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Social Exchange Theory

 

Explanations > Theories > Social Exchange Theory

Description | Research | Example | So What? | See also | References 

 

Description

All relationships have give and take, although the balance of this exchange is not always equal. Social Exchange theory explains how we feel about a relationship with another person as depending on our perceptions of:

  • The balance between what we put into the relationship and what we get out of it.
  • The kind of relationship we deserve.
  • The chances of having a better relationship with someone else.

In deciding what is fair, we develop a comparison level against which we compare the give/take ratio. This level will vary between relationships, with some being more giving and others where we get more from the relationship. They will also vary greatly in what is given and received. Thus, for example, exchanges at home may be very different, both in balance and content.

We also have a comparison level for the alternative relationships. With a high such comparison level, we might believe the world is full of lovely people just waiting to meet us. When this level is low, we may stay in a high-cost relationship simply because we believe we could not find any better elsewhere.

Research

Rusbult (1983) found that during the early 'honeymoon' period of a romantic relationship, the balance of exchange was largely ignored. Only later were costs related to satisfaction with the relationship. 

Example

My daughter put a lot of effort into buying her brother a birthday present. He was not sufficiently enthusiastic about it and so she decided to spend more time on her own rather than 'being ignored' by him.

So what?

Using it

When you want to ask something else for something, make sure the balance of exchange is in your favor. You can also work on their perception of how exchanges happen within your relationship.

Defending

When people call in favors, think about what kind of exchange relationship you have with them and whether this is reasonable.

See also

Equity Theory, Reciprocity Norm, Social Norms, Leader-Member Exchange Theory

http://www.washington.edu/research/pathbreakers/1978a.html

References

Thibaut and Kelley (1959), Kelley and Thibaut (1978), Homans (1961), Rusbult (1983)

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