New Zealand fathers. The Asian fathers had considerable more power than the European fathers at the final outcome of the decision making process. The Chinese immigrant fathers also appear to be most influential during configuration.

The Asian children’s impact on the final outcome is considerably less than the European children’s. Although the sample of Chinese taken for this study are typical middle class, modern families, Chinese traditions remain relatively strong among he Chinese families (both Singaporean and the Chinese immigrants to NZ) as reflected in the results. Confucianism ideals of deference and respect to one’s parents is evident from the influence patterns found in this study.

Except for the configuration stage, the New Zealand families displayed a relatively democratic style of decision making in comparison to the other two cultures.


The results indicate that parents of Chinese origin dominated the decision making process. Both parents had significantly more influence over all the three stages of the decision making process, in particular the configuration and outcome stages. This finding implies that although the parents allow the children to voice their opinions during a decision situation, they control how a decision should be made (configuration) and also after taking into account the opinions of the children, make the final choice (outcome). This finding agrees with Wong (1985) who stated that children in Chinese immigrant families take second place with parents maintaining absolute control over their behavior. It is also consistent with Hsu’s (1965) psychocultural dimensions, particularly the evidence of respect for authority of the parents and the desire for continuity which perhaps mitigated child influence attempts.

The finding that female children had more influence than the male children during the negotiation stage is contrary to expectation. There are two possible reasons for this occurrence. Firstly, it could be due to the subject matter chosen for the simulated decision. The topic of restaurants and eating out is generally seen as female domain, the topic may be of little interest to the male children. This is supported by the finding that the mothers dominated the outcome of the decision in this study.

Secondly, this finding may be a reflection of the acculturation process where the Chinese female children are beginning to exert an influence pattern similar to their adopted country. As discussed previously, the challenge of western ideals, particularly to Hsu’s (1965) dimension of inclusiveness, may be resulting in a more individualistic stance by the child. In the study by Lee and Marshall (1998) the female children from New Zealand exerted significantly more influence on the decision making process than the male children.

The comparison of the results cross-culturally highlighted some differences in influence structures as predicted. Asian parents do tend to dominate the decision making process and the European families are more democratic in their decision making.


The study takes an observational approach to measure influence in the decision making process among New Zealand Chinese immigrant families. While the results are not generalizable at this stage, it adds further support of external validity to the Observed Influence Scale developed in Lee and Marshall (1998). As hypothesized, significant differences in relative influence between parents and children were found. Further, although not all the stages of the decision making process were statistically significant, there is sufficient evidence that the scale can discriminate influence structures across cultures.

This study concentrated on Chinese immigrant nuclear families with two children. Future studies should be conducted across different households structures, (for example, extended families, where parents live with their married children and assist them in the running of the households), home national families (as opposed to immigrants.




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Simon Pervan, Auckland Institute of Technology, New Zealand
Christina Kwai-Choi Lee, University of Auckland, New Zealand


AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3 | 1998

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