Role Load in the Household

ABSTRACT - The authors expand Reilly's (1982) operationalization of role load by comparing both spouses simultaneously to identify cases where: (1) one spouse 18 overloaded and the other underloaded; (2) both are overloaded; and (3) both are underloaded. Empirical analyses determine the scales to be reliable after slight modification and independent for husbands and wives. Five different household role load configurations are identified and described. The paper concludes with propositions about the implications of spouses' role load situations on information acquisition, purchase decision-making, and assortment of goods and services found in the household.


Ellen Foxman and Alvin C. Burns (1987) ,"Role Load in the Household", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, eds. Melanie Wallendorf and Paul Anderson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 458-462.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, 1987      Pages 458-462


Ellen Foxman, Washington State University

Alvin C. Burns, University of Central Florida


The authors expand Reilly's (1982) operationalization of role load by comparing both spouses simultaneously to identify cases where: (1) one spouse 18 overloaded and the other underloaded; (2) both are overloaded; and (3) both are underloaded. Empirical analyses determine the scales to be reliable after slight modification and independent for husbands and wives. Five different household role load configurations are identified and described. The paper concludes with propositions about the implications of spouses' role load situations on information acquisition, purchase decision-making, and assortment of goods and services found in the household.


Over the past several years, researchers have investigated the phenomenon of working wives and its effects on household consumption. For the purpose of introduction, three streams of research can be identified. Each will be briefly described, and then the focal construct in this paper will be presented.

Numerous studies have documented demographic shifts which are customarily reported in percentages of working wives or hours worked over time. Bartos (1977, 1978), McCall (1977), and Robinson (1977) typify this category, and all have shown dramatic increases in the numbers of working wives. Zeithaml (1985) aptly describes the marketing implication of this trend. A separate question concerns the effects of working status on household purchase behavior, and researchers such as Douglas (1976), Reynolds, Crask, and Wells (1977), Strober and Weinberg (1977, 1980), and Shaninger and Allen (1981) have sought to determine relationships between wife's working status and convenience goods consumption. Finally, the last category of research addresses the impact of working status on husband and wife purchase decision making. An example is Davis (1974), who describes comparative resource theory as a determinant of influence distributions in household decision making. Empirical studies in this area are typified by Spiro (1983), Ferber and Lee (1974), and Munsinger, Weber, and Hansen (1975).

The last two categories of research have tended to yield findings of weak associations between work status and consumption or decision making. But significant progress has been made by Reilly (1982) who has revealed the operation of a variable, namely "role overload," which moderates work involvement and convenience goods consumption as well as time-saving durable goods ownership. Consequently, this paper adopts role load (i.e., a continuum of demands on a spouse's time, energy and other resources) as its focal construct. The purposes of the paper include presenting an expanded conceptualization of role load and reporting some empirical results which describe the measurement properties of a role load scale along with some individual household differences.


While Reilly (1982) restricted his attention to wife role load and found causal linkages to convenience items purchases and time-saving durables ownership , it is important to note that role load has been documented in males as well. For instance, early writings by McClelland (1961) or Kahn et. al. (1964) identified significant amounts of role load in male workers. Also, psychologists and sociologists such as Holahan and Gilbert (1979) or Keith and Schafer (1980) have reported role load for husbands as well as wives. These studies illustrate the need for an expansion of Reilly's (1982) conceptualization of role load as it affects household consumption. A separate consideration calling for review of role load is pointed out by Reilly himself. He notes a major problem in his findings to be the small amount of variance explained by the constructs in his model and suggests that an important explanatory variable may have been omitted. This paper expands the conceptualization by including the role load situations of both decision makers in the household. (A previous paper, Burns and Foxman (1986), details the determinants and individual differences component of role load in the household.)

Figure 1 offers a simple diagram which simultaneously compares the role load of the wife to that of the husband. The midpoint corresponds to the same "average" amount of total role load perceived by husbands and wives. Four quadrants are apparent: (1) Both spouses underloaded; (2) Both spouses overloaded; (3) Husband role overloaded and wife underloaded; and (4) Wife role overloaded and husband underloaded. This comparison illustrates that heavy role portrayal pressures perceived by one spouse may be offset by light demands on the other. On the other hand, both spouses may experience heavy (or light) role demands. If role load is a determinant of household consumption, the simultaneous comparison of both spouses' role load situations would appear to be more appropriate than isolating attention on the wife alone.




It is important to note that Reilly's (1982) study is the first to operationalize role load in household consumption, and the authors have seen little subsequent empirical study in this area. An exception is Joag, Gentry, and Hopper (1984) who used their own scale. In other words, the construct is still in the early stages of scale development and descriptive analysis. Consequently, for this study, the following research questions were pursued in sequence.

1. Can perceived role load be measured reliably for both spouses?

2. Is perceived role load independent for spouses in the household?

3. Do groups of husbands and wives exist at different role load configurations?

4. Can unique demographic or consumption factors be formed for various role load configuration groups?


Questionnaire and Sample

The study utilized a convenience sample of married women living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. A self-administered questionnaire was designed as part of a larger study on household consumption. One section of the questionnaire included Reilly's thirteen Likert-scaled items (1982, Appendix A, p. 417) operationalizing wife role load while the identical thirteen items were modified with the subject, "my husband," to operationalize perceived husband role load. Other sections on the questionnaire related to demographics, consumption items, and purchase decision making.

Respondents were -solicited with a two-stage approach. In the first stage, several different womens' groups presidents were set letters requesting them to distribute questionnaires at the next group meeting. The letters stated the local university was sponsoring the study and that anonymity was assured for each respondent. For those agreeing to do so, the appropriate number of questionnaires, with postage-paid return envelopes attached, was sent. A total of 180 useable questionnaires was included in the analyses described in this paper. Married women from at least six different groups participated in the study. Table 1 presents a demographic profile of the sample and reveals that the objective of gathering data from a fairly wide range of married women was attained. Nonetheless, the final sample was clearly educationally and financially up-scale.



Reliability and Independence of Perceived Role Load

The reliability of the husband and wife role load scales was assessed in the same way Reilly (1982) assessed the original. That is, item-to-total correlations were scrutinized and low items deleted. Reilly's lowest reported item-to-total correlation for retained items was .502; consequently, a cutoff of .50 was used. Table 2 lists the thirteen items and associated correlations for the final scale operationalizations. For both husband and wife role load, Item #8 ('Many times I/my husband have/has to cancel commitments.") was deleted. The table also reports that one additional item was deleted on each scale. Chronbach alpha coefficients for the final scales were determined to be .89 and .93 for wife and husband role load, respectively. Reilly reported a value of .88 in his scale.



For the test of statistical independence between the two scales, a Pearson product-moment correlation coefficient was computed for the summed item responses pertaining to each reduced scale. A value of .056 (nonsignificant) was found, indicating no systematic association between perceived wife role load and perceived husband role load within households.

Subgroup Analysis

The conceptualization of simultaneously compared husband and wife role load posits that the two dimensions are orthogonal. Further, it suggests that couples will be found in any of the four quadrants. The finding of essentially zero correlation between the two scales verified the independence of the dimensions and permitted the application of cluster analysis as a convenient means of identifying similar groupings of households.

Since cluster analysis is an imprecise technique, two precautions were taken to guard against spurious or artifact results. In the first one, the sample was split in half and two separate cluster analyses, using Ward's method, were performed to determine the number of clusters. In both cases, inspection of the plot of the number of clusters against the Cubic Clustering Criterion suggested a five cluster solution was appropriate. Thus, when this pattern was corroborated with the full sample, greater confidence was applied to the belief that five subgroups existed. The second safeguard necessitated a split-half discriminant analysis performed with the five cluster groups. With the odd-number questionnaire responses used to built the discriminant model coefficients, reclassification of the even-numbered holdout sample resulted 81 out of 88, or 92%, correct. Thus result further strengthened the belief that spurious results had been held to a minimum.

Table 3 contains descriptions of the five subgroup clusters found in this stage of the analysis. Analyses of variance incorporating Duncan's Multiple Range Test found significant differences between all five husband role load cluster means (p<-.10). For wife role load, clusters 5 and 2 and clusters 2 and 4 failed to be significantly different.



The specification of the midpoints on the perceived husband and wife role load dimensions was a bit problematic. Strictly using the 11, 5-point scale items, a range of 11 to 55 was possible, with a midpoint of 33 mathematically correct. However, inspection of the sample means revealed an average of 31.2 and 40.2, respectively. It was decided to use the sample averages to identify the midpoints to adjust for any response-scale biases which may have entered or natural differences (i.e., husbands may be less role loaded than wives in general) which may have influenced the responses. Comparisons of the cluster centroid values to these benchmarks allowed the descriptions provided in Table 3.

Demographic and Consumption Factors Unique to Subgroups

The final analyses were exploratory comparisons of selected demographic factors and one consumption-related variable across the clusters. Analyses of variance were performed using cluster grouping to inspect for significant differences in: (1) wife age, (2) husband age, (3) wife's workweek length, (4) husband's workweek length, (5) number of children in various age categories, (6) total family income, and (7) percent of family income contributed by the wife. In addition, Chi-square tests were performed on categorical variables of: (1) husband's education, (2) wife's education, and (3) race. Finally, a count of the number of time-saving durables and services found in the household was compared.

Because of the tentative nature and sparseness of these comparisons, tables are not offered. Instead, the general patterns of findings will be described. Significant differences were found only for husband age, number of children, husband workweek length, and percent of family income contributed by the wife.

Subgroups 4 and 5 demonstrated the most interesting profiles. In subgroup 4 (Husband Underloaded, Wife Overloaded) husbands tended to be older (46 years) and worked fewer hours (30 per week), while wives contributed most to the family income (52 percent). In subgroup 5 (Husband Overloaded, Wife Overloaded), husbands were younger (38 years) and worked more hours (46 per week), while more preschool-aged children were present, and the wife contributed the least (32 percent) to the family income.


Before continuing on, three limitations of this study must be mentioned. First, the results must be tempered against the convenience sample used. A conscientious effort was made to gather a broad cross-section of married women, and this objective was partially accomplished. Nonetheless, the results are generalizable only to households similar to the demographic profile presented in Table 1. Second, the use of the wife's perception of her husband's role load does raise questions of accuracy and may be criticized for this reason. Finally, the judgement necessary to use cluster analysis presents opportunity for error even though safeguards were present.

Balanced against these limitations, the results of this exploratory study suggest that perceptions of husband and wife role load can be measured; although, there is room for further measure purification. That role load is independent between spouses indicates that they either react differently to identical role demands (e.g. parent role) or they have different role demands (e.g. mother versus father). Most probably a mixture of the two exists. Finally, the exploratory results indicate that working status of the wife is not a sole determinant of role load as one might believe, for family demands appear to be equally important for certain households. In other words, conceptualization of role load requires a general resource framework for proper understanding .

The descriptive findings of this study permit speculation on the consequences of role load on household consumption decision-making and assortment of goods and services. For purposes of discussion, we will identify three categories of consequences where future research may be applied. These three categories are: (1) information acquisition by household members in the early stages of evaluation; (2) purchase decision making by household members in the latter stages of the process; and (3) the assortment of goods and services possessed by a household. Figure 2 summarizes our current propositions for various role load configurations. In these propositions, we assume that household members will work together toward resolution of purchase decisions, and that a role underloaded spouse will tent to take on more of the tasks involved when the other spouse over loaded . Similarly, if both are underloaded, the process will be more leisurely and jointly-executed than when both are overloaded.

In addition, our description adopts a family purchase decision-making framework advocated by Burns and Granbois (1980) and espoused by Gredal (1966) which requires looking at the process across three levels. In descending order of specificity, these are (1) budget allocation, (2) generic product choice, and (3) specific variant selection. Budget allocation refers to decisions which bind family resources over long time periods. Generic product choice pertains to selection of one product over another after budget allocation has been decided. Finally, specific variants are subdecisions such as brand, style, size, color, and so on. Our assumption is that the more role load perceived by a spouse, the less the tendency to participate in specific variant decisions.



In our predictions, it has been necessary to assume that other determinants are constant. That is, expertise, income contribution differences, or other sources of decision-making involvement are not taken into consideration. Each category's predictions are now described in order

Information Acquisition

When one spouse is overloaded and the other underloaded, it is likely that greater delegation ant/or voluntary assumption of information-gathering activities will occur for the underloaded spouse. Thus, store visitation, interaction with sales personnel, reading of sales and advertising literature, and product trial are example of these tasks. The underloaded spouse would be expected to gather raw information, distill it, and communicate it back to the overloaded spouse. If both spouses are underloaded, the prediction is that greater joint information search, such as shopping trips, and greater discussion of information will take place. ID other words, the most extended instances of information search and joint processing would be anticipated here. Finally, when both spouses are role overloaded, one would expect information acquisition to be relatively shorter, perhaps truncated, or highly abbreviated because of other time demands on the spouses.

Purchase Decision Making

This stage pertains to the level of decisions, influence distributions, and extensiveness of deliberations. For the household with one over- and one underloaded, it would be expected that the overloaded spouse would be more involved in budget allocation stages and less involved in product or variant selection decisions. Decision resolution for these would be delegated to or assumed by the underloaded spouse. The decision process at this level would be most similar to individual decision-making since the role overloaded spouse would take a passive role. If both spouses were role underloaded, the decision-making process would be an extended joint process; that is, more alternatives would be considered; more criteria would be used; and greater time would be needed to discuss individual preferences. The greatest incidence of approximately equal decision-making influence distribution would be anticipated for these couples. Finally, if both spouses are role overloaded, a prediction of more autonomy and speedier resolution is appropriate. Also, it is probable that postponement of important purchase decisions occurs here when spouses cannot resolve preference differences quickly.

Household Assortment of Goods and Services

Role load configurations have implications for household assortment; however, since goods and services are built up over time, it is necessary to preface this section with a warning that the configuration would have to have been stable for some time before assortment effects would be apparent. For the over- and underloaded household, one would predict that labor-saving and convenience items would be skewed toward the overloaded spouse to help him/her reduce the load. On the other hand, considering previous predictions on decision making, it is probable that variants such as brands, styles, and options will more closely track the preferences of the under loaded spouse who may have acted as the household purchasing agent. For households with both spouses underloaded, the lowest incidence of convenience and time-savers should be found, and those which are found should be consistent with jointly-agreeing preferences. On the other hand, the greatest incidence of these assortment items should be found in the household characterized by both role overloaded, and the items should represent diffused preferences due to autonomous purchases and lack of joint decisions on specific variants.


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Ellen Foxman, Washington State University
Alvin C. Burns, University of Central Florida


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14 | 1987

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