A subject that has been widely studied since psychology exists is that concerning social relations, and that is that the human being is a bio-psycho-social individual. There is no way to separate human nature from interpersonal relationships.

The theory of social exchange mixes aspects of basic economics with aspects of psychology , and explains how we unconsciously seek to obtain the greatest benefit from our social relations at the lowest cost. In this article we will see its approach, we will see who have been the main exponents of the theory of social exchange throughout history, and we will review how has been the level of acceptance through time.

Social exchange theory: what is it?

The theory of social exchange states that in the emergence of social relations there is a process of cost-benefit evaluation . Where the subjects discriminate whether it is worthwhile to establish relationships with other individuals or not.

Individualism and hedonism are its fundamental bases, which speak of all behaviors being associated with personal achievement (including social ones) and that the only goal of the human being is to achieve pleasure and individual satisfaction.


The emergence of this theory dates back to 1956, when John Thibaut and Harold Kelley first presented it. Thibaut and Kelly stated in their theory of social exchange that a relationship between two or more people should result in some kind of gratification for all parties involved , or else the relationship would disappear. To avoid the dissolution of the group there had to be a reward, regardless of whether it was material or psychological.

Later on, in 1958, it would be the American sociologist George C. Homans who would make this theory famous, with the publication of his work Teoría Social Como Intercambio . Homans explained in his article that social interaction represented a tangible or intangible exchange, where there should be a benefit or a cost for the participants, and that this is what would determine the future of the relationship.

Taking concepts in economic matters, Homans’ theory of social exchange indicates that people inevitably make comparisons between the alternatives presented by their relationships , and in the end they will end up cultivating more those that generate a greater benefit at a lower cost.

Variations on the theory

Thibaut and Kelly spoke about the collective benefit in small groups, while Homans emphasized his work on individual benefit. He stated that in all group relationships, subjects always seek personal benefit.

As time went by other theorists joined this trend, among them Peter Blau and Richard M. Emerson , who followed Homans’ line of individual benefit. Lévi-Strauss, a famous French anthropologist, also contributed to this theory from the approach of generalized exchange, which sees relationships as the means to an end. For example, marriages agreed upon for social and economic convenience.

Acceptance and criticism

This theory had a great impact within the psychological schools , supported for a long time by the behaviouralist paradigms , which saw with good eyes that it was neat to quantify given its simplicity, besides that it fitted perfectly with the behaviouralist theory of stimuli and responses. With the passage of time and the subsequent appearance of cognitive and constructivist paradigms, the theory of social exchange lost weight within the scientific field. Through these lines of research, it was demonstrated that social behaviors do not respond only to reward interests.

Through the new psychological currents that were emerging, it was possible to determine that social relationships are not an exact science, taking into account that they are subject to emotional variables and learned behavioral factors.

Social relations according to modern psychology

As far as social relations are concerned, modern psychology gives greater weight to the environment and culture as determining agents in the bonds we establish with other people . Human beings are complex individuals in various aspects, and social relations do not escape this complexity. In spite of the fact that artificial intelligences are very close to the functioning of the human mind, something in which they have not been able to equal it is in the capacity to feel affection for another organism.

Love and affection come from very primitive structures of the human brain (limbic system) and overcome any logical barriers they may find in their way. That’s why when we really love a person we do it without taking into account the interests, for the human being logic and social relations do not necessarily go hand in hand.

By way of conclusion, it can be said that the theory of social exchange has served as a historical precedent within the field of social psychology. It has given rise to a wide variety of experiments over the years. The main cause of this theory’s demise lies in the lack of interest it showed in the subjective processes that exist when relating to another person, and it focused only on stimuli.

Bibliographic references:

  • DeLamater, J. (2006). Handbook of social psychology. Springer.
  • West, R.; Turner, L. (2007). Introducing Communication Theory. McGraw Hill.