Have you ever felt that you contribute more in a relationship than the other person offers you? Or that you try too hard to achieve insufficient results?

To understand why this happens and to know what options we have to act, we can resort to Adams’ theory of equity .

This theory is born from social and organizational psychology, and can be applied in both fields. In this article we will explain what this theory consists of, we will analyze its postulates or central ideas, we will mention some examples and we will also explain its limitations. In addition, at the end of the article we will briefly summarize what equity theory transmits to us.

Equity theory: what is it?

Adams’ theory of equity can be found both in the field of social psychology and in the field of organizational psychology . That is, it can be applied in these two fields.

It is based on concepts such as social comparison and Festinger’s cognitive dissonance . Social comparison refers to the fact that we compare ourselves with others in order to assess ourselves; we do not compare ourselves with “just anyone”, but with people with “X” characteristics. This allows us to improve in some aspects.

On the other hand, cognitive dissonance alludes to a state of discomfort that appears when what we do and what we think or feel does not coincide ; to eliminate this dissonance, we act in one way or another (either by changing our mind, or by relativizing things, etc.).

The psychologist John Stacey Adams, who considers himself a behaviorist (although for others he is cognitive), is the one who proposed the theory of equity (1965), influenced by the previous concepts. He elaborated it within an organizational context, but we can apply it in other fields and even in everyday life. Let’s see the key points of the theory.

Key points of the theory

The theory of equity is based on a series of principles or ideas that we will see below:

1. Comparison between contributions

We insist that equity theory can be applied both in the labour field and in the social field (of interpersonal relations). Thus, we distinguish two types of elements when we make an effort to achieve something, or when we find ourselves in a relationship of exchange (for example, in a job or in a love relationship): these two elements are, on the one hand, what we contribute to the relationship, and on the other, what we receive from it .

In this way, we are aware of what we bring to the job or to a relationship (time, desire, effort…), and we also become aware of what we receive from that company or from that relationship/person (also time, desire, effort, economic compensation, etc.).

Consequently, we analyze it and try to maintain a balance between what we give and what we receive; so that no cognitive dissonance occurs, we try to make the balance exist. If the balance does not exist, and we contribute more than we receive (or vice versa), then there is a cognitive dissonance, and by extension, a motivation (or tension) in us that makes us consider some change.

Thus, in a certain way, we make a social comparison . What does my partner bring to me? What do I bring to her? Does it count? Do we have a balanced relationship? And the same thing in a job where something is expected of us (certain objectives) in exchange for a salary.

2. Tension or motivating force

As a result of this analysis we get a perception of equity or balance, which translates into a ratio between what we give and what we receive. If there is no perception of equity, this tension or motivation mentioned above appears, which drives us to act, to change things.

3. What can we do about this perception of inequality?

The greater the imbalance or inequality we perceive, the greater the tension we experience. In this situation, we can act in different ways: for example by reducing our efforts in the company or in the relationship, or by “demanding” more rewards/contributions from the other party. The goal will be to rebalance the reason.

According to the theory of equity, we can also choose to change our comparison reference , comparing ourselves with other people, other relationships, other companies, etc. Or we can choose to leave the relationship when it really “does not compensate” us and the balance always shifts to the other party.

Another option we have, and the one we most frequently use, is to maximize what we are receiving from the other person (or company) and minimize what we are giving; it is a kind of “self-deception”, a defense mechanism that allows us to remain calm without, in fact, changing anything in the situation. In this way, we resist making any behavioural changes, with the aim of preserving our self-esteem.

In a way, it is easier to alter the vision of what others offer us (thinking that it is actually more than what they offer us), than to alter the vision of what we ourselves offer.

Limitations of the theory

However, the theory of equity, although it has been supported in some studies, also presents certain problems or limitations. On the one hand, in reality little is known about why we choose one reference or another to compare ourselves with (social comparison theory).

On the other hand, it is not always easy to “calculate” or determine what contributions are made to us and what contributions we make in the context of a relationship.

Furthermore, it is not known exactly how these comparison or contribution calculation processes change over time (nor why they change).


In summary, Adams’ theory of equity says the following: when in a relationship of exchange (for example, a friendship, a couple or in the context of a company), we perceive that what we contribute is greater than what we receive (or vice versa), a sense of inequality, uneasiness or tension (cognitive dissonance) appears. This perception arises as a result of balancing the costs and benefits of the relationship .

To get rid of this feeling of inequality, we can act in different ways, as we have already explained. We can choose to act directly on the other (on their contributions or results), or we can act by increasing or decreasing our contributions/investments. We also have the option of abandoning the relationship, or changing the objects with which we compare ourselves.


Illustrating the equity theory in an example , we propose the following:

If, for example, in a couple’s relationship, I have the feeling that I am always the one doing things for my partner (accompanying her to places, leaving her money, sharing my time, going to places, etc.), and that she does not make any kind of effort for me, in the end I will end up perceiving this feeling of inequality or imbalance in the relationship. In other words, the result of the cost/benefit balance will be “negative” and will not compensate me.

This will cause me to act, for example, by not changing plans to see her, leaving the relationship or valuing other good things in the relationship that will allow me to continue with her without having a cognitive dissonance.

Bibliographic references:

  • Hogg, M. (2010). Social psychology. Vaughan Graham M. Panamericana. Editorial: Panamericana.
  • Morales, J.F. (2007). Social psychology. Editorial: S.A. McGraw-Hill / Interamericana de España.