Toward a Theory of Intergenerational Influence in Consumer Behavior: an Exploratory Essay

ABSTRACT - Intergenerational Influence (IGI)C the influence of one generation on anotherC is at work whenever adult consumers seek advice from their parents, or vice versa. Despite its occurrence in everyday observations and its impact on consumer behaviors, research on IGI in marketing has been sparse. We examine this topic here, pondering such issues as what it is, and why and how it occurs. Building on current literature, we conceptualize its domain, identify some of its determinants, and speculate on their interplay. Our essay is without closure yet, and at this time, is forwarded to motivate a momentum of new theorizing on this important and under-researched topic.


Reshma H. Shah and Banwari Mittal (1997) ,"Toward a Theory of Intergenerational Influence in Consumer Behavior: an Exploratory Essay", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, eds. Merrie Brucks and Deborah J. MacInnis, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 55-60.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, 1997      Pages 55-60


Reshma H. Shah, University of Pittsburgh

Banwari Mittal, Northern Kentucky University


Intergenerational Influence (IGI)C the influence of one generation on anotherC is at work whenever adult consumers seek advice from their parents, or vice versa. Despite its occurrence in everyday observations and its impact on consumer behaviors, research on IGI in marketing has been sparse. We examine this topic here, pondering such issues as what it is, and why and how it occurs. Building on current literature, we conceptualize its domain, identify some of its determinants, and speculate on their interplay. Our essay is without closure yet, and at this time, is forwarded to motivate a momentum of new theorizing on this important and under-researched topic.


Do adult consumers look to their parents for information and advice about what to buy? Or, for that matter, to their grand parents? Do they look to them the same way they did when they were young and helpless children, wholly dependent on their parents for day-to-day living? Does the parntal influence on the now grown-up children depend on the kind of product under consideration? Is such parental influence, as may be found, universal and uniform across families or do different family members exert different types of influence? And finally, when, if at all, is such influence sought and/or accepted? These are important questions to answer to better understand consumer decision making for a range of products and services. However, these questions have been addressed in the literature at best only tangentially (Moschis 1985; Moore-Shay and Lutz 1988; Heckler, Childers and Arunachalam 1989; Childers and Rao 1992).

We subsume these questions, as have other researchers, under the rubric of "Intergenerational Influence" (IGI). Our purpose in this paper is to review and reflect on the extant literature on IGI, and extend that literature toward a more cohesive set of concepts and interrelationships among diverse variables that constitute and determine IGI. Our task and this essay proceed as follows: (i) we first define and delimit the domain and scope of IGI; (ii) next we identify a set of concepts and variables that play a role in the study of IGI; and, finally, (iii) we build relationships among these concepts, explaining when, why, and how IGI occurs. Our effort is an exercise in theory generationC anchored in and building upon previous similar works by others, but also expanded by projecting on intuition and informed speculation. We particularly view the utility (to ourselves and to others) of sharing such an "embryonic," essay in the discussion that the ACR forum affords. While our efforts here are exploratory, our goal for this paper is to provide additional insight to the foundation literature on the topic which, in our view, is insightful but remains somewhat equivocal.


IGI can be defined as the influence of one generation on another in terms of the transfer of skills, attitudes, preferences, values, and behaviors. The IGI in consumer behavior can be defined as the influence of one family generation on another in terms of acquiring skills, attitudes, preferences, values, and behaviors related to the marketplace (Heckler et. al 1989; Childers and Rao 1992). Given this, IGI can involve the within-family intergenerational transfer of knowledge with regard to a range of consumer behaviors such as information search, brand, product and store selection, use of evaluative criteria, and receptivity to marketing mix variables. Examples of IGI can include parents influencing their adult children in their life insurance choices, and adult children influencing their parents’ choice in music. IGI, which involves intrafamily interaction and communication, is likely to influence a host of decisions including product class preference, brand loyalty, and deal proneness.

While IGI can span multiple generations and can involve numerous members of a family, in our essay, we are concerned only with dyadic IGI, or the influence between two members of a given family. Specifying the particular unit of analysis under consideration improves the validity of our contructs. Although differences between different types of dyads (e.g., mother-daughter; father-son, etc.) may result in some variability regarding the strength of our proposed relationships (see Moore-Shay and Lutz 1988 for a discussion), we do not consider them here, but rather pose them as questions for future research. Similarly, we acknowledge that in addition to these structural differences, varying individual differences, such as gender, age, eduction and income, can have a differential impact on IGI. Our essay is, therefore, limited by a lack of theorizing the impact of these individual differences on IGI.

IGI and Consumer Socialization

It is useful to compare and contrast the oncept of IGI with the concept of consumer socialization. Consumer socialization has been defined as "processes by which young people acquire skills, knowledge, and attitudes relevant to their functioning as consumers in the marketplace" (Ward 1974). While similarities exist between consumer socialization and IGI, researchers have expounded on the value of making distinctions between them. Moschis (1988) has drawn attention to the limitations of viewing socialization and IGI interchangeably. Based on his and others’ views, we propose the following distinctions between socialization and IGI (see Figure 1):

(i) Consumer socialization can occur from various agents of which parents are only one. Other agents include peers, institutions other than the family (e.g., schools), the media and other marketing sources. IGI is expressly limited to parental influence, or more broadly, influence within the family.

(ii) Consumer socialization within the family is limited, at least in the extant studies in consumer behavior (see Moschis 1985), to the influence of parents on children. IGI can occur in either direction, forward or reverse. Forward IGI involves the influence of parents (or grand parents) on adult children; and reverse IGI involves the influence of adult children on parents (or on grand parents).

(iii) Consumer socialization begins with early childhood. Its onset is marked by the child’s first learning of any consumption related skill, attitude, or preference, when the child has a "blank slate" so to speak, and has little independence of thought and faculty of reasoning. IGI begins much later, in the adult years of children, when children acquire the resources for independent decision making.



This last point is controversial, in two respects. First, when does childhood end and adulthood begin? Any such division is bound to be arbitrary. And second, why should childhood learning not be studied under IGI? Influences acquired during childhood are often the most enduring ones (see Sujan, Bettman and Baumgartner 1993). Our rationale is as follows. Adulthood begins when: (i) children begin to make independent decisions; (ii) when they acquire, at least partially, independent income and resources; (iii) when they are no longer the "wards" of their parents; and definitely, (iv) when they form a separate household, such as when they live in a college dorm, or take up a separate apartment, or get married, etc.

We further distinguish childhood socialization from influence during adult years based on the financial and psychological independence acquired by adult children. By no stretch of the imagination, can the giving and/or the acceptance of parental influence on adult children be of the same genre as that on small children. By merely viewing parental influence on adult children as an extension of influence during childhood years, we forego the opportunity to identify any fundamental differences in influence mechanisms and moderators.

The demarcation of the precise beginning of adult years is also a question of perspective rather than precision. For contrast, one might examine the two extreme cases of the influence continuum: very early childhood socialization at the one end, and IGI when adult children no longer live with their parents, at the other. If we find differences in these two "ideal types," both in degree and in kind, with respect to influence mechanisms, processes, and outcomes, then we would have established a case for studying IGI and socialization separately. In this initial conceptualization, limiting IGI only to adult children living in households separate from their parents affords us the opportunity to explore the IGI process in a more focused manner. Therefore, the present essay is concerned with intergenerational family influences across households.

Also inherent to the general mechanisms of IGI are its associative and dissassociative properties. By this we mean that influence can be both positive and negative, and that this can result in either approah or avoidance behavior. In other words, the same antecedents of IGI may make it entirely likely that adult children (or parents) may consciously avoid, rather than emulate those preferences, attitudes and consumption behaviors of their parents (or children). For example, when disharmony and dysfuntion exist between family member, IGI may not only be low, it may be negative. For the purpose of this essay, we focus only on associative or positive IGI and its main determinants.


Family Relationship

The primary determinant of IGI is proposed to be a concept we term the perceived strength of the family relationship (SFR) (see Figure 2). [Insert Figure 2 about here] This refers to the degree of mutual respect and trust between parents and adult children. It also refers to the harmony of relations and communication between them in all areas of life, and not just in the marketplace context (Spiro 1983; Moschis 1988). The strength of the family relationship is impacted by a number of factors including the family environment, family cohesion, structural effects such as proximity, and communications orientations (Heckler et al 1989; Hogan, Eggebeen and Clogg 1993). With the multiplicity of factors, in this essay, we propose the perceived strength of family relationship since relationship strength can be construed differently by different family members. As such, in this construct, we also define relationship strength as how well parents and children want to get along with each other and their mutual desire for a lasting relationship. If IGI is to occur at all (in either direction), the existence of a harmonious and mutually respectful relationship in the family across generations must be a prerequisite. Therefore,

P1: IGI will be positively related to the perceived strength of family relationship (SFR). [As an illustration of how IGI differs from consumer socialization in the case of family relationship strength, it might be argued that since young children have no independence or may even perceive no need for independence, early socialization will occur even when SRF if low or absent.]

Bases of Influence

Three processes of interpersonal influence have been identified in the literature: informational, instrumental, and identificational (Deutsch and Gerard 1955; Kelman 1961; Park and Lessig 1977; Bearden, Netemeyer and Teel 1989). Informational influence occurs when the influencing agent provides useful information that guides, facilitates, or alters the choices the influence recipient makes. Instrumental influence occurs due to the ability of influence agents to reward or punish the influence target. This subsumes what some have called the "normative" influenceC the expectations of significant others. Finally, identificational influence occurs when the influenced identifies with the influencer, viewing the latter as a role model, and emulating his or her behavior. Park and Lessig (1977) have referred to these respectively as informational, utilitarian, and value-expressive influence.

Corresponding to these three general influence processes, we propose three sources of influenceCi.e., the characteristics that the influence agents must possess to effect these influence processes. These are: (i) expertise; (ii) resource control; and, (iii) perceived similarity.

Expertise Expertise refers to product information and knowledge about the appropriate evaluation criteria, and about specific brands. Expertise works through the informational influence mechanism where the perception of possessing accurate, up-to-date and reliable information about specific products and brands or stores, etc., helps to offset purchase risk. Researcers have shown that the level of product or brand expertise an individual possesses is related to his or her experience, knowledge and familiarity that individual has about and with a particular item (Bettman and Park 1980; Brucks 1985). Therefore, whichever generation perceives the other to possess expertise on the product category, a specific brand or other marketplace phenomena, that generation will seek and receive IGI from the other. Thus, adult children might perceive parents to be experts on home buying, and would seek their advice. Alternatively, parents might perceive adult children to be experts on new technological products (e.g., computers) and might seek advice from them. Thus,

P2a: IGI will be stronger the more one generation perceives the other as possessing expertise on the product under consideration.

Resource Control Resource control refers to who (either parents or children) finances the expense for the purchase under control. When parents finance the purchase, they would exercise IGI. In essence, they are exerting utilitarian, or instrumental, control over their children (Park and Lessig 1977). If adult children finance the purchase, even if partially, to that extent, IGI is reduced. This can be seen for adult children living at home. If they pay rent, for example, they are less likely to accept unbridled influence from parents. Likewise, if they want to buy something for their own room (e.g., a stereo system) with their own money (e.g., earned from a part time job), they will have a lot more freedom on the purchase decision. If adult children move back with parents, parents may again be in a position to exercise influence on their grown-up children. On the other hand, if retired parents depend on their grown up children financially, then reverse IGI may be more prominent. In each of these cases, the influence mechanism is some form of reward or punishment. At the very least, the generation with the resource control can simply refuse to finance the purchase. Therefore,

P2b: IGI will be stronger the more one generation controls more of the resources necessary for a purchase to be made by the other.

Perceived Similarity Perceived similarity refers to the lifestyle similarity between generations. Lifestyle similarity can be reflected in actual or perceived attitude, preference and/or behavior congruence or in desired attitude, preference and/or behavior congruence. Thus, a mother might perceive the daughter to be an expert on new fashions, but if she perceives her daughter’s lifestyle to be different from hers (she considers herself to be a conservative professional, and wears formal, conservative styles while her daughter sports the "grunge look"), then she (the mother) is not going to seek or accept her daughter’s influence for clothing. Perceived similarity of lifestyle drives the influence via the identificational mechanism resulting in a form of value-expressive influence (Park and Lessig 1977). In essence, one generation aspires to be like the other (e.g., the mother wants to be as trendy as she perceives her daughter to be), and values IGI. Therefore,

P2c: IGI will be stronger the more one generation perceives the other as being similar in product-relevent lifestyle.

Product and Brand Types

One distinction that has been made in the literature concerns the product type. Products can be functional or expressive. Functional products are those which are bought primarily fortheir physical performance. Expressive products are those that are consumed to fit one’s personality and lifestyle, for making favorable social impressions, for communicating to the world the type of person one is, and for living and fulfilling one’s own self-concept (Mittal 1988). Other related distinctions are those classifying products as being hedonic, symbolic or functional (Woods 1960) and those distinguishing products in terms of the type of need they fulfill: functional, symbolic or experiential (Park, Jaworski and MacInnis 1986). Finally, some researchers have distinguished public or conspicuous products such as sneakers or watches, from private or inconspicuous products such as underwear and birth control (Bearden and Etzel 1982; Childers and Rao 1992). In all these distinctions, both functional and expressive underpinnings are evident and these product differences result in different forms of influence being operational.

Since functional products are appraised by a consideration and weighing of product’s inherent features, product expertise becomes more relevant in interpersonal influence. Therefore, expertise based influence will be more pertinent to functional products. On the other hand, since expressive products are appraised for their fit with the desired personality, self-concept, and life-style, such appraisal benefits from the observation of role models and aspirational referents (Midgely 1983; Richins 1991). As such, life-style similarity as a source of influence will be more relevant for expressive products. Finally, for either type of product, if the item entails a major expense, resource control will be the relevant source for influence. It follows then, that

P3a: The basis of IGI is more likely to be expertise when the product is functional rather than expressive.

P3b: The basis of IGI is more likely to be perceived lifestyle similarity when the product is expressive rather than functional.

P3c: The basis of IGI is more likely to be resource control when the product entails significant financial outlay rather than when it does not.

Perceived Risk

A related variable is the degree of purchase risk. Purchase risk captures the degree or likelihood that a wrong or substantially sub-optimal choice could be made. In part, it depends on financial outlay, and in part, on the lack of parity or differentiation between alternatives (Cox 1967). Products vary in the risk they entail. The risk can itself be broadly divided into performance, financial, and social-psychological (Bettman 1973). Consumers will tend to seek advice more for products that entail some risk than for low perceived risk products. If the risk is performance related, IGI will occur if one generation perceives the other to possess expertise. If the risk is psycho-social, then IGI will occur only if the two generations perceive lifestyle similarity. When the risk is financial, resource control will enable the IGI. Accordingly,

P3d: IGI will be greater for high risk than for low risk purchases.

P3e: The basis of IGI is more likely to be expertise when the product entails performance risk rather than social/psychological or financial risk

P3f: The basis of IGI is more likely to be the perceived lifestyle similarity when the product entails social/psychological risk rather than performance or financial risk.

P3g: The basis for IGI is more likely to be resource control when the product entails financial risk rather than performance or social/psychological risk.

Products as Shopping, Convenience, and Specialty Gods

Another typology of products is that of shopping, convenience, and specialty goods (Witt and Bruce 1972; Heckler et. al 1989). Convenience goods are purchased by habit and past experience (including childhood socialization). Shopping and specialty goods are both perceived to be risk entailing, either due to more substantial financial outlays, or due to the inherent value-expressive and identification needs they often possess. Therefore, advice and support is likely to be sought more for these purchases. Since each type can entail all three types of risk (performance, social/psychological and financial), it is not productive to limit the influence to one rather than another type of source (expertise, life-style similarity, or resource control). However, one characteristic of products is whether or not they have changed over a decade or two, and whether or not they entail high technology. Generally, adult children will be perceived as possessing more expertise for technologically complex products, and likewise for products which have changed considerably over time. In contrast, there are some products, whose principal value lies in preserving tradition (e.g., cedar chests, porcelein and china, authentic jewelry) or those which have not changed substantially over time (e.g., Morton Salt, Heinz Catsup). We call these products "old world" products. Therefore,

P4a: IGI will be greater for shopping and specialty goods than for convenience goods.

P4b: IGI will be greater from adult children to their parents for (i) high tech products than for low tech products; and (ii) for products considerably changed over time than for products staying unchanged.

P4c: IGI will be greater from parents to their children for "old world" products than from children to their parents.

Product Evaluation Mode

Products have also been classified in terms of the type of attributes used to evaluate them. This classification suggests the existence of search, experience and credence goods based on their mode of evaluation (Nelson 1970; Darby and Karni 1973). Search goods largely contain attributes that can be evaluated prior to purchase (e.g., a computer or laundry detergent), whereas experience goods generally must be tried or used before they can be evaluated (e.g., restaurant service or a car). Finally, credence goods are those that often cannot be sufficiently evaluated even after trial or use (e.g., appendectomies or religious objects). Search quality products require and allow pre-trial product appraisal based on the product’s inherent features. Consequently, the propensity to seek marketer provided information regarding product performance would be the highest for search goods. Evaluations made about experience and credence quality goods tend to be based more on summative judgments about overall satisfaction, and not as much on reasoning based assessments stemming from domains of knowledge. Therefore, expertise-based influence is most likely to occur for search quality products.

Experience and credence goods require trial for an adequate evaluation of their appraisal. And, particularly in the case of credence goods, even after product trial, consumers may not know enough about the product to make an adequate assessment or evaluation of its benefits. Influence for these types of products is more likely to be based on others’ gestalt experiences and/or summative judgments. Moreover, this form of influence becomes more likely if perceived lifestyle similarity exists between the influencer and the influenced. Consequently, the propensity to rely on brand name and equity and other symbolic cues would be the highest for credence goods, followed by experience goods. Therefore, perceived similarity based influence is most likely to occur for experience and credence quality products. Thus,

P5a: The basis of IGI is more likely to be expertise in the case of search goods than experience or credence goods

P5b: The basis of IGI is more likely to be perceived similarity in the case of experience and credence goods than search goods.


While the foregoing hypotheses are stated as main effects, the interactive role among these determinants is important to explore, and we outline this here briefly. We propose that the strength of family relationship (SFR) is the principal determinant. Without family relationship strength, IGI will be mimimal, at best. [Considering dysfunctional families or acrimonious relationships and the possibility of dissassociative or negative IGI, while entirely plausible, is beyond the scope of this paper.] Thus, SFR is the necessary facilitator of IGI. Other factors moderate this key direct relationship. Illustratively, if the product does not entail some sort of risk, then IGI is unlikely to be sought. Thus, IGI may not occur even in high SFR generations. At the same time, if the resource dependence of one generation on the other is absent, then the instrumental basis would be absent even for expensive purchases.

In the same vein, if lifestyles are perceived to be dissimilar, then for expressive products, IGI may not occur. Moreover, if one generation does not perceive the other to possess expertise, then informational IGI will not be sought, and, if given, it will not be accepted, even in the case of high SFR. Under high SFR, influence attempts will be politely declined or dismissed when these other moderating conditions are absent. Finally, if the products of interest are typically considered to be search goods, rather than experience or credence goods, even under high SFR, IGI may be low. The rationale is as follows. By definition, search goods largely possess attributes which can be objectively evaluated prior to trial and as elucidated earlier, are the least likely to be influenced by interpersonal sources. Therefore,

P6a: Under high SFR, IGI will occur only if one or more bases/sources of influence exist. One generation must view the other as possessing expertise, similarity, or resource control.

P6b: The positive association between SFR and IGI will be stronger for expressive than for functional products.

P6c: The positive association between SFR and IGI will be stronger for shopping and specialty goods than for convenience goods.

P6d: The positive association between SFR and IGI will be stronger for high risk than low risk products.

P6e: The positive association between SFR and IGI will be stronger for experience and credence products than for search products.

Figure 2 depicts the relationships among all the variables discussed above.


We have proposed that Intergenerational Influence (IGI) be construed as the influence of adult members of one generation over the adult members of another generation, both within the family. In so defining it, we separate the concept, by design, from the childhood socialization of young consumers. This allows us to focus on a special case where the targets of IGI have a separate and independent living from the influence agents. We believe that the processes and outcomes of early childhood family socialization are fundamentally different from the IGI during the adult years. We have not yet articulated these differences. Illustratively, however, these are: (i) Childhoodsocialization will be based much more on simple imitation; (ii) In terms of each of the three sources of influence-expertise, resource control and perceived similarity, parents will almost exclusively be the influence agents in infancy and childhood; and (iii) Influence will occur in infancy and early childhood, despite low SFR. We leave an explication of these for future research.

The IGI studies are sparse in the literature. And, in most cases, they are simply a replication of the childhood socialization perspective with the exception that respondents are chosen to be adult children rather than young children. We believe that an ab initio conceptualization of IGI can yield fresh insights. Such is the perspective we have adopted. An effort such as ours is necessarily based as much on intuition as on prior theory. Their interplay, made more poignant by the exchange of views among researchers in a discussion forum, can advance our understanding in this important, and under examined area of consumer behavior.




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Reshma H. Shah, University of Pittsburgh
Banwari Mittal, Northern Kentucky University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24 | 1997

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