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This paper compares and critically evaluates four theories of interpersonal attraction. The four theories of interpersonal attraction are: the Social Exchange Theory, Equity Theory, Evolutionary Theory, and the Attachment Theory. At the end of the paper a conclusion is made based on the comparison and the critical evaluation of the four theories of interpersonal attraction.
Theories of interpersonal attraction are the theories in Social Psychology that seeks to explain the phenomenon of interpersonal attraction. These theories seek to account for what really causes attraction among people. Although the scholars in interpersonal attraction are widely agreed that the factors of Propinquity, Similarity, Reciprocal liking, and Physical attractiveness, influences interpersonal attraction, the scholars, however, differ on what really causes interpersonal attraction. As such, different scholars have come up with varying theories in an attempt to explain this phenomenon of interpersonal attraction. This paper compares and critically evaluates four such theories of interpersonal attraction. These theories are: Social Exchange Theory, Equity Theory, Evolutionary Theory, and Attachment Theory. At the end of the paper, a conclusion is made based on the comparison and the critical evaluation of the four theories of interpersonal attraction.
Social exchange theory states that how people feel and how satisfied they are in a relationship depends on their understandings of the benefits and the costs of the relationship, the kind of relationship they believe they deserve or expect to have (Comparison Level), and their chances of having a more fulfilling relationship with a different person (The comparison level of alternatives) (What are the Factors that Underlie Interpersonal Attraction? Web). This means that the primary motivation in interpersonal attraction is the benefit that one expects to derive from the other person in a relationship; and the determinant of contentment in a relationship depends on a person’s conception of the kind of relationship they are worth or deserve, and the available alternatives for the person to have a relationship with other people (the comparison level of alternatives).
The Social Exchange theory of interpersonal attraction is supported by a number of scholars in Social Psychology. To begin with, Newcomb claims that we acquire favourable or unfavourable attitudes towards other people as we are awarded, or punished by them (Newcomb, 1956). On the other hand, Aronson claims that we normally get attracted to other people whose behaviour is most rewarding to us (Aronson, 1969). Walster claimed that individuals like those who reward them (Walster, 1971), while Levinger and Snoek said that liking other people emerges from the rewards that we get the people (Levinger & Snoek, 1972).
In nutshell, the Social exchange theory of interpersonal attraction holds that all forms of interpersonal attraction can be attributed to the gains or the benefits that one expects to derive from his object of attraction, i.e. to the person he/she is attracted to. But a critical look at this view vis-a- vis the other theories of interpersonal attraction shows that this theory is partly true but it does not explain fully the phenomenon of interpersonal attraction. This is because there is more motivation to interpersonal attraction than just the direct reward that one hopes to gain from the relationship. For instance, as the theory of evolution holds, our behaviour in interpersonal attraction can be accounted for by our adaptations in the process of human evolution. This will become clearer when we look at the evolutionary theory of interpersonal attraction.
The second weakness of this theory is the assumption that reward is the sole motivation of interpersonal attraction. But this is evidently not true because there are some forms of interpersonal attraction that are motivated by Agape love (Interpersonal Attraction, Web.). Agape is a selfless love and therefore in agape love one is drawn or attracted to the other person not out of any expectation of any reward or gain, but out of pure love, agape. This fact therefore shows that social exchange theory is not sufficient to account for all forms of interpersonal attraction.
Equity theory of interpersonal attraction is closely related to the Social Exchange theory of interpersonal attraction but there are some fundamental differences between the two theories of interpersonal interaction. For instance, while the Social Exchange theory of interpersonal attraction holds that the main determinant of happiness in a relationship is the reward that one gets from the relationship, and the kind of relationship that the person believes they deserve and the their chances for having a relationship with someone else, the Equity theory of interpersonal attraction holds that the main determinant of happiness in a relationship is the balance between the rewards, the costs, and the contributions of the two partners in a relationship. According to the Equity theory of interpersonal attraction, there should always be a balance, rough balance, between the rewards, and costs that one experiences in a relationship and the contributions that one makes in a relationship, and the rewards and costs experienced by the other partner in the relationship and the contributions made by this other person in the relationship. According to this theory, therefore, parties in a relationship should always seek to ensure that there is a balance between their contributions in the relationship and the gains and the costs that each of them experience in the relationship. Both the over- benefited and the under-benefited in a relationship should seek to restore this balance in case of an imbalance in the relationship. According to this theory therefore, there will always be an attraction between the partners in a relationship when this balance is maintained and the relationship will grow stronger and stronger.
As it can clearly be seen, this theory is also based on the reward that one expects in a relationship, although the reward in Exchange theory takes a different perspective, i.e. the balance between the contributions, gains and the rewards that the parties in a relationship experience. And just like the social exchange theory of interpersonal attraction, this theory is only partly true and does not explain the whole phenomenon of interpersonal attraction. The theory does not explain interpersonal attractions motivated by Agape love. The theory also does not explain some forms of interpersonal behaviour that are motivated by our adaptive behaviour that we acquired in the process of human evolution. Again, this theory doesn’t account for some forms of interpersonal attractions that are motivated by our attitudes and behaviours that developed during our childhood socialization. This is clearly accounted for by Attachment theory of interpersonal attraction (Bowlby, 1969).
Another major weakness of Equity theory of interpersonal attraction is the assumption that equality in contributing to the various needs in a relationship is the main factor that makes a relationship to last for a long time, without breaking up. But although equality in a relationship is definitely very important, it is by no way the sole and the major determinant of the strength of a relationship. The commitment of the partners in a relationship to remain together is the most important factor that makes a relationship to be strong and to last for a long time (What are the Four Factors that Underlie Interpersonal Attraction, Web.)
Evolutionary theory of interpersonal Attraction states that opposite sex interpersonal attractions can be explained in terms of men being attracted to women who have features that indicate that they are very fertile, and women are attracted to men who have the resources and the ability to protect them. This kind of attractions fosters reproductive success (Buss, 1988). This theory hold that this behaviour of men being attracted to females who seem more healthy, and women being attracted to males who have the resources and the strength to protect them can be traced back to the process of natural selection where human beings adapted to the environment and developed features that enhanced reproductive success.
The main weakness of the evolutionary theory of interpersonal attraction is that it does not account for the same sex attractions. This theory therefore explains only the romantic aspect of interpersonal attraction and does not account for the platonic interpersonal attractions. Unlike the social exchange and the equity theory of interpersonal attraction, the evolutionary theory does not acknowledge that the expected reward in a relationship plays a big role in the phenomenon of interpersonal attraction. This theory therefore cannot be taken as a complete account of interpersonal attraction.
This theory holds that, in times of stress, human beings are motivated to seek figures of attachment in an attempt to overcome the stress. The theory then claims that our earliest encounter, as children, with the figures of attachment shapes how we face relationships in the rest of our lives. (Hazan & Zeifman, 1994). If the attachment figures (caregivers, parents, etc.) are available and responsive when we are young, then we will develop a sense of attachment security and later in life we will exhibit healthy behaviour in relationships; we will be confident in life and we will not fear being abandoned by our friends. However, if as children we go through inconsistent and overbearing attachment figures, we develop attachment related insecurity; later in life, we will exhibit unhealthy behaviour in relationships, we will always be insecure and fearing being abandoned or betrayed in a relationship. And, if as children the attachment figures were not available, then later in life we will become avoidant and we will suppress attachment need because as children our attempts to be intimate were rebuffed (Interpersonal Attraction, Web.). These different attachment styles therefore account for how we will be attracted to and relate with other people in life.
One of the main weaknesses of the attachment theory of interpersonal attraction is the fact that it does not recognize the importance of reward expectation in a relationship. Also, the theory doesn’t acknowledge the importance of equity in sharing responsibilities in a relationship. Again, the theory of attachment does not acknowledge that our evolutionary process, natural selection, conditioned us to behave in a certain way in our interpersonal attractions.
In conclusion, none of these four theories taken solely can adequately account for the phenomenon of interpersonal attraction. However, each of these theories sheds some light and gives a new perspective to this phenomenon of interpersonal attraction. Taken together, the theories give a more holistic and credible explanation of interpersonal attraction.
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