What Are the Elements of Social Exchange Theory?


Diego Sanchez

The Social Exchange Theory is a popular concept in the field of social psychology that seeks to explain why individuals engage in social interactions and relationships. It is based on the idea that people make decisions by weighing the costs and rewards associated with their actions. In this article, we will explore the elements of Social Exchange Theory and how they shape our interactions with others.

The Elements of Social Exchange Theory

1. Rewards

One of the central concepts in Social Exchange Theory is the notion of rewards.

Rewards can be anything that individuals perceive as valuable or beneficial, such as love, support, attention, material possessions, or even intangible factors like status or power. The theory suggests that individuals are motivated to engage in social exchanges because they expect to receive rewards in return.

2. Costs

Costs are the negative aspects associated with engaging in a social exchange.

These can include time, effort, resources, emotional investment, or even potential risk or harm. In Social Exchange Theory, individuals weigh the costs against the rewards before deciding whether to participate in a relationship or interaction.

3. Comparison Level (CL)

The comparison level refers to an individual’s expectations about what they believe they deserve or what they consider acceptable in terms of rewards and costs within a relationship.

It is influenced by factors such as personal experiences, cultural norms, and societal influences. If an individual perceives that their current relationship offers more rewards than their comparison level suggests they deserve, they are likely to be satisfied.

4. Comparison Level for Alternatives (CLalt)

This element reflects an individual’s assessment of what they could potentially gain from alternative relationships or interactions compared to their current situation. If an individual believes that they could receive higher rewards and lower costs from an alternative, they may be tempted to leave their current relationship or interaction.

5. Outcome

The outcome is the result of the social exchange, determined by subtracting the costs from the rewards.

If the outcome is positive, meaning that the rewards outweigh the costs, individuals are likely to continue engaging in the relationship or interaction. However, if the outcome is negative, they may seek alternatives or terminate the exchange.

Applying Social Exchange Theory

Social Exchange Theory can be applied to various aspects of life, including romantic relationships, friendships, work relationships, and even transactions in a marketplace. By understanding these elements, we can gain insights into why people choose certain relationships over others and how they make decisions about their social interactions.

Benefits of Understanding Social Exchange Theory

  • Insight into decision-making: Social Exchange Theory helps us understand how individuals weigh costs and rewards when making decisions about engaging in social exchanges.
  • Predictive power: By considering an individual’s comparison level and comparison level for alternatives, we can predict their satisfaction and likelihood of staying in a relationship or seeking alternatives.
  • Relationship maintenance: Understanding Social Exchange Theory can help individuals identify areas where they can improve rewards or reduce costs within their relationships to maintain satisfaction and longevity.

In conclusion, Social Exchange Theory offers a valuable framework for understanding why individuals engage in social interactions and relationships. By considering factors such as rewards, costs, comparison levels, outcomes, and alternatives, we can gain insights into decision-making processes and improve our understanding of interpersonal dynamics.