Formation of Relationships

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One theory of formation of relationships is the reward/ need satisfaction theory created by Byrne and Clore (1970). The model proposes that we are attracted to people who provide us with direct reinforcement, rewarding stimuli lead to positive feelings and punishing stimuli lead to negative feelings (operant conditioning). 

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Therefore, we enter into some relationships because that person creates positive feelings in us, which makes us feel happy, secure and many other rewarding feelings. We do not enter into relationships with some individuals because they create negative feelings in us making us feel unhappy, threatened, etc. 

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We are also attracted to people who are associated with pleasant events e.g. holidays. They acquire positive value because of their association with something else that makes us happy (classical conditioning). 

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A relationship is likely to succeed when the positive feelings outweigh the negative feelings, and is likely to fail when the negative feelings outweigh the positive feelings. Research that supports this is an experiment by Griffitt and Guay (1969) who found that participant rating (for liking) of an experimenter was highest when the experimenter had positively evaluated the participant, producing positive feelings in them. 

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Furthermore, in this study onlookers who witnessed the experimenter’s evaluation were also more likely to be liked by the participant when the onlooker had witnessed a positive evaluation of the participant than a negative one. In these conditions, participants gave the same rating of ‘likeability’ to both the experimenter and onlooker, supporting the claim that attraction may be influenced through association with a pleasant event, and this makes the formation of a relationship with the person more likely.

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But it could be that the participants worked out what the experiment was about leading to demand characteristics, which in turn reduce the validity and reliability of the study.

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But this theory is culturally biased as it doesn’t account for cultural and gender differences in the formation of relationships, suggesting that this is not a universal explanation of the formation of relationships. Lott suggests that, in many cultures women were more focused on the needs of others than on receiving reinforcement. 

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There is also a lack of mundane realism as most of the studies in this area have been lab studies, which don’t necessarily show the principles of need satisfaction in real life. However, some studies have been conducted on real- life couples and have tended to support the claims of this theory.  

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The second theory is similarity created by Byrne, Clore and Smeaton in 1986). The similarity of personality and attitudes promotes liking. We first sort potential partners for dissimilarity, avoiding those who are too different, from those remaining we can then choose those who are most similar to ourselves. 

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We are therefore more likely to form relationships with people similar to ourselves. With personality we are more likely to be attracted to those with similar rather than dissimilar or complementary personality traits.

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Caspi and Herbener found that married couples with similar personalities are more likely to be happy than those with dissimilar ones. And with attitudes if our partner’s attitudes towards important issues differ, the process of attitude alignment may occur, as one or both partners modify their attitudes to produce similarity. 

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One research study that supports this idea is Lehr and Geher who carried out an experiment to test whether attitude similarities would be important in determining whether someone would be liked more. Descriptions of an imaginary stranger had varying degrees of similarity with the partners own attitudes. 

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The imaginary stranger was liked more (and seen as more suitable as a potential date) if he or she was similar to the person doing the rating. Similarity is important in the formation of relationships because by ruling out dissimilar people, we lessen the chance of being rejected as a partner.

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And when people share our attitudes and beliefs, it tends to validate them, which is also rewarding. But Rosenbaum suggests that dissimilarity is the more important factor in determining whether relationships will (or won’t) form.   

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But with this theory there are cultural similarities as the ‘dissimilarity- repulsion’ hypothesis was tested and supported across a number of different cultures including Singapore and the USA. By demonstrating cultural similarities, this suggests that sorting prospective partners initially according to dissimilarity is a universal phenomenon. 

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But this study only took place in two countries so the study cannot be generalised so therefore reduces validity and these two cultures cannot be the basis of understanding for others. 

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A major flaw of the similarity hypothesis is that it proposes people pair up with each other of similar ‘social desirability’. This suggests that this hypothesis is reductionist and incomplete to account for such instances weakening the theory. 

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This theory is also determinist as it does not account for the role of free will that people have in determining their choices. Many people pair up together despite being very different on perceived social desirability and this is due to free will, which isn’t accounted for in this theory. 

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Gender differences and cultural bias appear evident in both of these theories, as in many cultures relationships form through arranged marriages where the reward/needs model or the similarity hypothesis model does not apply to all as the choice is taken away from the individual involved. The implication for the theory is it therefore suffers from cultural bias to western society and may have limited application to other cultures or society’s.

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Also Lott et al found than in many cultures women are socialised to be more attentive to the needs of others such as her husband or children rather than being focused on their own rewards. While others however argue that is meeting of other people’s needs or having children is rewarding in itself for the women and it is therefore difficult to prove or disprove the theory’s for certain.      

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Evolutionary explanations may also explain the formation of relationships better. People may ultimately look to form relationships with people that offer the most in terms of passing on their genes successfully i.e. be it through attraction indicating fidelity or wealth promoting the chances of a stable and secure future for themselves and children. 

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Support for this and criticism of both theories comes from research by Takeuchi who has shown a gender difference exists with men placing greater importance physical beauty while women place less emphasis on this and being more open to other social desirability traits such as kindness and generosity. 

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