Describe and evaluate two theories on the maintenance of relationships

HideShow resource information

Psychology Unit 3

Describe and Evaluate two theories on the maintenance of relationships


1 of 7

#1 Social Exchange Theory

Thibaut and Kelley suggest that relationships run according to a 'balance sheet principle'

  • rewards are exchanged for resources: sex, security or compassion
  • costs result in loss or punishment: abuse or boredom 

SET assumes all social behaviours are a series of exchanges

  • something is given and something is gained

Relationships run like a business

  • profit can be calculated from subtracting costs from rewards

SET is based on operant conditioning

  • we form and maintain relationships that are reinforcing and rewards outweigh the costs
2 of 7

Reference Levels

Thibaut and Kelley introduced two reference levels:

Comparison level

  • based on memories of past relationships and expectations of what we want and expect for the future
  • if the reference relationship is favourable we are motivated to stay

Comparison level of alternatives

  • concerned with benefits of possible alternative relationships
  • states that we compare outcomes of reference relationships with others we could have
3 of 7



  • culturally biased
    • majority of research done was in western cultures
  • portrays humans as selfish and calculating
  • doesn't explain why we leave without alternatives


  • has had much research put into it
  • explains why people stay in abusive relationships
    • lack of alternatives and low expectations due to bad past experiences
4 of 7

#2 Equity Theory

Walster et al modified the social exchange theory into the equity theory. 

  • This considers investment

Equity theory assumes people strive to achieve fairness in their relationship.

People only consider a relationship to be fair and satisfactory if what they gain reflects what they give

Study 1: Hatfield et al

500 students were asked to judge the fairness in their relationships

  • students in inequitable relationships were more likely to end it

This study is age and culturally biased (students in a western culture) therefore lacks generalisabiltiy

5 of 7

Clark and Mills couples

Hatfield et al found that women are more distressed when over-benefited whereas men are more uncomfortable with being under-benefited

It was also found that women are more likely to engage in martial affairs

  • perhaps to give more equitable balance in a relationship

Clark and Mills identified two types of couples:

Communal couples

  • concern and positive regard for the other motivates the giving

Exchange couple

  • A form of score keeping that is predicted by the social exchange theory
6 of 7


Culturally biased

  • Equity theory is more characteristic to individualist culture
  • Evidence shows that in collectivist cultures there is a greater tendency to allocate resources according to needs and not equity

Two explanations for this:

  • Where there is poverty and great need the norm of justice is based on meeting needs and not equity
  • Individualist societies stress independence and personal achievements and doesn't value interdependence and community needs
7 of 7


No comments have yet been made

Similar Psychology resources:

See all Psychology resources »See all Relationships resources »