Economic theories of relationships

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  • Created by: AnnieB
  • Created on: 08-06-15 12:26

Economic Theories

There are three stages to a relationship:-

  • Formation - Relationships formed on basis of costs / rewards. Relationships form if potential rewards exceed potential costs.
  • Maintenance - Balance between costs and rewards must remain favourable to each party. If we feel we are investing more than we are getting out, we may consider breaking up. Both parties must work to keep rewards high and costs low.
  • Breakdown - If costs begin to outweigh rewards, the relationship may be considered too costly to continue.

Homans (1961) – Choices about relationships are rational economic decisions.

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Investment Model

Rusbult (1983) - If we have invested a lot in a relationship, we may stay even if rewards are low and costs high.

Commitment depends on:

  • High degree of satisfaction
  • Low quality alternatives
  • High investment

Rusbult & Martz (1995)

Investment model also explains why people remain in abusive relationships.

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Equity Theory

Walster (1978)

Couples expect relationships to be ‘fair’

Both giving too much AND receiving too much lead to dissatisfaction.

Efforts to restore equity in long term relationships may involve:

  • Reducing inputs
  • Increasing outputs
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The Matching Hypothesis

We all want the ‘perfect partner’ however we recognise the need to be realistic. We go for a value match – the best we feel we can get, without risking rejection

Walster et al (1966) - ‘Computer Dance’

Hypothesis - The more attractive the partner, the more likely the desire for a further date.

Method - Pps asked to fill in questionnaire to be matched with ‘ideal date’ for freshers’ ball, and were unknowingly rated for attractiveness by unseen observer, however partners were actually assigned randomly. Halfway through the ball, Pps were asked to rate their partner for likeability.

Results - Physical attractiveness was most important factor.

Conclusions - Attractiveness is rewarding. This refutes matching hypothesis - no value match

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Natural Matches

Murstein (1972)

Hypothesis - Real couples will receive more similar attractiveness ratings than ‘fake couples’

Method - Photographs of engaged couples

Each person rated individually for attractiveness by independent judge, self and partner.

Control group of ‘fake couples’.

Results - Real partners received significantly similar ratings to each other.

Fake couples did not.

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Social Exchange Theory

Thibaut and Kelley (1959)All behaviour is a series of exchanges. Individuals want to maximise rewards and minimise costs.

Comparison level - CL: 

The standard against which all our relationships are judged. We get a comparison level through using our own experiences in other relationships together with general views of what we might expect to gain from the relationship. If the benefit of a relationship exceeds the CL we worked out then we would see maintaining the relationship as beneficial.

Comparison level for alternatives - CL Alt:

The CL Alt is when we compare our current relationship with the benefits we would receive from an alternative relationship. If the benefits of the alternative relationship are better we will end our current relationship and start a new one. If the benefits of the alternative relationship are not any better we will stay in the current relationship.

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Strengths of Social Exchange Theory

Based on Social/Economic approach: So people have free will and choice (takes into account individual differences) unlike in other theories of relationship maintenance, such as Sociobiological.

The Cl Alt helps to explain why somebody would terminate a relationship they were satisfied with (in that the alternative partner can offer even more)

It could help explain why people may stay in an abusive relationship (Rasbults, investment model), as if they have put a lot into the relationship and there is no Cl Alt then they may stay in that relationship.

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Weaknesses of Social Exchange Theory

Methodologies used: Most studies investigating this area are very artificial and lack ecological validity.

It has inconsistent empirical research: Clark and Mills (1979) identified two different styles of couples (communal and exchange couples). In the communal couple they have positive regard for each other and believe over time each will receive equal costs/benefits. The exchange couple are more about here and now.

Limited applications: Hatfield (1979) found equity was more important for females. Murstein (1977) found that only people in problem marriages will look for alternatives.

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Weaknesses of Social Exchange Theory

The social exchange theory suggests that people sit around weighing up their relationships on a regular basis. Argyle (1987) argued that people only do this when they have already become dissatisfied by the relationship. Duck (1994) also agrees with Argyle and feels people do not look at alternatives unless they are unsatisfied with their current relationship.

It assumes that everybody wants equality. Some couples may be perfectly happy to give more than they receive.

Cultural bias: Social exchange theory may only apply to western countries.

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Equitable Life

Van Yperen & Buunk (1990) Longitudinal study using 259 couples recruited by ad in local paper, 86% married, the rest co-habiting.

Used Hatfield’s Global Measurement of Satisfaction:

  • 65% men & women felt their relationship was equitable
  • 25% men felt over-benefited
  • Same number of women felt under-benefited

1 year later…

Couples asked how satisfied they were in their relationships

Those who had felt their relationship was equitable were most satisfied, followed by those who felt they over-benefited. Pps who felt under-benefited were found to be the least satisfied

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