Study Notes

Relationships: Social Exchange Theory

AS, A Level

Social exchange theory is one of the so-called ‘economic’ theories of relationships. Economic theories describe relationships as a series of exchanges aiming at balancing rewards and costs.

Social Exchange Theory (SET) Explained

Social psychologists Thibault and Kelly (1959) describe romantic relationships using the economic terminology of profit (rewards) and loss (costs). They claim that partners in relationships strive to maximise rewards (things like companionship, praise, emotional support, sex) and minimise costs (stress, arguments, compromises, time commitments). Notions of rewards and costs are subjective (what is considered very costly by one person, can be seen as low cost or even a reward by another); costs also tend to change over time (what is considered costly at the beginning of the relationships seems less so as relationships develop).

People also use levels of comparison to assess how profitable their relationships are.

The first level, called Comparison Level (CL), is based on person’s idea of how much reward they deserve to receive in relationships. This understanding is subjective and depends on previous romantic experiences and cultural norms of what is appropriate to expect from relationships; these norms are reinforced by books, films and TV programmes. Comparison Levels are closely linked to person’s self-esteem – a person with high self-esteem will have higher expectations of rewards in relationships, whereas a person with low self-esteem will have lower expectations. People consider relationships worth pursuing if the Comparison Level is equal to, or better than, what they experienced in their previous relationships.

The second level, called Comparison Level for alternatives (CLalt), concerns a person’s perception of whether other potential relationships (or staying on their own) would be more rewarding than being in their current relationship. According to Social Exchange Theory, people will stick to their current relationships as long as they find them more profitable than the alternatives. Furthermore, according to some psychologists, such as Duck, if people consider themselves to be content in their current relationships, they may not even notice that there are available alternatives.

According to Thibault and Kelly, all relationships proceed through a series of stages. They are:

  • Sampling stage, where people explore potential rewards and costs of relationships, not just romantic ones, either by direct experience or by observing others.
  • Bargaining stage, which is the first stage of any romantic relationship. At this stage, partners exchange rewards and costs, figure out the most profitable exchanges and negotiate the dynamics of the relationship.
  • Commitment stage: when relationships become more stable, and partners become familiar with sources of rewards and costs, and each other's expectations, so rewards increase and costs lessen.

Research Examining Social Exchange Theory 

Research support for Social Exchange Theory is limited; however, some studies show evidence that supports the main assumptions of the theory. For example, Floyd et al. (1994) found that commitment develops when couples are satisfied with, and feel rewarded in, a relationship and when they perceive that equally attractive or more attractive alternative relationships are unavailable to them. 

In addition, Sprecher (2001) found that comparison levels for alternatives were a strong predictor of commitment in a relationship and that rewards were important as a predictor of satisfaction, especially for women. 

Evaluation of Social Exchange Theory (SET)

SET is supported by research studies. For example, Sprecher (2001) found that Comparison Levels for alternatives were a strong predictor of commitment in a relationship and that rewards were important as a predictor of satisfaction, especially for women. Based on these findings, it can be concluded that some people appear to base their evaluation of romantic relationships on rewards and costs (in particular, Comparison Level for alternatives), just as SET suggests. Therefore, it would appear that some people do stay in their current relationship while it remains more profitable than the alternatives.

Not only is the research support for Social Exchange Theory limited, but it is also often based on research that lacks mundane realism. The majority of research into SET is based on studying strangers that are involved in some kind of game-based scenario with rewards and costs variably distributed during the game. For example, Emerson and Cook (1978) designed a laboratory experiment where each of 112 participants was bargaining with a partner to maximise personal score in a computer game. The ‘relationships’ between these partners are nothing like real-life romantic relationships, which are based on getting to know another person and establishing trust. As such, these studies lack internal validity, making SET less applicable to real-life romantic relationships.

The Social Exchange Theory key concepts are very difficult to define. The notion of rewards and costs is highly subjective. For example, one person may find lots of praise from a partner rewarding, but another person could find it annoying, making it difficult to measure.  In addition, it is not clear how much more attractive alternatives should become, or by how much costs should outweigh the rewards, for the person to start feeling dissatisfied with their current relationship.

Furthermore, SET assumes that from the beginning of a relationship partners keep some kind of tally of profit and loss, and return reward for reward and cost for cost. Clark and Mills (2011) argue that while this may be true of work interactions between colleagues (exchange relationships), it is rarely the case in romantic (communal) relationships, where rewards are distributed freely without necessarily keeping a score. More than that, other research findings suggest that it is not a balance of rewards and costs, but rather perceived fairness of relationships, that keeps partners happy and committed to the relationships. This weakens the validity of SET, as it seems that SET can only explain a limited range of social relationships.

Some researchers argue that there is an issue with cause and effect in regards to SET assumptions. Argyle (1987) argues that people rarely start assessing their relationships before they feel unsatisfied with them. For example, being unhappy in relationships may lead a person to question whether there are more rewards than costs in their relationships and the potential alternatives, but these thoughts occur only after the dissatisfaction is discovered. This contradicts SET, which assumes that assessing profit and loss is the way in which all relationships are maintained, even happy ones.

On the other hand, SET has many useful real-life applications. One example of this is Integrated Behavioural Couples Therapy (IBCT), during which partners are trained to increase the proportion of positive exchanges in their everyday interactions and decrease the proportion of negative ones, by changing negative behaviour patterns. According to Christensen et al. (2004) about two-thirds of couples that were treated using IBCT reported that their relationships have significantly improved and they were feeling much happier as a result of it. This shows that SET can be used to help distressed couples in real life, thus demonstrating its real-world application and benefit for relationships.

Issues and Debates: Social Exchange Theory

SET takes a nomothetic approach to studying relationships, trying to uncover universal laws of how relationships are maintained that would be applicable to all couples. However, as demonstrated above, the ways in which relationships are maintained vary significantly from couple to couple, so an individually based, in-depth idiographic approach may be better suited to studying the maintenance of romantic relationships.

Another major criticism of SET is its deterministic view of romantic relationships. According to SET, if the costs outweigh the rewards, a person will want to opt out of a relationship. However, there are many cases where people stay in high-cost relationships (for example, when one partner is chronically ill) without feeling dissatisfied. As a result, the predictive validity of SET is very limited; it cannot establish with significant certainty whether a person will feel happy or unhappy in a relationship, based on the costs and rewards they are getting from it. This undermines the scientific claim of SET, as an ability to predict human behaviour with a degree of certainty is one of the main objectives for psychology to be accepted as a science.

Basing the explanation of such complex phenomenon as romantic relationships purely on costs and rewards makes it reductionist and limits the range of real life romantic experiences it can explain. For example, SET does not explain why many people stay in abusive relationships despite the lack of rewards and overwhelming costs. This suggests that a holistic approach to studying romantic relationships may be better suited to explaining the complexity of relationships maintenance.

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