Theories of Romantic Relationships - Social Exchange Theory

  • Created by: frankie11
  • Created on: 26-04-19 15:05

Min-Max Principle

-          Min-Max Principle: Thibault and Kelley (1959) suggested an economic theory of relationship maintenance. They suggested that people treat relationships like businesses, carrying out cost-benefit analyses. Partners will want to maximise rewards and minimise costs. This is called the Min-Max principle.

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Rewards and Costs

-          Rewards: both partners are looking for mutually-beneficial arrangement which results in a stable and successful relationship. Rewards can include emotional support, financial stability, friendship, sex, self-esteem, entertainment. We are more attracted to these people.

-          Costs: giving up time, emotional instability, financial insecurity, opportunity cost. We are less attracted to these people.

-          However, social exchange theory considers that rewards and costs can be different for everybody and they can be of different levels of importance too.

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Comparison Level (CL)

-          Comparison Level (CL): this is the estimation, based on our internal working model, of how rewarding a relationship should be. This can come from past relationships, friends’ relationships or even ones we see in the media. This changes over a lifetime and is also linked to feelings of self-worth.

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Comparison with Alternatives (CLalt)

-          Comparison with Alternatives (CLAlt): we compare our current relationship with potential relationships with alternative partners, looking at whether there would be a higher profit there. If a higher profit can be found with the alternative, social exchange theory suggests that the original relationship will end.

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Evaluative Research - Rusbult (1983)

-          Rusbult (1983): did a longitudinal questionnaire on 17 males and 17 females in heterosexual relationships. He asked them questions on costs, rewards, investment and comparison with alternatives. He found that costs and benefits applied less to the start of the relationship but as it developed, they were considered more. He also found that costs and benefits were compared with alternatives that became less attractive over time. As satisfaction increased, so did levels of commitment. This suggests that people do consider ending their relationship based on assessing alternative options and overall profits.

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Evaluative Research - Rusbult (1983)

-          This study is supported by Spreecher (2001) who studied 101 dating couples. He found that as the availability of alternatives increased, levels of commitment and satisfaction decreased. This suggests that when we are satisfied, we don’t look for alternatives and vice versa.


-          Also, research on dating couples may have low validity because few couples will intensively “rate” their relationship. Consideration of costs and rewards is more likely to be unconscious.

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Building Evaluations

-          Social Exchange Theory and Equity Theory can’t explain why some people get into very illogical relationships as it assumes that people are logical in calculating costs and rewards. This can be explained by Rusbult’s investment model however, so this may be the better theory.


-          Social Exchange Theory may be culturally biased. Looking at individual profits and losses isn’t considered in collectivist societies such as China where marriages are often arranged. However, social exchange theory could be adapted in this situation to say that the families consider the costs and benefits that may affect them.

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Building Evaluations

-          Social Exchange/Equity Theory is quite flexible because it recognises that people have individual differences and they have different ideas in terms of profits and losses. This means that the theory can be applied to a wider range of people, rather than just people with fixed rewards and costs.


-          As relationships enter the maintenance phase, physical attraction seems to become less important. Therefore, SET/ET is better at explaining this part of the relationships, which many studies have found to be more about feelings than attractiveness.

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Building Evaluations

-          SET may be too simplistic. It suggests that if both partners are in profit then the relationship will continue. However, Rusbult’s expansion of the model looks at investment size, which is another relevant and important factor in choosing whether or not to continue a relationship.

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