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Social Exchange Theory

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Social Exchange Theory

Have you ever made a pros-and-cons list about your partner? Have you ever considered what they can help you with and what compromises you have to make? If so, you have been putting social exchange theory (SET) into practice. Social exchange theory refers to how partners weigh up the costs and benefits of being in a relationship.

So, what exactly is social exchange theory in psychology? What are its assumptions? Let’s find out the details.

Social Exchange Theory Happy couple StudySmarterA happy couple, Flaticon

What is the social exchange theory in relationships?

Chores, sex, companionship, compromise are all different types of social exchange. Social psychologists Thibault and Kelley (1959) explain relationships in economic terms. They state that a relationship is a constant negotiation of profits (rewards) and losses (costs). Partners will strive to maximise profits such as sex, companionship, and emotional support and minimise losses such as compromise, arguments, and commitments; these tend to change over time.

Here is an example of the social exchange theory:

One cost of a relationship might be that your partner works out of town. At first, this is fine, because whenever he comes home, he brings you gifts and flowers, which is a reward. That stops after a while, and it becomes tiresome when they are never around. The costs begin to outweigh the rewards, and you might want to break up with your partner.

Social exchange theory levels

According to the social exchange theory, people use comparison levels to work out how profitable their relationship is.

Level one: comparison level

This level measures the rewards a person thinks they are entitled to in a relationship. This measurement depends on many factors, including previous relationships, cultural norms, gender, and more. A person’s self-esteem greatly influences it.

If someone has low self-esteem, they may not think they are worthy of many rewards and will bear many costs.

Level two: comparison level for alternatives

This level refers to how happy a person thinks they will be in or out of their relationship. According to Thibault and Kelly’s theory, people will stay in their current relationship if they find it more profitable than the alternatives.

Did you know?

Psychologists such as Duck stated people do not even think about alternatives if they are happy in their relationship.

What are the stages of social exchange theory?

Much like the filter theory, Thibault and Kelley suggested relationships proceed in stages.

  • Sampling is a stage in which potential partners explore the possible costs and rewards of a relationship.
  • Bargaining is the first stage of any romantic relationship, where partners exchange rewards and costs to figure out the most profitable exchanges and the dynamics of a relationship.
  • Commitment: as the relationship becomes stable, so do the rewards and costs; rewards increase and costs decrease.
  • Institutionalisation: the couple has established the norms of their relationship in terms of rewards and costs, and the couple settles down.

Evaluation of the social exchange theory

The social exchange theory has many points of strength, as well as weaknesses. We look at them below.

Strengths

  • Research support:Sprecher (2001) found that the comparison level of alternatives was a significant factor in ensuring commitment in relationships. For women especially, he found that rewards were a predictor of satisfaction. This finding shows social exchange theory at work, as people consider rewards and costs and comparison in real relationships. Floyd et al. (1998) found that people will commit to a relationship when they feel rewarded, and there are no attractive alternatives. Brosnan and De Waal’s (2003) research suggests an evolutionary need for benefits in a relationship. In their study of capuchin monkeys, they observed monkeys became angry when denied a reward (grapes) for playing a game, suggesting an innate need for rewarding relationships.

You can evaluate this study by recognising that it is an animal study and therefore may not directly apply to humans, lacking validity.

  • Real-world application of social exchange theory: couples’ therapy uses the social exchange theory, such as Integrated Behavioral Couples Therapy (IBCT), in which couples are encouraged to increase positive interactions with their partners (rewards) and decrease negative ones (costs). Christensen et al. (2004) found that two-thirds of couples treated with IBCT reported their relationships improved greatly as well as their happiness. This shows SET has positive real-world applications.

Weaknesses

Research into social exchange theory lacks external validity. Most studies into social exchange theory are game-based research tasks involving strangers, e.g., Emerson and Cook’s (1978) study in which partners bargained to get the highest score in a video game. The lab setting, unrealistic tasks, and unknown participants do not mirror real-life relationships.

Subjective: rewards and costs may differ from person to person, meaning that social exchange theory is subjective.

For instance, someone who is constantly happy may be considered positive, but being positive all the time may be annoying for some people.

Therefore, it is not a clear and replicable theory as we cannot precisely measure what it would take someone to leave the relationship.

Unrealistic: social exchange theory assumes couples keep a tally of positives and negatives throughout their relationship. Clark and Mills (2011) argue this is not the case for romantic relationships; these are communal, not exchange relationships, such as your relationship with a colleague or boss. Further, equity theory states that perceived rewards do not keep a relationship afloat, but rather the perceived equity.

Cost and effect: Argyle (1987) suggested dissatisfaction does not occur because a partner perceives more costs. Instead, they start tallying rewards and costs once they are already dissatisfied to work out if they want to stay in the relationship or not. This cause-and-effect relationship is the opposite of what social exchange theory suggests.

Nomothetic approach: social exchange theory attempts to set a universal approach to relationships, but as mentioned above, relationships vary from couple to couple, so the approach cannot be generalised. Perhaps an idiographic (individualistic) approach would be more appropriate.

Deterministic: according to social exchange theory, if someone experiences high costs and low rewards, they will leave a relationship, but this isn’t necessarily true. Sometimes other factors such as abuse, illness, or eventual gain make people stay in high-cost relationships. This undermines the validity of social exchange theory as the costs and rewards of a relationship do not always accurately predict a person’s commitment.

Reductionist: reducing relationships down to an economic model of rewards and costs is a limited view of real-life romantic relationships. For instance, it fails to account for why someone might stay in an abusive relationship despite extremely high costs. Perhaps a holistic approach would be better to explore the complexities of modern relationships.

Social Exchange Theory - Key takeaways

  • Social exchange theory views relationships economically and states that relationships are a negotiation of rewards and costs.

  • It states that relationships go through the comparison level and the comparison level for alternatives.

  • The stages of relationship development are sampling, bargaining, commitment and institutionalisation.

  • The strengths of social exchange theory are their research support, and it can be applied in real life in couples therapy.

  • The weaknesses are that the research into the social exchange theory lacks external validity; it is deterministic, subjective, reductionistic, unrealistic, and nomothetic.

Frequently Asked Questions about Social Exchange Theory

Social exchange theory views relationships economically. It states that relationships are a negotiation of rewards and costs. A relationship will break down if losses (costs) outweigh profits (rewards).

One cost of a relationship might be that your partner works out of town. At first, this is fine, because whenever he comes home, he brings you gifts and flowers, which is a reward. That stops after a while, and it becomes tiresome when they are never around. The costs begin to outweigh the rewards, and you might want to break up with your partner.

Doing chores, sex, companionship, compromise, etc. 

Social exchange theory can be applied to real-life relationships by encouraging active communication about the costs and rewards incurred by both partners. Through this communication, partners can strive to minimise costs and increase rewards, leading to greater satisfaction.

Thibault and Kelley proposed the social exchange theory in 1959.

Final Social Exchange Theory Quiz

Question

What does SET stand for?

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Answer

Social Exchange Theory

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Who developed SET?

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Answer

Thibault and Kelly

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When was SET developed?

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Answer

In 1959.

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What kind of theory is SET?

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Answer

Economic 

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Why is SET subjective?


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Answer

People may view costs and rewards differently.

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What kind of relationships does SET fail to explain and why?

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Answer

Abusive relationships as the costs outweigh the costs in this case, and yet the partners stay together.

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Question

Give an example of a cost.

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Answer

Your partner is a really bad cook.

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Question

Give an example of a benefit.

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Answer

Your partner is good in bed.

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What is the comparison level?


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This level measures the rewards a person thinks they are entitled to in a relationship.

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What is the comparison level of alternatives?

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This level refers to how happy a person thinks they will be in or out of their relationship.

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What is the three-stage of social exchange theory?

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Sampling, bargaining, and commitment.

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What is sampling?

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Sampling is a stage in which potential partners explore the possible costs and rewards of a relationship.

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 What is bargaining?


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Answer

Bargaining is the first stage of any romantic relationship, where partners exchange rewards and costs to figure out the most profitable exchanges and the dynamics of a relationship.

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What is a commitment?

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Answer

Commitment is a stage in which the relationship becomes stable, as do the rewards and costs; rewards increase, and costs decrease.

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Give three negatives of social exchange theory.

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Answer

It is reductionist, nomothetic, and subjective.

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