Contributions of Theory to the Study of Family Decision-Making

ABSTRACT - The purpose of this article is to survey the main research of recent years on family decision making and to determine what role theory has played in the evolvement of the body of knowledge we now have. Theories are tentative, timely, refutable, applicable, and capable of being incorporated into larger bodies of thought. They are essential in that they represent a mature stage in the development of thought. Has our failure to conceptualize a model of family decision-making behavior been largely due to our inability to eclectically integrate pertinent theories from other disciplines such as psychology, sociology and others?


Roger L. Jenkins (1980) ,"Contributions of Theory to the Study of Family Decision-Making", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 07, eds. Jerry C. Olson, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 207-211.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 7, 1980     Pages 207-211


Roger L. Jenkins, University of Tennessee


The purpose of this article is to survey the main research of recent years on family decision making and to determine what role theory has played in the evolvement of the body of knowledge we now have. Theories are tentative, timely, refutable, applicable, and capable of being incorporated into larger bodies of thought. They are essential in that they represent a mature stage in the development of thought. Has our failure to conceptualize a model of family decision-making behavior been largely due to our inability to eclectically integrate pertinent theories from other disciplines such as psychology, sociology and others?


Sociologists are concerned with the roles played by husbands and wives in family decision-making and the dependence of these roles on various psychological and socioeconomic factors (Safilios-Rothschild, 1970). Marketing strategists are more concerned with which spouse has the dominant influence in various types of decisions because it will influence the development of advertising and media strategy.

Whereas sociology has for the most part been describing the framework of family decisions, marketing researchers have sought to identify the influence of family members in a particular product choice situation. The sociology literature provides a theoretical base with an emphasis on role structure; the marketing literature is more specific in nature and emphasizes the individual who controls the decision in a particular stage of the decision process and in a particular buying situation. Davis has, more than any other marketing academician, bridged the gap, between the sociological and marketing literature by noting the multidimensional (by decision stages) role structure and by combining the more general sociological theory with specific marketing findings. [See Harry L. Davis, "Decision Making Within the Household," The Journal of Consumer Research, 2 (March, 1976), pp. 261-75. See also: Harry L. Davis and B. P. Rigaux, "Perceptions of Marital Roles in Decision Processes," The Journal of Consumer Research, 1 (June, 1975), pp. 57-63 and Harry L. Davis, "Dimensions of Marital Roles in Consumer Decision-Making," Journal of Marketing Research, 7 (May, 1970), pp. 168-77.]

For the most part, generalizations about dimensions of marital roles and variability of influence patterns among families have been the focus of scholars in this area of consumer behavior. The generalizations found among variable relationships have led to some accepted hypotheses in the literature, but short of actual "theory." It is important to review some of the major studies to search for threads of communality among findings in order to determine the state of art in application of theory or development of new.


Especially in the sociology literature, most investigators have used interchangeably the terms "power structure," or "decision authority" interchangeably without making distinctions between them. Whereas in sociology researchers have used a wide variety of terms to mean essentially the same thing, marketing researchers have been rather consistent in calling the concept "influence' of a particular family member and defining it as the impact a particular person has on a decision. Essentially, there is no difference in the concept being measured.

Much of the empirical research concerning the influence of husbands and wives in the family buying decisions has been summarized in a series of review articles published within the past four years by Davis, Ferber, Granbois, and Sheth. [See Davis, "Decision Making Within the Household," pp. 261-75. See also: Robert Ferber, "Family Decision-Making and Economic Behavior: A Review" (E. Sheldon, ed.), Family Economic Behavior (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1973), pp. 29-61; Donald Granbois, "Decision Processes for Major Durable Goods" (George Fisk, ed.), New Essays in Marketing Theory (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, Inc., 1971), pp. 172-205; J. N. Sheth, "A Theory of Family Buying Decision'' (J. N. Sheth, ed.), Models of Buyer Behavior (New York: Harper and Row, 1974), p. 105.] Common to many of the reported studies are: (1) There is substantial evidence that perceptions of both husbands and wives should be considered in efforts to explain or predict buying decisions or choice decisions, and (2) there is a growing conviction that husband-wife roles vary with the type of decision and with product categories. This is exemplified by the marital role allocations by decision area for 25 different product categories examined by Davis and Rigaux in their study of Belgian couples.

Several hypotheses have been advanced to explain the marital roles of husband and wife in family decision-making behavior. Bott suggested the amount of joint family-decision-making depends upon the "connectedness" of their social network; that is, whether husband and wife have the same friends and interests. Connectedness is more prevalent if the family has low mobility, lives in a fairly homogeneous neighborhood, and the husband is in the working class (Bott, 1955).

Komarovsky (1961) takes a somewhat different approach. Based on the examination of various empirical studies, she advanced the idea that "there is greater autonomy with regard to expenditures at the bottom and at the top of the socioeconomic hierarchy than among the middle class." Komarovsky found that in all social classes there existed a higher rate of joint decision-making on spending among young couples. The studies tended to support the proposition that the wife, relative to the husband, in lower socioeconomic classes seems to have more influence in decision-making.

Converse and Crawford (1969) found that purchases of furniture and household goods were planned on a joint basis approximately 75 percent of the time. Wolgast (1956) noted that joint decisions on the purchase of household goods were reported only 54 percent of the time, while Sharp and Mott (1956) reported joint decisions on a major item such as buying a house, only 50 percent of the time. The results of later studies focus directly on the product specificity of husband-wife influence.

The earlier studies in the sixties show that a tendency toward increased joint decision-making with regard to purchases is likely to characterize younger families, middle-class families, those families in which the husband and wife have been married only a short time, and those purchases where a large portion of total family income may be involved. Granbois (1974) showed joint participation by husband and wife will vary directly with the degree to which family members directly engage in the use of the product. He also showed joint decision-making is more likely "the more nearly equal the contribution of resources such as income, education, and social participation by husbands and wives."

Housing and automobiles have been the decision areas most often studied with regard to husband-wife roles, and the findings are not consistent from study to study, In her study, Wolgast reported that in more than half the families the timing of the car purchase was set by husband, and jointly in only 28 percent. Sharp and Mott found that the husband had the greater influence 70 percent of the time in the purchase of the family car and that the decision was made jointly 25 percent of the time with the husband becoming more dominant as income rose. Davis (1970), in a study of 211 families in and around Quebec City found that the roles of husband and wives and the relative influence in seven different types of auto-purchase decisions (such as when, where, how much, make, etc.) varied substantially across families, with the main influence being exerted by the husband, or jointly.

The Davis and Rigaux (1975) study showed that housing decisions were jointly made across all the stages of problem recognition, search, and final selection. They studied marital roles for 25 different product category decision areas and contrary to the other products considered, housing decisions did not become less specialized between the initial and final stages. The evidence presented shows relatively high intrafamily role consensus for housing decisions in the problem recognition and final selection stages, while agreement at the search stage was substantially lower (81%, 82%, and 60%, respectively).

Hempel (1974) conducted an extensive cross-cultural study of the housing decision-making process. The study utilized a sample of 317 households in an area of Northwest England and 206 families in Hartford, Connecticut. Husband-wife interaction in questions about the relative importance of each spouse in specific decisions at different stages of the house-buying process was used to measure the dominance of each spouse at various stages. Two different measures of husband-wife roles were contained in separate self-administered questionnaires. The husband was asked to identify who was "mainly responsible for selected decisions," while the wife was asked to denote "relative influence" of each spouse in the buying decisions. The study revealed a high degree of cross-cultural similarity in household decision-making processes. In general, the differences between the roles perceived by husbands and wives within the same cultural setting were greater than the differences between cultures for either sex. The findings, in general consonance with previous studies, indicated that the extent of husband-wife agreement in both cultures is related to family size, attitudes toward previous residences, stages in the life cycle, and socioeconomic factors. And in contrast to other products, there was a tendency for the husband to be more involved than the wife in the initiation of the home-buying process. For the search task the relative involvement of each spouse was reversed. Role performance in the actual purchase stage of the family decision-making process for housing appears to depend upon the type and nature of decisions--husbands were more involved in decisions concerning mortgage, price, and when to buy, while wives were more involved in decisions regarding house style and neighborhood.

The Weber, Munsinger, and Hansen study (1975) of joint home purchasing decisions by husbands and wives was comparable in many respects to the work by Hempel and Davis. Davis attempted to find systematic differences in dyads, decisions, or relative influence that were related to the extent of agreement in the perceptions of husbands and wives concerning their relative influence in decisions. He reported that results of this attempt were negative. In the Weber, Munsinger, and Hansen study, it was found that relative influence and congruence involved a measure of dyadic dominance not defined in the Davis study. These analysis indicated that congruent responses tend to be associated with syncratic decision-making; that is, when husband and wife agree concerning perceived relative influence in decision-making, they usually agree that they have equal influence. The study showed the tendency or willingness of husbands to admit dominance in decision-making, whether it is dominance by themselves or by their wives, and reluctance of wives to admit dominance by either themselves or husbands. Table I summarizes the major studies of family role structure and influence in housing.


In reality, no adequate theory can be developed to explain why one spouse rather than the other is more influential in family decision-making until all dimensions of power have been thoroughly investigated. All existing propositions about family power structure attempt to explain the dynamics of conjugal power structure but do not take into consideration the possible contributions of other family members, especially children and in-laws. Yet some generalizations or theories have been advanced to explain, fragmentarily, dominance within the decision-making processes by various family members.

The relative or comparative resource contributions theory suggests that role structures are affected by the relative resources such as income, education, and time contributed by the various nuclear family members. Because the male usually does the most earning and is the major household provider, he is usually perceived as the major or dominant member in the household. The comparative resource theory suggests husbands will have more influence than wives in families in which the income of the husband relative to the wife's is greater. In such cases, the high-income earning husband is perceived to be better equipped to manage the intricate task of major household decision-making.

The least-interested-partner theory contends that it is not the value of the resources contributed by each partner, but the value of these resources outside the marriage. For example, the greater the difference between the value to the wife of the resources she might earn outside the marriage, the greater the influence of the husband in family decision-making.

Two generally accepted "truths" from the literature also include the cost hypothesis and the income hypothesis; respectively, the greater the cost of the product or service considered and the lower the family income, the greater the tendency for two or more family members to be involved in the decision process.

It is difficult to weigh the relative merits of these various explanations of influence and role structure within the nuclear family. Some studies have supported and others disagreed with the above theories although, in general, there is more agreement than disagreement. Because of methodological limitations such as the arbitrary choice of decisions and the one-sided data based only on the wives' perceptions in some studies, there is wide variability in acceptance or rejection of these propositions.



A different selection of decisions, although for the same product, could easily show completely disparate decision-making patterns. Such is the case with a study by Blood and Wolfe (1960) which was replicated by Safilios-Rothschild in 1969. The latter study indicated that it could easily upset the "resources theory." However, even the original Blood and Wolfe (1960) data do not consistently show that the greater the husband's resources, the greater the husband's resources, the greater his say in the decision-making process, since low blue-collar men had relatively more say in decision-making than did skilled and higher wage earners. Furthermore, Greek, Yugoslavian, Ghanaian, Danish and Swedish data indicated that there are no significant differences between the degree of decision-making power of educated and uneducated husbands, or high occupational status and low occupational status husbands.

Hempel's 1975 study of housing found support for the "resources theory." He found the best single predictor across role measures and markets to be the ratio of husband/wife occupational status. This indicator of relative resources tended to be a better predictor of the role perceptions reported by husbands than those of wives. Age, years married, occupational status of the wife, and her employment status were all inversely related to husband dominance in the buying decisions.

The "least-interested partner" theory has been more powerful and found more support as it explained as much variation in family role structures as the relative contributions theory and, in addition, it can accommodate the changing patterns of family member interaction that occur over the life cycle. However, like the relative contributions theory, it does not explain differences in role structures attributable to cultural and reference group influences, mobility, or social networks.

Granbois (1971) formally stated and tested the "income" and the "cost" hypotheses, although previous studies have also concerned themselves with these variables. Respectively, these two hypotheses state that the lower the family income and the greater the cost of the product or service considered, the greater the tendency for two or more family members to be involved in the decision process. He found both hypotheses to hold in the purchase of several major durables.

Churchill and Hansen (1974) examined the cost, income, and relative contribution hypotheses with data collected from the Illinois-Berkeley panel of newly married couples. The income and cost hypotheses were supported for some product categories and rejected for others. Hence the findings raised a real question about the general applicability of the two hypotheses. In reviewing and evaluating this growing area of research interest, the researcher finds that no overall theory(ies) or well-defined concepts have guided this literature.


It is clear that extant research in this area has not utilized a systematic search for and application of existent theories in an effort to fully model the entire family decision making process. This is particularly so with some theories in psychology.

The theory of decisional conflict developed by Psychologists Irving Janis and Leon Mann is but one example. This theory described when, why, and how the psychological stress of major decisional conflicts affects the rationality of choice. The theory itself generates several hypotheses about decision-making behavior and can be used for developing strategies for improving the quality of the outcome of decision-making. Two analytical models facilitate the psychologists' application of the theory: a schema of decision-making stages which describes the sequence of responses to decisional conflict, and a "decisional balance sheet" for assessing the factors which influence the decision maker's choice. The potential for application in a consumer behavior and marketing scenario is great.

Conflict theory has merit but cannot explain the decision -making process in its entirety. It must be used together with other theories in an integrative and comprehensive composite. Under certain conditions, attribution theory correctly predicts how new information will be assimilated, and under certain other conditions cognitive dissonance theory predicts whether or not bolstering will occur, expectancy theory predicts changes in preferences for alternatives, and so on. Ultimately, it is hoped that as evidence accumulates on decision-making behavior an integrated theory will emerge that will synthesize all the solid features of present day theories. The propositions about decisional stress inherent in conflict theory should have an excellent chance of becoming a key postulate in any such comprehensive theory.


Marketers have been lethargic in borrowing from other disciplines pertinent theories to test in their study of family decision-making. Their applications have been limited primarily from sociology, and some few from psychology. Theories involving information processing, social influence, attitude change, commitment, group dynamics, and organizational policy making are all pertinent. Our approach should be interdisciplinary if our goal is a comprehensive theory of family decision-making. We should be willing and eager to draw upon concepts and findings from research psychologists, psychotherapists, sociologists, political scientists, economists, management consultants, and policy analysts. We must move beyond the study of marital role dimensions, analyzing family influence patterns, and other such descriptive research if we are to make real breakthroughs in the theoretical underpinnings of decision-making studies.


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Roger L. Jenkins, University of Tennessee


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 07 | 1980

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