Social exchange theory is a popular theory in the field of social psychology that seeks to understand the dynamics of social relationships. It proposes that people engage in social relationships because they expect to receive some form of reward or benefit from the relationship. This theory can be broken down into four stages, and in this article, we will explore each stage in detail.

The Four Stages of Social Exchange Theory

Stage 1: Sampling

The first stage of social exchange theory is sampling. At this stage, individuals begin to observe and evaluate potential partners for a social relationship. They assess the rewards and costs that they might receive from a particular relationship and compare them to those associated with other potential partners.

Sampling involves several key elements, including attraction, similarity, and reciprocity. Individuals are more likely to choose partners who are physically attractive, similar to themselves in terms of interests and personality traits, and who reciprocate their interest.

Stage 2: Bargaining

Once individuals have identified potential partners for a social relationship, they move on to the bargaining stage. At this stage, individuals negotiate the terms of their relationship and establish what they expect to give and receive from it.

Bargaining involves identifying rewards and costs associated with the relationship and ensuring that both parties feel that they are receiving an equitable exchange. For example, if two people are considering entering into a romantic relationship, they may negotiate how much time they will spend together each week or how much emotional support they will provide one another.

Stage 3: Commitment

If both parties agree on the terms of their social exchange relationship during bargaining, they move on to the commitment stage. At this stage, individuals invest more time and resources into their relationship as it becomes more meaningful.

Commitment involves increasing emotional investment in the relationship over time by sharing deeper perspectives or secrets with each other, spending more time together, or making long-term plans. This stage is characterized by an increase in the benefits of the relationship and a decrease in costs, which helps to strengthen the bond between partners.

Stage 4: Institutionalization

The final stage of social exchange theory is institutionalization. At this stage, a relationship has been established for a long time, and it has become normalized. The expectations and rewards of the relationship are no longer explicitly negotiated but rather taken for granted.

Institutionalization can be seen in various types of social relationships such as marriage, where couples may no longer explicitly negotiate terms but have implicit agreements and shared routines. At this stage, the costs and benefits are not always equal but are accepted as part of the relationship’s dynamics.


Social exchange theory provides a useful framework for understanding how people engage in social relationships to receive rewards or benefits. By exploring each of the four stages – sampling, bargaining, commitment, and institutionalization – we can better understand how social exchange relationships evolve over time.

Whether it’s romantic relationships or business partnerships, social exchange theory helps us understand how individuals assess and negotiate their investments in these relationships. By incorporating these stages into our understanding of social interactions, we can better navigate our own relationships and make informed decisions about who we choose to engage with on a deeper level.