What Is Equity Theory Social Psychology?


Vincent White

What Is Equity Theory Social Psychology?

In the field of social psychology, the equity theory is a concept that focuses on the fairness and balance within relationships. It explores how individuals perceive and evaluate the distribution of resources, rewards, and costs in their interactions with others. This theory was first proposed by J. Stacy Adams in 1963 and has since become a fundamental principle in understanding human behavior.

The Basics of Equity Theory

At its core, equity theory suggests that people strive for fairness and equality in their relationships. According to this theory, individuals compare their inputs (contributions) and outcomes (rewards) to those of others, referred to as referents. The referents can be friends, colleagues, family members, or even societal norms.

Equity is achieved when an individual’s inputs are proportionate to their outcomes compared to those of the referent. In simple terms, if you put in a certain amount of effort or resources into a relationship or task, you expect a corresponding outcome or reward that matches your input.

The Elements of Equity Theory


  • Inputs refer to what an individual contributes to a relationship or task. This can include time, effort, skills, knowledge, and other resources invested in achieving a particular goal.
  • For example, in a workplace context, inputs can be seen as employees’ dedication, experience, commitment to working long hours, or going above and beyond their job requirements.


  • Outcomes represent the rewards or benefits an individual receives from their relationship or task. These can include salary raises, promotions, recognition for accomplishments,
  • In the workplace, outcomes can also include job security, a positive work environment, or opportunities for personal and professional growth.


  • Comparison is a crucial component of equity theory. Individuals compare their inputs and outcomes to those of others or societal standards to determine if they are being treated fairly.
  • If individuals perceive an imbalance between their inputs and outcomes compared to others, they may experience feelings of inequity.

The Consequences of Inequity

When individuals perceive inequity, whether it is in the form of under-reward or over-reward, it can lead to various emotional and behavioral responses. Some common consequences include:

  • Distress: Feeling distressed or uneasy due to perceiving oneself as being treated unfairly.
  • Motivation: Inequity can affect an individual’s motivation levels. Under-reward may result in reduced motivation, while over-reward may lead to guilt or decreased effort.
  • Effort: When individuals feel under-rewarded, they may reduce their effort in the relationship or task.

    Conversely, over-rewarded individuals might feel less motivated to put in additional effort.

  • Restoring Equity: People strive to restore equity when they perceive inequity. This can be done by adjusting one’s inputs or outcomes or by seeking changes in the referent’s inputs or outcomes.

Applications of Equity Theory

The equity theory has numerous applications in various fields:

  • In organizations: Understanding equity theory helps managers design fair compensation systems and promote employee satisfaction and engagement.
  • In relationships: Equity theory helps individuals navigate relationship dynamics and strive for fairness in their interactions with partners, friends, or family members.
  • In education: Equity theory can guide educators in creating equitable learning environments and addressing disparities among students.


The equity theory is a valuable concept in social psychology that highlights the importance of fairness and balance in relationships. By understanding the elements of equity theory and its consequences, individuals can strive for equitable interactions, leading to healthier relationships and increased satisfaction.