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Social Exchange Theory
Social Exchange Theory:
Making Interpersonal Economic
Caroline Dillon
Texas Christian University
Social Exchange Theory
Summarize Social Exchange Theory
Mark Twain once said, “the principle of give and take is the principle of diplomacy - give
one and take ten”1. From diplomacy to interpersonal behavior each individual inescapably
experiences the tugging between the desire to benefit and the necessity to sacrifice to reach
equality between parties. This is a basic and unalterable fact of how society operates and
functions to manage and negotiate competing demands in an ever-competitive world. The effects
of this core principle were first understood in the field of economics. It became understood that
the trade of goods and service was reliant on a calculus of reward versus cost and a subsequent
analysis of outcome. All people therefore were assumed to desire a positive outcome, which
procured a higher gratification of rewards for a lower amount of cost. Later, communication
theorists applied this same methodology to relational behavior to determine the satisfaction,
dependence, and stability within a relationship. They discovered that in all three elements of
overall attraction to a relationship, the formula of cost versus benefit was a highly effective
predictor. From these tenants the Social Exchange theory was conceived and gave birth to a
conceptual system that solidified elusive interpersonal behavior into tangible data and evidence.
The Social Exchange Theory has revealed the formula imbedded into central human social
behavior and made apparent how essential this methodology is to the success of relationships.
The Social Exchange Theory (SET) is contingent upon the classic economic principle of
rewards versus costs analysis (Schrodt, Lecture X, October 13). Relational negotiation, within
the context of this theory, maintains that each actor (partner) assesses the rewards gained from
the relationship, whether they are tangible or intangible, versus the perceived costs in remaining
committed. This relational ‘calculus’ thus renders the outcome and the overall attraction to the
relationship. If the rewards overwhelm the costs, the outcome is viewed as positive and the
See works cited page for citation
Social Exchange Theory
overall attraction to the relationship is higher. However, if the costs overwhelm the rewards, the
outcome is viewed as negative and the reciprocal attraction level is markedly lower (Schrodt,
Lecture X, October 13).
The overall attraction to the relationship does not, however, indicate the overall
satisfaction each partner experiences within the relationship. (Nakonezny & Denton, 2008). The
interdependence theory establishes that the satisfaction of a relationship is instead based on the
comparison levels of alternatives. This aspect of the theory refers to “the lowest level of
outcomes that is equal to or greater than what a partner could obtain from some alternative
relationship” (Nakonezny & Denton, 2008, p. 405). If a partner perceives greater benefit or
reward from an outside alternative, for instance a different partner or career opportunity, they
will be subsequently less satisfied then on who perceives no greater alternative (Nakonezny &
Denton, 2008). The varying overall attraction and satisfaction levels within a relationship
demonstrate the level of interdependence and shared solidarity. One partner’s low level of
satisfaction most often leads to a lower amount of commitment to the relationship on the part of
the less satisfied. This can cause instability and distress within the relational structure because
there is a lack of mutual interdependence and therefore little shared solidarity. Building
solidarity, particularly within marriage, necessitates repeated even exchange and “curtailing the
levels of alternatives” (Nakonezny & Denton, 2008, p. 405). Asymmetrical power emerges
within any relationship when the level of commitment and self-identification to the relationship
is not equal among partners. According to Nakonezny and Denton (2008), whoever is most
dependent and self-identified, and therefore committed, to the relationship thereby becomes the
weaker of the parties.
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Within SET there are multiple ways unequal or equal status is achieved. In addition to the
interdependence theory’s commitment dichotomy, there is the equity theory which addresses the
principle of distributive justice. This principle relies on the notion that the party that contributes
more to the relationship should inversely also receive more to be considered fair. (Schrodt,
Lecture X, October 13). The fairness of a relationship is determined by the comparison of inputs
(contributions) and outcome (benefits); if the ratio of the partner’s inputs and outcomes are equal
the relationship is considered equitable or fair (Yum & Canary, 2009, p. 385-386). The balance
of the relationship can become skewed when one partner is considered or considers him or
herself to be ‘overbenefited’ or ‘underbenefited’. Overbenefited individuals receive an
inappropriately high amount of benefit compared to the low level of their contribution. The
underbenefited party perceives their benefit to contribution ratio to be lower than that of their
counterpart (Yum & Canary, 2009, p. 386). This mismatch of distributive justice can become a
source of major friction and tension in relationship; being overbenefited often leads to guilt,
though being underbenefited is generally the most detrimental and can lead to anger, sadness, or
depression (Schrodt, Lecture X, October 13). In response to the disparity, relationships generally
seek to re-balance and terminate the inequity.
A study by Suzanne Taylor Sutphin of the division of labor within same-sex families
demonstrates the dynamic process of SET. In her research, Sutphin “examined division of
household labor, using social exchange theory, among 165 survey respondents in a same-sex
relationship” (Sutphin, 2010, p.191). Sutphin acknowledged that gender has been considered
responsible for hierarchical division of labor in heterosexual homes. Sutphin set out to find how
the division of labor functions when gender is not applicable. She hypothesized that a same-sex
partner with higher social status variables will be responsible for fewer domestic tasks than their
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partner with lower social status variables (Sutphin, 2008). Sutphin’s social status variables
consist of: education, income, hours of paid labor, employment status, age, and race (2008,
p.196). She also hypothesized that high levels satisfaction with division of labor leads to
increased levels of satisfaction with the overall relationship (Sutphin, 2008). Her conjectures
were supported by her conducted surveys and she found that the higher the hours worked or
income of a partner in a same-sex relationship, the less they participated in domestic tasks. Her
last hypothesis was also completely validated; her research concluded a high correlation between
overall satisfaction and feelings of appreciation and satisfaction with the division of labor. The
principles of SET were supported in this study in that “the partner with the most resources
decides which household tasks he or she does or does not want to participate in” (2008, p.193).
Application of SET and Analysis of Case Study
The concepts, behaviors, and dynamics of SET are witnessed in authors Alberts and
Rabby’s Case Study: “Double Jobs”. The characters of the story, Ray and Shawna, are a working
married couple with a young family. Heading into the weekend they are both very busy and have
many obligations to honor. Both are being pulled between finishing work, fulfilling
commitments to their family, and spending time as a couple. As parents, both Ray and Shawna
need to pick up their children from child-care, care for a toddler and infant, and be present for
their daughter’s ballet recital. As a family, groceries need to be bought, meals need to be made,
and they all need to be at Ray’s mother’s birthday celebration. As a teacher, Ray needs to make
lesson plans and grade papers and his boss expects his to go to the school’s Halloween carnival.
As an investment banker, Shawna has important potential clients to contact and set up
appointments. As a couple, they both feel the pull to stay connected and spend some quality time
together. Ray and Shawna are knee-deep in responsibilities and commitments and must negotiate
Social Exchange Theory
their needs and desires within the relationship to fulfill all that must be done and walk away
In this hot bed of competing needs and demands, SET is illuminated time and again.
Both Shawna and Ray are required to make sacrifices (or costs) to accomplish all that must be
done. Because they are a dual-career home, Shawna and Ray must especially make sacrifices for
the competing tensions of the other’s job. In the context of this one weekend, Shawna makes
provisions for Ray to have some time without children or distractions so he can complete his
lesson plans and grade papers. Shawna is sacrificing her free time and time with Ray to take on
the responsibility of the children and grocery shopping to give Ray space to work. She however,
is rewarded earlier in the day with time to go to her aerobics class. In return Ray does not impose
his work commitment of the school carnival on her, and agrees to take their young daughter with
him so she can have some quiet hours alone to make phone calls and talk to potential clients. Ray
is being cost having Shawna also with him but is being benefited the time to honor his work
commitment. This can be seen as one ‘exchange’ in which both parties are being cost and
benefited equally. The economic nature of the theory is demonstrated in the nature of their
discussion in which a sacrifice is met with a benefit and a benefit is met with a sacrifice. Ray
says, “Why don’t I take Maria with me to the carnival while Chuy is napping and you can make
your phone calls?” (p.149) To this Shawna replies, “…will [you] watch the kids while I exercise
tomorrow morning, I will take them shopping while you work on your classes” (p. 149). The
dialogue portrays the calculated trade that takes place within SET.
However, not all of Ray and Shawna’s exchanges are always perfectly economical. The
competition between professional and personal life often elicits friction and can cause tension or
anger within their relationship. While making phone calls, Shawna had been able to secure a
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meeting with a potential client for the following Sunday afternoon. She felt this would be a big
step in her career and get her that much closer to a promotion. She had failed to remember
however, that she had promised Ray she would take the children out grocery shopping that
afternoon so Ray could have much-needed alone time to get his work done. Ray’s mother’s
birthday party was also only two hours after Shawna scheduled her meeting, so she would be
possibly cutting into family time. When Shawna tells Ray of her appointment, he becomes angry
because their bargain is not being upheld and his sacrifices are not being rewarded with the
promised time to himself. Out of anger, he personally attacks her and accuses her of always
putting her career first. Though she knows she should be apologetic, Shawna feels defensiveness
towards Ray for accusing her of disordered priorities and retaliates with an attack on his success.
The deterioration of this conversation exemplifies the destructive effects of mismanaged
outcomes and disproportionate benefit status. In this example Ray feels his costs are greater than
his rewards and he is unsatisfied with the relationship in that moment. In lieu of the equity
theory, he is also feeling underbenefited by Shawna which incites his irritation. As is consistent
with research, Shawna feels guilty about the disparity in benefit and seeks to reconcile and
recalibrate the levels for mutual satisfaction. She agrees to reschedule her meeting so Ray will
have his agreed upon time and she can buy groceries. They are able to resolve their issue, but this
conflict typifies the important balance of benefit and sacrifice and the damaging consequences of
tipping the scale of distributive justice.
After examining specific instances of social exchange within Shawna and Ray’s
relationship, it is necessary to answer whether their relationship is actually equitable or if one
partner remains over or underbenefited. It seems to far sweeping to qualify their relationship as
always equitable or not. They have moments in which equality is and is not achieved. In the
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previous example, Ray was obviously being underbenefited because his needs and desires were
not being met though he had made significant contribution. Shawna’s insistence that she should
be able to keep her appointment though it conflicted with her earlier promise to contribute, is an
example of her assumption to be overbenefited. On the other hand, there is the issue of Shawna’s
income. Though it is not made an explicit point in the case study, Shawna does seem to make a
more sizeable income than Ray. Though this may seem an untactful piece of evidence to evoke,
Ray is being better benefited by Shawna’s salary then Shawna is of Ray’s. Both of their careers
are of personal and financial importance, but when it comes down to the hard evidence of even
exchange, Shawna’s career does trump Ray. Aside from these illustrations, the breadth of events
and circumstances in this Ray and Shawna’s story depict an overall equitable relationship. Both
parents pick up a child on their way home from work each day. Both participate in household
chores whether it is Shawna making dinner or Ray cleaning up the kitchen. Both are integrally
involved in their children’s lives, for example Shawna breastfeeding the baby or Ray reading
bedtime stories with Maria. Without making a chart of each and every interaction between Ray
and Shawna, it is impossible to say whether the relationship is truly equitable or not, but it is
apparent they both make an outright effort to maintain fair and equal division of labor and tasks
within the home and their relationship.
Critique of Case Study Participants using SET
Ray and Shawna would have undoubtedly benefited from understanding this
communication theory, especially when managing their own personal feelings about their
relationship. Both Ray and Shawna’s inner dialogue admits to feeling tired, stressed and distant
from one another. Though they have an overall equitable relationship, the strain of various
competing tensions disallows a sense of unity and has driven a wedge between them. According
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to Nakonezny and Denton’s (2008) research, “[when] interpersonal exchange within the
marriage becomes less interdependent; there is less mutual involvement; there is less mutual
identification; there is less liking; there is less shared level of compatibility; there is less
solidarity; and there is progressive withdrawal of love and affection” (p. 406). Nakonezny and
Denton (2008) further explain experiencing the feeling of incompatibility propel the couple away
from each other and a return from the dyad back to two individuals. The fact that both feel
somewhat isolated and alienated from the other at times is indicative of their struggle to properly
balance all that must be done. If they were took the time to disclose how managing their
busyness made them felt, they would soon realize that the relational distance stems from the
assumption that each is on his or her own to complete their allotted tasks. Though there is not
much they could do to avoid how eventful their days are, they could instead derive camaraderie
from all they are able to accomplish as a unit. They could enhance their level of interdependence
by appreciating the commitment they have to each other as exhibited by the sacrifices and
contributions each makes. Instead of each day seeming like an uphill battle, they could instead
acknowledge that these struggles are normal and their ability to overcome them is evidence of
their strong relationship. In the specific instance of their fight over Shawna’s afternoon meeting,
Shawna could have more readily realized that making sacrifices after being benefited is
absolutely necessary to maintain fairness. It would also behoove their relational well-being to
quiet their thoughts about the alternative of Shawna becoming partner. Though surely tempting
to day-dream about a sizeable promotion, it does not help either individual with the present
situation and it leaves the solution to something far-off. Both Ray and Shawna would benefit
from living in the moment and being content as it is now.
Social Exchange Theory
Understanding the exchange theory may enable them to better cope with the necessary
sacrifices and appreciate the benefits they are given. Instead of feeling guilty for going off to
aerobics class, Shawna could feel grateful to have a husband who gives her the opportunity to
take time for herself. Instead of personally attacking the other’s character in an argument, they
could instead focus on the behaviors that are upsetting them and acknowledge that it is not an
issue of personal substance but of cost, benefit, and equity.
Because I had previous knowledge of this theory while reading and analyzing the case
study, I was able to better understand the dynamics and behaviors being enacted. Before
understanding the exchange model I may have been more eager to take Shawna’s side in the
argument against Ray. I may have perceived her motives to be justified, and Ray’s response as
unreasonable. However, because I understand the necessity for equal cost and benefit I was
hoping for Shawna to realize her mistake and to rectify the momentary lapse in judgment. I also
saw Shawna’s action to not go out for drinks with her co-workers after signing a new client as a
fair and prudent decision. Previously, I may have thought she ‘deserved’ the drink out but it was
made clear to me that she would have been abusing the system of relational justice and that Ray
deserved time-off just as much as she did. I also better appreciated Ray’s efforts to create
dialogue about divvying out tasks and initiating solutions to the conflicting needs. My grasp of
how essential it is to manage, delegate, and complete the abundance of Life’s tasks within
marriage and family was greatly improved. Instead of viewing it as minor nuances, I now
understand it is a cornerstone of a relationship that can make or break success of a couple. It is
absolutely fundamental to the health of any relationship, whether friendship or romantic, to be
willing to forfeit your own desires for the other and to reciprocate when you have been given the
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advantage. I know see that maintaining the equity of a relationship is more than “good”, it is
integral to maintaining the satisfaction and connectedness experienced.
IV. Critique of SET
In addition to examining the makeup and merit of the social exchange theory in terms of the case
study “Double Jobs”, it is also pertinent to evaluate the theory on the five standard criteria:
scope, testability, parsimony, utility, and heurism. The scope refers to the range and quantity of
information a theory addresses (“Lecture IIa,” Dr. Schrodt, August 30). The scope of the social
exchange theory is exceedingly large. It is attempting to quantify all interpersonal behavior on
the presupposition that economic theory and profit calculus are the underlying theme for
interaction. The theory is supposing the breadth and width of relationship can be confined to one
theory. This seems to be over-reaching and a miscalculation of how much can be contained to
one theory. Though the nature of the theory necessitates this “range of phenomena” (“Lecture
IIa,” Dr. Schrodt, August 30), it cannot expect to accurately affirm all the ground it covers. This
is not to assume that it is wrong or not mostly right, but because of its girth it cannot be
completely right.
A theory must also be verifiable or testable, meaning that the claims asserted by a
communication theorist must be able to be investigated to determine accuracy (“Lecture IIa,” Dr.
Schrodt, August 30). The social exchange theory is essentially a formula or equation and
therefore highly testable. In addition to Sutphin’s afore mentioned research study, there are
scores of other research studies breaching the topic of the social exchange theory and applying it
to real-life through survey and observation. The nature of the theory lends itself to a more exact
analysis of interpersonal behavior, which can often be difficult to precisely pinpoint. It is not
perfect, of course, because investigation is still subject to the finicky perceptions of the surveyed
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or interviewed participants. Defining and relating every cost and benefit can also prove
challenging because they are not limited to the tangible; costs and benefits can also be
considered the intangible experience of love, affection, frustration or stress which are much more
allusive then say financial security. Though there are some challenges with the theory’s research
and investigation, the social exchange theory could easily be considered one of the more testable
theories in the discipline of interpersonal communication.
Parsimony is the third criterion of theory evaluation. This element emphasizes the need
for succinctness and simplicity while simultaneously describing, explaining, and predicting all
the appropriate components of a theory (“Lecture IIa,” Dr. Schrodt, August 30). In addition to
having a high degree of verifiability, the social exchange theory is also quite parsimonious. The
theory fundamentally breaks down to a mere weighing of cost and benefit to determine
satisfaction, dependence and stability within relational dynamics (“Lecture X,” Dr. Schrodt,
October 13). The rest of the theory then encompasses the interdependence and equity theory
which shed greater light onto how people go about analyzing and negotiating the cost-benefit
continuum. If the social exchange theory were to be accused of any malfeasant, it would be being
slightly too simple. The process the social exchange theory propagates is rather mechanical or
mathematical and does not make all the necessary reparations for how fickle humans are. That
being said, the theory does do its job of adequately describing and explaining its tenets clearly
and concisely.
The theory is also scrutinized for its usefulness. Consistent with my claim that Ray and
Shawna would have improved their communication behavior if they had knowledge of the
exchange theory, it has practical merit and value in real-life. The theory’s strength is forming the
abstract concepts of emotion and relational dynamic into a concrete understanding of cause-and-
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effect and cost-versus-benefit. This enables those to see why tensions or friction accumulates and
monitor the current satisfaction, dependence, and stability. The economic foundation of the
theory can prove to be its own undoing at times however. According to Nakonezny and Denton
(2008), “[the] economic exchange embodies specified obligations, whereas social exchange
embodies unspecified obligations” (p.407). Though it proves useful to a point, the theory does
not rectify the difference between social and economic interaction. Within economics, there is
always a pre-determined obligation and reward; it is steadfast and presupposed. Social
interaction does not achieve the same precision. Though there is most often a general expectation
of reciprocity, there is no defined or enforced measure of exchange (Nakonezny & Denton,
2008). The social exchange theory is undoubtedly useful in a variety of circumstances, but its
limits must also be understood.
The final criterion for theory evaluation is heruism, meaning a theory’s ability to
“generate new thought or insight” (“Lecture IIa,” Dr. Schrodt, August 30). Because the exchange
theory is based on such long-held ideology, it is especially interesting to evaluate if it inspires
revitalized investigation. Out of the five theory evaluation mechanisms, it seems heurism is
likely its weakest point. Though the theory can be continually utilized in a variety of contexts,
the theory in it of itself does not provide much room for adaptation. The insight the theory is able
to make will likely be confined to repeated tests of cost-benefit analysis in different cultures,
relational structures, and power dynamics. That is, of course, valuable and worthwhile study, but
the theory itself is not of a pliable nature that can constantly adjust to the changing world.
In conjuncture with the case study, the theory shows its colors and exposes it strengths
and weaknesses as discussed in the earlier criteria analysis. The theory gave meaning to where
Shawna and Rays struggles and tensions originated: from the natural desire to be benefited after
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making sacrifice. The case study exhibited how pertinent the ‘economy’ of relationship is to
effectively managing satisfaction and overall happiness within a relationship. In the constant
onslaught of activity and responsibility, Shawna and Ray desperately needed some mechanism to
help alleviate the burden off one person’s shoulders. Analyzing this case study along with the
theory presented a moving picture of how a couple experiences these concrete principles in
action to reach a fair and equitable status.
Though the theory was able to effectively encapsulate many of the interpersonal
dynamics, it was not equipped to demonstrate the vivid humanness of this young family. It is
always important when analyzing a concrete theory within the context of life-like scenarios to
not allow the people to become merely data, or the conversations to become simply an exchange
of ‘this for that’. Stepping into the life of this couple humanizes the experience of negotiating
cost for benefit and reflects the intricacies of behavior within relationship. Ray and Shawna’s
marriage does not merely benefit them with more money in the bank and an extra pair of hands
to wash dishes and fold mounds of laundry. They each experience benefit and satisfaction in the
mutual affection of their love for each other and emotional support while raising a family
together. Even in the midst of their hectic schedules and competing careers, they spend a few
intimate moments cuddling by the fire. Though having children has brought incredible stress and
responsibility which costs them their freedom to go out for drinks with friends or have consistent
alone time, they have moments of pure joy as they read bedtimes stories and listen to nighttime
prayers. Ray and Shawna’s story illustrates that relationships are sometimes unfair and a struggle
to negotiate but in the presence of love and commitment, it is worth the effort. The theory alone
could not portray the same profundity.
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The economic principles of the Social Exchange Theory give it a solid foundation for
assessing complicated and allusive interpersonal dynamics in a uniquely tangible way. All
theories, however, have room for improvement. The theory could make reparations to infuse
more ‘humanity’ into its underlying themes. It could possibly include another proposition that
more closely deals with the solidarity and mutual trust within relationship. The proposition could
deal with the cost of having trust broken versus the cost or benefit of how long one has been in
relationship with someone and how much one already disclosed to the partner or friend. The
theory could also make more effort to emphasize and categorize non-tangible costs and benefits.
The theory’s practicality could profit from better promulgating the emotional and internal costs
and benefits within relationship for example stress, frustration, longing, appreciation, respect, or
Investigating “Double Jobs” in accordance with the SET has helped uncover the dynamic
and fluid character of relationship. Shawna and Ray’s relational struggles and successes
balancing competing demands demonstrate how SET is practical and is applicable to real-life.
Though the theory is not perfect, it proficiently encompassed the spirit of the couple’s dialectics
and aided in a fuller understanding the necessary ‘push-pull’ in relationship. The Social
Exchange Theory can be a powerful tool to gleaning a better appreciation for the work involved
in flourishing relationships, and to understand the paradigm of human nature.
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Works Cited:
Mark Twain. (n.d.). 1-Famous-Quotes.com. Retrieved Tue Dec 6 02:01:12 2011, from 1Famous-Quotes.com Web site: http://www.1-famous-quotes.com/quote/15645
Nakonezny, P. A., & Denton, W. H. (2008). Marital Relationships: A Social Exchange Theory
Perspective. American Journal Of Family Therapy, 36(5), 402-412.
Sutphin, S. (2010). Social Exchange Theory and the Division of Household Labor in Same-Sex
Couples. Marriage & Family Review, 46(3), 191-206.
Yum, Y., & Canary, D. J. (2009). Cultural Differences in Equity Theory Predictions of
Relational Maintenance Strategies. Human Communication Research, 35(3), 384-406.