Social Exchange Theory

Social Exchange theory – an economic explanation of relationship maintenance based on maximizing profits and minimizing costs.

In any relationship both partners are continually giving and receiving items of value to and from each other and as people are fundamentally selfish, relationships continue only if both partners feel they are getting more out of the relationship then they are putting in.

The theory sees people as perceiving their feelings for others in terms of profit (the rewards obtained from relationships minus the costs). The greater the rewards and the lower the costs, the greater the profit and therefore the greater the desire to maintain the relationship.

Interactions between partners can be ‘expensive’, as they take time, energy and commitment and may involve unpleasant emotions and experience. Therefore, for a relationship to be maintained, individuals must feel they are receiving more than they put in. The theory also sees social interactions as involving an exchange of rewards, such as affection, intimate information and status. The degree of attraction or liking between partners reflects how people evaluate the rewards they receive relative to those given.

Thus, the social exchange theory is an economic theory explaining relationships in terms of maximizing benefits and minimizing costs. The ‘social exchange’ is the mutual exchange of rewards between partners, like friendship and sex, and the costs of being in the relationship, such as freedoms given up. A person assesses their rewards by making two comparisons:

  1. The comparison level (CL) – where rewards are compared against costs to judge profits
  2. The comparison level for alternative relationships (CLalt) – where rewards and costs are compared against perceived rewards and costs for possible alternative relationships.

A relationship is maintained if rewards exceed costs and the profit level is not exceeded by possible alternative relationships.

Thibaut & Kelley et al (1959) proposed a four-stage model of the social exchange theory, setting out how relationships could be maintained. It perceives that over time people develop a predictable and mutually beneficial pattern of exchanges, assisting the maintenance of relationships.

Stage Description


Rewards and costs are assessed in a number of relationships


A relationship is ‘costed out’ and sources of profit and loss are identified


Relationship is established and maintained by a predictable exchange of rewards


Interactions are established an the couple ‘settle down’




Hatfield (1979) looked at people who felt over – or under-benefited in their relationships. The under-benefited felt angry and deprived, while the over – benefited felt guilty and uncomfortable, supporting the theory by suggesting that regardless of whether individuals are benefitted, they do not desire to maintain a regardless if it is unequal.

Mills & Clark (1980) identified two kinds of intimate relationship: the communal couple, where each partner gives out of concern for the other, and the exchange couple, where each keeps mental records of who is ‘ahead’ and who is ‘behind’. This indicates that there are different types of relationships and that the social exchange theory can be applied to some of them, but not universally to all.

Rusbult (1983) asked participants to complete questionnaires over a seven-month period concerning rewards and costs associated with relationships, finding that social exchange theory did not explain the early ‘honeymoon’ phase of a relationship when balance of exchanges were ignored. However, later on, relationship costs were compared against the degree of personal satisfaction, suggesting that the theory is best applied to the maintenance of relationships.


The theory applies to people who ‘keep score’. Murstein et al (1977) devised the exchange orientation tool, identifying such scorekeepers, who are suspicious and insecure, suggesting that the theory only suits relationships lacking confidence and mutual trust.

Research has concentrated on the short-term consequences of relationships rather than the more important, long term maintenance of relationships.

Argyle (1988) criticized methodologies that evaluate social exchange theory, declaring them contrived and artificial, with little relevance to real life.

The social exchange theory was modified into the equity theory, which concerns balance and stability in relationships and is a logical progression.