Equity Theory



Equity refers to fairness. Walster et al (1978) suggested that what is most important is that the level of 'profit' in a relationship is roughly equal for both partners. If it is not, then one partner overbenefits, and the other underbenefits, which may lead to resentment and anger in the 'underbenefitted' partner, so threatening the relationship. If the relationship is perceived to be fair, both partners will be satisfied.

The amount of rewards and costs are not thought to matter according to this theory. What matter is the ratio between them - investing a lot in a relationship is acceptable, as long as the level of rewards is high. Satisfying relationships are characterised by negotiations to ensure equity, but not necessarily equality, amongst the distribution of rewards.

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Consequences of Inequity

If a partner invests a lot in a relationship, but gets little out of it, then they will become dissatisfied. There will be a correlation between the level of perceived inequity and the level of dissatisfaction. Both the overbenefitted and underbenefitted partner will notice the inequity. 

The perception of inequity can change over time, for example, contributing more than what is received may be acceptable early on in the relationship, but will be perceived as unfair if it continues for a long period of time. 

To deal with the inequity, a partner may work harder to try to restore equity. Alternatively, a partner may cognitively revise their perceptions of what counts as rewards and costs, so that the relationship comes to be seen by them as equitable, even though nothing has really changed. 

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Evaluation of Equity Theory

+ Utne et al (1984) found that couples who considered their relationship equitable were also more satisfied than those who reported themselves as underbenefitting or overbenefitting, so supporting the predictions of equity theory.

- Aumer-Ryan et al (2007) found cultural differences in the link between equity and satisfaction. Those in collectivist cultures were more likely to be satisfied when overbenefitting in a relationship, whereas in individualist cultures, equity was more associated with satisfaction. This suggests equity theory may be less applicable in different cultures.

- Huseman et al (1987) argue that not all people are concerned with the need for equity. Some take more satisfaction from contributing more to a relationship, whereas others are prepared to 'overbenefit' without guilt. This weakens the theory, as it does not account for individual differences.

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