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Equity Theory

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Equity Theory

‘He does the dishes; I do the laundry. We divide tasks equally in the house. It stops us from nagging each other and keeps us happy.

The above quote describes a pretty equitable, happy, healthy relationship, right? Unlike social exchange theory, which suggests couples strive to gain more than they lose in a relationship, equity theory in psychology suggests successful relationships rely on equity.

Let’s now examine the components of equity theory and the research that supports it.

Equity Theory examples A couple cleaning together StudySmarterA couple cleaning together, Canva

What is equity theory?

Equity theory implies successful relationships are equitable, meaning that partners feel they have an equal balance of costs and benefits between them (Adams, 1963, Walster et al. 1978).

Equity theory, also known as the equity theory of motivation, was proposed by Adams in 1963 in relation to the workplace. He posited that workers desire equity between their commitment to a job and the results they receive. In essence, motivation is a sense of fairness.

Inputs can be factors such as education, time, experience, commitment.

Outputs can be factors such as job security, salary, the recognition they receive for doing their job, the praise and thanks they receive for their hard work.

It is an extension of the social exchange theory, stating that a partner would be unsatisfied if their relationship over-benefited or under-benefited either party. The person who receives more benefits will feel guilt and shame whilst the other partner will feel dissatisfied and angry. The longer this lack of equity remains, the more likely the couple will break up.

Equity may change over time. For example, someone may put in more effort at the start of a relationship or when there are issues such as illness, but as long as the relationship returns to equity, it will last.

Equity is NOT the same as equality. It is not about balancing numbered costs and benefits but perceived fairness between the couple. Equality would be both partners doing seven dishes out of 14, but equity would be one party doing the cooking and the other doing the dishes.

Equity theory examples: research supporting equity theory

Using self-report scales, Utne et al. (1984) measured satisfaction and equity in 118 recently married couples. Each couple had already been together for at least two years before marriage, and the study reported that greater equity led to higher satisfaction.

Stafford and Canary (2006) studied relationship equity, maintenance, and satisfaction by giving over 200 married couples questionnaires. They found that partners who viewed their relationships as equitable were most satisfied, followed by those who over-benefitted. The least satisfied were those who felt they under-benefitted.

Brosnan and De Waal’s (2003) research suggests the need for benefits is evolutionary. They studied capuchin monkeys and observed that when they were denied a reward (some grapes) for playing a game, they became angry, suggesting an innate need for rewarding relationships.

Equity Theory Examples equity as the cornerstone of a happy relationship StudySmarterEquity theory claims equity is the cornerstone of a happy relationship, Flaticon

Evaluation of the equity theory

You need to consider a few evaluation points for your exam concerning equity theory.

  • Equity theory supports gender equality; it encourages couples to treat their partner equitably, such as not leaving one partner to do all the housework, thus promoting gender equity and fairness, which is particularly beneficial for women.

  • However, some research contradicts the equity theory. Van Yperen and Buunk (1990) conducted a longitudinal study on 38 couples. Despite not finding that equity increased over time, they found a high level of self-disclosure (information sharing) at the start of a relationship did. Low equity at the beginning of a relationship was also a sign of an eventual breakup. This finding contradicts equity theory’s claim that equity increases over time and is the cornerstone of a happy relationship.

  • Berg and McQuinn (1986) studied married couples and found that dissatisfaction in inequitable relationships increased over time. This contradicts equity theory, which states that dissatisfaction is inherent to inequity; the research indicates a cause and effect relationship.

  • Individual differences/subjectivity also contradict the equity theory. According to Hussman et al. (1987), some people are less sensitive to inequity and are willing to give more in relationships (known as benevolents). Meanwhile, others are happy to take more (known as entitleds) and don’t feel the guilt equity theory suggests they should.

  • Sprecher (1992) suggests women feel more guilty when over-benefitting and more dissatisfied when under-benefitting, suggesting that equity theory is more applicable to women. DeMaris et al. (1998) similarly suggested that women focus more on relationships and thus are more sensitive to injustices.

  • Equity theory attempts to establish a universal law about relationships without considering the costs and benefits of relationships that may be different for each couple. As Mills and Clarke (1982) state, it also fails to consider that much of the input in romantic relationships is emotional and, therefore, unquantifiable. An idiographic, individual approach is needed instead of a nomothetic one.

  • Aumer-Ryan et al. (2006) revealed that equity is more important in western cultures, resulting in a cultural bias. They found that men and women from non-Western cultures were most satisfied when over-benefitting. Therefore, equity is not a universal hallmark of happy relationships as it cannot explain relationships in all cultures.


Equity Theory - Key takeaways

  • Equity theory suggests that relationships must be equitable to succeed (Adams, 1963; Walster et al. 1978).

  • Research from Utne et al. (1984), Stafford and Canary (2006), and Brosnan and De Waal (2003) supports equity theory.

  • Disadvantages of equity theory include cultural bias, nomothetic approach, beta-bias, subjectivity, contradictory research, and faulty cause and effect assumption.

  • Equity is NOT the same as equality. It is not about balancing numbered costs and benefits but perceived fairness between the couple. Equality would be both partners doing seven dishes out of 14, but equity would be one party doing the cooking and the other doing the dishes.

Frequently Asked Questions about Equity Theory

Each partner taking an equal share of the chores.

The idea that keeping things equal in a relationship is the key to a happy relationship is a fundamental principle of equity theory.

Equity theory, established by Walster et al. (1978), states that successful relationships are equitable, in which partners feel they have an equal balance of costs and benefits between them.

Equity theory was initially based on a theory developed by Adams in the 1960s, but Walster et al. (1978) further developed it.

Equity theory of motivation can help couples maintain and improve their relationships. 

Final Equity Theory Quiz

Question

Give a study that supports equity theory.

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Answer

Utne et al. (1984) measured satisfaction and equity in 118 newlyweds aged 16 to 24 using self-report scales. Each couple had already been together for at least two years before marriage, and the study reported that greater equity led to higher satisfaction.

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Question

Give a negative evaluation of equity theory.

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Answer

It fails to consider the differences between men and women. Women have been proven more sensitive to inequity and feel more guilty than men if inequity occurs, meaning they are more likely to strive for equitable relationships whilst men are not.

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Question

Who developed the equity theory?

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Answer

Hatfield

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Question

When did Hatfield develop equity theory?

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Answer

1981

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Question

Equity theory is an extension of _____ theory?


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Answer

Social exchange theory

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Question

How is equity theory different from social exchange theory?

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Answer

While social exchange theory suggests partners strive for the most benefits and least costs, equity theory states couples should accept costs and benefits to be equitable with their partners for a successful relationship.

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Question

Who suggested that much of the input in romantic relationships is emotional and therefore unquantifiable?

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Answer

Mills and Clarke (1982)

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Question

What did Van Yperen and Buunk (1990) find was more important than equity in a relationship?

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Answer

Self-disclosure

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Question

Why is equity not the same as equality?

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Answer

Equality refers to treating everyone the same, while equity refers to treating people differently to account for differences in cost/benefit/prejudice, e.g., if your partner has had a long day at work, making them dinner.

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Question

Where is equity theory not applicable?

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Answer

Non-Western countries.

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Question

Who suggested that women focus more on relationships and are more sensitive to injustices?

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Answer

DeMaris et al. (1998)

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Question

How many couples did Utne et al. (1981) study?

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Answer

118

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Question

What did Stafford and Canary study?

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Answer

Relationship equity, maintenance, and satisfaction.

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Question

What were the findings of Stafford and Canary’s study?

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Answer

They found that partners who viewed their relationships as equitable were most satisfied, followed by those who over-benefitted. The least satisfied were those who felt they were under-benefitted.

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Question

What did Brosnan and De Waal study?

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Answer

Capuchin monkies.

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