The Influence of Sex Roles on Family Decision Processes and Outcomes

ABSTRACT - Although a large number of studies have examined family decision processes, most have examined a small number of factors. As a result, research in the field comprises a set of findings, observations and musings without an organizing framework or-mid-range theoretical structure. This paper attempts to construct such a framework as a basis for integrating and critiquing research relating sex roles to family decision processes.


W. Christian Buss and Charles M. Schaninger (1983) ,"The Influence of Sex Roles on Family Decision Processes and Outcomes", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 10, eds. Richard P. Bagozzi and Alice M. Tybout, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 439-444.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 10, 1983      Pages 439-444


W. Christian Buss, State University of New York at Albany

Charles M. Schaninger, State University of New York at Albany


Although a large number of studies have examined family decision processes, most have examined a small number of factors. As a result, research in the field comprises a set of findings, observations and musings without an organizing framework or-mid-range theoretical structure. This paper attempts to construct such a framework as a basis for integrating and critiquing research relating sex roles to family decision processes.


Sex-role norms impact on almost all aspects of family consumption behavior including the buying process tasks, finance handling, purchase behavior, brand specification, store choice, and types of products purchased. The examination of sex roles and their relationship to family purchase behavior of complete families has received relatively little emphasis in consumer-behavior research. While families are a relatively easy-to-find unit of analysis, there are some problems with family-based research. They include multiple decision influences, problems of defining family boundaries, and the lack of a general testable theory of family consumption behavior. The purpose of this paper is to provide a unifying framework as a basis for organizing and identifying factors which influence the family decision-making process and their links with sex roles. Engel, Blackwell and Kollat (1978) suggest that consumer behavior requires middle-range theories rather than comprehensive models. The purpose of this paper is to develop such a middle-range construction for family decision making by examining key variables in family decision-making theory. We hope this will lead to a more accurate and detailed understanding of family communication patterns, influence structures, family preferences and purchases, and task allocation. Without such a structure, generation of hypotheses, specification of testable equations, and empirical verifications occur in a vacuum without light. A framework can form the basis for examining why particular family decision processes exist.


Among the factors shown to relate to family decision processes have been: relative resources, investment, education, occupation, and income (Davis 1976; Scanzoni 1975); career aspirations, work involvement, time available, and presence of children ( Brogan and Kutner 1976; Clark, Nye and Gecas 1978; Eriksen, Yancey, and Eriksen 1979); authority patterns and role delegation (Douglas and Wind 1978; Ryder 1979); sex-role ideology (Green and Cunningham 1975; Stafford, Backman, and Dibona 1977); and parental attitudes and role behavior (Roper and Luboff 1977; Stafford, Backman, and Dibona 1977).

While these factors have been shown or hypothesized to relate to family decision making, a unifying model has still not been developed, although general reviews of family decision-making research have been conducted (e.g. Davis 1976). Our approach toward such a model is limited to the husband-wife dyad, leaving the incorporation of children for future work. Figure 1 presents a graphical depiction of the factors included in our research framework. It is not intended to be a comprehensive, general model, but only a structure for identifying major research issues and developing research hypotheses on the relationship of sew roles to family decision making.

The. behavior of each spouse within the family is dependent on the attitude norms and preferences each brings to the marriage. These factors depend on three sets of antecedent conditions: demographic attributes of each spouse, characteristics of each spouse's parents, and environmental influences for each spouse. Individual attitudes, particularly sex role norms (norms related to sex) and life-style norms (instrumental and terminal values) interact with situation factors to yield attitudes about appropriate behavior. When such attitudes do not match, the dyad is in a potential conflict situation which may be managed by conflict avoidance and conflict reduction behavior. Conflict management solutions yield behavioral process outcomes, which in turn determine family consumption and marital satisfaction outcomes.

Other authors have developed general models of the family decision process. Kenkel (1961) developed an interaction-process model for spending-decisions. fie identified culturally determined sex roles, class and status, and ethnic effects as major factors affecting family interactions. Others are peer groups, family boundaries, and family characteristics. The consequences of the interaction process are buying decisions, relative spousal influence, and different levels of satisfaction for members. The exact relationships between the factors were not specified. In Sheth's (1974) model, external factors combine with variables within the family unit to affect both individual actions and the family decisions to yield consumption of goods and services by families and their components. This is more detailed than ours, but is primarily descriptive. Ours is designed to develop testable hypotheses about family decision behavior with particular attention paid to sex-role effects and conflict-resolution behavior. Sex roles are not explicitly covered in Assael's (1981) mode; although conflict resolution is.

We will briefly review and critique the current state of research and develop suggestions for future research.

Antecedent Conditions

Three sets of antecedent conditions with influence in the family decision process presented in Figure 1 are: demographics, parental attributes and environmental conditions.

Demographics. Modern sex-role norms are found in couples characterized as younger, with more education and couples with higher social status (Davis 1976; Eriksen, Yancey and Eriksen, 1979; Filiatrualt and Ritchie 1980; Mason, Czajka and Arber, 1976; Scanzoni 1977;). Modern norms are usually defined by a shift toward more joint role sharing, i.e. - wives can work and husbands should help perform housework.



Parental Influence. The parents' behavior (e.g. decision-making influence, task allocation) has been shown to influence the development of an individuals sex-role norms (Roper and Luboff 1977; Stafford, Backman, and Dibona 1977). Engel, Blackwell and Kollat (1978) suggest that children learn norms (including sex-role norms) primarily from educational organizations, parents, and religious institutions. The influence of the latter two may be waning with schools and mass media becoming more important. The lack of research on intergenerational influence on values and consumption is recognized as one of the deficiencies of the social-class literature (Zaltman and Wallendorf 1979).

Thornton and Nardi (1975) examine the role acquisition process and define four stages: Anticipatory, Formal, Informal, and Personal stages. These stages represent increasing levels of knowledge about role responsibilities and increasing congruence between role requirements and personal expectations. Although they suggest that parents affect the role acquisition, neither the significance nor mechanism of parental impact are specified

Environmental Influences. Broad environmental changes are influencing womens' and mens' perceptions of appropriate sex roles. The growing percentage of working wives, young professional singles, higher divorce rate, and declining birth rates are examples (Lazer and Smallwood 1977). The findings are virtually unanimous that a concurrent shift toward a more egalitarian view of task sharing has occurred in the last twenty years (Mason, Czajka and Arber 1976: Araji 1977: Roper and Luboff 1977). Determination of the causes of these shifts and their interrelationships have not been specified.

Evidence of cross-cultural and subcultural effects has also been demonstrated. Douglas and Urban (1977) found differences in behavior across cultures between liberal women in the U.S. and France and between traditional women in the same countries. Tigert (1973) found, French-Canadian housewives are more concerned with personal appearance, household cleaning, kitchen and childrearing tasks than their English-speaking counterparts.

Individual Attitudes

The antecedent conditions help imbue the family members with two general classes of values and norms: behavior values which are independent of sex and sex-role norms which determine appropriate behavior; and responsibilities for each spouse.

Life-style Values and General Behavior Norms. Lifestyle values (and norms) determine the appropriate ends (and modes of behavior) that each spouse feels the family should attain (e.g. a house in the country, children in college, or a dishwasher in the kitchen). Rokeach (1973) developed a dichotomy between terminal values (desirable conditions or ends) and instrumental values (desirable modes of attainment). Others used the term ends and means preferences (Kerchoff 1976) to reflect the difference between desired ends (e.g., financial security) and preferred methods of attainment (e.g., savings accounts). Thus, spouses may possess ends and means preferences. These ere translated into life-style values, which when used to evaluate alternatives act as preferences. The term lifestyle norm is used to describe preferred modes of behavior are roles other than those related to sex. Life-style values and norms should influence both consumption priorities and purchase-process preferences. The task facing most families is the conversion of life-style values and norms into family decision outcomes.

An issue of direct interest is the interaction of individual preference functions within the family. Frequently husbands and wives have different lifestyle values and norms. Family decisions result when differing values and norms are passed through a filter of conflict management. An examination of the effects of the decision situation and conflict management are left for later sections.

Sex-role Norms. Sex-role norms are those values and norms (both instrumental and terminal) which are related to the duties and responsibilities of each sex. Different sex-role norms lead to different task allocations, purchase responsibilities, and marital outcomes. The typical approach for measuring sex-roles has been to give a questionnaire to one spouse containing items related to appropriate spousal roles. The responses are sometimes factor analyzed and then factors are classified as traditional or modern. Such classifications have commonly been used to relate sex roles to other variables like marital satisfaction (Scanzoni 1975), 'Who prepares dinner" (Roberts and Wortzel 1979), and family purchase influences (Green and Cunningham 1975). In some studies, the emphasis is primarily theoretical: developing sex-role measures and examining shifts over time (Stafford, Backman and DiBona 1977; Mason, Czajka and Arber 1976; Roper and Luboff 1977). Frequently such effects are developed qualitatively and presented as hypotheses for further research (Davis 1976). Examples of sex-role scale construction include Osmond and Martin (1975), and Brogan and Kutner (1976).

Previous studies linking sex roles to family decision making have been subject to five problems. Many papers are primarily theoretical with little empirical verification. Second, many were more concerned with sex-role scale development rather than actual application of the scales. Third, only one spouse was used frequently as the respondent. When both spouses were used, little effort was made to deal with response incongruity. Fourth, different operational definitions on decision making and on sex-role variables make generalizations unclear. Finally, while much is known about what families and spouses do, few studies have related differences in decision making to either sex roles or other factors which may affect sex roles.

Situation Factors

Situation factors are independent of individual attitudes, but they do interact together to determine situation-specific perceptions of the most desirable ends and means in each situation. When these perceptions are incongruous, conflict occurs. Conflicts arise from three sources: sex-role norm incongruity; preferred-ends incongruity; and preferred-means incongruity. Thus, conflict arises because spouses want different things, expect different things or see the ability of alternatives to deliver desired outcomes differently. Situation factors like the number of alternatives, the risk of the decision, and the decision frequency will affect the degree of conflict.

The terms decision making, family authority, influence, power, etc. have been utilized almost interchangeably in family-interaction research (Sofilios-Rothschild 1970). Many dimensions underlie the influence construct, and different studies have measured different factors resulting in variability and noncomparability across studies. The majority of researchers have examined either decision making influence perceptions or derived measures based on decision outcomes as measures of spouse influence. The influence of each spouse determines his or her effect on the family choice, after the couple applies a conflict management strategy.

Conflict Management

The existence of conflict in most family decision situations leads to conflict avoidance or conflict resolution behavior (Blood 1960). Conflict escalation is also a possibility if management procedures fail. Conflict avoidance consists of four primary methods: 1) abrogation - one member gives up their rights on a decision usually because of lack of interest, 2) specialization - one member is a specialist in particular types of decisions and has the power; 3) withdrawal - one member yields their rights because of a desire to avoid conflict and 4) routinization - the dyad makes the decision several times and the result becomes routinized and little further conflict ensues.

The second type of strategy, conflict resolution, consists of five tactics identified by Sheth and Cosmas (1975): 1) bargaining - members bargain for a compromise; 2) trading - one member gives in on one decision for consideration on the next one; 3) persuasion - one member tries to convince the other of the desirability of their view, 4) mediation - members go to a third party for help in resolving the dispute; 5) problem-solving - members look for a solution to the conflict. Alternative classification schemes and more detailed discussion of conflict management strategies have been presented by Blood (1960), Davis (1976?, Scanzoni (1977), and Sheth and Cosmas (1975). The principal problems of examining conflict management are methodological. Various authors have used different conceptual definitions, and few studies have attempted to empirically measure conflict resolution strategies in families. Thus, no standard, widely accepted, validated scales exist. Employing rating scales of the frequency of use of various conflict-resolution strategies; Sheth and Cosmas (1975) found persuasion or bargaining to be used more often than problem-solving, while Belch, Belch and Sciglimpaglia (1979) found problem-solving to be the more frequent approach.

As conflict-management strategies change, the decision making process and the decision outcomes of the family will also vary. For example, Scanzoni (19775 found decision making to be more problematic, less spontaneous, and more interactive among families in which neither spouse dominates. He also found higher proportions of younger couples (less traditional) to make decisions together and to use bargaining to manage conflict. Sex-role norms also affect bargaining strategy (Scanzoni 1977). Davis (1976) a 1 so noted greater joint decision making among younger couples, while Filliatrault and Ritchie (1980) found that families with children made more joint decisions. Thus, sex-role norms - since they determine the parameters of acceptable spousal behavior - are likely to act as moderator variables on the conflict-management process. However, the examination of such moderator effects are hampered by the absence of carefully constructed, validated, self-administered scales of conflict management.

Process Outcomes

Three general classes of outcomes arise as a result of such interactions: 1) decision behavior, 2) family consumption. 3) marital satisfaction or divorce.

Decision Behavior. Task allocation has been studied by a number of researchers. Household task sharing is usually measured by asking who has responsibility for the cooking?, cleaning?, dishwashing?, etc. (Stafford, Backman and DiBona 1977; Eriksen, Yancey and Eriksen 1977; Clark, Nye and Gecas 1978). However, product decision influence is usually measured by asking who initialized the purchase?, who decided?, who purchased? and so on (Green and Cunningham 1975, Davis 1976, Ferber and Lee 1974). Responses are typically measured on a husband-joint-wife three-point scale, or on five to-seven point scales ranging from husband only through wife only (see Brogan and Kutner 1976 for a summary of methods).

Green and Cunningham ( 19 7 S ) examined the effects of feminine role perceptions on family purchase decisions using Arnott's (1972) Autonomy Inventory - a 10-item, Likert-scale battery. They found an interaction between three sex-role categories (conservative, moderate, and liberal) with age and income on the number of husband, joint, wife decisions. They found feminine role perceptions change more in higher income and younger families.

Decision influence varieS across product areas. Traditionally, certain product choices (e.g. groceries) are dominated by the wife, while other product decisions (e.g. automobiles, life insurance) are dominated by the husband. Although Green and Cunningham (1975) suggest that husband influence is declining, Scanzoni (1977) suggests that most decisions will move from single-spouse domination toward more joint decision making for sex-role modern couples. A third view supported by some preliminary data of ours suggests that single-spouse domination will shift not only toward joint task allocation, but also toward increased influence and responsibility for the nontraditional spouse.

One issue arising in the study of family decision outcomes is the problem of incongruity between responses of husbands and wives (Douglas and Wind 1978; Granbois and Willett 1970; and Sofilios- Rothschild 1¦ 70). Some incongruity appears to be due to question vagueness (e.g., asking "Who decides on clothing?-rather than Who decides on husband's clothing?"). Most authors now agree that it is best to obtain responses from both spouses rather than only one. Others recommend a semi-observational approach -examining some dimensions by self-report at the time of interaction and others by survey approaches after the fact. Examples of self-observation include asking respondents the number of times they perform an activity, and estimates of the portion of time spent per activity (Eriksen, Yancey and Eriksen, 1979; Stafford, Backman and DiBona, 1977).

Another under-researched area of investigation is family information-acquisition and information-processing behavior (Davis 1976). This area clearly interacts with conflict-management strategies, and likely influences satisfaction from consumption decisions. Curry and Menasco (1979) employed an experimental/survey approach to develop information-processing models. The model outcomes were related to derived utility/satisfaction measures for both spouses. Further experimental work in this area will be fruitful C particularly when combined with other methods like information-display boards or conjoint tasks augmented with self-report and observational measures

Consumption Outcomes. Four basic classes of consumption-related outcomes are recognized as results of the joint decision-making and conflict-management process: 1) priorities, 2) preferences, 3) plans, and 4) purchases. By priorities, we mean the ranking of different possible purchase categories according to long and short-term goals (e.g. relative ranking of buying a house, a car, a major durable, etc.). By preferences, we mean rankings for attributes or alternatives within a product class (e.g. Volkswagen or Chevrolet). Preferences represent a more exact specification of priorities within a product set and are likely to be salient later in the decision process. By plans, we mean decisions by the dyad to purchase a type of product within some specified horizon including non-specific ones like "someday". Finally by purchase, we mean actual purchase events specified by the couples' plans as well as unplanned impulse Purchases.

To date, few studies have explicitly related sex-role norms or their antecedents to consumption outcomes although several studies are tangentially related. Douglas (1976) found that sex-role modern working wives differ from sex-role traditional working wives in their reason for buying grocery products, convenience foods, and in shopping behavior. Bartos (1978) also identified differences in consumption patterns and basic priorities between "career-oriented', "just-working", "plan-to-work", and "stay-at-home" married women. Schaninger and Allen (1981) identified consumption, shopping, and media-usage differences between higher (more sex-role modern) and lower status working wife families and non-working wife families. Reilly (1982) developed and examined a causal model linking convenience food consumption and time-saving appliance ownership to such variables as wife's education, work involvement, family social status and income, and role overload, In general, these studies demonstrate that higher status, career-oriented, working wives own more labor-saving durables, devote less time to shipping, and consume less convenience food than their lower status, non-career-oriented, working wives. Causal modelling incorporating more of the variables and linkages of this paper might enhance our understanding of the effect of sex-role norms and consumption.

Marital Satisfaction. Marital satisfaction outcomes will depend on family interaction, consumption, and task allocation outcomes, as well as other factors in the decision-making-process. Kerchoff (1976) identified differences in divorce rates-across demographic segments (e.g. higher incidence among lower socio-economic status, conflicting socio-economic status, or childless couples. Chadwick, Albrecht and Kunz (1976) looked at the effects of roles performed on marital satisfaction. Scanzoni (1975) found similarities in the development of marital solidarity and differences in sex-role norms between black couples and white couples. Frank, Anderson and Rubinstein (1979) examined the effects of role allocation on sexual satisfaction. Current unpublished research by the authors found differences in purchasing patterns of inst-married couples. Those later divorced bought fewer appliances than those reporting "happy" marriages seven years later. Divorced couples also showed greater husband dominance in finance handling and decision making. Thus, couples having more conflict, less congruent sex-role norms and less effective conflict management should exhibit less marital satisfaction.


Because sex-role no ms and task allocation within families are changing, traditional generalizations about family decision making may be obsolete. Husbands may no longer decide which product or product feature to purchase as generally thought. Wives may influence different decisions and perform different buying-center tasks. Decision processes may have evolved into a more egalitarian approach with husbands and wives sharing decision tasks. For some products, these shifts may radically alter the appropriate strategies for both reaching and persuading the evolving family.

The shift in sex-role norms will also affect family purchase priorities and behavior. Labor-saving devices, restaurants, leisure activities, vacation planning, and convenience foods will be purchased by different types of families, through different decision processes, for different reasons. Nontraditional husbands are playing a greater role in grocery shopping and other consumer nondurable purchases (Schaninger, Buss and Grover 1982), while wives are playing a greater role in the purchase of durables and financial instruments (Green and Cunningham 1975). Thus, traditional media scheduling practices, research sampling plans, and copy evaluation procedures may all be in need of adjustment.


Methodological changes will help improve family decision-making research. Five improvements are possible. (1) Both spouses should be used to measure task allocations, sex-role norms, decision-making perceptions and other aspects of the family decision process. (2) Attitudinal sex-role norms covering several dimensions incorporated in prior inter-disciplinary literature should be utilized. (3) Studies should examine several linkages in the family decision process. (4) Where possible, longitudinal studies which incorporate the effects of evolving family conditions should be performed. Finally, (5) representative samples of a region or the nation combined with appropriate multivariate statistics should be applied.

Family research can now access more sophisticated measurement and methodological techniques to examine most of the areas outlined in our model. Two areas still require the development and validation of standardized measurement approaches: conflict-management behavior both avoidance and resolution and the area we define as family decision processes. Ideally such approaches will be capable of being self-administered to large samples with standardized procedures for coding and particularly scoring. A combination of self-report and self-observation over time might prove most useful in completely capturing the complexity in family decision making efficiently. Their development should be validated with other techniques such as in-depth interviews and in-home or laboratory experiments to demonstrate their reliability in capturing the underlying constructs. Other currently available scales still require validation and acceptance by a consensus of family researchers. Examples include measures of sex-role norms, decision influence, finance handling, task allocations and 80 on. Again these measures also require reliability tests through comparisons across techniques.

In addition to these methodological improvements, a number of linkages posited in our model require further investigation.

1) The influence of demographics on sex-role norms.

2) The influence of parental demographics, sex-role norms, task allocations, decision making, and finance handling on the same behaviors in married offspring.

3) The influence of conflict between sex-role norms and parental influences on task allocation, decision making and finance handling.

4) The development and change of sex-role norms from before marriage until they stabilize after marriage.

5) The relationship of sex-role norms, sex-role conflict and stages in role development on conflict, conflict management and the decision-process outcomes.

6) The effect of different demographic and parental influences on conflict development and management.

7) The prediction of consumption behavior as well as the resultant consumer and marital satisfaction of both spouses given individual attitudes, situational factors, and the conflict-management procedures employed.

8) The effect of consumption, task allocation, finance handling, and decision influence on marital satisfaction.

9) The same effect of consumption, task allocation, finance handling, and decision influence on marital satisfaction given different combinations of sex-role norms and conflict-management strategies.

The above research agenda is intended to illustrate some of the areas of investigation suggested by the research framework developed here. It is not exhaustive. Many of the suggestions are also multifaceted and could be broken town further. Specific research hypotheses were not developed due to the degree of detail and space required.

One thing that is clear is that this research will require a multivariate approach. For example, two-way MANOVA's can test the effects of husbands' and wives' sex roles and their interactions on multivariate decision-process outcomes. MANCOVA can be used to remove the effects of demographics from these tests. Canonical correlation analyses can help identify the sex-role structure as it relates to decision processes within both husbands' and wives' attitudes. Causal modelling can be used to decompose the effects of sex-role components on other family behaviors which they help cause. Although the strict assumptions of LISREL make it difficult to apply, partial least squares can be used in many applications. Causal modelling also allows the identification of measurement method(s) effects to aid in both validity and reliability testing.

Using a framework such as the one presented here as a guide to generate research hypotheses and to identify interesting research issues should help improve our knowledge of family decision making. Until we begin to provide some structure to the myriad of family-related findings, we will be performing suboptimal research. We have attempted to integrate multiple interdisciplinary research and theoretical views with those of consumer behavior. We hope that the field of consumer behavior will adopt a useful, general model of family decision making so that we can increase our knowledge of the linkages and components presented in this research framework.


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W. Christian Buss, State University of New York at Albany
Charles M. Schaninger, State University of New York at Albany


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 10 | 1983

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