Updated: Sep 3, 2022
According to social exchange theory, relationships are places of exchange. “The purpose of this exchange is to maximize benefits and minimize costs… people weigh the potential benefits and risks of social relationships. When the risks outweigh the rewards, people will terminate or abandon that relationship” (Kendra Cherry).
Maybe you think theorizing about relationships is for nerds, and maybe you are right, but this theory has influenced how we treat people. And this theory is false and dangerous, which makes it ironic that it's published by the mental health website verywellmind.com To explain my reasoning, let me introduce you to Elizabeth Anderson’s article, The Ethical Limits of the Market. From Anderson’s perspective, an exchange approach to relationships creates a barrier to commitments required for relationships.
Social exchange theory says that relationships function to maximize benefits and minimize costs.
Philosopher Anderson’s article tells us that this sort of thinking involves looking out for one’s own interests whereas relationships require commitments to the interests of the couple.
When applied to personal relationships, social exchange theory is false and dangerous. It can lead to using people and it could lead to a (selfish) value set that many would reject upon reflection.
Ideals and the Market
Do we engage in relationships based on maximizing benefits and minimizing costs? Anderson tells us that maximizing benefits and minimizing costs (transactional thinking) involves the following five things.
Impersonality - this is the freedom to change trading partners at any time. If the person no longer has the goods (e.g., bread or gold), then you are allowed to leave.
Freedom (within the law) to pursue one’s personal advantage. Sellers and buyers only need to focus on their profit. The market wouldn’t be efficient if everyone tried to look after the other at his or her own expense.
Goods are exclusive and rivals in consumption. Exclusive means the purchaser has exclusive access. When I buy an iPhone, that is MY iPhone (but also I got nothing to hide). To be a rival means that consumption diminishes the total supply. If I buy 10 Lambos, there are 10 fewer Lambos available. (compare: Knowledge is not like this. Sharing knowledge increases it, not diminishes it)
Personal taste. A person selling or buying need not ask what your reasons are for the exchange. No one needs to ask you why you are buying wedge-sneakers in order to sell you it.
When one isn’t satisfied, one just drops out. A customer either “takes it or leaves it.”
Personal Relationship Values
At first, it looks like the five apply to relationships.
1. We have the freedom to exit at any time, at least with romantic partners and friends. With family, we can stop talking to them them.
2. We look for personal advantages, e.g., date the hottest/sexiest MOFO that you can.
3. The person you date is (I hope) exclusive with you and unavailable to others (rival).
4.We date based on personal taste: some like blondes and others don’t.
5. Finally, when one isn’t satisfied, one may leave.
Nevertheless, Anderson tells us that personal relationships are different. They are governed by: intimacy and commitment.
Intimacy: a mutual revelation of private concerns and sharing of cherished emotions that are responsive to the other's personal characteristics
Commitment: “The deepest ideal of commitment involves dedicating oneself to living a shared life with another person on a permanent basis” (185).
According to Anderson, the foundation of commitment isn’t only mutually advantageous terms, like a business relationship, but “values that the persons committed to each other hold together” (185). Besides mutual benefit, the foundation of commitment involves“shared values.” Shared values are the values of the couple, not just the individuals. The key words are “the couple.” This is not the values of partner 1 plus the values of partner 2--that's not the couple. Shared values mean that one doesn’t just ask what is in it for me and what is in it for the other (business people do this), but also what is in the interest of the couple. What will preserve the couple?
Falsity and Danger
If Anderson is right, there is an important difference between what we value in personal relationships and what we value in the cost benefit analysis of social exchange theory. What is that difference? It is rule two above: seeking only one’s personal advantage works in the market, but it goes directly against the foundation of commitment. It goes against the interests of the couple.
That is why social exchange theory is false when applied to personal relationships. Why do I think it is dangerous? Well, if we follow social exchange theory, we won’t have a foundation for commitment. Instead, each partner will ask, “what is in it for me?” And as soon as one isn’t benefiting, one can just leave (rule 5). Staying in the relationship just won’t make any sense. You might be thinking “well boohoo, the relationship ended, move on!” To this, I say wait, there is more.
Besides the risk of broken hearts, transactional thinking risks “using” a person. Using a person is contrasted with respecting them and involves using them for one’s own goals. It involves detachment. Compare: I can sell my iPhone because I want a newer one. But how twisted would it be to sell my dog each time I wanted a newer puppy? On social exchange theory, there is nothing wrong with this if it means I maximize my benefits.
It is no secret that we have a lot of shitty relationships out there--we are looking at you fuck boys! In this world, someone else’s car is always faster and someone’s boobs are always perkier. Talent won’t help either. Anything you can do a seven year old does better online. This fact is only one TikTok away. So, one explanation for why we are such crappy romantic partners is that we have accepted the cost-benefit approach to relationships. When I became a philosopher, I lost the ability to give advice. However, I gained the ability to ask annoying questions. What sort of values do you want to bring to your relationships? From the transactional perspective, big commitments will often make no good sense--because often you will be disadvantaged. That is up to you: does it ever make sense to value the couple over yourself?
Anderson, Elizabeth. (1990). "The Ethical Limits of the Market." Economics and
Cherry, Kendra. (2020). Social Exchange Theory in Psychology. verywellmind.com.