It’s been a long week. You and your romantic partner are looking forward to a relaxing dinner together, and it’s your turn to pick it up. You’re craving extra mushrooms, but your partner can’t stand the things and prefers olives — hardly your favorite. Alternatively, you could just get something bland that you can both swallow down. Would that kind of compromise make for an enjoyable evening?

As consumers make thousands of decisions for consumption occasions that are shared with their partners, understanding decision-making in the context of a romantic relationship bears investigation. Could attention to our attention to our partners make a difference in our shared experiences and the things we choose to consume? 

Research by Darden Professor Lalin Anik and colleagues has shed light on how consumers in close relationships make decisions involving others.

A Study in Decisions

Much of the work on consumer decision-making has focused on how individuals make decisions in light of their own personal beliefs, attitudes and preferences. But social context is important. Indeed, even decisions that can be made individually, such as buying a car, an appliance or furniture involve consumption that is shared with partners. When the researchers asked participants in a group that was nationally representative of the USA to report five decisions they made in the past week and five decisions they made in the past year, 22 percent of frequent purchases and 15 percent of infrequent purchases involved the individual making a decision alone for their partner.

So, how do consumers make decisions involving others? Some previous research highlighted choices made on a partner’s behalf motivated by a desire to avoid conflict. But Anik found that when making choices to consume together, individuals pick options that satisfy their partners’ preferences more than their own, due to a desire to focus on their partners’ reactions and enjoyment — not simply that desire to avoid conflict. After all, your partner might not complain about those extra mushrooms while picking them off the plate, but are you going to have as good a time if you aren’t both smiling?

As it turns out, people are more interested in the quality of the shared experience, and the reactions of our partners drive us. The moment on the lips is not as significant as the potential joy for both parties.

In one study, Anik and her co-authors asked 201 individuals in a romantic relationship to imagine a situation in which they would buy a bundle of two dishes. Those who were asked to imagine they would consume the food face-to-face with their partners made more other-oriented choices (those choices that their partner would enjoy more) than people who imagined eating alone.

The investigation also found that individuals who were more satisfied with their romantic relationship made more other-oriented choices. In other words, people might sacrifice less when sharing a consumption experience in an unhappy relationship, which in turn might further the tension with their partner. Said otherwise, people’s choices in these situations can potentially make or break relationships. 

Good for Companies and Relationships

This information could be invaluable for brands. As companies design products and services, they should gauge when people are going to consume the product or service separately or together, which could have huge impact on the framing of marketing messages.

For example, companies might highlight implications for enjoyment for products likely to be consumed face-to-face, such as food and drink. Similar messages may help even in alone-consumption experiences; though a birthday gift is traditionally about an individual, for couples looking to give gifts to each other, messages that communicate a sense of shared enjoyment may drive purchases that will be shared by the couple rather than consumed only by one individual.

Implications for the Bottom Line:

  • More sales opportunities: Shifting consumers’ focus from satisfying the self to pleasing their partners could expand the range of products they’ll consider.
  • An easier sell: If consumers consider their partners’ emotional reactions and enjoyment, the decision could be an easier one.
  • Customer retention and loyalty: Attention to partners’ needs may make consumers happier and more satisfied with purchases, encouraging them to make more decisions on behalf of others and make repeat purchases.

In a business sense, consuming together makes the heart grow fonder of brands. And if nothing else, it might make for better dates and improved romantic relationships — which is no bad thing.

Lalin Anik co-authored "Consuming Together (Versus Separately) Makes the Heart Grow Fonder," which appeared in Marketing Letters, with Ximena Garcia-Rada of Harvard Business School and Dan Ariely of Duke University.

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