The Role of Love, Affection, and Intimacy in Family Decision Research

ABSTRACT - Consumer behavior research has given little credence to the affective component present in family decision making. This paper suggests there is a need to recognize the salience of love, affection, and intimacy as important sources of the individual goals and desires that influence joint decisions in families. Basic concepts of family are discussed, including definitions of "family" and how it functions differently than other formal groups, such as businesses or social organizations. The paper also describes how the affectional dimensions fit within the existing family decision research paradigm. Suggestions for future research are provided.


Jong-Hee Park, Patriya S. Tansuhaj, and Richard H. Kolbe (1991) ,"The Role of Love, Affection, and Intimacy in Family Decision Research", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 651-656.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, 1991      Pages 651-656


Jong-Hee Park, Washington State University

Patriya S. Tansuhaj, Washington State University

Richard H. Kolbe, Washington State University


Consumer behavior research has given little credence to the affective component present in family decision making. This paper suggests there is a need to recognize the salience of love, affection, and intimacy as important sources of the individual goals and desires that influence joint decisions in families. Basic concepts of family are discussed, including definitions of "family" and how it functions differently than other formal groups, such as businesses or social organizations. The paper also describes how the affectional dimensions fit within the existing family decision research paradigm. Suggestions for future research are provided.


"Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to let you in." Robert Frost, Death of the Hired Man

Frost's statement exemplifies the special role of home and family in human interactions. The relationships between family members which create notions of hearth and home are centered on the deep-seated affection members have for one another. The implications of such interpersonal affection pervades all family decisions.

The significance of the affection component is not lost on marketers. Television or magazine advertisements frequently depict a couple's deep emotional relationship and their feelings of love, affection, and intimacy. In advertisements for baby products, we often see expressions of love, affection, and caring for children used in compelling and heartwarming appeals. Thus, advertising practitioners apparently recognize the viability of the love, affection, and intimacy present in a family setting as an advertising method. However, previous family research has given little attention to these factors, focusing instead on the power/conflict dimensions of family interactions.

Family decision research has generally attempted to understand which family members influence one another in terms of family or household purchases. The research which has examined the issues of who is influential in purchasing decisions led consumer behavior scholars to focus on power relations and conflict in family decision making situations. Even though this approach yields results which offer a rich understanding of family decision processes, the scope of this research can be broadened. There is a need to examine other aspects of family relationships that affect the decision making process.

In this article, we explore the potential of affective dimensions in family decision research. Specifically, consideration is given to how affection or the desire to maintain intimate relationships affect family decision making. Following Davis' (1976) urge, introduction of the affectional dimension leads to a research focus on the family decision process, rather than the decision outcomes.

The initial discussion of the affectional components in family decision making necessitates some consideration of the definitions of relevant terms. The concepts of love and affection have been described as:

Words- used more or less interchangeably to designate warm, positive feelings directed to individuals. The difference between love and affection can be made. Love usually implies more intense feeling than affection, or love may be restricted to feelings with a strong sexual component and affection to those supposedly free of it. (Sills 1968, p. 121)

Concerning intimacy, Sternberg (1986) presented it as one of three major components of love; the other two are passion and commitment. It refers to "sharing that which is inmost with others" (McAdams 1988, p. 18). Helgeson, Shaver and Dyer (1987) found that people perceive intimacy as feelings and expressions of closeness, appreciation, and affection. McAdams (1982, p. 19) defined the intimacy motive as "a recurrent preference or readiness for experiences of warm, close, and communicative interaction with others -interpersonal exchange perceived as an end in itself rather than a means to another end." In summary, it is clear that affection for family members is a deep-seated emotion, represented by intimate, long-term relationships which are unique in comparison to other social relationships. In the remainder of the paper, the aforementioned concepts will be referred to as affection.

Consumer researchers have used theoretical constructs drawn from several disciplines in an attempt to explain the phenomenon of family decision behavior. However, the concepts and theories borrowed from other paradigms must be used with consideration of the underlying contexts, assumptions, and the conceptual relationships established by each research discipline. The research in family decision making has taken concepts from political science, sociology, and other disciplines as explanatory paradigms for this group behavior. The concepts of power or bargaining in a political setting or a more formal organization have been applied in family studies. As an example, Gupta, Hagerty, and Myers (1983) used game theory in formulating their family decision-making model. According to this theory, each of the group members is motivated to obtain the best payoff in a joint decision process. However, if we consider affection as a component of familial interactions, the self-interest motives in game theory may well miss the subtle aspects present in family settings. Thus, consideration needs to be given to the major and minor differences between the family and other group decisions to provide a more sensitive measure and appraisal of family decision behavior.

In a family structure, the linkage among members can generally be characterized by levels of intimacy and affection. It would seem reasonable that family decisions take into consideration the affectional, highly personal aspects which are present in these interactions.


To provide a more complete picture of family characteristics, the definition and functional values of the family will be discussed from an affectional perspective. A comparison between the family and other groups will be made to better isolate the differentiating characteristics of the family. Assuming that affection is an important construct that influences family decisions, we will explore how the construct fits the definition and functions of the family.

Definitions of the Family

A clear definition helps focus on or isolate key questions and issues. Some examples of family definitions are provided and critiqued. Officially, the U.S. Census Bureau (1978, p. 20) defines a family as "a group of two persons or more related by blood, marriage, or adoption and residing together." This definition describes membership of the family structurally rather than functionally, quite likely useful for census purposes but lacking insight for research purposes.

Reiss (1965) refers to the family in terms of an institution, based on socially defined norms and relationships that family members come to understand in the process of socialization. The family here is characterized as a socially derived and maintained entity. However, it says little about the roles of individuals within the family structure.

A more detailed definition based on an anthropological view was provided by Coser (1974). She defined the family as "a group manifesting the following organization attributes: it finds its origin in marriage; it consists of husband, wife, and children born in their wedlock,...the group is united by...sexual rights and prohibitions as well as such socially patterned feelings as love, attraction, piety, and awe" (Coser 1974, p. xvi). The emotional aspect and care-taking function of the family, which have been ignored in other definitions, are included here, although it does exclude a group formed by informal marriage (living together). However, such contemporization of the definition has little effect on the general notion of family presented here.

The implications- of the definitions of family j and its components are considerable. In total, the > entity called 'the family' is a complex union of p individuals. The structure of a family and the roles > of its membership are learned from social norms and family members. Uniting forces for a family include the individual's needs for and feelings of love, affection, and attraction to one another. From this L perspective, these forces are likely to mediate many S decisions made by a family. Thus, consideration of these affectional factors may be important in [ understanding the dynamics present in the processes [ of family decision making.

Functions of the Family

To further understand the family, it is important to consider its various functions. In sociology, Murdock (1949) proposes that the family had four essential functions: (1) socialization, (2) economic cooperation, (3) reproduction, and (4) sexual relations. Among these functions, Reiss (1965) found Mat socialization is the most prevalent function in the nuclear family. While the concept of consumer socialization has been well researched, the integration of this concept into the family decision framework and the affectional aspects of family interactions may provide additional insight into this phenomenon.

Hoffman and Manis (1979) reported that the most important value of having children in a family in the United States is to maintain primary group ties characterized by face to face contact, smallness of size, frequent and intense contact, and affection (love, companionship, and giving love). For many children, most of the needs for love, affection, and intimacy are met by family units. The family is the group where we can potentially find intimacy, nurturing, and a sense of loving and being loved by someone.

To further describe the uniqueness of the family and- the necessity for including the affectional dimensions in family decision research, it may be worthwhile to compare functional characteristics of the family to those of other groups. It is reasonable to assume that an individual behaves differently when he or she interacts with different groups of people. For example, a person may behave differently in a family setting than when s/he is in a business meeting. Therefore, the identification of relative differences between the family and other groups is a critical first step in determining whether there is a need to consider family decision processes as uniquely different from other formal group decisions. The existence of differences would suggest a need to propose alternative explanations for the family decision process. The relative differences between families and other groups are offered in the Table.

As previously defined, the family is formed by formal or informal marriage, and birth, while other groups are established by various methods differing from family. The formation of family leads to more permanent relationships, both physically and psychologically. For example, children are nurtured and are closely associated with their parents, usually for many years. Thus, most people have their longest and most intimate contacts with others in the family setting. Strong affectional ties (both positive and negative) within the family generally result from this long and close relationship.



The strong emotional ties in return may not be dissolved at the individual's will, unlike relationships in other groups. Families are motivated to maintain the intimate emotional relationships by protecting the family and by maintaining the harmony of the home which has intrinsic value. In this family setting, it is reasonable to assume that the affective factors (love, affection and intimacy) are important in the family decision making process. It may not be as likely that individuals develop as intimate a relationship in other groups as would be present in family membership. Further, in general, rational factors and/or utilitarian factors (e.g., cost and benefit analysis) are more important in the group decision making process than for the family. In addition, the members in other groups tend to pursue their own self-interest or seek extrinsic values (e.g., pay and promotion). This self-interest and extrinsic value seeking behavior leads more readily to conflict situations, encouraging individual members to exert power over others. While self-interest certainly is present in family decisions, the complexity and affectional aspects of the family place different parameters on the process.


The previous literature can be loosely categorized into two types of studies: (1) determination of who influences and/or makes decisions in the family and what differences in family decision making can be explained by sociodemographic and psychographic variables and (2) the investigation of the family decision making process.

Previous family decision research has attempted to understand and describe how family members interact and influence one another in terms of family or household purchases. The family decision-making literature has focused mainly on who is influential (Cosenza and Davis 1981; Davis 1970; Ekstrom, Tansuhaj, and Foxman 1987; Filiatrault and Ritchie 1980; Foxman, Tansuhaj, and Ekstrom 1989; Gupta et al. 1983; Kelly and Egan 1969; O'Connor, Sullivan, and Pogorzelski 1985; Qualls 1982; 1984; Woodside 1975), and who makes the decisions about purchases within families (Brinberg and Schwenk 1985; Davis 1971; Green and Cunningham 1975; Imperia, O'Guinn, and MacAdams 1985; Munsinger, Weber, and Hansen 1975; Sharp and Mott 1956; Wilkes 1975; Wolgast 1958).

Other research has used individual factors to predict and show differences between groups of decision makers/influencers. These factors are called "background factors" and include demographic and socioeconomic characteristics, family group factors, and cultural factors among others. The determinants (independent variables) that previous research have investigated are mainly demographic and socioeconomic factors: income (Davis 1976; Green and Cunningham 1975; Munsinger et al. 1975; Sharp and Mott 1956), age (Green and Cunningham 1975; Munsinger et al. 1975; Sharp and Mott 1956; Wolgast 1958), job status (Wolgast 1958; Woodside 1975), education (Munsinger et al. 1975; Woodside 1975), years of marriage (Cox 1975; Munsinger et al. 1975), opinion leadership (Woodside 1975), and marital role (Brinberg and Schwenk 1985; Buss and Schaninger 1983; Kelly and Egan 1969; O'Connor et al. 1985; Qualls 1982, 1984; Sharp and Mott 1956; Wolgast 1958). These background factors have been shown to effectively discriminate between groups of decision makers.

In total, these studies have provided information about the decision outcomes and the individuals who make and are involved in these decisions. Both groups of studies, however, do little to address the process of family decision making, focusing only on the outcome of the decisions. In other words, the research has provided a clear picture of who participates and decides in family decisions and offers a description of these individuals' characteristics, but does not address the dynamics of the personal interactions which are involved in the decision process (Davis 1976).

To advance our knowledge of family decisions, we need to address process and the factors which influence the process more broadly. A number of models have been proposed which attempt to describe the family decision process -- that is, how individuals interact and what factors (i.e., individual, interpersonal dynamics, product-related, and group factors) influence each decision process. In general, a key assumption made in previous studies of the family decision process has been that each family member has different motives, and these unilateral motives lead to conflict and negotiations in a joint decision process (Moore and Wilkie 1988). These notions have led family decision researchers to focus on conflict situations. The conflict literature can be characterized by research in two areas: (1) conflict avoidance and (2) conflict resolution. Within conflict avoidance we have the behaviors of abrogation of rights, decision specialization, withdrawal, and routinization of decisions resulting from having made multiples of these decisions (Blood and Wolfe 1960). Individuals may resolve conflicts by bargaining a compromise solution, trading off a loss for future considerations, using persuasive techniques, seeking mediation by a third party, and using problem solving skills and techniques (Sheth and Cosmas 1975).


To more fully understand the family decision process and its dynamics, there needs to be some consideration of the personal relationships based on love and affection. Knowledge of the role of affection on family decisions will enhance the existing literature based on power (i.e., it helps us understand how power is used and conflicts are resolved more clearly). Buss and Schaninger (1983), Corfman and Lehmann (1987), Gupta et al. (1983), and Sheth (1974) all include model components which relate factors which influence what an individual brings to the decision process. These factors influence the manner in which the participants in the decision process interact. If love and affection are at the base of the family structure, then individuals in the process should include these factors in their interactions. Thus, in addition to the use of factors such as sex roles, power relationships, spousal responsibilities, and level of interest in the decision, the affectional dimensions should be considered as components of the interpersonal dynamics in the family decision process. The role of affection in family decision making will be manifest in a number of different ways. Research on the affectional component may well address such areas based on the following propositions:

P1: Affectional bonds may inhibit hard-line. uncompromising, self-interest positions as members are cognizant and have a desire to maintain their long-term affective relationship. A willingness to acquiesce to members' desires follows.

P2: The greater an individual member's requirements/need for intimate relationships with family members the greater will be the use of conflict avoidance strategies.

P3: The intimacy of family members affect the means for solving conflict. Highly intimate members may resolve conflict in more cooperative manners such as bargaining, trading, logical persuasion, and problem-solving (Sheth and Cosmas 1975). Conversely, low intimacy families may make greater use of coercion, authority, formal authority and the like.

P4: Greater intimacy of families may result in greater incidence of joint decision-making as opposed to single member decision-making dominance.

P5: The impact of the affection component in family decision-making may differ by product class and type. Products that involve the entire family by means of joint usage, involvement, or interest will likely reflect more affectional elements than those which are used exclusively by only one member of the family.

P6: Similarity of goals and values among members may reduce family decision conflict levels.

Measurement Issues

Affection in the family decision making process can be measured by a number of scales available in the literature. For example, intimacy of spouses can be examined by using the Personal Assessment of Intimacy in Relationships Scale (Schaefer and Olson 1980). This scale examines five types of intimacy: emotional, social, sexual, intellectual, and recreational. In research applications, the level of intimacy ascertained by the scale was positively related to satisfaction with the marital union, cohesiveness of the family, and negatively related to conflict arousal and willingness to control the spouse. Rubin's (1970) scale also may be used in this research stream. Here, love is measured to include three components: (1) affiliative and dependent needs; (2) predisposition to help; and (3) orientation of exclusiveness from and absorption in another person.

The ability to measure affection levels within the individual and between individuals is integral to the study of the role of affection in family decision making. The development of affection specific scales for family decisions would be a necessary second step. The mediating influence of affection on the decision process can be assessed by examining family decisions and the differences between high and low affection family units. Simulated as well as actual buying situations may be used in making this measurement.

One of the outcomes of this affection orientation is that the decision process need not focus solely on who influences/dominates in a situation typically characterized by conflict. Rather, such an orientation will necessitate a broader approach to the entire family decision process and require that more interpersonal factors be examined in the research. This further necessitates that scholars distinguish family decision making from other group decisions, creating models which include dimensions unique to this process. Dimensions such as affection among decision participants likely provides great insights into the decision process.


To more fully understand family decision making phenomena, researchers need to pay more attention to family decision processes. The shift from looking narrowly at the decision outcomes has been encouraged for over a decade by Davis' (1976) critical review of this research area. In this article, we discussed definitions and functions of the family, and offer the affectional concepts to help develop an understanding and interpretation of family interactions and family dynamics. The affective dimensions can be combined with issues of power and conflict resolution, thereby helping to broaden the domain of family decision research. To explore how the affectional dimensions fit within the existing 'power' paradigm in family research, researchers are encouraged to investigate interactions between effects of power and of affection in the decision process, instead of studying each in isolation.

Cross-cultural family studies could also benefit from the inclusion of affectional influences on how families in diverse societies make purchase decisions. For example, do these variables have less effect on family decision outcomes in cultures where such feelings are not explicitly expressed. Are the affective dimensions more important in explaining family decisions and behaviors in modern, materialistic, or advanced societies than in other societies?

In conclusion, love, affection, and intimacy are basic human emotions. The inclusion of these dimensions in the family decision making process helps to establish these emotional components as important explanatory factors. The richness of their inclusion in models of family decision making should yield greater insights into the interpersonal dynamics of the process. It is hoped their inclusion will foster a new and broadened perspective in our efforts to examine and explain the family decision making process.


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Jong-Hee Park, Washington State University
Patriya S. Tansuhaj, Washington State University
Richard H. Kolbe, Washington State University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18 | 1991

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