Equity Theory


Equity theory

  • An economic theory of how a relationship develops.
  • Acknowledges the impact of rewards and costs on relationship satisfaction but criticises SET for ignoring the role of equity - the perception that partners have that distribution of rewards and cost in the relationship is fair.
  • This theory was developed in response to the criticisms made about SET. Maximising rewards and minimising costs are important, but SET fails to take into account the need most people have for equity in a relationship.
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The role of equity

  • Equity means fairness.
  • Elaine Walster et all suggests that what matters most in a relationship is that both partners have the same level of profit (rewards minus the costs).
  • This is not the same as equality where levels of costs and rewards have to be the same for both of the partners.
  • Lack of equity = one partner overbenefits and the other underbenefits from the relationship, this then leads to dissatisfaction and unhappiness in the relationship.
  • Overbenefitting and underbenefitting are examples of inequity.
  • The underbenefitted partner is likely to feel the greatest dissatisfaction, in the form of anger, hostilty, resentment and humiliation.
  • The overbenefitted partner is likely to feel guilt, discomfort and shame.
  • Satisfaction is about perceived fairness.
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Equity and equality

  • The size or amount of rewards and costs does not matter in relationships according to ET.
  • Its the ratio of the two to each other matters.
  • If one partner puts a lot into the relationship but at the same time gets a lot out of it then that seems fair.
  • For example: one partner has a disability that prevents them from doing some domestic chores or other physical activites. A equal distribution of these tasks would not be seen as fair by each partner. The equity in a relationship may come from the compensations that the disabled partner could offer in other areas.
  • Satisfying relationships are marked by negotiations to ensure equity, that rewards are distributed fairly between the partners.
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Consequences of inequity

  • Problem arises when one partner puts a lot into the relationship but gets little from it.
  • A partner who is a subject of inequity will become distressed and disatisfied with the relationship.
  • Equity theory predicts a strong correlation between the two; the more inequity in a relationship the more dissatisfaction there is. This applies to the overbenefitted and underbenefitted partner that they both feel inequity.
  • Changes in perceived equity: The change in the level of perceived equity can make partners feel dissatisfied. For example: at the start of the relationship it may feel natural to contribute more than you recieve, but as time goes on and the relationship develops - if the partner is still contributing more than you recieve then this will not feel as satisfying as it did at the start of the relationship.
  • Dealing with inequity: One partner may work hard to make the relationship more equitable as long as they believe it is possible to do so. The more unfair the relationship, the harder they will work to restore equity. Another way of dealing with inequity is a cognitive way. This is when the partners revise their perceptions of rewards and costs so that the relationships feels more equitable to them, even if nothing changes.
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Evaluation of Equity Theory

  • Supporting research evidence. Evidence includes studies of real-life relationships that confirm ET is a valid explanation than SET.
    • Mary Utne et al (1984) carried out a survey of 118 recently-married couples. They survey was two self-report scales where they measured equity.
    • They found that couples who considered their relationship equitable were more satisfied than those who saw themselves as overbenefitting or underbenefitting. 
    • This research confirms that there is validity with the explanation.
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Evaluation of equity theory

  • ET assumes that the need for equity is a universal feauture of romantic relationships across all cultures, because it's a fundemental feature of human behaviour.
  • Katherine Aumer-Ryan et al found that there are cultural differences in the link between equity and satisfaction.
  • The researchers compared couples in a collectivist culture (where the nees of the wider group come first)  with those in an individualist culture (prioritises the individual's needs).
  • Couples from an individualist culture considered their relationships to be most satisfying when the relationship was equitable, whereas partners in the collectivist culture were most satisfied when they were overbenefitting. This was true for both men and women.
  • This suggests that ET claim that equity is universal is invalid. So the theory is limited because it cannot account for this cultural difference.
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Evaluation of equity theory

  • Not all partners in romantic relationships are concerned about achieving equity.
  • Huseman et al suggest that some people are less sensitive to equity than others.
  • Some partners are benevolents - who are prepared to contribute more to the relationship than they get out of it.
  • Others are entitleds who believe they deserve to be overbenefitted and accept it without feeling distressed or guilty.
  • This shows that equity is not neccessarily a global feature of all romantic relationships, in which the theory claims to be.
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Evaluation of equity theory

  • Margaret Clark and Judson Mills concluded that we should distinguish between different types of relationship.
  • Research studies strongly support the view that equity plays a central role in casual friendships, business/work relationships etc.
  • The evidence that equity is important in romantic relationships is much more mixed. Many of these studies have questioned the assumptions and predictions of equity theory, such as the link betweem equity and satisfaction, as they apply to romantic relationships.
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Evaluation of equity theory

  • Some research studies fail to support predictions made by equity theory.
  • E.G. the theory claims that satisfying romantic relationships should become more equitable over time.
  • Daniel Burg and Kristen McQuinn found that equity did not increase in their longitudinal study of dating couples.
  • ET did not distinguish between those relationships which ended and those relationships which continued.
  • Other variables being more important such as self-disclosure.
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