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Social exchange theory, also called the “communication theory of social exchange,” is a psychological concept suggesting that humans make social decisions based on their own perceptions about the costs and benefits that could be gained by action or, conversely, by inaction. The underlying hypothesis claims that people evaluate all social relationships to determine the benefits they will get out of them. It also suggests that someone will typically leave a relationship if he or she perceives that the effort or cost of it outweighs any perceived advantages. The theory is usually presented with the sort of language most commonly seen in economics and financial sectors. This can be jarring at first, but experts often argue that there are a number of important parallels between how companies and businesses make reasoned decisions and how people do.
According to the theory, people will only be generous if they expect some personal benefit because of it. Examples of personal gain from this sort of self-sacrifice can include a show of gratitude from the recipient or the approval of the donor’s peer group. This idea emphasizes the anticipated return for such good deeds, also called reciprocity, which is expressed really well in the common phrase I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine.
People who use social theory to describe social situations typically use economic terms like “benefit,” “gain,” “cost,” and “payment.” These words are most commonly used when describing corporate or financial transactions, but according to many social psychologists they also have relevance to personal interactions. In some ways, the theory’s treatment of people as economic vessels helps conceptualize human interactions as calculated decisions that have some pattern to them, rather than as subjective and impulsive emotional reactions.
The theory basically argues that people consciously and unconsciously evaluate every social situation in terms of what they will have to put in or give up, then relate this to the benefits they think they may get in return. The greater the potential benefit, the greater the personal investment an individual is likely to make in a relationship.
The theory was first developed and gained its initial popularity in the late 1950s. The American sociologist George Homans is widely credited with creating it, and scholars first began discussing it seriously after Homans published an article describing the theory, titled “Social Behavior as Exchange,” in the American Journal of Sociology in 1958. He expanded on the idea in several subsequent articles and books. The Austrian-American sociologist Peter Blau adapted and applied many of Homans’ initial ideas for the 21st century, and was the first to create a visual “map” of social spaces and interactions.
Importance of Satisfaction
One of the main claims of the theory is that people make choices about social interactions based on their individual satisfaction within a given relationship. People typically have a high level of happiness if they perceive that they are receiving more than they are giving. If, on the other hand, people feel that they are giving more than they are getting, they may decide that the connection is not fulfilling their needs. Theorists speculate that, whether they know it or not, almost all people are making these calculations when they weigh how involved they want to be in certain interpersonal relationships, or even if they want to be involved at all.
Whether a person ends a relationship that he or she feels is not worth the social investment often depends on the options he or she thinks are available. Individuals who think that they could fare better in other relationships are more likely to leave, while people who feel that there are no better options than the costly relationship may be more likely to stay. The exchange theory tries to quantify these choices and make them easier to identify.
Role of the Individual
The social exchange theory is considered by many psychologists to be highly individualistic, which means that it assumes that the individual assesses all human social interactions based on his or her personal gain. This supposition denies the existence of true altruism, and suggests that all decisions are made from a self-serving motivation. Critics often point to this particular aspect of the theory when trying to identify flaws in the logic or structure of the core arguments.