Measures of Relative Influence in Couples: a Typology and Predictions For Accuracy


Kim P. Corfman (1989) ,"Measures of Relative Influence in Couples: a Typology and Predictions For Accuracy", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, eds. Thomas K. Srull, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 659-664.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, 1989      Pages 659-664


Kim P. Corfman, New York University

[This work was supported in part by the Institute for Marketing Studies at Columbia University.]

This paper presents a classification scheme for measures of influence and makes predictions about their accuracy when they are used to measure relative influence in couples. The measures examined vary in their perspective and their specificity. It is hypothesized that the location of a measure on these two dimensions and various characteristics of the raters and the situation will determine the accuracy of data obtained.


A large proportion of the important decisions made by a family are made jointly by two or more family members. While this has been generally recognized for some time, the problem of how to obtain accurate information on relative influence in family decision-making remains unresolved. Several studies have been done which suggest that certain properties of measures are related to their accuracy; however, no general conclusions or rules have been proposed. This paper presents a typology for measures of relative influence and suggests that the resulting classifications can be used to make some generalizations concerning the accuracy of influence measures. A model is also proposed which outlines the relationships among the accuracy of influence measures, the properties of the measures, and the characteristics of the spouses whose influence we are trying to measure.


A first indication that obtaining accurate measures of influence is a problem is that the information provided by different family members is very often incongruent or even contradictory. Further, when their perceptions are compared to more objective behavioral measures of influence agreement is, again, low (Kenkel 1963; Olson 1969; Spiro 1983). This section will review the results of studies that examined agreement among family members on relative influence and those which attempted to determine the accuracy of these data by comparing them to behavioral and outcome measures.

Much of the research on power and influence in families has investigated the congruence between spouses' estimates of their relative influence. It is clear from this work that data from a single informant on relative influence in a group will not necessarily reflect the perceptions of other group members or be an accurate indicator of influence exercised in decision-making. Results are mixed, with some studies finding reasonably good agreement among members and others findings poor agreement.

In research on families high levels of agreement have been found in data examined at the aggregate level (Granbois and Willet 1970; Filiatrault and Ritchie 1980; Wilkening and Morrison 1963). When examined on a couple by couple basis, however, substantial disagreement between spouses is revealed (Davis 1970; Scanzoni 1965). Davis (1971) observes that in reports about decision-making the percentage of agreement between husbands and wives rarely exceeds 50%.

Better agreement has tended to occur when the questions asked concerned specific aspects of a decision. For example, Davis (1971) found that spouses' responses to questions about influence on specific decision topics were correlated at .66 for automobiles and .61 for furniture. Munsinger, Weber and Hansen (1975) examined perceptions of dominance in decisions about elements of a housing decision and found that spouses agreed in 62.2% of their responses. On the other hand, the Blood and Wolfe (1960) index, which contains eight questions about influence on such specific topics as life insurance, employment, doctors and vacations, produced relatively low interspousal congruence in studies by Davis (1971) and Wilkes (1975). These correlations were .15 and .31, respectively.

Agreement tended to be low when spouses were asked for more global evaluations of who makes particular kinds of decisions or who generally has more influence. When Davis (1971) asked spouses to respond to a global measure of influence by indicating who usually makes important family decisions, he found the correlation between husband and wife responses to be .37. When Turk and Bell (1972) replicated Heer's measure of power and asked their couples to indicate who usually won when there was a disagreement, one third of them gave opposite answers and another 13% had more minor disagreements. Wilkes (1975) also found low correlations between husband and wife responses to two global measures of influence, .16 and .34. In at least two of the studies that found high levels of congruence, most of the agreement occurred when the spouses agreed that they would have equal influence (Munsinger et al. 1975) or that neither would exercise power (Olson 1969). This may be due to a tendency to give socially desirable responses reflecting egalitarian power structures (Olson and Rabunsky 1972).

Poor congruence has also been found between spouses asked to report their perceptions of each other's influence attempts. Spiro (1983) found that only six percent of the perceptions provided by couples in her study were in the same direction, indicating that spouses consistently disagreed on whether they used particular influence strategies.



Research on the sociology of the family has examined some of the relationships among predicted influence, reported influence, and objective behavioral measures. Although Olson (1969) found fair agreement between spouses on who would exercise more power, congruence with behavioral measures was poor. In only 14% of the cases did spouses accurately -predict who would exercise power. In a later study Olson and Rabunsky (1972) compared measures of predicted power, process power, retrospective power and authority to an objective outcome measure of influence and found no significant relationship. Further, the only significant relationships they found among the self-report measures were between authority variable and measures of both process and retrospective power. Similarly, Turk and Bell (1972) found little correspondence among nine measures of power including predicted influence and behavioral measures.


The typology presented here proposes that when one is concerned with the accuracy of measures, the important differences among them are due to their levels of specificity and their perspectives. Global and specific measures of influence are discussed from three different perspectives -- predicted influence, reported influence and outcome measures of influence. This section describes these measures, and the resulting typology appears in the Table.

Specificity of Measure

Questions about relative influence can be asked at different levels of specificity (Patchen 1963). At the most general level are global measures which ask for overall evaluations of relative influence (Davis 1971; Heer 1958, 1963; Turk and Bell 1972; Wilkes 1975). For example, a global question might ask who makes the-important purchasing decisions in a family or how much influence each spouse had in making joint decisions during the last month.

There are a number of ways in which influence measures can be made more specific. In this paper attribute-related, topic-related, process-related, and influence source-related measures are discussed.

Attribute-related measures are very specific and concern the components of a larger decision on a specified topic (Burns and Granbois 1977; Davis 1970; Filiatrault and Ritchie 1980; Green and Cunningham 1975; Munsinger, Weber and Hansen 1975; Olson 1969; Olson and Rabunsky 1972; Qualls 1987). Davis (1971) refers to these as subdecisions and his seven automobile purchase questions are good examples of attribute-related measures. He asks, for example, who decided when the car would be purchased, how much money would be spent, and what color it would be.

Measures related to the topic ask about relative influence on well-defined decision topics (Blood and Wolfe 1960; Cunningham and Green 1974; Davis and Rigaux 1974; Wilkes 1975). Clearly, these measures may vary in their specificity. For example, a question about influence used in deciding whether to buy a microwave oven is more general than a question about influence used in deciding which brand to buy.

Process measures concern how decisions are made and try to determine what influence sources are used or are effective in joint decision-making (Nelson 1987; Qualls 1987; Seymour and Lessne 1984; Spiro 1983; Wilkes 1975). This kind of measure might ask a spouse whether coercion was used in the resolution of a disagreement or whether being believable or fair is likely to affect influence in a decision.

Measures concerning influence sources are not attached to specific decisions or topics, but depend upon the individuals themselves. They concern the power-related traits possessed by decision-makers that may affect influence in joint decision-making (Corfman and Lehmann 1987; Rosen and Granbois 1983; Thomas 1982). For example, one might ask how relatively self-confident spouses are or who has the greater bargaining skill.

Perspective of Measure

Four different perspectives on influence are examined here. They are predicted influence, reported or retrospective influence, interactional measures of influence and outcome measures of influence.

Predictive measures are self-report measures and are the most commonly used. They ask how much influence spouses expect themselves and each other to exercise in a specified situation (Blood and Wolfe 1960; Burns and Granbois 1977; Cunningham and Green 1974; Davis 1970; 1971; Davis and Rigaux 1974; Green and Cunningham 1975; Olson 1969; Olson and Rabunsky 1972; Rosen and Granbois 1983; Turk and Bell 1972). In order to respond, spouses must rely on data from past decisions, but the questions do not refer explicitly to the outcomes of those decisions.

Report measures are also self-reported and ask how much influence spouses had in making one or more specific past decisions (Filiatrault and Ritchie 1980; Munsinger et al. 1975; Olson and Rabunsky 1972; Qualls 1987; Spiro 1983; Wilkes 1975).

Interactional measures infer relative influence from aspects of spouses' interactions while making decisions. These should be more objective than self-reports as they are observational measures using a third, uninvolved party. Examples of interactional measures include the relative number of units of actions initiated (Kenkel 1957; Mishler and Waxler 1968; Strodtbeck 1951; Turk and Bell 1972), the relative number of instrumental acts initiated (Kenkel 1957; Turk and Bell 1972), and the relative number of interruptions initiated by each spouse (Farina 1960; Turk and Bell 1972).

Outcome measures are observations of the outcomes of decisions compared to the desires or preferences of the spouses before making them (Corfman and Lehmann 1987; Kenkel 1957; Olson 1969; Olson and Rabunsky 1972; Strodtbeck, 1951; Turk and Bell 1972). The spouse whose preferred alternative is chosen or whose preferences were weighted more heavily in the joint decision is recognized as having had the greater amount of influence. Outcome measures are the most objective measures of influence and, in that sense, the most accurate. Unfortunately they are also more difficult to obtain than simply asking spouses for predictions and reports.


The model in the Figure outlines the determinants of accuracy in measuring relative influence. For a particular measure of relative influence, the model proposes relationships among 1) characteristics of the measure, 2) characteristics of the rater (spouse or observer), 3) the actual influence exercised, 3) the influence data (predictions or reports) collected using the measure, and 4) the accuracy of the data.

Specifically, the accuracy of the data provided by a spouse or observer is the discrepancy between his or her prediction or report and the spouses' actual influence. Outcome measures of influence are assumed here to be unbiased and are, thus, simply a function of the spouses' actual influence.

A spouse's actual influence is determined by characteristics of both spouses, such as education and ability to reward, and characteristics of the situation. Aspects of the situation that may affect influence include the location in-which the decision is made and who has had his or her way more in past decisions. These and other spouse and situational characteristics that affect relative influence have been investigated by a large number of researchers (e.g., Corfman and Lehmann 1987, Davis 1976, French and Raven 1959, Tedeschi, Schlenker and Bonoma 1973).

Influence data is affected by characteristics of the measure used to collect it, the person providing it, and the situation, as well as the spouses' actual relative influence (their potential in the case of predictions or the* use in the case of reports). Measure characteristics concern the measure's level of specificity and perspective. Characteristics of a spouse that might affect the data he or she provides include such traits as desire to win, empathy, traditionalism and the couple's stage in the family life-cycle. The most obvious rater characteristic that would affect interactional data is objectivity. Spouse and couple characteristics may also affect the accuracy of interactional measures because the behavior exhibited and recorded may not be a valid reflection of the influence exercised in that joint decision. For example, the number of times a spouse interrupts may reveal more about his or her cultural background than the amount of influence he or she has.

The conceptual model suggests a number of testable hypotheses concerning the accuracy of data collected with different measures of influence. Those proposed here concern the effects of measure and rater characteristics on accuracy. Hypotheses 1a through 1c, treat the effects of measure specificity and perspective on a rater's ability to give accurate information. Hypotheses 2a through 2e, predict relationships between specific rater characteristics and data accuracy.

H1a: The relationships between data from outcome measures and data provided by raters (spouses and observers) using predictive and report measures are generally expected to be weak. In other words, regardless of other factors affecting the data collection, a low level of accuracy is anticipated in data provided by spouses and observers on relative influence. This hypothesis is supported by the results of studies cited earlier (Olson 1969, Olson and Rabunsky 1972, Turk and Bell 1972).



H1b: Spouses are expected to give less accurate information in response to predictive measures than to report measures. That people should be better at reporting what actually happened than at anticipating the consequences of hypothetical occurrences has intuitive appeal. Asking for a report rather than a prediction is a way of focussing the subject on a narrower issue that requires fewer subjective judgments. Reports will still be subject to considerable error. One important reason for this was suggested by Blood (1958, p. 47): families have difficulty reporting who makes decisions because 'mutual consultation so often precedes the final decision that the relative influence of each partner tends to be masked in the process.

H1c: Raters (spouses and observers) are expected to give less accurate information in response to global measures of influence than to more specific measures. Accumulated evidence indicates that people are better at giving specific information on influence than they are at making global judgments (Davis 1971; Silk and Kalwani 1982). This makes intuitive sense because the fewer estimates or subjective judgments people are required to make to answer a question, the fewer opportunities there are for error. More global questions invite compounding of judgmental error.

H2a: Raters who are more objective should provide more accurate data on influence. This hypothesis should be true almost by definition. While the objectivity of spouses may vary widely, the objectivity of a third party observer should not. Factors that may determine the objectivity of observers include how clearly stated their task is, how much subjective judgment is required, and how closely they identify with their subjects,

H2b: Greater traditionalism should be associated with greater inaccuracy in influence data provided. Spouses who are open to the idea that influence can be contingent upon factors other than sex role, are likely to be more sensitive to the actual variations in influence from one situation to the next. Those with expectations about influence that are primarily sex-related may not be as aware of other factors that do, in fact, affect relative influence in their decisions. Lack of agreement on appropriate sex roles in decision-making may also result in misapprehension of influence sources possessed. For example, a wife with traditional views might attribute great legitimate power or wisdom to her husband on an issue, while her more progressive husband might rate himself as having less.

H2c: Greater importance of control and desire to win in a spouse should be associated with greater inaccuracy. These traits are expected to be reflected in the data provided by a spouse as exaggeration of his or her own influence.

H2d: Spouses who are more empathetic should provide more accurate influence data. This is because empathetic spouses should have greater interest in and sensitivity to the nature of the relationship and its processes. In support of this prediction, Olson (1969) found that greater empathy resulted in greater congruence between predicted and actual power.

H2e: Spouses whose families are later in the family life cycle should provide more accurate self-report measures of influence. Stage in the FAMILY LIFE CYCLE reflects experience in joint decision-making. Thus, we suggest that this experience leads to an improved ability to predict and report influence.

Other hypotheses might be proposed concerning a spouse's education, income and sex, as well as other characteristics of the individual, couple, observer and situation. Clearly the more factors that can be identified that affect the accuracy of influence data. the better use we will be able to make of it.


Predictions and reports on relative influence made by spouses and observers are probably not valid indicators of relative influence. They may contain other useful information, but they are not objective measures. As Davis (1967) observed, these measures are probably tapping different concepts, such as perceptions of power, characteristics of the relationship, decision-making roles and processes, and context factors. When we have some choice of measure type and our interest is in knowing about actual rather than perceived influence, outcome measures are clearly preferred. Further research on this topic may also provided stronger evidence of the preferability of report measures over predictive measures.

If inaccuracy is found to be related systematically to characteristics of the measure, the raters and the situation, these factors can be taken into account when predictions and reports must be used to measure relative influence. Awareness of these factors will make it possible use predictive and report measures more effectively to measure relative influence in families. Investigation into the sources of inaccuracy in influence data will contribute on a more general level to our understanding of influence in families and their decision-making processes, as well as suggest ways in which influence data should and should not be used in research on groups.


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Kim P. Corfman, New York University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16 | 1989

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