A Cross-Cultural Analysis of Husband-Wife Roles in House Purchase Decisions


Donald J. Hempel (1972) ,"A Cross-Cultural Analysis of Husband-Wife Roles in House Purchase 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: 816-829.

Proceedings of the Third Annual Conference of the Association for Consumer Research, 1972      Pages 816-829


Donald J. Hempel, University of Connecticut [Associate Professor of Marketing, University of Connecticut.]

[This research was financed in part by grants from the University of Connecticut Research Foundation, the Marketing Department of the University of Lancaster (England), the Center for Real Estate and Urban Economic Studies at the University of Connecticut, and the National Science Foundation Grant GJ-9 to the University Computer Center.]

The mass media of our society reflect a growing interest in women's liberation, equal employment opportunities, and marital roles. In order to better understand the effects of these environmental changes on marketing opportunities, there is need for more comprehensive knowledge of male and female roles in household buying behavior. Marketing literature on family decision processes should be extended to provide a more reliable basis for predicting variations in husband-wife influence across product-market situations and to include comparative studies of international differences.

Knowledge of family role structures is of fundamental importance to the development of marketing theory and practice. The interaction of family members and their influence upon consumption decision processes are two of the basic determinants of buyer behavior. Family role differentiation has many implications for market segmentation and other strategy decisions, ranging from the selection of survey respondents to the formulation of communication programs. Despite the widespread recognition of family influence in many purchases, the decision-making processes and influence patterns within the household have received very little attention from marketers (Robertson, 1971; Frank, Massy, and Wind, 1972).

This paper explores several aspects of husband-wife interaction in the decision processes of recent house buyers in Connecticut and Northwest England. The analysis centers upon cross-cultural comparisons of the marital roles which were perceived by husbands and wives in five specific house-buying decisions. It also examines the consensus of role perceptions between the sexes and considers some of the potential determinants of family role structure in the purchase of a home.


Research studies of family role structures by sociologists are abundant, but there is little consensus in the findings and conclusions reported. In a widely quoted survey of literature published during the last decade, Safilios-Rothschild observes:

Despite the availability of studies, one would have an impossible task, should he want to describe the power structure in the American family, unless he was willing to settle for just one major study. Actually, many family sociologists have done just this, mainly by relying on the findings of Blood and Wolfe's Detroit study (Blood and Wolfe; 1960). Not only have they settled for one study but also for one family member's perceptions of power structure, the wife's, and they perpetuate a "wives family sociology." [Safilios-Rothschild, 1970, p. 539]

She goes on to explain that the reasons for the lack of consensus are mainly methodological issues arising from the incomparability of decisions, the failure to include data from both spouses, and dependence upon global decision-making scores. Synthesis of research findings is further impaired by diversity in the conceptualization of power structure and by the controversy between advocates of survey and observational methods.

The evidence available from marketing literature is more comparable in decision focus, but much less abundant and similarly limited by conceptualization and methodological problems. Recent studies of family purchase decisions have presented summaries of these issues (Granbois, 1971; Davis, 1970) and have raised important questions about the reliability and validity of purchase influence measures (Davis, 1971). Although the empirical results of these recent studies are limited because of small convenience samples and significant separation from the actual decision process, they contribute both evidence and logic which challenge existing belief systems concerning family influences on consumer behavior.

Several recurring arguments regarding conceptual approach and method can be found in the current literature of both marketing and sociology. First, family power or role structure should be treated as a multidimensional concept which can be measured both through the outcomes and through the process of decision-making. This requires a sharper distinction between the concepts of power, influence, authority, and responsibility. Measures of authority and responsibility can be operationalized through the outcome-oriented question, "Who decides?" An operational measure of influence is more difficult because it is process-oriented and must reflect subtle pressures within the family. Second, decision-making in the family, particularly for major economic purchases, should be viewed as a multiphasic process involving a number of specific and related decisions. This approach requires measures of influence or responsibility for each decision in order to identify role differentiation by decision type. It also discourages reliance upon an overall measure of family role structure, such as the Blood and Wolfe index. Third, family decision-making should be approached as a small group process involving the husband-wife dyad and perhaps children or other household members. Since the extent of involvement and the role perceptions of each family member vary across households and decisions, multiple-person measurements within each family are needed. This approach requires separate measures of the decision roles perceived by the main participants, particularly both spouses.

The nature of husband-wife interaction in a buying process can be expressed in terms of whether a specific decision is shared or dominated by one spouse. This concept of dominance has been widely used by researchers in marketing and sociology, but the meaning attached to the term is not always explicit and is often varied (Komarovsky, 1958; Blood and Wolfe, 1960; Heer, 1963; Davis, 1970; and Granbois, 1971). In most of these studies the concept has been used to describe the outcomes of the family decision process - that is, who finally makes a particular decision. Two recent studies have attempted to extend the concept of dominance (Kelly and Egan, 1969) and validate alternative measures of family power structure (Olson and Rabunsky, 1972). These investigators encourage the study of both the decision outcome and the family process through which the decision is reached. If family decision-making is to be treated as a joint reciprocal activity involving discussions and negotiation, then a more dynamic conceptual model, dealing with both process and outcome, should be utilized. This approach is very appropriate for studies of major purchases, but it is difficult to implement through survey research methods. Some combination of survey and observational techniques is probably necessary to best measure both aspects of family decisions, particularly if a multidimensional concept of role structure is to be used.

This paper attempts to incorporate some of these conceptual and methodological considerations within a cross-cultural study of the decision processes involved in house buying. The analysis centers upon the husband-wife role differentiation for selected decisions within this purchase process. It is believed that the purchase of a home involves a decision-making process which is likely to reveal the most basic role structure of the family as it relates to consumption expenditures. This product class stimulates high personal involvement because of the infrequency of purchase and its very important social and economic consequences for all household members. The complexity of the decision process encourages role specialization, but the active participation and influence of both spouses is fostered by the importance of the decision. Given the differences in values, knowledge, and preferences which each spouse brings to focus on the decision, some conflict inevitably results. One would expect a preponderance of joint decision-making to result from the high product saliency. However, the decision complexity is likely to mitigate this pattern and produce task segregation and perceptual differences. Some prior evidence supporting these expectations is provided by a small exploratory study of house buying in the Vancouver, B.C. metropolitan area (Kelly and Egan. 1969).


The data for this study were obtained from two comprehensive surveys of recent house buyers conducted during the summers of 1968 and 1971. These studies were designed to yield comparable measures of consumer decision processes in different housing markets. The first sample involved 206 families from Hartford, Connecticut and eight adjacent towns. The 1971 study included 317 households from seven towns in the Preston-Lancaster area of Northwest England. Both investigations incorporated probability samples of households who purchased either a new or previously occupied house and recorded their ownership during the first six months of the study year.

The data collection procedures involved extensive personal interviews in each household, followed by a request that two self-administered questionnaires be completed separately by the husband and by the wife and returned by mail. The importance attributed to the subject by the respondents was reflected in a response rate of 77 percent for the mail questionnaires in Connecticut and 67 percent in England. The data collection instruments used were identical in both studies, except for some minor adaptations to English word usage in the 1971 study. Details concerning the research design and questionnaires used in Connecticut have been published elsewhere (Hempel, 1970).

The concept of dominance used in this study was operationally defined by asking a series of questions about the relative importance of each spouse in selected house-buying decisions. Two different measures of husband-wife roles in the decisions process were contained in the separate self-administered questionnaires distributed at the time of the interview. The husband's questionnaire asked him to indicate who was the decision-maker "mainly responsible" for the set of decisions shown in Table 1. The questions used to measure the wife's role perceptions asked her to indicate the "relative influence" which she and her spouse had "during the process of buying" in each of the decisions shown in Table 2. Thus, the wife's response provides a measure of perceived decision influence in the decision process, whereas the husband's answers indicate his perception of decision-making responsibility or identification of the primary decision maker. These are conceptualized as measures of two closely related but different dimensions of family role structure.



The responses of both husband and wife were scored by assigning a value of "1" when the wife's role was dominant, "2" for equal or joint decisions, and "3" for answers indicating that the husband's role was dominant. On the basis of these individual decision scores on a 3-point scale, an overall measure of perceived dominance was computed for each spouse. This aggregate measure included only the first five decisions which were common to both questionnaires (when, price, style, neighborhood, and mortgage), so its value could range from 5 to 15. Respondent attribution of greater importance to the husband's role across the five decision areas is reflected in higher values for the dominance index. This overall decision-making score provides a single measure of the husband's relative importance in the purchase decision. It is a useful means of supplementing the individual decision data with a summary value to simplify analysis of possible role determinants. However, it would be misleading to rely solely upon the analysis of trends in this index, because the husband-wife influence patterns do differ by type of decision.


The analysis and results of this study concerning husband-wife influence are presented below in three parts. First, the differences in roles perceived by the marital partners are examined across a set of major decisions within the home-buying process. Next, the extent of agreement between the role perceptions of husband and wife is considered for the five decision areas evaluated by both respondents. Finally, some of the possible determinants of these decision patterns are analyzed as bases for market segmentation.

Role Differentiation with the Buying Process

Table 1 shows the distribution of husbands' responses to questions about the relative decision responsibility of each spouse for seven house-buying decisions. Table 2 shows the distribution of wives' responses to questions about the relative influence of each partner in a similar set of decision areas. The first five decisions in each table are listed in order of decreasing proportions of joint decisions based on the average decision scores of all Connecticut respondents. The last two decisions in each table are segregated from this ordering because data were obtained only from the husband or the wife for these questions.

Do the marital roles differ with regard to the type of decision? There are substantial differences in the relative influence of husbands and wives across the decision areas examined. Data from both Connecticut and England indicate that the dominance of the husband was least likely to occur in decisions concerning neighborhood and house style, and most likely in financial decisions involving price and mortgage source. These data provide some support for the hypothesis of role specialization, suggesting that the husbands concentrate on instrumental-financial decisions while the wives give more emphasis to expressive-social dimensions. However, the modal pattern for all decisions except those involving mortgage financing indicates that house-buying is a shared decision process. The percentage of joint decisions ranged from 90 percent in the choice of house size (English wives) to 34 percent in the decision about mortgage source (Connecticut husbands).



Do the marital roles in house-buying differ with regard to the cultural setting of the respondents? There is considerable cross-cultural consistency indicated by the rank-order of the decision roles perceived by both sexes. For the five major decisions, there was perfect agreement in the ordering of decisions according to the proportion of families in which the husband's role was perceived to be dominant. When the distribution of the husbands' response scores among the three role categories was compared for each cultural group, none of the international differences in their perceptions were statistically significant at the .05 level. However, a different interpretation is indicated by cross-cultural comparisons within a particular role category. Connecticut husbands reported more frequently than their English counterparts that they were mainly responsible for decisions about mortgage source (62 percent vs. 50 percent) and sources of financial advice (53 percent vs. 43 percent). They were somewhat less likely than English males to claim dominance in decisions about house style and neighborhood and were more inclined to attribute responsibility for these areas to their wives.

There was less intercultural similarity in the distribution of roles reported by wives, although women in both countries did indicate a similar rank-ordering of decisions in which male influence dominated. A Chi-Square test of cultural similarity in the wives' response distributions revealed that the role structures perceived by English and American women were significantly different for decisions about when to buy (x2 = 21.80, p < .001), price (X2 . 10.70, p < .01), mortgage source (x2 = 7.16, p < .05), and size of house (x2 = 10.37, p < .01). Both sexes perceived more sharing of decision roles in England than in Connecticut. Cross-cultural differences in the proportion of families reporting joint decisions ranged from several percentage points for decisions about neighborhood and style, to a highly significant discrepancy of 17 percentage points for the price decision (wives' responses).

Consensus of Role Perceptions

Do husbands and wives, considered as groups, differ in their perceptions of decision roles? As noted earlier, the comparisons of husband and wife responses in this study are conceptualized as involving two dimensions of role structure--decision responsibility and influence. Agreement between the role perceptions probably reflects a higher level of marital consensus than a single measure of role structure, such as "who decides?" The level of agreement was ascertained by comparing the husbands' responses in Table 1 with those of the wives' in Table 2 for the first five decision areas. These comparisons could be simplified by presenting a table of mean scores, but this aggregation would tend to conceal differences in the distribution of responses across the role categories.

The comparisons of husbands and wives as groups indicate that there is very little consensus of role perceptions within either country. A Chi-Square test was made for each of the 3-by-3 contingency tables containing the distributions of husband and wife responses on the 3-point scales used to measure role perceptions. These tests revealed significant sexual differences among the Connecticut respondents for decisions about style of house (x2 = 18.81 p.< .001), when to purchase (x2 38.14, p < .001), and mortgage source (x2 = 42.94, p < .001). The differences in role perceptions of husbands and wives in the English sample were significant for all of the decisions considered: neighborhood (X2 = 42.20, p < .001), style of house (x2 = 12.24, p < .05), when to purchase (x2 = 10.11, p < .05), price (x2 = 40.31, p < .001), and mortgage source (x2 = 38.16, p < .001).

Wives in both countries were more likely than husbands to perceive joint decisions about the style of house and mortgage source. The majority of husbands reported that they were responsible for the mortgage decision, and there was a tendency for them to attribute the house style decision to their wives. Disagreement in the perceived role structures among English families is particularly evident in the percentage of respondents who reported joint decisions. The proportion of shared decisions reported by wives exceeded that for husbands by an average of 11 percent in England versus 5 percent in Connecticut. If sexual differences in mean decision scores were to be used as a basis for this analysis, the level of agreement would appear to be higher in England than in Connecticut. Comparisons of mean scores tend to provide misleading results, because the response distributions for English wives were so heavily concentrated in the joint decision category. The extent of husband-wife agreement in-role perceptions can be examined more effectively on the basis of intrafamily comparisons.

Do husbands and wives within the same family differ in their perceptions of role performance? The data contained in Table 3 indicate the extent of role consensus within the individual family, determined by the differences in the 3-point decision scores computed for each spouse. A significant disagreement in perceptions is indicated by the difference of one scale point that results when a joint decision is perceived by only one partner. A difference of two scale points reflects complete polarity of perceptions, with one spouse reporting a husband-dominant decision while the other indicates that it is wife-dominant.

The intrafamily comparisons indicate that the consensus of role perceptions ranged from 76 percent for the English neighborhood decision to 57 percent for the Connecticut price decision. Marked similarity in the percentage of couples who agree about their roles can be seen in the data for both countries, particularly in the decisions about house style, when to purchase, and mortgage source. Connecticut couples were less likely than English respondents to agree about the price (57 percent vs. 68 percent) and neighborhood (70 percent vs. 76 percent) decisions. Chi-Square analysis indicated that the cultural differences in the distribution of discrepancy scores were not significant (at the .05 level) for any one of the five decision areas considered in Table 3.

Disagreements in role perceptions were confined almost entirely to situations in which one spouse perceived a joint decision while the other attributed more importance to one partner. Polarity in role performance was reported by not more than 4 percent of the households in either country. The shape of the discrepancy score distributions tends to be symmetrical, but there is some indication that the disagreements favor the spouse who is generally considered to be the less dominant decision influence. For example, there is a tendency for the husband to attribute more importance to the wife than she attributes to herself in decisions about mortgage, price, and when to purchase, and to exhibit a self-bias for decisions about style and neighborhood. Of course, this same pattern would emerge if the wife were understating her role in the financial-scheduling decisions and overstating her importance in the style and neighborhood decisions. In either case, these compensating role allocations may reflect reporting errors which result from the respondent's efforts to be conventional or adhere to socially desirable norms. Such behavior patterns could occur if the husband were motivated by equalitarian considerations in his reporting of decision responsibility, while the wife attempted to present an influence pattern which was consistent with cultural expectations of role specialization.



Some Possible Determinants of Role Structure

What are the bases or determinants of decision-making role structures? The major school of thought concerning family influence explains marital role structures in terms of the relative resources contributed to the household by each individual. This "theory of resources" recognizes contributions in the form of both conventional socio-economic dimensions (income, education, and occupation) and more subtle socio-psychological inputs (personal involvement, affection, and performance of household tasks). The explanation of why one spouse is dominant rather than the other has been troubled by the lack of authority and influence data and their interrelations with whoever makes the decision (Safilios-Rothschild, 1970).

This section of the paper examines an extensive set of potential explanatory variables in terms of their relation to the dominance index computed for each spouse. Correlation and regression analysis are used to explore these relationships without rigorous adherence to the assumptions underlying the techniques. Many of the variables (including the dependent measures of dominance) are not intervally scaled, and there are nonlinearities and interactions which could be handled through transformations or dummy variables. Given the inconsistency of available evidence and the absence of theoretical guidelines in this field of study, such adjustments would be largely arbitrary. The results of this analysis should be interpreted cautiously and considered as exploratory evidence useful in the construction of a more refined model.

The correlation coefficients presented in the first four columns of Table 4 indicate that there is considerable cross-cultural consistency in the relationships examined. In general, the degree of association between the explanatory variables and the dominance indices was somewhat higher in Connecticut than in England and greater among husbands than among wives. The age of both spouses and the number of years married were inversely related to the relative importance of the husband, as perceived by both partners. Marital independence, represented in the proportion of years one was single and an early life cycle stage, were positively related to male dominance in Connecticut and England respectively, but the degree of relationship was less consistent across cultures.

The education of both husband and wife, and the husband's occupational status were positively correlated with all of the dominance indices, while the wife's educational status was negatively correlated. The relation of educational and occupational differences between spouses (as measured by status consistency ratios) to the dominance indices indicates that the importance of the husband's role was directly associated with the extent of his relative status advantage, especially in Connecticut. The curvilinear hypothesis that women tend to be more dominant in the lower classes while men are more dominant in the upper classes is supported by the data from both countries; this pattern is most evident in the wive's perceptions of role structure. Family income was positively associated with greater male dominance, but the degree of relationship was relatively low for Connecticut husbands.

Measures of the wife's employment status indicate that the perceived importance of the husband's role declined as his spouse's commitment to work outside the home increased. The wife's contribution to family income, the number of hours she was employed, and the years she had worked with the firm were all negatively correlated with the dominance indices. These changes in the wife's employment status were highly significant in Connecticut, but they appeared to be of less importance in England. The cultural differences were more evident in the role perceptions of the husband.



The intensity of personal involvement in the house-buying decisions was measured by an attitude index. Separate involvement indices were constructed for each spouse by aggregating their scaled responses to a series of 15 questions dealing with the relative importance of various reasons for buying a home. High involvement of either spouse was positively associated (in England) with the husband's perception of role structure, but negatively correlated with the importance of the husband as perceived by the wife.

The regression results shown in Table 4 were developed through a stepwise regression technique which eliminated independent variables from the final equation when the t-ratios for their partial regression coefficients were not 1.0 or greater. This procedure was used to screen out relatively unstable and less efficient predictors of the dependent measures from the set of 23 potential explanatory variables. These data provide a preliminary estimate of the structural relationships among a reduced set of explanatory variables and the scaled dominance indices.

The regression analysis indicates that basic demographic measures of age, years married, education, occupation, and wife's employment status are useful predictors of perceived role structure. The inclusion of less conventional measures which represent educational and occupational consistency, and the intensity of personal involvement appears to add measurably to the predictive power of the equation. The R2 values in the range of 15 percent to 28 percent are encouraging, because the predictions of the model can be improved through the introduction of transformations and other independent variables. For example, detailed analysis of the wife's employment status variables has revealed considerable interaction between the effects of these measures and those of family income. The presence of a working wife is associated with the perception of relatively low husband dominance by wives in the lower income groups, a sharp increase in the mean dominance index for the middle income families, and a fairly small increase (Connecticut) or decline (England) for the upper income households. The perceptions of role structure among husbands exhibit a similar pattern in Connecticut, but the wife's employment outside the home is associated with a very high level of husband dominance among the lower income groups in England. Most of the work in process on this study involves the construction of indices and composite variables to represent such interaction patterns more effectively in refined multivariate models.


This empirical study of family role structure provides evidence that decision task specialization and perceptual differences do exist among some recent house buyers in two different cultural settings. There was considerable intercultural similarity in the rank order of the husband's relative importance across a set of major house purchase decisions. Joint decision patterns predominated in both countries, but dominance by one spouse was perceived more frequently by Connecticut buyers. Differences in role perceptions between sexes within each country were generally greater than the international differences. A number of basic household characteristics were consistently related to variations in perceived role performance among spouses in both countries.

The results of this study indicate clearly that perceptions of both husband and wife should be measured independently if one wishes to explain marital roles in major purchase decisions. The conceptual and methodological issues which plague family influence studies should be clarified by more integration of research in marketing and sociology. Improved conceptualization and operationalization of influence, authority, and power concepts are needed to develop more sophisticated and valid theoretical structures in both disciplines.

More recognition of perceptual differences within the family and of the specificity of decisions within the purchase process is essential to the development of buyer behavior theory.


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Donald J. Hempel, University of Connecticut [Associate Professor of Marketing, University of Connecticut.]


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

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