Social Exchange Theory An Economic Model of Relationships
Rewards, Costs & Profit • Thibult and Kelly (1959) put forward the idea that romantic relationships are founded upon economic assumptions of exchange • Rewards and costs are subjective and perception of them can change over time
Comparison Level • Comparison level is the reward that one expects to receive within a romantic relationship • It is influenced by previous relationships, social norms and cultural representations of romantic relationships
Comparison Level for Alternatives • This second measure involves a comparison with the rewards one believes could be obtained in an alternative relationship • Duck (1994) suggests that one's inclination to consider these alternative rewards would depend on the level of satisfaction with the current relationship
Stages of Relationship Development • Sampling Stage - exploration of the rewards and costs of social exchange through experimentation in all sorts of relationships • Bargaining stage - the beginning of a relationship where exchange and negotiation first occurs • Commitment stage - there is a stabilisation of costs and rewards • Institutionalisation stage - the norms of the relationship are firmly established
Research supporting aspects of the theory • Kurdek and Schmitt 1986 • 79 heterosexual couples, 50 gay couples and 56 lesbian couples completed a questionnaire independently of partner. • Findings demonstrated the significance of comparison levels – both CL and CLAs - in determining relationship satisfaction. • This was a study ahead of its time in terms of researching a range of relationships.
Specific criticisms • How does one begin to measure rewards and costs in a real-life context? • Is monetary reward too simplistic a variable? • How could one quantify more abstract rewards such as support, entertainment, affection? • How does a researcher factor in concepts such as trust or changes in relative contributions over time?
A Cynical Theory? • Clark and Mills (2011) suggest that the theory fails to distinguish between two separate types of relationship. They argue that while the theory may be applicable to work or social relationships, communal relationships (such as romantic ones) do not typically involve such monitoring and that such economic behaviour may be considered inappropriate within the context of a romantic relationship • Equity theory suggests that rather than evaluations only being made the basis of a straightforward consideration of costs/rewards, perceptions of what constitutes fairness or equity within the specific context of the relationship is important
Causal Problems • Argyle (1987) suggests that people no not tend to consider the costs versus the rewards of a relationship, or potential alternatives, until the relationship is already in trouble • Miller (1997) supported this by showing that people who rated themselves as dissatisfied with their relationship spent more time looking at images of attractive people • This suggests that the direction of causality underpinning SET is open to question.
Conclusion • For the fullest understanding of relationship formation, maintenance and breakdown it is necessary to examine the interaction between all of the economic theories, and then factor in some biology. Furthermore, it may be beyond the scope of any objective, formulaic theory to untangle the complex emotions and cognitions of relationships especially given the belief that persists in many parts of the world in the power, and irrationality, of “love”.