Dominance and Conflict in Family Purchasing Decisions


Arch G. Woodside (1972) ,"Dominance and Conflict in Family Purchasing Decisions", in SV - Proceedings of the Third Annual Conference of the Association for Consumer Research, eds. M. Venkatesan, Chicago, IL : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 650-659.

Proceedings of the Third Annual Conference of the Association for Consumer Research, 1972      Pages 650-659


Arch G. Woodside, University of South Carolina [Assistant Professor of Business Administration.]

[Data collection assistance of Patty Richardson and Timothy Bice is gratefully acknowledged.]

Marital decision making processes have been studied from four points of view: (1) bases for role differentiation, (2) power structure, (3) decision making structure, and (4) demographic and psychosocial influence on the power structure. Herbst (1952) has suggested four bases for role differentiation: household duties, child control and care, social activities, and economic activities. Parsons and Bales (1955) distinguish between instrumental and expressive roles and, among economic activities, Ferber (1955) draws a dichotomy between "PolicY" and "routine household" decisions.

Such bases for marital role differentiation have been used to theoretically develop, or empirically explain, categories of marital power structures. The study of power structure has focused on the question of husband or wife dominance. Herbst (1954) developed four decision making power structures: (1) autonomic, or when an equal number of decisions is made by each spouse, (2) husband dominant, (3) wife dominant, and (4) syncratic, or when most decisions are made by both husband and wife. In one empirical investigation Wolgast (1958) concludes that the husband dominates the wife in the decision making process for automobile purchases. She found the wife dominating the husband for household goods and furniture purchasing decisions. Almost perfect agreement in husbands' and wives' reports about relative influence was found by Wolgast.

Davis (1970) demonstrated that the decision structure in the purchase of automobiles is not related to the decision structure in the purchase of furniture. Within each of these product categories, product selection (model, make, color) and allocation decisions (how much to spend and when to buy) were shown to be the structure of the decision process.

Significant demographic and psychosocial relationships with the family power structure have been found to exist. For example, the degree of joint decision making typically declines over a family's life cycle (Wolgast, 1958). Also, when neither husband nor wife belongs to a connected social network they have a greater tendency to engage in joint decision making (Bott, 1957).

Conflict in the marital decision making process has been a poorly studied concept. The comparison of husband dominant, wife dominant, syncratic and autonomic, and conflict family power structures by demographic and psychosocial influence may offer insight into family role differentiation.

Engel, Kollat, and Blackwell (1968) have indicated that the extent of husband-wife involvement varies considerably from product to product. These authors report husbands having a greater tendency to be involved in problem recognition when the product is technically or mechanically complex, as in the case of automobiles. refrigerators, and paint.

The present article focuses on the power structure for the marital decision making process in purchasing eight consumer products: Does dominance in the marital decision making process significantly vary across product categories being purchased? Does the wife or husband tend to dominate the decision making process for particular products? What products tend to be most closely associated with one another by marital power structures? Answers to these questions should provide a number of theoretical and managerial implications to marketing.


A cross sectional survey of 200 upper-lower, lower-middle, and upper-middle social class families in the Columbia, South Carolina, metropolitan area was taken to study the relationships between role differentiation, dominance, and demographic-psychosocial variables. A random sample of street tracts of single family dwellings was drawn with two families surveyed on each street.

Husbands and wives were interviewed separately in the 200 families. Two interviewers were used, male and female graduate students. One interviewer went into each house separately.

The survey instrument consisted of two parts. Couples answered a series of questions on the relative influence of each spouse for eight products: automobiles, lawnmowers, automatic washing machines, beer, rugs/carpets, cheese, television sets, and gardening supplies. Secondly, the couples completed a demographic and life style instrument which included questions on family life cycle, occupation of family head, wife employment, education, income neighbor visits, popularity, conservatism, club activities, advertising attitudes, opinion leadership, and other life style questions. The life style questions were selected from 300 factor analyzed questions developed by researchers at Purdue University (Tigert, 1969). Typically, four questions were included for each factor.

The decision making questions for the eight products included questions on who first brought up the idea of purchasing, discussion of the purchase with friends, neighbors, relatives, obtaining information from mass media, obtaining information from stores (dealers), style or type, visiting stores or dealer showrooms, specific retail outlet, actual purchase, and experiencing dissatisfaction.

Each spouse was given three answers to choose the relative influence in the decision: husband. wife. husband and wife.


Table 1 is a list of the responses of husbands and wives for two of the eight products in percent. Both the husbands and wives report considerable variation in their roles within the decision making process. For example, 65.5% of the 200 husbands report the wife alone brought up the idea to purchase their automatic washing machines, while only 18.5% report the wife alone made the actual purchase. Differences seem to exist between the two products in spouses' relative influence. Bringing-up the idea to purchase automatic washing machines appears to be a wife-dominant activity, while husbands dominate for this question for television sets. The percentages shown for husbands and wives in Table l are similar in size. Not much disagreement is shown between the sexes for the data when grouped. The majority of both the husbands and wives reported the wife alone brought up the idea to purchase automatic washing machines and the husband alone brought up the idea to purchase television sets.



Information contained in Table 1 does not answer the question on dominance or conflict and was developed to show an example of relative influence across all families. The study of marital dominance and conflict requires some measures of these variables for each family for the product category or decision area being analyzed.


An index of dominance (ID) was developed for this study based on the husband and wife responses for the 12 decisions as discussed and listed in Table 1:



H = Husband's response

W = Wife's response

a = Husband alone

b = Wife alone

c = Joint

The 12 specific decisions were considered to be of equal importance and no weighting procedure was used to derive a family's ID score. Assume both the husband and wife reported the husband to be dominant throughout the decision process for buying a television set, the ID score for this family's decision would be equal to (12+12) - (0+0) = 1 / 24. If both reported the wife dominant 24 the ID would equal (0+0) - (12+12) = -1 / 24.

An index of conflict (IC) was also developed:


If the husband and wife completely disagree, the IC would be equal to |12-0| + |0-12| + |0-0| = 1 / 24. If there was complete agreement, IC = |12-12| + |0-0| + |0-0| = 0 / 24, for example.

The ID or IC was not calculated for a family for a specific product when the husband and wife had an unequal number of responses or when they answered less than 6 of the 12 responses.

Differences of IC and ID means between products were analyzed. Role differentiation theory would suggest significant husband or wife dominance depending on the products' relation to household duties, children, social and economic activities.


Table 2 is a list of the average dominance values for the eight product categories. All eight means were statistically significant from zero in testing the null hypothesis that neither the husband nor the wife dominated in the decision making process. Wives dominated the decision making processes for three products: cheese, rugs, and automatic washing machines. Husbands were dominant in the decision making process for television sets, gardening supplies, automobiles, beer, and lawnmowers. The data suggest that products can be meaningfully differentiated by the amount of dominance displayed by either the husband or wife.



The dominance averages ranged considerably within -1 to +1. Purchase decisions for lawnmowers and beer tend to be highly dominant by the husband, while automobiles, gardening supplies, and television sets appear to be more moderately dominated by the husband. Wives tend to dominate the purchase decisions for cheese more than they do for rugs or automatic washing machines.

The results appear quite consistent with previous research findings and hypothesized expectations, lending credence to the construct validity of the measurability of the instrument and the methodology:

1. Products to be used outside of the house, e.g., lawnmowers and gardening supplies, tend to require manual work more expected of the husband than the wife.

2. Mechanically complex and expensive product purchases, e.g., automobiles and television sets, are usually made with greater husband, compared to wife involvement (Engel, et al., 1968).

3. Products to be used inside the house and where decor is a concern, e.g., rugs, may tend to reflect the tastes of the wife more than the husband

4. Assuming the wife's dominance in "doing the wash" even though some of the husbands did appear to wear the apron strings, the wife would be expected to have the final words in the purchase of an automatic washing machine.

Table 3 is a symmetrical matrix of product moment correlation coefficients of every product with every other product.

A number of correlation coefficients are negative in Table 3. This would suggest that products affect choice of answers by index of dominance values. Groups of families who consistently rate the husband or wife dominant do not appear to be present. Products do affect choice of answers by respondents.

Product clusters were formed following the procedure outlined by Kamen (1970) from the correlations in Table 3. Figure I is a description of the two clusters that resulted with dominance being the dependent variable



Cluster 1 consists of four durable products, each representing sizeable income expenditures for the family. The correlation coefficients in Cluster 1 are statistically significant (p < .05) and suggest similar dominance tendencies across the four product categories.



Cluster 11 consists of four semi-durable and nondurable products representing lower priced items than those appearing in Cluster 1. The correlation coefficients in Cluster 11 are statistically significant (p < .05) except for lawnmowers and cheese (r = -.177, p > .05). Cluster 11 appears to be a catch-all grouping of products defined, in part, by the limited number of products examined.

Table 4 includes correlation coefficients of index of conflict scores for the families used to compute Table 3. Mean index of conflict values and standard deviations are also shown in Table 4. Figure II consists of clusters formed from the conflict correlation coefficients in Table 4.



The correlation coefficients shown in Figure II are statistically significant (p < .05) except for rugs and cheese (r - .183, p > .05).

The three clusters formed represent a different configuration for the products where conflict is the dependent variable compared to Figure I where dominance is the dependent variable. This/ suggests that power structures among products change according to the variable of power being analyzed.

Cluster 1 in Figure II consists of three products mechanically complex and durable. Automobiles and automatic washing machines are found in Cluster 1 of Figure II and Cluster l of Figure I which indicates a highly similar power relationship between these products.

Cluster 11 in Figure II contains two home furnishing products which are statistically significantly related (r = .326, p < .01). Cluster 111 was represent another catch-all grouping of products; however, the relationship shown for gardening supplies and beer was statistically significant (r = .302, p < .01).




The analyses of dominance and conflict values indicate husband or wife dominance in the decision-making processes of a number of consumer products. The level of husband or wife dominance appears to be a matter of degree, varying by type of product.

Several products may be conceptualized under more general categories and therefore product types can be generalized by family power structures.


Bott, Elizabeth Family and social network. London: Tavistock Publication, Ltd., 1957.

David, Harry L. Dimensions of Marital Roles in Consumer Decision Making. Journal of Marketing Research, 1970, 7, 168-177.

Engel, James F., David T. Kollat, & Roger D. Blackwell. Consumer behavior. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1968.

Ferber, Robert. On the Reliability of Purchase Influence Studies. Journal of Marketing, 1955, 19, 225-232.

Herbst P. G The Measurement of Family Relationships. Human Relations, 1952, 5, 3-35.

Herbst, P. G. Conceptual Framework for Studying the Family. Social structure and personality in a city. London: Routledge and Kegan Panel, 1954.

Kamen, Joseph M. Quick clustering. Journal of Marketing Research, 1970, 7, 199-204.

Parsons, Talcott, & Robert F. Bales, Family, socialization and interaction process. Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press, 1955.

Tigert, Douglas. A Psychographic Profile of Magazine Audiences: An Investigation of a Media's Climate. Unpublished paper presented to Consumer Behavior Workshop. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University, 1969.

Wolgast, Elizabeth H. Do Husbands or Wives Make the Purchasing Decisions? Journal of Marketing, 1958, 23, 151-158.



Arch G. Woodside, University of South Carolina [Assistant Professor of Business Administration.]


SV - Proceedings of the Third Annual Conference of the Association for Consumer Research | 1972

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