Understanding the Nature of Human Behavior in the Context of Everyday Life Using the Perspective of Social Exchange Theory and Cognitive Dissonance

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This essay is written to understand the nature of human behavior in the context of everyday life using the perspective of Social Exchange Theory and Cognitive Dissonance. Firstly, it will be mentioning about the definition of both the theories. Then, founder of the theories and development of the theories, main concept of the theories, application of the theories and criticisms of the theories and lastly, the conclusion.

Talking about social exchange theory; social means when the members of a group meet informally to enjoy themselves. It also means relating to leisure activities that involve meeting other people. The meaning of exchange is an act of giving and receiving another in return. Therefore, the definition of social exchange theory is that it proposes that social behavior is the result of an exchange process. The purpose of this exchange is to maximize benefits and minimize costs. Other meaning, social exchange theory is a social behavior in the interaction of two parties that implement a cost of benefit analysis to determine risks and benefits. Next will be about cognitive dissonance; cognitive is when a person is doing conscious intellectual activity such as thinking, reasoning or remembering. While dissonance means the lack of agreement or harmony between people or things. Cognitive dissonance refers to a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors. This produces a feeling of mental discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore the balance.

Next will be about the history of both Social Exchange Theory and Cognitive Dissonance Theory. Social Exchange theory was first developed by the sociologists George Homans, who wrote about it in an essay titled “Social Behavior as Exchange”. Later, sociologists Peter Blau and Richard Emerson further developed the theory. This theory was formally advanced in the late 1950s and early 1960s in the work of the sociologists George Homans (1961) and Peter Blau (1964) and the work of social psychologists John Thibaut and Harold Kelley (1959). Over the years, several exchange perspectives, rather than one distinct exchange theory, have evolved. The exchange framework is built upon the combination of the central tenets of behaviorism and elementary economics where human behavior is envisaged as a function of its payoff. The framework is primarily concerned with the factors that mediate the formation, maintenance and breakdown of exchange relationships and dynamics within them.

Talking about the history of Cognitive Dissonance Theory, it was first published by Leon Fenstinger in the year 1957. The event that inspired him to develop the theory occurred more than 2 decades before his book release. On January 15,1934, the Himalayan region of Southern Nepal and Northern India experienced a magnitude 8.1 earthquake. The death toll exceeded 10,000. While residents in the worst-hit areas tried to come to grips with the devastation, those in nearby villages became struck with terror. Rumors began to spread in these surrounding regions about greater disasters to come. Although these villagers had experienced no damage from the earthquake, they become convinced that floods, cyclones and earthquakes of greater intensity would soon devastate the areas in which they lived. Twenty years later, Festinger and a group of colleagues became interested in why those frightening rumors had been created when there was so little evidence to support them.

After much thought, Festinger concluded that the rumors were created to justify the extreme fear and anxiety these villagers felt after experiencing such a close call. While some degree of gear was understandable, there was no rational explanation for the intense levels of trepidation that gripped these villagers since they had only experienced minor tremors. The dissonance between feeling extremely fearful (cognition #1) and realizing that there really wasn’t much to fear (cognition #2) had to be resolved. To accomplish this, the villagers apparently changed one of their beliefs, convincing themselves that there really was something to fear. This initial idea that people may change their beliefs to justify how they feel is what later blossomed into cognitive dissonance theory.

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The main concept of social exchange theory is that it is an interaction that elicits approval from another person is more likely to be repeated than an interaction that elicits a disapproval. Thus, prediction whether a particular interaction will be repeated by calculating the degree of reward (approval) or punishment (disapproval) resulting from the interaction. If the reward for an interaction exceeds the punishment, then the interaction is likely to occur or continue. According to this theory, the formula for predicting the behavior of any individual in any situation is; Behavior (profits) = rewards of interaction – costs of interaction, costs of interaction represent the resources one has to contribute to maintain relationship, and represents loss for individuals. It includes enduring discomfort, putting in time, effort, and opportunities lost as result of investing in one relationship instead of another. Rewards of interaction (benefits) are the reward obtained from a relationship one is involved in, & can include material or immaterial things. These benefits can be affection, support, social status, fun, money, goods, even subtle everyday gesture like smile, nod, or pat on the back. According to social exchange theory, human weighs the costs against benefits while forming relationships. The 3 propositions of social exchange theory; success, when one individual finds they are rewarded for their actions, they tend to repeat the action. Stimulus, the more often a particular stimulus has resulted in a reward in the past, the more likely it is that person will respond to it. The third proposition is deprivation satiation, the more often in the recent past a person has received a particular reward, the less valuable any further unit of that reward becomes.

Main idea of cognitive dissonance; cognitive dissonance theory is important because it plays a role in many judgements, decisions and evaluations. This theory makes people aware of how conflicting beliefs impact the decision-making process is a great way to improve your ability to make faster and more accurate choices. Cognitive dissonance usually happens in a situation where an individual must choose between two incompatible beliefs or actions. The greatest dissonance is created when the two alternatives are equally attractive. Furthermore, attitude change is more likely in the direction of less incentive since this results in lower dissonance. In this respect, dissonance theory is contradictory to most behavioral theories which would predict greater attitude change with increased incentive. Two factors affect the strength of the dissonance: the number of dissonant beliefs, and the importance attached to each belief. There are three ways to eliminate dissonance; the first way is to reduce the importance of the dissonant beliefs, second way is to add more consonant beliefs that outweigh the dissonant beliefs, or the third way is to change the dissonant beliefs so that they are no longer inconsistent.

Application of social exchange theory is usually an interpersonal communication. Interpersonal communication is the interaction or communication between people. Social exchange theory applies in a situation when a person is involved in a situation where it includes the costs (negative) and also the benefits (positive), then they will receive profits. For example, when a mother asked their children to do some house chores and the children are responsible for it, the house would be clean. Other example, when a student is involved in group project, the teammate is bossy but is doing well in studying, so the profit is that they had an excellent project. The other example, a student had to choose a partner between two of the person’s best friends for school project, one of his best friends wants to partner up with him but that person is not cooperative and the other best friend is good in doing group projects; teamwork and leading. Therefore, he has to take the risk and lead him and make him cooperate with the project.

Application for cognitive dissonance, it occurs when a person is in dilemma (a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives). Cognitive dissonance holds quite a lot of significance in our daily lives. One of the examples is that, when a student is given tasks or assignments by the lecturer, they will have two thoughts in their mind, one of the thoughts would be they want to do the assignment early and the other thoughts would be they still have a lot of time to do the assignments. Therefore, to prevent dissonance, the student would have to add new thoughts saying that this person has a lot of assignments to do so better start early. Other example, when a person is on a diet, so that person’s mindset to not eat a lot and avoid eating too much sugary food and carbohydrates, but his mother’s spaghetti on that day was delicious, so this person cannot help but to eat again because this person think that he can start his diet on the next day.

One of the advantages of social exchange theory is that, this social exchange has been used to explain why some women stay in abusive relationships. Rusbult and Martz (1955) argued that when the investments are high and alternatives are low this could still be considered a profit situation and a woman might choose to remain in such a relationship. The other advantages is, the support Support can be found by looking at how people in a relationship deal with potential alternatives; one way of dealing with such potential threats is to reduce them as a means of protecting the relationship. Simpson et al (1990) asked participants to rate members of the opposite sex in terms if attractiveness: those participants who were already involved gave lower ratings. Next will be about the disadvantages of social exchange theory. Social exchange theory does not explain why some people leave relationships despite having no alternative, no does it suggest how great the disparity in comparison level has become to be unsatisfactory. This theory has been criticized for focusing too much on the individual’s perspective and ignoring social aspects of the relationship, such as how partners communicate and interest in shared events- Duck and Sants (1983). The main criticism however, focuses on the selfish nature of the theory.

The criticisms of cognitive dissonance, it has been criticized by those who take a more behaviorist approach than a cognitive approach. They support a competing theory called self-perception theory which basically states that one’s attitude is a reflection of one’s behavior, and there is no need to hypothesize any motivational drive to reduce dissonance. More recently, scientists have come to understand that both theories have their place, and both are useful (Fazio, Zanna & Cooper 1977).

In conclusion, social exchange theory is the interaction between people that is resulting in exchange process. Cognitive dissonance is when where an individual has to choose between the person’s thoughts. Social exchange theory was first developed by George Homans in the year 1961 and 1957 was the year Cognitive Dissonance theory was first published. There was an event that inspired him to develop cognitive dissonance theory, the event occurred more than 2 decades before his book was released. The model of social exchange theory is rewards – costs = profit. While cognitive dissonance is when a person is having two thoughts; cognition 1/belief and cognition 2/action and when these two thoughts is inconsistent then this person is facing cognitive dissonance.


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