Some Unanswered Questions on Family Decision-Making


Robert Ferber (1975) ,"Some Unanswered Questions on Family Decision-Making", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 02, eds. Mary Jane Schlinger, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 113-118.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, 1975      Pages 113-118


Robert Ferber, University of Illinois

[Research Professor of Economics and Business Administration, and Director of Survey Research Laboratory, University of Illinois.]

[The thoughts expressed in this paper are based in part on work undertaken under a grant from the National Science Foundation, Grant GS-36166, for which the author would like to express his appreciation.]

This summary paper outlines directions for future research on family decision-making, based on the work to date.

To supplement the other papers presented at this session, this note seeks to highlight some unanswered questions on family decision-making which would seem to deserve further study. e ese questions are organized under the four major topics covered in this workshop, namely, the nature of decision-making, its determinants, its effects, and the content and methodology of decision-making studies. The questions listed in this note are not meant to be exhaustive but rather to indicate those aspects of the subject that seem especially worthy of future study.

I. The Nature of Decision-Making

The work that has been done on the descriptive aspects of family decision-making raises about as many questions as it answers. Among these questions are the following:

1. To what extent does the family act as a unit in making various types of decisions? In economic theory, the family is treated implicitly as a unit, though evidence is accumulating that this assumption is not really valid. Indeed, some of the models on economic behavior, such as on labor supply, are beginning to assume that the different members of the family act as individuals with their own goals and objectives, and that these goals are more important for work behavior than any attitudes or preferences of the family as a group. [See, for example, the model in Ashenfelter and Heckman (1974).]

2. What is the role of family members other than the husband and the wife in decision-making? Some work on this question has been done on the influence of children, and of teenagers especially. [See, for example, Cateora (1961) and also Gibbs (1963).] The influence of other family members seems to have been virtually ignored. Nevertheless, in one study some time ago, Elizabeth Wolgast found that in 5% of the families, members other than the spouse were responsible for keeping track of money and of paying bills. [See Wolgast (1958).] Considering that many families do not have more than two members, this proportion must very likely be far higher if an adjustment for this fact were made.

3. To what extent are decisions interrelated within a family? Thus, is the decision maker on one type of decision also likely to be the decision maker on other decisions and, if so, under what circumstances? Harry Davis has provided much evidence that as a rule any particular economic or marketing purchase decision is actually composed of a sequence of decisions, and that the key person at one stage of a sequence may not be the same as the key person at another stage. [See Davis (1970); also Jaffe and Senft (1966).] To what extent this is so among different types of decisions altogether has hardly been touched upon.

4. While purchase decisions have been explored fairly extensively, as is evident from the foregoing references, other areas of family decision-making seem to have been largely ignored. This includes decision-making with regard to such aspects as handling savings and investments, career choice, and even fertility.

5. What is the role of decision-making on impulse behavior? The question itself may seem like a contradiction, but the studies that have investigated the circumstances surrounding so-called impulse purchases suggest that many of these purchases are not so unplanned as would seem from initial observation, in the sense that prior discussion regarding the possibility of a purchase may have already taken place but the purchase itself was triggered by an event unexpected at that particular time. [See Granbois (1971). Other unpublished studies have had similar findings.] In effect, within a decision-making framework, "impulse" behavior may be less impulsive or irrational than appears at first sight.

II. Determinants of Decision-Making

1. A fair amount of work has been done in recent studies on the relative importance of different factors that seem to influence who is the decision maker. [For example, Hempel (1974); also Ferber and Lee (1974).] Still, much more work needs to be done on the influence of different characteristics of the individuals in the family, and the family structure, on the identity of the decision maker. Thus, all indications are that the prevalence of joint decision-making by husband and wife is on the increase, and especially so for the younger families. From a macro point of view, there are many reasons why this is to be expected. From a micro point of view, however, we do not seem to have much evidence on what factors within the family are bringing about this increase, and in particular on the types of families which are more likely to be characterized by joint decision-making.

2. A related question is, what determines how the identity of the decision maker is changed? Obviously, habit plays a major role. Obviously also, some change has to take place either in the structure of the family or in the outcome of decision processes for such a shift to take place. The fact remains, however, that this question does not seem to have been studied, and we have little indication of how these changes take place or under what circumstances. For example, are they brought about by changes within the family or by external events, and how?

3. To what extent are intergenerational effects present in decision-making? Brent Miller has reported, based on the pioneering study by Reuben Hill and his associates, that intergenerational effects do seem to be present. [See Hill (1970) for such a study in the Minneapolis area.] However, this study is primarily descriptive and does not attempt to take into account factors relating to the characteristics and the structure of the present family. If these factors were incorporated within a multivariate framework, would an intergenerational effect still exist?

4. What is the influence of friends and relatives not in the household on family decision-making? That these influences can be substantial was brought out many years ago in the study by Katz and Lazarsfeld, [See Katz and Lazarsfeld (1955), which covered a wide variety of consumer decisions.] but relatively little work has been done on this since that time.

5. A related question is the influence of search for information on decision-making. While much work has been done on this subject, [For example, Cox (1967).] it is still not clear whether this search serves mainly to support a preconceived idea or to alter the plans of a-family; and under what circumstances is each likely to be true.

6. As was pointed out in the workshop, one population group that has received very little attention from the point of view of decision-making is the elderly. All of the emphasis seems to be on decision-making by the young or by husband-wife families in relatively early stages of the life cycle. It would be very useful to have corresponding studies on decision-making by the elderly, both by couples and by single individuals, including both the nature as well as the determinants of decision processes by these groups.

III. Effects of Decision-Making

1. very little attention as yet has been given to what in many ways may be termed as the key question underlying the study of family decision-making. This is, what difference does it make on consumer behavior whether one member of a family or another is the decision maker in particular case? To what extent, if any, does the behavior of a family depend on the identity of the decision maker? In a study by Lucy Lee and myself that looked into this aspect, certain types of purchase behavior were indeed found to differ depending on who made the final decision, even after other relevant variables were taken into account. [See Ferber and Lee (1974); the focus here was mainly on financial decisions.] However, this was only one study on a particular type of population, and this key question remains as vet largely unexPlored.

2. What is cause and what is effect in family decision-making? The nature of this question is perhaps best illustrated with reference to a recent study at the University of Illinois that found one of the principal determinants of the wife's working to be the attitude of the husband: if the husband had a favorable attitude toward his wife working, she was much more likely to be so engaged. [See Sampson (1972). The sample, however, was restricted to the Champaign-Urbana area.] What could not be established from this study is, which came first? In other words, were the wives working as a result of the favorable attitudes toward this activity of their husbands? Or, had the wives "selected" their husbands using this attitude as a criterion, so that in effect the relationship is the other way around'

IV. Methodology of Decision-Making

1. While some attention has been given to means of collecting data on decision-making, most of the emphasis in past studies has been heavily on the substantive results. As a result, questions such as the effect of the presence of an interviewer on information supplied on decision-making has not been explored. For example, is more reliable information obtained by a self-administered approach without any outside person present, by perhaps separate and simultaneous interviews with different family members, or by some other method?

2. What types of family members and under what conditions are they accurate reporters of the influence of themselves and of other family members in decision-making? As Marilyn Dunsing has reported, while results on family influence seem to be similar in the aggregate regardless who is interviewed, substantial discrepancies are obtained on a micro basis, that is, for particular families for certain types of consumer actions. Hence, a corollary question to the previous point becomes how one can determine in advance whether a particular method of data collection will be biased and, if so, in what direction

3. Is the recall approach the best way of obtaining information? While this is the most commonly employed method in decision-making studies, and is in many ways the easiest, no comparative study seems to have been made of different approaches on the same sample or on matched samples. From a data collection point of view, the door seems wide open for imaginative work on this question.

These are by no means all of the questions that could be raised on the subject, and others have been suggested by the foregoing papers. Taken together, it is hoped that this workshop not only helped provide further information on family decision-making but has also pointed the way to-avenues that are particularly worthy of further investigation.


Ashenfelter, O. Heckman, J. The estimation of income and substitution effects in a model of family labor supply. Econometrica, 1974, 42, 72-86.

Cateora, R. R. An analysis of the teenage market. Austin: University of Texas Bureau of Business Research, 1961.

Cox, D.F. (Ed.) Risk-taking and information handling in consumer behavior. Boston: Graduate School of Business, Harvard University, 1967.

Davis, H. Dimensions of marital roles in consumer decision-making. Journal of Marketing Research, 1970, 7, 168 - 177.

Ferber, R., & Lee, L.C. Husband-wife influence on family financial behavior. Journal of Consumer Research, 1974, 1 s 43-50.

Gibbs, M. Decision-making procedures by young consumers. Journal of Home Economics, 1963, 55, 359-360.

Granbois, D. H. Decision processes for major durable goods. In G. Fisk (Ed.), New essays on marketing-theory. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1971.Pp. 172-205

Hempel, D. Family buying decisions: A cross-cultural perspective. Journal of Marketing Research, 1974 > 11, 295-302.

Hill, R., et. al. Family develoPment in three generations. Cambridge, Mass.: Schenkman Publishing Company, 1970.

Jaffe, L. J., & Senft, H. The roles of husbands and wives in purchasing decisions. In L. Adler and I. Crespi (Eds.), Attitude research at sea. Chicago: American Marketing Association, 1966. pp. 95 - 110.

Katz, E., and Lazarsfeld, s. F. Personal influence. Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1955.

Sampson, J. M. Determinants of the employment status of the wife-mother. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign, 1972.

Wolgast, E. G. Do husbands or wives make the purchasing decisions? Journal of Marketing, 1958, 23, 151-158.



Robert Ferber, University of Illinois


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 02 | 1975

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