Recent Developments in Research on Family Decisions

ABSTRACT - A number of important developments in family decision research have occurred in recent years. This paper discusses these advances in terms of four major topic areas. First, patterns of household consumption are discussed from the perspective of recent social and economic trends. Second, research on family members' relative influence in decision making is reviewed. Recent research on decision processes, including studies of conflict resolution, influence strategies and decision plans is the third major topic of discussion. The fourth topic concerns significant barriers confronting research on-the family. The paper closes by identifying some worthwhile topics for future research.


Elizabeth S. Moore-Shay and William L. Wilkie (1988) ,"Recent Developments in Research on Family Decisions", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 15, eds. Micheal J. Houston, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 454-460.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 15, 1988      Pages 454-460


Elizabeth S. Moore-Shay, University of Florida

William L. Wilkie, University of Notre Dame


A number of important developments in family decision research have occurred in recent years. This paper discusses these advances in terms of four major topic areas. First, patterns of household consumption are discussed from the perspective of recent social and economic trends. Second, research on family members' relative influence in decision making is reviewed. Recent research on decision processes, including studies of conflict resolution, influence strategies and decision plans is the third major topic of discussion. The fourth topic concerns significant barriers confronting research on-the family. The paper closes by identifying some worthwhile topics for future research.


The nature of family and other joint consumption is a particularly important topic for consumer researchers. Three basic reasons account for its significance. First, a substantial proportion of all consumption involves the shared use of products and services. Most housing units are shared, as are the products and services consumed therein, including food, utilities, appliances, insurance, autos, and so forth. In addition, joint purchase decisions can be far more complex than the choices made by an individual consumer, since they require the recognition and handling of the interests and desires of several participants. The nature of influences can be either direct (e.g., through involvement in the evaluation of alternatives), or indirect (to the degree that a person's needs or desires are considered by those who are buying). Finally, the 1970's and 1980's have brought a series of economic and social changes in the contexts within which household decisions are being made.

In recent years a number of important developments have occurred in research in this area. This paper provides an overview of these and points to further directions in which future research efforts would be fruitful. The coverage consists of four major topics:

1. Household consumption patterns. How have these changed due to the dramatically shifting demographic, economic, and social trends during the 1970's and 1980's?

2. Studies of relative influence in family decision-making. How much influence do family membersChusbands (if present), wives, and children have on particular product and service decisions?

3. Studies of decision process within family decision making. How does a family actually make its decisions, and what methodologies are most appropriate to this type of analysis?

4. Why more research has not been undertaken in this area. Why is family research so difficult? What barriers need to be addressed to undertake good research in this area?


The 1970's and 1980's have witnessed a series of economic, demographic and social trends which dramatically affect consumers' lives. Rising income, educational levels and expectations are just a subset of the powerful forces reshaping the economic and social environment. As the 'baby boom' generation approaches maturity, for example, continued population growth and shifts in the population age structure promise to have a profound impact on our future. The consumer research literature contains no overall discussion of precisely how these trends pertain to consumption by families, but several articles have analyzed impacts of specific cultural shifts. These include the effects of increased household formations, of residential mobility, and of the cultural shift toward working women within the family.

Exploding Households And Residential Mobility

A virtual explosion in the number of American households has clearly affected the total demand for many types of products and services in recent years. According to the Census Bureau's definition, each occupied housing unit in the nation comprises one household (thus a large family home, a single-person studio, and a three-roommate apartment would each constitute one household for statistical purposes). As of 1990, there are expected to be approximately 100 million households in the United States. Most households are families: approximately 70 million families are expected in 1990 (Wilkie 1986). All products and services consumers consider household necessities (e.g., refrigerator, telephone, insurance, furniture, etc.) will tend to have at least one additional unit added for each newly-formed household unit.

As an indication of the manner in which shifts are occurring, consider that, during the 1970's, while the population grew just over 10 percent, the number of households grew at more than double this rate, up over 25 percent. The number of single-person households rose by 68%, and the 1970 average of 3.1 persons per household has fallen to an average of 2.7 as of 1985. Over half of all households today have only one or two persons in them. Two key factors were primarily responsible for this increase: higher divorce rates and an increase in the average age for first marriages. As a set, these changes indicate that the family of today has a different composition and a different context within which to make consumption choices.

Another key trend affecting family consumption involves the return to a high level of residential mobility. Approximately 40 million Americans move each year, for example, and residential mobility brings three primary effects on consumer behavior (WiLkie 1986). First, it shifts market locations for retail purchases. Second, it creates regions of relative growth and regions of relative decline. Third, for the consumers who move, residential mobility creates demand for particular purchases and for the development of new patronage relationships for services. Large financial outlays are required for new housing and costs associated with the move itself. For many consumers, a change of residence also signals the need for new service providers (banks, insurance, medical care, etc.), new furnishings, appliances and other products to support the new lifestyle. As an example of the magnitude of these demands, Wilkie and Dickson (1985) report that almost one in five (20%) of their national sample of recent buyers of major appliances listed a residential move as the primary motivator for their purchase.

Working Women and Consumer Demand

The accelerated pace at which women have entered the labor force is one of the dominant cultural shifts of modern times. McCall (1986) reports that approximately 60 percent of all people entering the work-force in recent years have been women. While the number of working women has tripled since World War II, the number of working mothers has increased tenfold. Researchers interested in family decision making have attempted to determine the impact of women's employment on product ownership. Several researchers have suggested, for example, that outside employment should increase the demand for time-saving durables. Intuitively, this would be due to two primary factors, less time available for household tasks, and an increase in total household income that enables purchases previously beyond the family's budget.

Examination of the time-saving appliances hypothesis, however, has not provided empirical support. Several studies have found that, when income held constant and families with working wives are compared to those in which the wife is not employed, nc significant differences in ownership for time-saving durables appear. Thus wives' labor force participation appears to be unrelated to both the ownership of these products and the amount spent when purchases are made (Nickols and Fox 1983; Strober and Weinberg 1977; Weinberg and Winer 1983). Total household income, however, is a significant predictor of both ownership an expenditure level for new purchases of time-saving durables (dishwashers, refrigerators, microwave ovens) ar well as other durables (Strober and Weinberg 1977, 1980; Weinberg and Winer 1983).

Several plausible explanations of these findings have been raised. Strober and Weinberg (1977) point out that the fact that women's participation in the labor force has become more permanent means that her earnings are a continuing part of a family's resources. Families do not treat husbands' and wives' income differently, and are likely to make their purchase decisions on the basis of X single income total. Also, while it is clear that time pressures are a real accompaniment of a wife's employment, other strategies are available for adapting to this pressure. Working wives can try to buy time by substituting the labor of others (paid help, husband or children), or to save time by becoming more efficient in household tasks, by reducing quality in household production, or to shift time by decreasing leisure activities, volunteer work or sleep (Strober and Weinberg 1980; Fox and Nickols 1983).

Schaninger and Allen (1981), stressed the impact of wives' specific motivations for working. Their three part classification scheme (non-working wives, those working in lower status occupations, and those employed in higher status positions) revealed that women in lower status positions are more likely to hold primarily economic motivations for work, while those in higher status positions tend to be more career oriented. The lifestyles and consumption patterns of the two working groups were quite dissimilar (even more dissimilar than either group as compared to the nonworking women). Significant differences were found for a wide variety of product purchases, as well as in shopping behavior and deal proneness.

Thus the set of research on working wives suggests that further dimensions, such as total family income, shifts in lifestyles and activities, and a woman's career orientation, must be added to the simple "employed or not" view of this issue. More broadly, the economic and social trends which have emerged in recent years promise to have major impacts on consumer behavior in the future.


One of the key historical issues in family research involves identifying the roles and relative influence of various family members in different types of consumer decisions. As reviewed in this section, research has shown that relative influences depend on the product, the stage of the decision-making process (e.g., problem recognition vs. choice), and the subdecision under consideration (e.g., when to buy vs. how much to spend).

On a more abstract level, it is useful to identify types of consumer roles enacted within a family buying process. Family members may, for example, stimulate the decision, contribute information, decide on the store, brand or model, purchase and pay for the product, consume or share in the benefits, and/or prepare or maintain the product in operating condition. In addition, many household purchases(e.g., homes, autos, vacations, education, etc.) are sufficiently costly that family finances become an important consideration during purchase. Financial management practices influence savings patterns, resource allocations, and selection of specific products and services.

Family Financial Management

From the earliest studies of financial management, research has shown that substantial variation exists among families in how husbands and wives share responsibilities for bill payment, tracking of expenditures and use of residual funds (e.g., Sharp and Mott 1956; Wolgast 1958; Ferber and Lee 1974; Beutler and Sahlberg 1980; Schaninger, Buss and Grover 1982). A number of economic, sociological and attitudinal factors were identified as accounting for role structure differences in earlier research (Wolgast 1958; Ferber and Nicosia 1972). More recent research has added focus on the impact of sex role attitudes and wife's employment status.

Sex role attitudes may be thought of as arrayed along a continuum from traditional to modern, where "traditional" views reflect sharply dichotomous roles for males and females and "modem" views reflect a greater sharing of roles between the sexes (Rosen and Granbois 1983). The beliefs spouses hold on the importance of a wife's career and sharing of household responsibilities have been found to differentiate patterns of financial management (Schaninger, Buss and Grover 1982). Sex role attitudes have also been found to affect the implementation of financial decisions (e.g., bill payment), but not the manner in which these decisions are actually made (Rosen and Granbois 1983).

A renewed research interest in family financial decision making has recently emerged (Granbois, Rosen and Acito 1986; Hopper 1984). The extent and nature of family financial planning, patterns of saving and investment as well as determinants of financial decision roles have each been the topic of recent work. However, many issues remain unresolved, and this area merits considerably more research in the future. Important topics include: the relationship between financial planning and consumption decisions, the relationship between family life cycle stages and financial management, the effect of lifestyle factors on financial management, and the success associated with different types of family financial practices.

Relative Influence in Purchase Decisions

The relative influence of husbands and wives in family purchase decisions has received research attention for many years. In the 1950's, researchers found that the specific forms of influence depended on the product under consideration (Wolgast 1958; LeGrand and Udell 1964). In the early 1970's, Professor Harry Davis and his colleagues refined these findings by showing that decision influence also depends on stage in the decision process and the specific subdecision considered (Davis 1970; Davis and Rigaux 1974). In recent years, researchers have- extended these findings.

Table 1 reports a representative set of results of this research approach, summarizing Woodside and Motes' (1979) findings (n= 200 families). Beyond the detailed findings, several generalizations can be gleaned:

Product differences are evident, with the wife's influence stronger for carpeting and clothes washers, while the husband's influence is stronger for television sets

For each of these products, however, the average" score (listed in the bottom row) is highest for joint decisions in which the husband and wife bring approximately equal influence. Thus joint decision-making is common even for products that appear to be sex-role defined.

For each of the products, and for every subdecision listed, there is at least one substantial subgroup of families reporting a different influence pattern from the norm. This indicates that market segmentation is likely to exist in many situations.

Although only indicated in a Table footnote, there are potential measurement difficulties in this research approach. The results reported reflect the perceptions of both husbands and wives. For all results excepting the six noted in television, patterns were common. The six television results did differ slightly, however, with husbands perceiving higher levels of husband dominance, while wives reported higher levels of joint decision-making.

Finally, note that an interesting pattern emerges as the decision moves from initial consideration stages toward final purchasing. In general, one or the other spouse will tend to dominate the early stages, then the process will shift toward joint decision-making for shopping activities (see also Davis and Rigaux 1974; Bonfield 1978).

With respect to potential segmentation applications, Bonfield's (1978) extension of the Davis and Rigaux study found small but significant differences in influence patterns of the "traditional couples" in the sample. Schaninger, Buss and Grover (1982) detected significant impacts of sex-role attitudes, with "modern" sex-role families exhibiting increased joint and wife-dominated decision-making for household durables. Similar results were also reported by Qualls (1982), in his study of housing purchase decisions. Here "modern" households indicated that seven of eight housing subdecisions (including price, floor plan, location, style and master suite) were joint decisions.

With respect to potential measurement difficulties several issues merit attention in future research. For example, when the responses of husbands and wives are compared on an aggregate basis, there is little disagreement regarding decision influence. When comparisons are made within families however, a significant proportion of couples (ranging from 10% to 50%) disagree about the influence of one spouse relative to the other for any given decision (Davis 1970; Davis and Rigaux 1974; Burns and Hopper 1986). Researchers have also voiced concern about the potential biasing effects of scales used to assess relative influence (Davis 1976; Szybillo, Sosanie and Tenenbein 1979; Bums and Hopper 1986).


In contrast to research on relative influence, research on family decision processes is a relatively recent development. In advocating a shift toward decision process research, several researchers have recently argued that an overemphasis on the structural aspects of relative influence has delayed our understanding of how the decisions themselves are actually made (Davis 1976; Spiro 1983; Brinberg and Schwenk 1986).

One of the key elements of the decision process approach to family research lies in the recognition that the family members involved in a joint decision may not share the same purchase motives, choice criteria, information, or product preferences. External influences (friends, advertising, etc.) may be differentially experienced as well. Finally, even close familial partners are often unaware of the specific nature of their partner's preferences or choice strategies (Park 1982). These characteristics all set the stage for potential conflict during a joint purchase process.

To date, much of the research concerned with family decision processes has attempted to explain how the partners balance and compromise as they wend their way toward a final decision. Research has focused on assessing the degree of conflict typical in family decision-making, strategies of conflict management and spousal use of influence strategies.

Conflict in Family Decisions

Underlying conflict in family decisions appears to be a pervasive phenomenon. In her sample of recent purchasers of a major durable, Spiro (1983) found that a surprising 88% of the married couples reported that they had encountered disagreements during the purchase process and had had to adopt accommodative strategies with their partners! Belch, Belch and Sciglimpaglia (1980) assessed both the level of disagreement and the strategies typically employed to resolve these disagreements, across a variety of product and service decisions. Though the overall levels of disagreement were reported to be low in this study, differences existed across product categories and within process stages. Subdecisions such as where or when to buy a particular brand or model, for example, stimulated low levels of disagreement. With subdecisions such as the amount of money to spend on a particular product, however, the level of intra-family disagreement noticeably increased.



Typically, families work hard to minimize the effects of disagreements. Recent studies indicate that families seem to rely most heavily upon three problem solving modes to reduce their levels of disagreement. These are: additional search for information, family discussion, and delegation of responsibility to the most knowledgeable family member. However, Belch et al. (1980) report the intriguing observation that children's perceptions of the conflict resolution strategies employed within the home are not the same as their parents'. Moreover, children are not the only family members to perceive conflict resolution from a unique vantage point. In the aforementioned Spiro (1983) study, when partners were asked about the influence strategies which their spouse had employed during the decision, the answers did not come close to matching the actual strategies reported by their partners!

In perhaps the first major study to e%amine influence strategies, Spiro (1983) discovered five distinct influence styles among the husbands and wives who participated. About 60% of the sample, the low-level influencers, reported only infrequent attempts to influence their partners (when attempts were made, moreover, "expert influence strategies" were most employed, in which one spouse tries to convince the partner that he or she is the more knowledgeable, perhaps by presenting detailed information). The second largest segment, at about 20% of the sample, might be seen as subtle influencers These people also rely on an expert influence strategy, but extended this adding a "reward/referent strategy" based on a partner's ability to reward the spouse or to appeal to special feelings of closeness.

The third segment, the emotional influencers, were a small (7%) yet distinctive group. These people report a high use of emotional (crying, displays of anger, the 'silent treatment') as well as reward/referent strategies. The fourth segment, combination influencers (10%), employ a variety of strategies with almost equal frequency. This group can be distinguished from the heavy influencers (the remaining 7% of the sample) by the fact that they use each of the strategies moderately while the heavy influencers indicate frequent use of each influence type.

Interestingly, Spiro's analysis revealed that a given husband-wife pair was likely to have both partners using the same type of influence strategy. If one spouse did not attempt to resolve disagreements through the use of influence strategies, his(her) spouse was also unlikely to do so. Among the most important discriminators in the Spiro study were age, traditional family ideology, a desire to avoid conflict, and the percentage of income contributed by the wife. However, this husband/wife agreement in strategy orientation does not seem to arise in a conscious manner since, when asked to identify what influence strategies their spouses employed during the purchase decision process, both husbands and wives were unable to accurately do so!

The avoidance of conflict may in fact be one of the most important determinants of the decision process. Thus, while we might assume that joint decision-making is a highly rational process, and is characterized by systematic planning and analysis, the evidence seems to suggest otherwise.

Plans And Processes In Family Decisions

Though consistent with respect to conflict, a somewhat different conceptualization of family purchase decisions is advanced in C. Whan Park's (1982) "muddling through" process. Here husbands and wives are seen to have only limited awareness of one another's preferences, and couples move toward a final resolution by stressing simpler, small decisions aimed at avoiding conflicts. Each spouse seems to muddle through the decision process without providing very much information about his(her) own strategies, and without learning very much about his(her) partner's strategies. In Park's study, for example, less than half of the dimensions considered in the purchase decision (for a new home) were common to both partners. Further, little convergence seems to occur as a couple nears a final choice. However, the couple does not realize that their decision criteria are not very similar. Thus families believe that they come to a decision jointly when in reality they reach a decision through a disjointed, unstructured strategy. In order to help consumers make better decisions for large, complex purchases, Park developed a "decision plan net" approach (Park 1982).

With respect to avoiding conflict, Park discovered three primary heuristics used by the couples in his study. First, spouses attempted early in the decision process to identify some key objective dimensions (price, number of bedrooms) on which they agree: these then became goals that guided the remainder of the process. Second, for characteristics where one partner has particular expertise (i.e., kitchen, plumbing), responsibilities are easily delegated to that partner. Third, concessions are frequently made on the basis of latitude of acceptance factors. For example, if a wife feels that four bedrooms are necessary, while her husband prefers three but considers four acceptable, he will likely concede to her on this point.

The analysis of family decision-making processes -raises questions which are not immediately obvious or intuitive. Two major themes of recent research, family conflict and husbands' and wives' lack of insight into one anothers' goals and preferences merit particular attention in future research.


The foregoing discussions have indicated both the importance of this area, and the significant research advances of recent years. However, the topic of family consumer behavior, while recognized as important, remains one of the most under-researched areas in all consumer behavior. Wilkie (1986) has identified six characteristics that help to explain why this is the case:

Family decisions are made within a private, intimate social group. The fact that families constitute intimate social groups means that it is difficult for an external researcher to observe the decision process without biasing it. Also, the intimate nature of the group means that history and nuances of personal relationships will be important parts of the decision context, but again may not be easily available to, or measurable by, the consumer researcher.

Families make and spend money continuously. This characteristic means that time can be a crucial factor, as can the sheer number of purchase and use occasions. It thus becomes difficult to capture all the consumption decisions even for a single family.

Family consumption decisions are not independent. Since resources are typically more limited than family members' desires, resource allocations are necessary. For example, very different options such as a new appliance, vacation travel, or a self-improvement course may compete, with the losing options either deferred or negated.

Families have multiple decision-makers. This means that a family's purchase decisions range from the personal, individual choices of a single member to truly joint decisions involving any combination of members. Capturing what actually goes on when multiple decision makers are involved, of course, adds a special research challenge to this area of study.

Family decisions differ by type of product or service. To the extent that this pertains to particular issues, valid generalizations are difficult to reach on the basis of research covering only a few products or services.

Families differ significantly from each other. In addition to the individual personalities within them, families differ from each other in terms of wealth, age, social status, lifestyles, number and mix of members, mobility, existing stock of goods, and many other factors. In addition, the decision styles of families differ for example, some families are patriarchies, others are matriarchies, with others being more egalitarian. Roles for children differ as well. Differences among families make it difficult for a researcher to generalize, even within a relatively circumscribed study.

Given these characteristics, it is perhaps more clear how research difficulties have led this area to be under-researched in consumer behavior. Even so, however, substantial progress has been made, and more is possible.


It appears that there are two primary areas in which future research on household consumer behavior is needed. First, much of the actual consumption by households represents functional behavior within the context of their particular lifestyles. These lifestyles in turn have been molded by powerful forces in our culture. One of the most important areas for future research is thus to better specify and examine the relationship between major social, economic and demographic trends and aggregate patterns of household consumption. The consumer research literature as yet does not include discussions of changes which have occurred in aggregate consumption patterns and, in addition the effects these changes have on modes of decision-making. Research effort which attempts to conceptualize and then empirically examine these links is particularly needed given the rapidity of social change in recent years.

The second area for future research development involves family decision processes, with special attention to the potentials of conflict resolution theory. Recent research has begun to handle this issue well. Still remaining, however, are further issues of how family members interact with each other in characteristic fashions to reach various purchase decisions. These kinds of topics pose a formidable methodological challenge to future research. For example, Brinberg and Schwenk (1985) recommend that research focus on the process of interaction between spouses involved in a purchase decision. Detailed analysis of these interactions can provide a wealth of useful information regarding the sequential structure of the decision including responsiveness to one another's point of view, extent of disagreement and adoption of problem solving strategies (see also Bonfield, Kaufman and Hernandez 1984; Buss and Schaninger 1984; Park 1982 for additional suggested approaches).

Another major theme for future research on family decision processes is the relationship between information processing and joint decision-making. For example, as noted earlier, recent research has documented a startling lack of insight which spouses seem to have into one another's preferences, goals and decision strategies (moreover, husbands and wives appear to be unaware that they lack this knowledge, and are instead relatively confident of their ability to predict one another's choice criteria (Davis, Hoch and Ragsdale 1986)). Research that ties conflict reduction, motives and strategies to interactive decisions holds particular potential to explain this strange set of affairs. While the tie between information processing and joint decisions has not yet received much attention, it is a natural extension for the growing body of work elsewhere in the field.

Financial management decisions constitute a third area of family decision processes in which future research is needed. For example, little is known about how families decide how to allocate their resources or determine financial priorities. The timing of particular financial decisions and the decision processes involved in selecting financial services are issues of interest to both marketers and families interested in effective fiscal management. Extensive recent growth in the range and complexity of financial service opportunities available to consumers clearly highlights the need for research on this topic.

Overall, there is a substantial need for high quality research on the consumer behaviors of families and households. Significant barriers to research do exist, and many unanswered issues and questions remain. However, we should not lose sight of the fact that a number of new findings and new insights have been reported in recent years. Thus it is clear that considerable progress has been made recently, and that a momentum is present for further research in the future.


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Elizabeth S. Moore-Shay, University of Florida
William L. Wilkie, University of Notre Dame


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 15 | 1988

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