Social psychology

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Close Relationships Textbook: Social Psychology 11th Edition-Saul Kassin, Markus, & Fein. (Chapters 9-10) Chadee Theories in Social Psychology 1st Edition (Chapter 7)

Why Seemingly Trivial Events Sometimes Evoke Strong Emotional Reactions: The Role of Social Exchange Rule Violations

Social Heuristics and Social Roles: Intuition Favors Altruism for Women But Not for Men

Content Summary: Attraction

PSYC 512

Content Summary Assignment Instructions


Before learning how to apply social psychological research and theory in real life scenarios, it is important to be able to synthesize complex information and relay this information in an understandable way. These Content Summary Assignments are a great way to learn how to take several different sources and to synthesize them into a concise and understandable way.

Just as a hint: your Content Summary Assignments will provide you with terrific study guides for the quizzes.

You will complete Content Summary Assignments throughout this course. The Content Summary Assignments are the core learning/building block for this course. As such, be careful to read all of the material and to make worthwhile summaries of the information presented. You will use this information for every other assignment in this course.

The Content Summary tends to confuse students. Synthesize all the material from the week into three main topics. Provide title page in APA format. Introduction (paragraph that briefly explains your overarching theme and the three areas you covered. The three areas will have level 1 headings. The conclusion is a wrap-up of what you wrote above in your paper. Under each area make sure you have two different sources (from our reading do not add other material).


Include the following components in your Content Summary Assignments:

1. Content Summary Assignments must be at least 1.5–2 pages

2. Each summary must include an integration of the Kassin et al. text chapters, Chadee theory chapters, and two journal articles related to each module (found in the Learn Section).

· Use your Kassin et al. textbook to navigate the summary. Then, explore specific issues from the text that the Chadee theories book and the required articles also discuss.

3. The Content Summary Assignments must be in current APA format, including a cover page, a reference page, and appropriate subheadings (i.e. introduction, summary points, conclusion, etc.)

4. Using sources outside the required Learn Section reading is allowed, but not required

5. Cite all your sources you used (should include all read items from the Learn Section, as well as any outside sources used) in current APA format

Use the following outline in your Content Summary Assignments:

1. Introduction

a. The introduction should be an overall summary of the Learn Section’s reading material (1–2 paragraphs).

2. Body (Summary Points)

a. The body of your summary should include 3–5 subsections, covering 3–5 of the major points that span across all reading sources in the module.

b. Each subsection should not only summarize a major point, but also integrate the information gleaned from different sources about this major point.

c. Subsections should be about 1–2 paragraphs long.

d. Each subsection should have a minimum of 2 sources cited to support the major points. (This is to ensure that you are integrating the information, rather than summarizing the sources independently.)

3. Conclusion

a. Tie together the major themes you introduced in the body of the summary.

Make sure to check the Content Summary Grading Rubric before you start your Content Summary Assignment.

Note: Your assignment will be checked for originality via the Turnitin plagiarism tool.

Page 2 of 2

Content Summary Grading Rubric





36 to >33.0 pts

33 to >31.0 pts

31 to >0.0 pts

0 pts

36 pts




Not Present

The paper meets or exceeds content requirements: Intro Paragraph An overall summary of all module material is presented. It involves the major themes and ideas of the chapter. Summary Points Includes 3-5 major topics/issues of the module. Each point contains at least 1 paragraph and contains at least two sources per topic/issue or more.

Concluding Paragraph All key components from the reading material are included and summarized.

The paper meets most of the content requirements: Intro Paragraph An overall summary of all module material is presented. It involves the major themes and ideas of the chapter. Summary Points Includes 3-5 major topics/issues of the module. Each point contains at least 1 paragraph and contains at least two sources per topic/issue or more.

Concluding Paragraph All key components from the reading material are included and summarized.

The paper meets some of the content requirements: Intro Paragraph An overall summary of all module material is presented. It involves the major themes and ideas of the chapter. Summary Points Includes 3-5 major topics/issues of the module. Each point contains at least 1 paragraph and contains at least two sources per topic/issue or more.

Concluding Paragraph All key components from the reading material are included and summarized.


14 to >13.0 pts

13 to >11.0 pts

11 to >0.0 pts

0 pts

14 pts

Format and Page Requirement


The paper meets or exceeds structure requirements: Current APA format is followed. The required page requirement (1.5-2 pages) is met.


The paper meets most of the structure requirements: Current APA format is followed. The required page requirement (1.5-2 pages) is met.


The paper meets some of the structure requirements: Current APA format is followed.

The required page requirement (1.5-2 pages) is met.

Not Present

Total Points: 50


Social Heuristics and Social Roles: Intuition Favors Altruism for
Women but Not for Men

David G. Rand and Victoria L. Brescoll
Yale University

Jim A. C. Everett
Oxford University

Valerio Capraro
Center for Mathematics and Computer Science,

Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Hélène Barcelo
Mathematical Sciences Research Institute, Berkeley, CA

Are humans intuitively altruistic, or does altruism require self-control? A theory of social heuristics,
whereby intuitive responses favor typically successful behaviors, suggests that the answer may depend
on who you are. In particular, evidence suggests that women are expected to behave altruistically, and
are punished for failing to be altruistic, to a much greater extent than men. Thus, women (but not men)
may internalize altruism as their intuitive response. Indeed, a meta-analysis of 13 new experiments and
9 experiments from other groups found that promoting intuition relative to deliberation increased giving
in a Dictator Game among women, but not among men (Study 1, N � 4,366). Furthermore, this effect
was shown to be moderated by explicit sex role identification (Study 2, N � 1,831): the more women
described themselves using traditionally masculine attributes (e.g., dominance, independence) relative to
traditionally feminine attributes (e.g., warmth, tenderness), the more deliberation reduced their altruism.
Our findings shed light on the connection between gender and altruism, and highlight the importance of
social heuristics in human prosociality.

Keywords: altruism, prosociality, intuition, dual process, gender

Supplemental materials:

Humans often choose to help others. Yet such prosociality
typically requires us to expend time, effort, and money. What
makes us willing to do so? Recently, there has been considerable
interest in exploring human prosociality using a dual process
perspective (for a review, see Zaki & Mitchell, 2013), where
decisions are conceptualized as resulting from competition be-
tween cognitive processes that are automatic, fast, and intuitive,
versus those that are controlled, slow, and deliberative (Kahneman,

2003; Sloman, 1996). Does prosociality require deliberative self-
control, or do prosocial impulses get reined in by the calculus of

The Social Heuristics Hypothesis (SHH) has been proposed as a
theoretical framework for answering this question (Peysakhovich
& Rand, 2015; Rand et al., 2014). The SHH adds an explicitly dual
process lens to theories regarding the adoption of typically advan-
tageous behaviors (e.g., theories based on “spillover” effects [Ki-
yonari, Tanida, & Yamagishi, 2000], norm internalization [Chudek
& Henrich, 2011], and consequences of interdependence in one’s
social interaction experiences [Van Lange, De Bruin, Otten, &
Joireman, 1997]). The SHH posits that the social strategies which
are typically successful in daily life become automatized specifi-
cally as intuitive responses. Deliberation can then override these
intuitions and adjust one’s behavior in light of the details of the
specific decision at hand.

In particular, the SHH argues that a key component of deliber-
ation is the consideration of strategic concerns and payoff maxi-
mization, which favors self-interested behavior. As a result, delib-
eration is predicted to sometimes undermine prosocial intuitions,
but not to push selfish intuitions toward prosociality. A mathemat-
ical model of dual-process agents playing Prisoner’s Dilemma
games formalizes this prediction (Bear & Rand, 2016): among all

This article was published Online First February 25, 2016.
David G. Rand, Departments of Psychology and Economics, and School

of Management, Yale University; Victoria L. Brescoll, School of Manage-
ment, Yale University; Jim A. C. Everett, Department of Experimental
Psychology, Oxford University; Valerio Capraro, Center for Mathematics
and Computer Science, Amsterdam, the Netherlands; Hélène Barcelo,
Mathematical Sciences Research Institute, Berkeley, CA.

Funding by the John Templeton Foundation and the National Science
Foundation (Grant 0932078000) is gratefully acknowledged. We also
thank the authors of the studies included in our meta-analysis for sharing
their data.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to David G.
Rand, Department of Psychology, Yale University, Box 208205, New
Haven, CT 06520-8205. E-mail: [email protected]





















































Journal of Experimental Psychology: General © 2016 American Psychological Association
2016, Vol. 145, No. 4, 389 –396 0096-3445/16/$12.00


possible strategies, the dual-process strategies that perform best
(and thus are favored by evolution, social learning, and/or strategic
decision-making) use deliberation to switch from cooperation to
defection in one-shot anonymous settings. Conversely, strategies
that use deliberation to switch from defection to cooperation
(under any circumstances) never perform well, and are always

By this account, where typically successful strategies are intu-
itive, intuition should favor cooperation for most people: in the
context of daily life, most important interactions (e.g., with co-
workers, friends, and family) are repeated. Thus, because cooper-
ation is non-zero-sum, cooperating can be in one’s long-run self-
interest: cooperating with others today can induce others to
cooperate with you in the future (Rand & Nowak, 2013). Con-
versely, when interacting in settings where future consequences
are not enough to incentivize cooperation (e.g., one-shot anony-
mous laboratory experiments), it is never in one’s self-interest to
cooperate; and, therefore, deliberation should favor selfishness. As
predicted by this account, experimentally promoting intuition rel-
ative to deliberation via time pressure or a conceptual priming
exercise has been found to increase cooperation on average in
one-shot anonymous interactions (Cone & Rand, 2014; Lotz,
2015; Protzko, Ouimette, & Schooler, 2015; Rand, Greene, &
Nowak, 2012; Rand, Newman, & Wurzbacher, 2015); for a meta-
analysis, see Rand et al. (2014).

The implications of the SHH for altruism (unilaterally giving
resources to others), however, remain unclear. On the one hand, a
narrow read of the SHH suggests that, like deliberation, intuition
should disfavor altruism: transferring money to someone and then
having them transfer it back does not make one better off than just
keeping the original money, and so altruism (unlike cooperation) is
not advantageous even in repeated games. On the other hand, a
broader interpretation of the SHH suggests that intuition may favor
altruism in a similar way to what has been observed with cooper-
ation. If being selfish in the context of zero-sum interactions is
seen negatively by others, it may create reputational costs in the
context of other (non-zero-sum) interactions. If so, then altruism
could be payoff maximizing in the long run. However, it may not
be the case that all people are harmed from being seen as selfish,
such that moderators may exist for whether altruism is advanta-
geous in daily life (and thus favored by intuition).

A particularly compelling candidate for such moderation is
gender. Specifically, we might expect women, but not men, to
have altruism as their intuitive social response for two reasons.
First, a large body of work suggests that the behavior of men and
women is governed by stereotypes concerning their social roles;
and in particular that women are expected to be communal and
unselfish, whereas men are expected to be agentic and independent
(Eagly, 1987). When women behave in ways that are perceived as
insufficiently communal, they are not only liked less, but they are
also less likely to be helped, hired, promoted, paid fairly, and given
status, power, and independence in their jobs (Heilman &
Okimoto, 2007). Thus, women are subject to much stronger ex-
pectations that they will behave altruistically (Heilman & Chen,
2005). Furthermore, recent work has found that women are well
aware of these gender stereotype-based behavioral prescriptions,
and their concern over encountering backlash effects from violat-
ing these stereotypes helps explain, in part, a range of behaviors
that systematically vary by gender (Brescoll, 2011). As a result,

behaving altruistically in accordance with others’ expectations is
typically advantageous for women.

Second, the fact that women disproportionately occupy roles
that either mandate self-sacrificing and altruistic behavior (e.g.,
mother) or, at the very least, require a great deal of other-oriented,
communal behavior (e.g., nurse; Eagly, 1987), may cause women
to habituate to being altruistic. And even women who do not
explicitly occupy such family or work roles may acquire altruistic
intuitive social responses because female peer groups are markedly
more communal and egalitarian than male peer groups, and thus
make self-sacrificing, unselfish behavior socially adaptive (Mac-
coby, 1998). Taken together, consideration of both the expecta-
tions of others and the behaviors one engages in regularly point to
intuition favoring altruism for women more so than men.

In this paper, we experimentally investigated the role of intu-
ition and deliberation in altruism, and the potential moderating role
of gender. In Study 1, a meta-analysis of 22 giving studies where
cognitive processing was manipulated revealed the predicted in-
teraction between cognitive processing mode and gender: promot-
ing intuition increased altruism in women but had no significant
effect in men. Study 2 then investigated the mechanism behind this
effect by examining whether identification with gender norms
moderated the sex differences found in Study 1.

Study 1


In Study 1, we conducted a meta-analysis (N � 4,366) of new
and existing studies looking at the effects of experimentally ma-
nipulating the use of intuition versus deliberation on giving in the
Dictator Game (DG). In the DG, participants unilaterally decide
how to divide actual money between themselves and an anony-
mous recipient. Across studies, we used the percentage of the
endowment given to the recipient as our measure of altruism.

To minimize file-drawer effects, we began by including all data
each of the authors of the present study had ever collected where
cognitive processing was manipulated in a zero-sum dictator game
(including failed pilots, experiments with problematic design fea-
tures, etc.). We had 13 such experiments (all previously unpub-
lished), each of which manipulated cognitive processing using
either time constraints or conceptual priming. To avoid selection
effects, we included participants who disobeyed the time con-

Reducing the amount of time subjects have to decide shortens
the window of opportunity for deliberation to rein in intuition,
leading to more intuitive decisions (Wright, 1974). Therefore, in
the time constraint experiments, reliance on intuition was in-
creased by asking subjects to make their giving decision in less
than a specified number of seconds (time pressure) and was
reduced by asking subjects to wait and think for at least a specified
number of seconds before deciding (time delay). The conceptual
priming conditions, on the other hand, used a writing exercise at
the outset of the experiment to induce more or less intuitive
decision making (Shenhav, Rand, & Greene, 2012). Reliance on
intuition was increased by asking subjects to write about a time in
their life where following their intuition worked out well, or where
carefully reasoning through a problem worked out poorly. Reli-
ance on intuition was decreased by asking subjects to write about






















































a time in their life where following their intuition worked out
poorly, or where carefully reasoning through a problem worked
out well.

We also included data from other labs by doing a comprehen-
sive database search and requesting raw data (including gender)
for experiments in which cognitive processing was manipulated in
dictator games with the standard setup of (a) a single anonymous
recipient, and (b) a decision space ranging from completely selfish
to completely altruistic. For cognitive process manipulations, in
addition to time pressure and conceptual priming, we also included
experiments that used cognitive load (where participants had to
engage in a more or less cognitively demanding task, such as
holding a 7-digit vs. 3-digit number in working memory, while
completing the DG).1

In total, we received data sets for nine additional experiments
(Benjamin, Brown, & Shapiro, 2013; Cornelissen, Dewitte, & War-
lop, 2011; Evans, 2014; Hauge, Brekke, Johansson, Johansson-
Stenman, & Svedsäter, 2014; Kinnunen & Windmann, 2013). Thus,
Study 1 aggregated data from 22 experiments, for a total of 4,366
participants (52.7% female, Mage � 29.8). (Please see online supple-
mental material Table S1, which provides details for each experi-

Results and Discussion

As predicted, random-effects meta-analysis of DG giving found
a significant interaction between gender and cognitive processing
mode, effect size 5.5 percentage points, 95% CI [2.6, 8.5], Z �
3.66, p � .0001 (see Figure 1). There was no evidence of publi-
cation bias (Egger’s test, t � �.28, p � .79; Begg’s test, z � �.31,
p � .76), or of heterogeneity in the true size of this interaction
across studies, chi2(21) � 16.04, p � .77. Furthermore, metare-
gression found no significant difference in interaction effect be-
tween studies run online versus in the physical laboratory, t � .22,
p � .83 (interaction effect: 6.1 percentage points in lab, 5.4
percentage points online); and no significant differences in inter-
action effect size across methods of manipulating cognitive pro-
cessing, F(2, 19) � .4, p � .68 (interaction effect: cognitive load,
6.4 percentage points; conceptual priming, 6.1 percentage points
with; time constraints, 2.7 percentage points).

Examining simple effects showed a significant positive effect of
promoting intuition among women (see Figure 2), effect size 3.8
percentage points, 95% CI [1.9, 5.7], Z � 3.87, p � .0001;
resulting in on average 10.8% more giving in the high intuition
condition relative to the low intuition condition. Conversely, there
was no significant effect among men (see Figure 3), effect
size �2.0 percentage points, 95% CI [�4.2, .001], Z � 1.87, p �
.062. Again, there was no evidence of heterogeneity in effect size
across studies (women, chi2(21) � 13.1, p � .91; men, chi2(21) �
16.4, p � .75).

Study 2

Study 1 showed an interaction between gender and cognitive
processing mode: intuition favored unilaterally helping others for
women, but not for men. Although this effect was consistent with
our predictions based on the SHH and the differential daily-life
value of altruism for women versus men, the goal of Study 2 was
to provide more direct evidence for social norms as the proposed

mechanism. Specifically, if sex differences in the relationship
between intuition, deliberation, and altruism are driven by social
norms associated with men and women’s social roles, then indi-
vidual differences in the extent to which people adopt such sex role
norms should moderate this relationship. In particular, for women,
explicit self-identification with traditionally masculine attributes
was predicted to influence deliberative responses but not intuitive

Women who identify with masculine attributes are still per-
ceived by the world as women, and thus are subject to the altruistic
expectations placed upon women (making altruism typically ad-
vantageous for them). Since intuitive responses are not within
one’s conscious control, but instead implement typically advanta-
geous behaviors, the intuitive responses of even women who
explicitly adopt masculine attributes should be as altruistic as
women who explicitly identify with feminine attributes; and wom-
en’s intuitive responses should be more altruistic than men’s,
regardless of whether women identify more with masculine versus
feminine attributes.

When deliberating, however, explicit gender role identification was
predicted to influence women’s altruism: women who identified more
with masculine attributes were predicted to shift in the direction of
men (i.e., to become less altruistic), because altruism is disfavored by
both (a) masculine gender roles (which involve power, dominance,
and independent self-interest) and (b) deliberation’s general tendency
to make people consider strategic self-interest.

Women who explicitly identify with feminine attributes, on the
other hand, deliberatively embrace traits that are consistent with
altruism, and are in conflict with the self-interested effects of
strategic deliberation. Thus, deliberation should not affect their
behavior in the DG. For the same reason, men who explicitly
identify with feminine attributes should also not override their
selfish intuitions to become more altruistic when deliberating.
Finally, for men who identify with masculine attributes, their
intuitive and deliberative responses are in alignment, both favoring
relative selfishness, which again leads to no predicted effect of
deliberating. Study 2 directly tested these hypotheses.

Study 2 also explored a second potential moderator, how
strongly participants felt that gender norms were enforced in their
lives, which was unsuccessful for reasons that we believe were
practical, rather than theoretically informative, in nature (see on-
line supplemental material section 2 for details).


Study 2 took advantage of the fact that three of our experiments
from Study 1 (K, L, and M), in which participants completed the
conceptual priming manipulation described in Study 1 and made a
single dictator game decision (total N � 1,831; 51.5% female,
Mage � 35.0 years), also included questions about self-
identification with male and female sex roles (the short-form of the

1 We did not include ego depletion, based both on evidence that ego
depletion may not function in the same way as other cognitive process
manipulations (Inzlicht & Schmeichel, 2012), and the fact that we were
only able to obtain data from one depletion study with a total of 54
participants (Halali, Bereby-Meyer, & Ockenfels, 2013); including these
data does not qualitatively alter our key results.






















































Bem Sex-Role Inventory [BSRI; Bem, 1977]).2 Participants indi-
cated the extent to which each of 20 attributes (10 traditionally
masculine, 10 traditionally feminine) described them (from 1 �
never or almost never true to 7 � always or almost always true).3

We then classified participants’ gender role identification as mas-
culine versus feminine using a median split on the sum of all
masculine items minus the sum of all feminine items (Hoffman &
Borders, 2001).

Results and Discussion

Study 2 reproduced the pattern observed in the meta-analysis: an
analysis of variance (ANOVA) predicting DG giving based on cog-
nitive processing mode, gender, and study demonstrated an interac-
tion between cognitive processing mode and gender, F(1, 1819) �
3.85, p � .050, effect size 4.4 percentage points, such that dictator
giving was significantly greater among women when intuition was
promoted (M � .40, SD � .23) relative to deliberation (M � .37,
SD � .24), t(941) � 2.08, p � .038; but cognitive process did not
significantly affect giving among men (intuition: M � .32, SD � .27;
deliberation: M � .33, SD � .27), t(886) � .58, p � .55. No other
terms were significant (p � .15 for all), except for a significant main
effect of gender, F(1, 1819) � 29.5, p � .001, effect size 6.3
percentage points, such that women (M � .39, SD � .24) gave more
than men (M � .33, SD � .27). In particular, because the three-way

interaction between gender, cognitive processing mode, and study
was not significant, F(2, 1819) � .46, p � .63, we collapsed across
study in our subsequent analyses.

To test for moderation, we conducted an ANOVA predicting DG
giving using gender, cognitive processing mode, and sex role self-
identification (0 � feminine, 1 � masculine).4 In addition to signif-
icant main effects of gender F(1, 1823) � 18.53, p � .0001, such that
women were more altruistic than men, and sex role self-identification,
F(1, 1823) � 13.57, p � .0002, such that feminine participants were
more altruistic than masculine participants, we observed the predicted
significant three-way interaction between gender, cognitive process-

2 The order (i.e. whether the moderator questions came before or after
the conceptual priming task and DG) was randomized. Our analyses
collapsed over order, rather than analyzing the effect of order, because a
substantial difference in attrition rates between the orders prevented valid
causal inference about order effects.

3 Traditionally masculine attributes: willing to take a stand; defends own
beliefs; independent; has leadership abilities; strong personality; forceful;
dominant; aggressive; assertive; willing to take risks. Traditionally femi-
nine attributes: affectionate; warm; compassionate; gentle; tender; sympa-
thetic; sensitive to needs of others; soothe hurt feelings; understanding;
loves children.

4 Our results are qualitatively equivalent when using a continuous mea-
sure of sex role self-identification, but for ease of calculating and display-
ing simple effects of cognitive processing mode, we used the median split.


























5.52 (2.57, 8.48)

6.46 (-2.74, 15.65)

10.18 (-0.44, 20.79)

7.53 (-8.12, 23.19)

20.05 (2.97, 37.14)

3.60 (-16.92, 24.13)

-0.59 (-19.78, 18.59)

2.10 (-9.26, 13.45)

17.39 (1.62, 33.17)

1.73 (-5.89, 9.35)

6.23 (-13.96, 26.41)

-3.41 (-21.75, 14.93)

8.03 (-4.24, 20.29)

13.16 (-0.78, 27.10)

6.37 (-1.67, 14.41)

-6.31 (-25.29, 12.67)

18.54 (-1.88, 38.96)

-7.86 (-42.01, 26.29)

ES (95% CI)

-0.94 (-17.36, 15.48)

-5.50 (-21.35, 10.36)

6.65 (-15.00, 28.29)

3.07 (-16.14, 22.29)

0.51 (-34.41, 35.42)




















W eight






5.52 (2.57, 8.48)

6.46 (-2.74, 15.65)

10.18 (-0.44, 20.79)

7.53 (-8.12, 23.19)

20.05 (2.97, 37.14)

3.60 (-16.92, 24.13)

-0.59 (-19.78, 18.59)

2.10 (-9.26, 13.45)

17.39 (1.62, 33.17)

1.73 (-5.89, 9.35)

6.23 (-13.96, 26.41)

-3.41 (-21.75, 14.93)

8.03 (-4.24, 20.29)

13.16 (-0.78, 27.10)

6.37 (-1.67, 14.41)

-6.31 (-25.29, 12.67)

18.54 (-1.88, 38.96)

-7.86 (-42.01, 26.29)

ES (95% CI)

-0.94 (-17.36, 15.48)

-5.50 (-21.35, 10.36)

6.65 (-15.00, 28.29)

3.07 (-16.14, 22.29)

0.51 (-34.41, 35.42)




















W eight






0-30 -20 -10 0 10 20 30
[Cognitive process X gender] interaction effect size (percentage points)

Figure 1. Effect size (ES) for interaction between gender and cognitive processing mode for each experiment
in Study 1. See online supplemental materials Table S1 for key. Error bars indicate 95% confidence intervals
(CI). Gray squares indicate weight placed on each study by random-effects meta-analysis.






















































ing mode, and sex role self-identification, F(1, 1823) � 5.23, p �
.022, effect size 11.1 percentage points.5 This three-way interaction
was such that there was a significant two-way interaction between
cognitive processing mode and self-identification among women,
F(1, 939) � 5.52, p � .019, effect size 7.4 percentage points, but not
among men, F(1, 884) � 1.00, p � .32, effect size �3.8 percentage
points. Decomposing the significant two-way interaction among
women, we found a significant negative effect of promoting deliber-
ation for women who self-identified as masculine, t(371) � 3.19, p �
.002, effect size 7.8 percentage points, and no significant effect of
promoting deliberation for women who self-identified as feminine,
t(570) � .19, p � .85, effect size .00 percentage points. As can be
seen in Figure 4, men gave a comparatively smaller amount regardless
of cognitive processing mode or identification with masculine versus
feminine attributes, whereas women gave a larger amount unless they
both identified as masculine and were induced to deliberate. We also
note that these results were not driven entirely by the feminine sex
role items, many of which were directly related to prosociality/
altruism: a median split on just the 10 masculine items also reveals a
significant negative effect of deliberation among more masculine
women, t(429) � 2.35, p � .019, effect size 5.4 percentage points,
and no significant effect of deliberation among less masculine
women, t(514) � .67, p � .50, effect size 1.4 percentage points.

Thus, Study 2 found that although intuition favored altruism
among women, those women who explicitly saw themselves as

occupying traditionally masculine sex roles became more selfish
when deliberating. Conversely, men’s comparatively selfish intu-
itive response was unaffected by deliberation.

General Discussion

What roles do intuition and deliberation play in altruism? Here
we have explored this question using economic games and found
that the answer depends on who you are. Study 1 meta-analyzed 22
DG studies and revealed an interaction whereby promoting intu-
ition relative to deliberation made women significantly more likely
to give, but had no significant effect on giving among men. Study
2 then demonstrated moderation by sex role identification, such
that deliberation specifically undermined the altruistic intuitions of
women who saw themselves as masculine.

Our results tie together two distinct lines of theory: one regard-
ing gender differences in altruism, and another regarding social
heuristics and the basis of intuition. Women disproportionately
occupy social roles that require communal and even self-
sacrificing behavior: thus, failing to behave communally results in
negative consequences for women more so than men. The SHH

5 Note that this result is robust to Bonferroni correcting for also having
tested a second moderator (described in the supplemental materials), given
that p � .025.






















3.77 (1.86, 5.68)

8.48 (-4.20, 21.17)

1.74 (-8.50, 11.97)

3.00 (-4.49, 10.48)

9.09 (-6.76, 24.94)

-0.68 (-11.60, 10.24)

6.16 (0.59, 11.72)

4.57 (-0.78, 9.93)

-1.98 (-17.26, 13.30)

9.05 (-7.93, 26.02)

ES (95% CI)

1.77 (-3.68, 7.22)
2.78 (-24.37, 29.92)

-9.15 (-24.14, 5.85)

8.53 (-2.34, 19.39)

3.82 (-2.52, 10.16)
3.76 (-8.25, 15.77)

5.89 (-2.76, 14.54)
5.43 (-0.34, 11.19)

-15.68 (-43.14, 11.78)

-2.35 (-14.14, 9.44)

2.85 (-7.02, 12.72)

-2.22 (-15.44, 11.00)

10.67 (-2.19, 23.53)











W eight










3.77 (1.86, 5.68)

8.48 (-4.20, 21.17)

1.74 (-8.50, 11.97)

3.00 (-4.49, 10.48)

9.09 (-6.76, 24.94)

-0.68 (-11.60, 10.24)

6.16 (0.59, 11.72)

4.57 (-0.78, 9.93)

-1.98 (-17.26, 13.30)

9.05 (-7.93, 26.02)

ES (95% CI)

1.77 (-3.68, 7.22)
2.78 (-24.37, 29.92)

-9.15 (-24.14, 5.85)

8.53 (-2.34, 19.39)

3.82 (-2.52, 10.16)
3.76 (-8.25, 15.77)

5.89 (-2.76, 14.54)
5.43 (-0.34, 11.19)

-15.68 (-43.14, 11.78)

-2.35 (-14.14, 9.44)

2.85 (-7.02, 12.72)

-2.22 (-15.44, 11.00)

10.67 (-2.19, 23.53)











W eight











0-20 -10 0 10 20
Cognitive process effect size (percentage points)

Figure 2. Effect size (ES) for simple effect of promoting intuition among women for each experiment in Study
1. See online supplemental materials Table S1 for key. Error bars indicate 95% confidence intervals (CI). Gray
squares indicate weight placed on each study by random-effects meta-analysis.






















































therefore predicts that men and women would develop different
intuitions regarding altruism. And indeed, this is what our data
show. Our results therefore support a core tenant of the SHH—that
intuitive responses implement social behaviors that are typically

In contrast to the current work on altruism, the SHH predicts
that cooperation will be intuitive regardless of one’s gender:
cooperating inherently has the possibility to be long-run payoff-

maximizing because it is non-zero-sum, and thus does not rely on
expectations related to social roles. Consistent with this prediction,
a follow-up paper inspired by the current studies found no gender
moderation of the relationship between intuition and cooperation,
which was positive for both women and men (Rand, 2016).

The fact that deliberation only works against altruism in our
data, rather than sometimes making men more altruistic by over-
riding their selfish intuitions, is also consistent with the SHH. The
SHH posits that a key component of deliberation is the consider-
ation of what choice is payoff maximizing, which is always self-
ishness in our experiments (because they involve one-shot anon-
ymous interactions)—and such payoff-maximizing considerations
work against any deliberative motivations to give (such as having
a conscious desire to be communal).

Although we explicitly rely on social norms in our theorizing
about the gender difference in intuitive altruism, the ultimate
origins of the distribution of men and women into different social
roles could be biological in nature (Preston, 2013). Specifically,
women’s capacity for reproduction and men’s greater physical size
and strength (Wood & Eagly, 2002) along with the evolutionary
advantages to women of occupying roles that require a longer-term
investment in caring for offspring (Buss, 1995) may explain why
women end up occupying roles that require communal and self-
sacrificing behavior in the first place and thus why altruism may
become the intuitive social response for women.
























-2.04 (-4.18, 0.10)

-5.03 (-14.74, 4.68)

-1.80 (-7.79, 4.20)

2.73 (-12.01, 17.46)
2.27 (-19.69, 24.24)

-2.84 (-14.47, 8.80)

-9.49 (-20.84, 1.85)

ES (95% CI)

-11.52 (-24.71, 1.66)

7.07 (-8.93, 23.07)

0.04 (-5.29, 5.36)

-2.64 (-9.30, 4.02)

3.33 (-6.46, 13.11)

-7.27 (-18.20, 3.66)

-2.88 (-20.89, 15.12)
-4.02 (-13.05, 5.02)

2.87 (-9.63, 15.36)

-1.28 (-11.02, 8.45)

0.95 (-8.23, 10.13)

7.24 (-4.87, 19.34)

-5.42 (-20.59, 9.75)

-1.38 (-12.98, 10.22)

-14.55 (-26.85, -2.24)

-7.82 (-28.12, 12.48)







W eight

















-2.04 (-4.18, 0.10)

-5.03 (-14.74, 4.68)

-1.80 (-7.79, 4.20)

2.73 (-12.01, 17.46)
2.27 (-19.69, 24.24)

-2.84 (-14.47, 8.80)

-9.49 (-20.84, 1.85)

ES (95% CI)

-11.52 (-24.71, 1.66)

7.07 (-8.93, 23.07)

0.04 (-5.29, 5.36)

-2.64 (-9.30, 4.02)

3.33 (-6.46, 13.11)

-7.27 (-18.20, 3.66)

-2.88 (-20.89, 15.12)
-4.02 (-13.05, 5.02)

2.87 (-9.63, 15.36)

-1.28 (-11.02, 8.45)

0.95 (-8.23, 10.13)

7.24 (-4.87, 19.34)

-5.42 (-20.59, 9.75)

-1.38 (-12.98, 10.22)

-14.55 (-26.85, -2.24)

-7.82 (-28.12, 12.48)







W eight

















0-20 -10 0 10 20
Cognitive process effect size (percentage points)

Figure 3. Effect size (ES) for simple effect of promoting intuition among men for each experiment in Study
1. See online supplemental materials Table S1 for key. Error bars indicate 95% confidence intervals (CI). Gray
squares indicate weight placed on each study by random-effects meta-analysis.







Masculine Feminine Masculine Feminine





Sex Role Identification

Women Men



Figure 4. Average dictator game (DG) giving in Study 2 by gender,
cognitive processing mode, and sex role self-identification. Error bars
indicate 95% confidence intervals. �� p � .01.






















































The size of the effects we observed was determined not only by the
actual magnitude of the influence that intuition and deliberation have on
altruism, but also by the effectiveness of the cognitive processing manip-
ulations used. These manipulations were at best only partially successful
in making participants rely more heavily on intuition versus deliber-
ation—those in the “intuition-promoting” conditions were un-
doubtedly still able to engage in substantial degrees of delibera-
tion, despite the experimental manipulation. As a result, our
overall estimates of the observed effects are likely underestimates
of the effect size of intuitive processing on altruism one might
observe with more powerful manipulations, or in more strongly
valenced real-world interactions. Thus, we argue that the size of
the observed effects is less important that their direction.

Relatedly, it is unclear the extent to which these manipulations
acted by reducing deliberation versus amplifying intuition. Thus,
future research should use different manipulations to better under-
stand the nature of participants’ baseline responses, as well as
including baseline responses (i.e., no manipulation). Furthermore,
future research should examine whether the gender differences in
intuitive altruism we observed in the context of interpersonal
giving extend to other forms of altruistic behavior, such as chari-
table giving (Small, Loewenstein, & Slovic, 2007) and “extreme”
altruism (Rand & Epstein, 2014), and to intergroup contexts (given
evidence that tribal instincts for parochial altruism are stronger in
men; Van Vugt, De Cremer, & Janssen, 2007).

In sum, we provide evidence that promoting intuition relative to
deliberation increases altruistic giving in women but not men.
These findings extend our understanding of gender and prosocial-
ity, and advance a model of intuitive decision-making based on
social heuristics.


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Received June 19, 2015
Revision received January 18, 2016

Accepted January 20, 2016 �

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  • Social Heuristics and Social Roles: Intuition Favors Altruism for Women but Not for Men
    • Study 1
      • Method
      • Results and Discussion
    • Study 2
      • Method
      • Results and Discussion
    • General Discussion
    • References

The Journal of Social Psychology, 155: 559–575, 2015
Published with license by Taylor & Francis
ISSN: 0022-4545 print / 1940-1183 online
DOI: 10.1080/00224545.2015.1084985


Why Seemingly Trivial Events Sometimes Evoke Strong
Emotional Reactions: The Role of Social Exchange

Rule Violations



Duke University

ABSTRACT. People sometimes display strong emotional reactions to events that appear dispropor-
tionate to the tangible magnitude of the event. Although previous work has addressed the role that
perceived disrespect and unfairness have on such reactions, this study examined the role of perceived
social exchange rule violations more broadly. Participants (N = 179) rated the effects of another per-
son’s behavior on important personal outcomes, the degree to which the other person had violated
fundamental rules of social exchange, and their reactions to the event. Results showed that percep-
tions of social exchange rule violations accounted for more variance in participants’ reactions than
the tangible consequences of the event. The findings support the hypothesis that responses that appear
disproportionate to the seriousness of the eliciting event are often fueled by perceived rule violations
that may not be obvious to others.

Keywords: anger, emotional intensity, interpersonal interactions, social exchange rules

EMOTION THEORISTS CONCUR THAT EMOTIONS are fundamentally functional, having
evolved to facilitate animals’ effectiveness in dealing with potential threats and opportunities.
Yet, people sometimes display very strong emotional reactions to events that, from an outsider’s

© Mark R. Leary, Kate J. Diebels, Katrina P. Jongman-Sereno, and Xuan Duong Fernandez
This is an Open Access article. Non-commercial re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the

original work is properly attributed, cited, and is not altered, transformed, or built upon in any way, is permitted. The
moral rights of the named authors have been asserted.

Address correspondence to Mark R. Leary, Duke University, Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, P.O.
Box 90085, Durham, NC 27708, USA. E-mail: [email protected]


perspective, far exceed the response necessary to deal with the situation, if indeed any response
is needed at all. In many instances, seemingly trivial events provoke strong, sometimes explosive
reactions that seem disproportionate to the seriousness of the precipitating event.

For example, people become extremely angry during “friendly” discussions in which the out-
come of the debate has no tangible consequences, lash out at those who question or criticize
them in inconsequential ways, become enraged in response to another person’s mildly inconsid-
erate behavior, and overreact to other people’s annoying but immaterial eccentricities. People
often react strongly to such behaviors in ways that not only create awkward encounters and
conflicts (Cunningham, Shamblen, Barbee, & Ault, 2005) but also fuel domestic violence and
child abuse (Mann, 1988); righteous indignation and moral outrage (Tannenbaum, Uhlmann, &
Diermeier, 2011); culture-of-honor violence (Cohen, Nisbett, Bowdle, & Schwarz, 1996); road
rage (Neighbors, Vietor, & Knee, 2002); crimes of passion (Scarpa & Raine, 2000); and extreme
collective reactions to seemingly inconsequential slights against one’s national, ethnic, or reli-
gious group (Sageman, 2008). The present article examines one set of factors that lead people to
experience stronger emotions than seem warranted by the seriousness of the precipitating event.

Of course, the line between proportionate, normative reactions and disproportionate, extreme
reactions is not always clear. Indeed, assessing whether a reaction is reasonable and propor-
tionate given the nature of a particular precipitating event is often impossible because people’s
emotions are influenced not only by the immediate situation but also by events unknown to the
observer, real and imagined implications of the event that are not immediately obvious to others,
and the degree to which the event portends future circumstances that are relevant to one’s con-
cerns (Frijda, 1986). At the extremes, disproportionate responses are perhaps easy to spot (e.g.,
physically attacking a driver who delayed for five seconds after a red light turned green or burning
down one’s boss’ house after an unfavorable performance review), but often they are not.

Thus, our interest was in parsing the factors that influence the strength of people’s emotional
reactions to examine those that lead people to respond more strongly than their own assessment
of the event’s tangible outcomes would suggest. By tangible, we mean outcomes that would be
expected to inherently affect a person’s well-being or quality of life. Tangible outcomes include
not only physical and material outcomes (such as outcomes involving physical harm, money, or
possessions) but also events that inherently affect hedonic states (such as engaging in pleasurable
activities, being able to do something that one wants to do, or losing an important relationship).

As we use the term, tangible does not include symbolic or signifying outcomes that, by them-
selves, do not influence well-being. Of course, even when other people’s actions have no tangible
consequences at the moment, they may signal the possibility that undesired tangible outcomes
may occur in the future. For example, people may be upset when treated unfairly even when
the unfair treatment does not tangibly affect their outcomes (Allen & Leary, 2010) because they
are trying to deter future mistreatment that might, in fact, disadvantage them. Others have made
this point in the context of reactions to unfairness and disrespect (e.g., Cohen et al., 1996; Lind
& Tyler, 1988), but we offer a broader perspective on why people sometimes react strongly to
events that have no tangible implications for them.

Two explanations of reactions that exceed the seriousness of the immediate precipitating
event—triggered displaced aggression (Marcus-Newhall, Pedersen, Carlson, & Miller, 2000;
Pedersen, Gonzales, & Miller, 2000) and cumulative stress (e.g., the straw that broke the camel’s
back)—involve general effects of frustration, arousal, or stress that lower the threshold at which
people respond to negative events. Although these effects clearly increase the likelihood that


people will respond to minor provocations, our focus is specifically on the features of events that
evoke strong emotional reactions. What are the characteristics of situations that “push people’s
buttons” even when nothing tangible is at stake?

Four general explanations of such reactions have been offered that involve unfairness, dis-
respect, loss of self-esteem, and rejection. First, people become angry when they perceive that
others have treated them unfairly (Bembenek, Beike, & Schroeder, 2007; Brebels, De Cremer,
& Sedikides, 2008). People sometimes react to unfairness even when it does not matter (Allen
& Leary, 2010), and perceptions of procedural justice and fairness are enhanced when people
have an opportunity to voice their views even when their input cannot affect the outcome (Lind,
Kanfer, & Earley, 1990; Tyler, 1987; Tyler, Rasinski, & Spodick, 1985). However, in most studies
of reactions to unfairness, participants believed that others’ unfair behaviors had tangible implica-
tions for their well-being, either at present or in the future, so previous work has not distinguished
the effects of tangible versus intangible outcomes. Furthermore, as we will see, the phenomenon
seems to encompass a broader set of undesired behaviors than simply unfairness.

A second explanation asserts that disproportionate reactions are sometimes provoked by signs
of disrespect (Cohen et al., 1996; Miller, 2001; Stephenson, Martsolf, & Draucker, 2011). People
feel entitled to respectful treatment (Bies & Moag, 1986; Miller, 2001) and sometimes inter-
pret violations of interpersonal codes of conduct or “psychological contracts” (Robinson, Kraatz,
& Rousseau, 1994; Rousseau, 1995) as disrespect even when the violations are inconsequen-
tial (Cropanzano & Byrne, 2000; Folger & Skarlicki, 1998). Cohen et al. (1996, Cohen, 1998)
suggested that people who live in a “culture of honor,” such as gang members and men in the
American south, are particularly sensitive to signs of disrespect, but the general effect of disre-
spect on anger and aggression is widespread, if not universal (Bettencourt & Miller, 1996; Miller,
2001; Scher, 1997; Vidmar, 2000). As with unfairness, disrespectful behaviors are sometimes
associated with objectively harmful outcomes, but often the person’s reaction is fueled by the dis-
respectful action itself rather than any associated costs (Lind, Kulik, Ambrose, & de Vera-Park,

A third explanation considers the role of diminished self-esteem. When people hold favorable
views of themselves—and particularly when their views are inflated, unstable, or uncertain—
negative interpersonal evaluations can lead to negative emotions and aggression toward people
who threaten those views (Baumeister, Smart, & Boden, 1996). The theory suggests that anger
and aggression protect people’s self-evaluation (Fast & Chen, 2009; Kernis, Granneman, &
Barclay, 1989), although the process by which becoming excessively angry might protect
self-esteem has not been adequately explained.

Finally, interpersonal rejection can lead to strong emotional reactions (Buckley, Winkel, &
Leary, 2004; Leary, Twenge, & Quinlivan, 2006; Twenge & Campbell, 2003). Many school
shootings were perpetrated by students who felt ostracized by their classmates (Leary &
Jongman-Sereno, 2015; Leary, Kowalski, Smith, & Phillips, 2003), and rejection is a lead-
ing cause of domestic violence and spousal homicide (Barnard, Vera, Vera, & Newman, 1982;
Brown, James, & Taylor, 2010). In many cases, the tangible consequences of a particular rejection
experience may be trivial, yet people react strongly (Gonsalkorale & Williams, 2007).

Each of these explanations has merit. Yet, even assuming that unfairness, disrespect, threat-
ened egotism, and rejection fuel emotional reactions that appear disproportionate to the precipi-
tating event, an integrative explanation is needed. The hypothesis guiding the present research is
that people react disproportionally to the tangible implications of interpersonal events when they


perceive that other people have violated the rules that underlie social exchange. Because these rule
violations can evoke strong emotional reactions even when they have no tangible consequences,
people’s reactions often appear stronger than the seriousness of the tangible outcomes seems to

Many theories from a variety of perspectives have suggested that interdependent interactions
and relationships carry fundamental rules regarding how the individuals are expected to treat
one another (Emerson, 1976; Gouldner, 1960; Hall, 2011; Homans, 1961). Interdependent inter-
actions are mutually beneficial and rewarding only when all individuals abide by these rules
of social exchange. A number of such rules have been proposed. For example, theorists have
suggested the existence of social exchange rules involving reciprocity, dependability, honesty,
fairness, cooperation, rationality, and some minimal level of concern for others’ needs, among
others (Baron, 1993; Bies & Moag, 1986; Blau, 1960; Buss et al., 1990; Cosmides & Tooby,
1992; Cottrell, Neuberg, & Li, 2007; Cropanzano & Mitchell, 2005; Robinson, 1996; Taylor,
Tracy, Renard, Harrison, & Carroll, 1995). Reactions to violations of some such rules—such as
reciprocity, honesty, and fairness (or justice)—have been studied extensively (e.g., Cropanzano
& Byrne, 2000; Eisenberger, Lynch, Aselage, & Rohdieck, 2004; Gouldner, 1960; Miller, 2001;
Skitka & Crosby, 2003), whereas others have received only passing mention.

People are highly sensitive to violations of these social exchange rules because such violations
signal that the perpetrator is a poor partner for social exchange whose behavior has the potential
to disadvantage the individual, either in the present encounter or in the future (Cosmides & Tooby,
1992). According to the social exchange rule violation hypothesis, social exchange rules are so
important that violations of these rules can provoke strong emotional reactions even when the
other person’s actions have few, if any, tangible consequences. Even violations with no tangi-
ble consequences whatsoever provide diagnostic information that another person should not be
trusted as a social exchange partner. Thus, the social exchange rule violation hypothesis explains
why people’s reactions often seem disproportionate to the tangible consequences of the eliciting

Because trust is a central feature of interdependent group living and necessary for cooperative
relationships and collective action, people highly value trustworthiness (Buss et al., 1990; Cottrell
et al., 2007) and react strongly when others behave in ways that undermine trust. The enforcement
of social exchange rules is the mechanism by which people insist on being treated appropriately
and sanction untrustworthy relational partners. In fact, evolutionary psychologists have suggested
that social exchange rules are so important to well-being that human beings have evolved cog-
nitive mechanisms to detect, at fairly low thresholds, violations of certain social exchange rules
(Cosmides & Tooby, 1992, 2008). The greatest attention has been devoted to a “cheater detection”
system that appears to monitor instances in which other people take benefits to which they are
not entitled (Cosmides, 1989; Delton, Cosmides, Guemo, Robertson, & Tooby, 2012). Although
the existence of an evolved cheater detection system has been controversial (Cosmides & Tooby,
2008; Fodor, 2000), people are certainly quite sensitive to violations of social exchange rules.

One function of strong reactions may be to put those who violate fundamental rules of social
exchange on notice to deter future violations. This explanation has been discussed previously with
respect to aggressive reactions to unfairness and disrespect (e.g., Cohen et al., 1996; Felson, 1978;
Miller, 1993; Toch, 1992), but the reaction seems broader, encompassing violations of social
exchange rules more generally. In fact, from the standpoint of the social exchange rule violation
hypothesis, some of the other explanations described earlier (unfairness, disrespect, threatened


egotism, and interpersonal rejection) might be interpreted as specific cases of a general tendency
to react to violations of social exchange rules. In fact, we suspect that these specific cases evoke
reactions that are disproportionate to the event’s tangible consequences primarily when they are
interpreted as an exchange rule violation. The social exchange rule violation hypothesis provides
a parsimonious, overarching perspective that integrates findings across a number of disparate
domains and offers insights into the conditions under which people react to seemingly trivial

To summarize, people’s emotional reactions to undesired events are affected by two sets of
factors. The most obvious involves tangible outcomes of the events—outcomes that directly and
incontrovertibly influence their well-being or quality of life. The second set of factors involves
the perceived violation of social exchange rules, which, as noted, may influence emotion even
in the absence of tangible consequences. Such violations may portend negative outcomes in the
future but their present impact is often minimal. Although previous theorists have suggested that
both sets of factors influence emotional reactions, we are not aware of any research that has
systematically examined their separate effects. Nor has previous research that has examined the
effects of specific violations—such as unfairness or disrespect—done so in a way that accounts
for perceived tangible outcomes.

This study tested the hypothesis that the strength of people’s emotional reactions to unde-
sired events can be predicted by both their judgment of the event’s tangible outcomes and the
degree to which they perceive that others have violated social exchange rules. We predicted that
perceived violations of exchange rules are associated with strong reactions, particularly anger,
above and beyond the effects of the tangible outcomes or implications of the precipitating event,
if any. In addition, we were interested in documenting the relative strength of these two effects.
To examine the independent effects of tangible consequences and social exchange rule viola-
tions, we solicited reports of situations in which participants experienced negative emotions as a
result of other people’s behavior and asked them to rate their emotional reactions to the event, the
extent to which it had tangible negative consequences, and the degree to which the other person’s
behavior violated social exchange rules.



A total of 179 (79 male, 100 female, Mage = 22.3, SD = 3.8) were recruited. Of the participants,
91 (45 male, 46 female) were graduate students from across the university, and 88 participants
(34 male, 54 female) were undergraduates from the departmental participant pool.


Because we did not want to inadvertently lead participants to focus solely on social exchange
rules by specifically asking about them, participants were instructed to “think of a time when
someone did or said something that upset you or made you have negative feelings.” We assumed
that a high proportion of such situations involve violations of social exchange rules.


After participants took a moment to recall what happened, they reported the nature of
their relationship with the person and how long ago the event happened. Then, participants
answered three questions on 12-point scales: (a) “After this event happened, how good was your
relationship with this person,” (b) “After this event happened, how close did you feel to the other
person,” and (c) “Overall, how bad were the other person’s actions?”

Participants described the event and their reactions in writing and then rated the degree to
which the other person’s behavior had a negative effect on each of 11 tangible outcomes (1 = not
at all; 5 = extremely): “Your money or financial well-being”; “Your safety, health, or physical
well-being”; “Your performance or outcomes at work or at school”; “Your property or posses-
sions”; “Your ability to have something you wanted”; “The safety, health, or well-being of people
you care about”; “Your relationships with other people”; “How much fun or pleasure you had”;
“A friendship or close relationship”; “Your ability to do something that you wanted to do”; and
“Your membership in a group”. To confirm that these ratings reflected all major categories of
tangible outcomes for people’s well-being, two raters coded pilot data in which 100 participants
described their reactions to undesired events that were caused by other people. No outcomes were
identified that did not fall into one or more of these categories.

Participants also rated on 5-point scales (1 = not at all; 5 = extremely) the degree to which
the other person’s behavior violated 14 social exchange rules, specifically the degree to which
it was unfair, selfish, unethical or immoral, inconsiderate, unreasonable, disrespectful, dishonest,
irresponsible, uncooperative, and irrational; they also rated the degree to which the behavior
reflected a lack of concern for them, reflected lack of reciprocity, took advantage of them, and
showed that the person was undependable. Importantly, ratings of the tangible outcomes and
social exchange rule violations were counterbalanced across participants.

Participants rated how the other person’s behavior made them feel on several emotions that
included three items for anger: angry, irritated, and furious (1 = not at all; 5 = extremely). And
finally, participants answered two questions about their relationship: (a) “How much do you like
the person now?” and (b) “How much do you trust this person not to do something like this
again?” (1 = not at all; 5 = extremely). After completing the questionnaire, participants were


The episodes that participants described spanned a variety of relationships, including roman-
tic partners (28.5%), friends (27.4%), authority figures (11.2%), family members (not including
spouses; 10.6%), coworkers (6.7%), acquaintances (6.7%), and strangers (2.2%). The events they
described occurred between 0 and 12 years ago (M = 14.6 months), and the average rating of the
badness of the person’s actions was 7.5 (SD = 2.9) (“moderately” bad).

Ratings of the tangible consequences were summed to produce an index of tangible outcomes,
and the ratings of exchange rule violations reflected in the other person’s behavior were summed
to create an index of social exchange rule violations. The primary analyses involved hierarchical
multiple regression analyses that tested the effects of tangible consequences and perceived social
exchange rule violations on the outcome variables. To examine the effects fully, two analyses
were conducted for each outcome variable. In the first analysis (labeled Analysis 1 in Table 1),
participant gender (dummy coded) was entered on Step 1 of the regression analysis, followed


Effects of Tangible Outcomes and Exchange Rule Violations

Analysis 1 Analysis 2
number Predictor �R2 B 95% CI Predictor �R2 B 95% CI

Ratings of person’s actions

1. Gender .00 −.28 −1.13, .56 Gender .00 −.28 −1.13, .56
2. Tangible outcomes .04 .07 .02, .12 Exchange violations .27 .11 .08, .14
3. Tangible

outcomes × Gender
.00 −.03 −.13, .08 Exchange

violations × Gender
.01 .04 −.02, .09

4. Exchange violations .23 .11 .08, .14 Tangible outcomes .00 .01 −.04, .06
5. Exchange

violations × Gender
.01 .04 −.02, .10 Tangible

outcomes × Gender
.00 −.03 −.13, .07


1. Gender .00 .20 −.68, 1.07 Gender .00 .20 −.68, 1.07
2. Tangible outcomes .10 .11 .06, .16 Exchange violations .44 .15 .12, .17
3. Tangible

outcomes × Gender
.00 .00 −.10, .11 Exchange

violations × Gender
.01 .01 −.04, .06

4. Exchange violations .35 .14 .12, .17 Tangible outcomes .01 .03 −.02, .07
5. Exchange

violations × Gender
.00 .01 −.05, .06 Tangible

outcomes × Gender
.00 .04 −.05, .13

Current liking

1. Gender .01 .24 −.18, .67 Gender .01 .24 −.18, .67
2. Tangible outcomes .00 .00 −.03, .03 Exchange violations .11 −.04 −.05, −.02
3. Tangible

outcomes × Gender
.01 .03 −.02, .08 Exchange

violations × Gender
.01 .02 −.01, .05

4. Exchange violations .12 −.04 −.06, −.02 Tangible outcomes .01 .02 −.01, .05
5. Exchange

violations × Gender
.00 .02 −.02, .05 Tangible

outcomes × Gender
.00 .01 −.04, .05


1. Gender .00 −.05 −.40, .30 Gender .00 −.05 −.40, .30
2. Tangible outcomes .00 .01 −.02, .03 Exchange violations .03 −.01 −.03, −.001
3. Tangible

outcomes × Gender
.00 −.01 −.05, .04 Exchange

violations × Gender
.03 .03 .01, .05

4. Exchange violations .04 −.02 −.03, −.01 Tangible outcomes .01 .02 −.01, .04
5. Exchange

violations × Gender
.04 .04 .01, .06 Tangible

outcomes × Gender
.01 −.03 −.08, .02

Relationship quality

1. Gender .00 −.18 −1.15, .79 Gender .00 −.18 −1.15, .79
2. Tangible outcomes .01 −.03 −.09, .03 Exchange violations .17 −.10 −.13, −.07
3. Tangible

outcomes × Gender
.00 .02 −.11, .14 Exchange

violations × Gender
.00 .03 −.04, .10




Analysis 1 Analysis 2
number Predictor �R2 B 95% CI Predictor �R2 B 95% CI

4. Exchange violations .17 −.11 −.14, −.07 Tangible outcomes .01 .04 −.02, .09
5. Exchange

violations × Gender
.01 .04 −.03, .11 Tangible

outcomes × Gender
.00 −.04 −.16, .08

Ratings of person’s actions

1. Gender .00 −.28 −1.13, .56 Gender .00 −.28 −1.13, .56
2. Tangible outcomes .04 .07 .02, .12 Exchange violations .27 .11 .08, .14
3. Tangible

outcomes × Gender
.00 −.03 −.13, .08 Exchange

violations × Gender
.01 .04 −.02, .09

4. Exchange violations .23 .11 .08, .14 Tangible outcomes .00 .01 −.04, .06
5. Exchange

violations × Gender
.01 .04 −.02, .10 Tangible

outcomes × Gender
.00 −.03 −.13, .07


1. Gender .00 .20 −.68, 1.07 Gender .00 .20 −.68, 1.07
2. Tangible outcomes .10 .11 .06, .16 Exchange violations .44 .15 .12, .17
3. Tangible

outcomes × Gender
.00 .00 −.10, .11 Exchange

violations × Gender
.01 .01 −.04, .06

4. Exchange violations .35 .14 .12, .17 Tangible outcomes .01 .03 −.02, .07
5. Exchange

violations × Gender
.00 .01 −.05, .06 Tangible

outcomes × Gender
.00 .04 −.05, .13

Current liking

1. Gender .01 .24 −.18, .67 Gender .01 .24 −.18, .67
2. Tangible outcomes .00 .00 −.03, .03 Exchange violations .11 −.04 −.05, −.02
3. Tangible

outcomes × Gender
.01 .03 −.02, .08 Exchange

violations × Gender
.01 .02 −.01, .05

4. Exchange violations .12 −.04 −.06, −.02 Tangible outcomes .01 .02 −.01, .05
5. Exchange

violations × Gender
.00 .02 −.02, .05 Tangible

outcomes × Gender
.00 .01 −.04, .05


1. Gender .00 −.05 −.40, .30 Gender .00 −.05 −.40, .30
2. Tangible outcomes .00 .01 −.02, .03 Exchange violations .03 −.01 −.03, −.001
3. Tangible

outcomes × Gender
.00 −.01 −.05, .04 Exchange

violations × Gender
.03 .03 .01, .05

4. Exchange violations .04 −.02 −.03, −.01 Tangible outcomes .01 .02 −.01, .04
5. Exchange

violations × Gender
.04 .04 .01, .06 Tangible

outcomes × Gender
.01 −.03 −.08, .02

Relationship quality

1. Gender .00 −.18 −1.15, .79 Gender .00 −.18 −1.15, .79
2. Tangible outcomes .01 −.03 −.09, .03 Exchange violations .17 −.10 −.13, −.07




Analysis 1 Analysis 2
number Predictor �R2 B 95% CI Predictor �R2 B 95% CI

3. Tangible
outcomes × Gender

.00 .02 −.11, .14 Exchange
violations × Gender

.00 .03 −.04, .10

4. Exchange violations .17 −.11 −.14, −.07 Tangible outcomes .01 .04 −.02, .09
5. Exchange

violations × Gender
.01 .04 −.03, .11 Tangible

outcomes × Gender
.00 −.04 −.16, .08

by the sum of the tangible consequences (mean centered; Step 2), the product of tangible con-
sequences and gender (Step 3), the sum of the ratings of social exchange rule violations (mean
centered; Step 4), and the product of exchange rule violations and gender (Step 5). This order
of entry was chosen to (a) control for possible gender differences in affect intensity (Diener,
Sandvik, & Larsen, 1985) and (b) partial out the effects of tangible consequences and any possible
interaction of tangible consequences by gender in order to (c) examine the residual contributions
of perceived social exchange rule violations (both by itself and in interactions with gender) on
the strength of participants’ emotional reactions.1

A second analysis (Analysis 2 on Table 1) was conducted to test the residual effects of per-
ceived tangible consequences on emotional reactions after controlling for gender, perceived social
exchange rule violations, and their interaction. Gender was again entered on Step 1, followed by
the sum of social exchange rule violations on Step 2, and the interaction of social exchange rule
violations and gender (Step 3). Then, the sum of the tangible consequences was entered on Step
4, and the interaction of tangible consequences by gender was tested on Step 5.

Ratings of Person’s Actions

Table 1 shows the results of these two analyses for each outcome variable. Gender did not predict
any of the outcomes in Step 1, so we will not mention it further. In Analysis 1, ratings of the
tangible outcomes accounted for 4.4% of the variance in how bad participants rated the other
person’s actions in Step 2, and in Step 3, the interaction of tangible consequences and gender did
not account for an increase in variance (see Table 1 for �R2, B, and 95% CIs for each effect).
In Step 4, social exchange rule violations accounted for 22.5% of the variance in ratings of the
action. The interaction with gender did not account for additional variance. Thus, ratings of social
exchange rule violations accounted for variance in how bad participants rated the person’s actions
beyond ratings of the tangible impact of those actions. In Analysis 2 (in which exchange rule
violations were entered before tangible consequences), social exchange rule violations accounted
for 27.0% of the variance when entered on Step 2, after which tangible consequences no longer
accounted for unique variance in the ratings.


Participants’ ratings of how angry, irritable, and furious they had felt were summed (α = .76). The
tangible outcomes accounted for 9.6% of the variance in anger on Step 2, but the interaction of


tangible consequences and gender in Step 3 did not account for additional variance. In Step 4, the
sum of the social exchange rule violations accounted for 35.3% of the variance in anger, and this
effect was not moderated by gender in Step 5. Thus as expected, ratings of social exchange rule
violations accounted for the intensity of participants’ anger beyond their ratings of the tangible
effects of those events on their well-being. Indeed, violations of social exchange rules accounted
for more than 3 times as much variance as the tangible consequences. Analysis 2 showed that
exchange rule violations accounted for 44.1% of the variance in anger, whereas tangible conse-
quences accounted for no additional variance. These analyses show not only that anger ratings
were much more strongly related to perceived violations of social exchange rules than to tangi-
ble consequences but also that perceived exchange rule violations were associated with unique
variance in anger after tangible consequences were taken into account.

To follow-up on these analyses, we examined the specific social exchange rule violations that
most strongly predicted anger after controlling for ratings of tangible consequences. After con-
trolling for gender and ratings of tangible consequences, all 14 social exchange rule violations
correlated significantly with anger ratings (.19 < r’s < .51). However, when entered stepwise-
fashion into the regression equation, only three rule violations ultimately entered the model:
unreasonable, B = .72, 95% CI [.41, 1.03], �R2 = .23; disrespectful, B = .60, 95% CI [.31,
.90], �R2 = .09; and dishonest, B = .37, 95% CI [.13, .62], �R2 = .03. Although this pattern
may be specific to the kinds of undesired behaviors that our participants reported, it shows that,
not surprisingly, certain perceived rule violations may exert a predominate influence on people’s

Relationship Implications

Liking. As seen in Table 1, neither gender, ratings of the tangible outcomes, nor the interac-
tion of gender and tangible consequences accounted for participants’ ratings of how much they
liked the person after the event. However, social exchange rule violations accounted for 11.8% of
the variance in liking. When the predictors were entered in the opposite order, social exchange
rule violations predicted liking ratings, but tangible outcomes had no effect.

Trust. Neither gender, ratings of the tangible outcomes, nor the interaction of gender and
tangible consequences predicted the extent to which participants indicated that they would trust
the person not to do something similar again. Social exchange rule violations accounted for 3.6%
of the variance in trust, and the interaction of exchange rule violations and gender accounted for
additional variance. Decomposition of this interaction revealed that men trusted the other person
less when perceptions of exchange rule violations were high than low, B = −.04, 95% CI [−.06,
−.02], but this effect was not obtained for women, B = .01, 95% CI [−.02, .03]. Also, men were
more trusting than women when exchange violations were low but less trusting when violations
were high.

Relationship quality. Participants’ ratings of how good their relationship was and how close
they felt to the other person correlated .90, so we averaged these items. As seen in Table 1, social
exchange rule violations accounted for 17% of the variance in relationship quality. When the
predictors were entered in the opposite order, no effect of tangible outcomes was obtained.



The results showed that the strength of people’s reactions to negative interpersonal events is a
function of both the perceived tangible outcomes of those events and their perceptions that others
have violated rules of social exchange. After controlling for the magnitude of perceived tangible
consequences, perceptions of social exchange rule violations explained variance in anger, how
bad the person’s actions were, how much participants liked and trusted the other person, and
ratings of the quality of the relationship after the event. And, when social exchange rule violations
were entered into the analyses before ratings of tangible consequences, the effects of tangible
consequences on participants’ reactions were minimal. Importantly, perceived social exchange
rule violations accounted for far more unique variance in participants’ reactions than did the
tangible outcomes that participants experienced.

These patterns support the hypothesis that strong emotional reactions to the behavior of other
people are fueled, at least in part, by people’s perceptions that the offending behavior involves
a violation of fundamental rules that guide interdependent interactions and relationships. Even
exceptionally minor transgressions can be viewed as violations of social exchange rules and,
thus, spark a stronger response than would be predicted by the tangible consequences.

Although participants’ reports of social exchange rule violations involved many kinds of
relationships—with friends, romantic partners, family members, authority figures, strangers, and
others—we did not have a large enough sample of each relationship type to examine whether
perceived social exchange rule violations evoke stronger or different kinds of reactions in some
relationships than in others. One might expect that people expect stronger adherence to social
exchange rules in relationships in which interdependence is greater because the costs of rule
violations are higher over time. Yet, if trust and satisfaction are high, people in highly interdepen-
dent relationships may overlook occasional violations (or at least restrain their reactions to them)
because they ultimately trust the other’s intentions and do not wish to damage the relationship
by overreacting. Viewed in this way, we predict that social exchange rule violations evoke the
strongest, most disproportionate reactions in highly interdependent relationships in which trust
(and/or satisfaction) is low. Research is needed to understand the features of relationships that
influence disproportionate reactions.

In many instances, people are motivated, at minimum, to send an unambiguous signal that
they are aware of the violations and will not tolerate such actions in the future. Cohen et al.
(1996) described this deterrence function of strong reactions to signs of disrespect, but the effect
applies to a broad array of situations in which actual or potential exchange partners violate the
rules that guide mutually beneficial social exchanges. From this perspective, expressions of anger,
including overt aggression, in these instances may be efforts to show that one will not tolerate
social exchange rule violations (Felson, 1982; Miller, 2001; Toch, 1992).

In addition, when violations of social exchange rules are particularly egregious, people may be
motivated to punish the perpetrator. Most work on retributive justice has focused on how people
respond to those who commit immoral actions that harm themselves or other people (Carlsmith
& Darley, 2008), but people sometimes engage in retribution for behaviors, that, in themselves,
did not hurt anyone (Felson, 1978). The psychological heuristic underlying such reactions seems
to be that people who cannot be trusted to be good social exchange partners should be put on
notice, if not punished.


Our findings are entirely consistent with other research on reactions to unfairness, selfishness,
and disrespect (e.g., Allen & Leary, 2010; Bembenek et al., 2007; Brebels et al., 2008; Cohen
et al., 1996; Colquitt, Conlon, Wesson, Porter, & Ng, 2001; Miller, 2001; Stephenson et al.,
2011) but extend previous thinking. From our perspective, perceived unfairness and disrespect
evoke strong reactions to otherwise trivial events because they are among the most common—and
perhaps the most potentially harmful—violations of social exchange rules. The social exchange
rule violation hypothesis provides a parsimonious, overarching perspective that not only inte-
grates previous findings but also offers insights into the conditions under which people react
more strongly to events than one might expect based on their tangible consequences. Indeed, our
analysis suggested that participants reacted most strongly to violations of rules to be not only
respectful but also reasonable and honest.

Of course, people sometimes react strongly to events for reasons that have little to do with
violations of social exchange rules. Often, the sheer magnitude of tangible consequences can
send people over the edge, and, as noted, displaced aggression and cumulative stress can lower
the threshold at which people respond to events. Furthermore, people are sometimes angered
when events violate their moral convictions, whether or not such events are perceived to be unfair
(Mullen & Skitka, 2006). The social exchange violation hypothesis explains one broad category
of events that evoke emotional reactions, but we are not suggesting that other factors do not
sometimes lead to strong responses to events with no tangible consequences.

When people react strongly to seemingly minor events, the aggrieved party and the perpetrator
often disagree about whether the complainant’s strong reaction is warranted. When a person
becomes angry because a friend picked them up 10 minutes later than promised or a partner leaves
dirty socks on the floor, the perpetrator justifiably wonders why such a small infraction elicited
such a strong reaction. Yet, the disagreement may arise because, whereas the perpetrator rightly
perceives that their behavior had only minor tangible consequences, the aggrieved party is focused
on the violation of a social exchange rule—for example, to be dependable or not behave selfishly.
Even behaviors with no tangible consequences can provide diagnostic information about another
person’s viability as a social exchange partner. In fact, from the aggrieved person’s perspective,
smaller infractions may sometimes be more informative than large ones because less effort is
needed to avoid violating the rule.

One question that remains unanswered is whether people’s reactions to situations in which
they perceive that social exchange rules were violated are focused specifically on the violation or
on the violator. That is, are people’s reactions fundamentally in response to the violation itself or
to the person involved who is viewed as one who breaks important social rules? Psychologically,
this is an important distinction that has implications for understanding and dealing with strong
emotional reactions. Our hunch is that emotional reactions to exchange rule violations are pri-
marily focused on the person rather than the action. The fact that the precipitating event is
often trivial suggests that people are reacting to the perpetrator’s intent, lack of consideration,
or general unsuitability as an exchange partner rather than to the behavior per se. Furthermore,
as Cunningham’s work has shown (Cunningham et al., 2005), in many cases, mild transgressions
initially elicit a very weak reaction, if any at all. Only with repeated exposures do people begin
to react strongly, suggesting that their response is mediated by inferences about the person who
repeatedly does such a thing. So, for example, failing to throw one’s dirty socks in the laun-
dry may evoke little response initially but fuel increasing upset as violations accumulate over


time so that eventually the person explodes over a dirty sock. In addition, work in evolutionary
psychology suggests that cheater detector systems are designed to identify people who take ben-
efits to which they are not entitled rather than isolated acts of cheating per se and that people
classify others as “free-riders” based on inferences about their intentions rather than their actual
contributions to collective outcomes (Delton et al., 2012).

If we are correct that emotional reactions that go beyond the impact of tangible consequences
are based more on violators than on violations, the cognitive inferential processes that lead peo-
ple to draw conclusions about those who violate social exchange rules mediate these reactions in
important ways. Given that the perception of an exchange rule violation underlies the strong reac-
tions, considering attributional processes and biases is informative. Research on attributions about
wrongdoing is particularly relevant. For example, inferences of hostile intent fuel strong reactions
to ambiguous behaviors, and people who are biased to perceive hostile intent are inclined to react
to undesired events with greater anger and aggression (Crick, Grotpeter, & Bigbee, 2002; Dodge,
Price, Bachorowski, & Newman, 1990). In the same way, just as some people are inclined to
infer hostile intent on the part of other people, some individuals may be predisposed to judge
others’ undesired actions as violations of social exchange rules, leading them to respond strongly
to trivial events.

For example, people who score high in psychological entitlement (Campbell, Bonacci,
Shelton, Exline, & Bushman, 2004) may believe not only that they deserve to receive desired
material, financial, and experiential outcomes more than other people but also that they are enti-
tled to be treated particularly well by others. If so, they may be highly sensitive to violations of
social exchange rules. Similarly, people who are high in conscientiousness—who, among other
things, tend to follow socially prescribed norms and rules (Roberts, Jackson, Fayard, Edmonds, &
Meints, 2009)—may be attuned to instances in which other people violate basic norms and rules,
including rules of social exchange. Along the same lines, recent work in organizational behavior
suggests that dispositional trust is related to people’s judgment of and sensitivity to violations of
fairness (Bianchi & Brockner, 2012). Research is needed to examine individual differences that
moderate sensitivity to violations of social exchange rules and the intensity of people’s reactions
to perceived infractions.

Viewed from a functional, social exchange perspective, reactions that are disproportionate
to the tangible implications of an event may or may not be “overreactions.” Not only might
some strong reactions to trivial behaviors be reasonable and functional in alerting people to be
wary of those who violate social exchange rules, but, as noted, strong reactions may show oth-
ers that exchange rule violations will not be tolerated (Cohen et al., 1996). However, when the
violations themselves are inconsequential and do not signify future problems, disproportionate
reactions are neither functional nor reasonable. Much of the time, people react so quickly, and
often automatically, to what other people do that they end up making mountains out of molehills.



Data and materials can be located at


1. Although we assumed that any combined effects of tangible outcomes and social exchange rule violations would be
additive, we conducted exploratory analyses to test for the possibility of an interaction. In no case was any hint of an
interaction between tangible outcomes and exchange rule violations on the outcome variables obtained.


Mark R. Leary, Kate J. Diebels, Katrina P. Jongman-Sereno, and Xuan Duong Fernandez are affiliated with the
Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, Duke University.


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Received July 30, 2015
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  • Abstract
    • Participants
    • Procedure
    • Ratings of Person’s Actions
    • Anger
    • Relationship Implications
  • Acknowledgement
  • References

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Theories in Social Psychology

Chadee_ffirs.indd iChadee_ffirs.indd i 12/13/2010 2:12:49 PM12/13/2010 2:12:49 PM

Chadee_ffirs.indd iiChadee_ffirs.indd ii 12/13/2010 2:12:49 PM12/13/2010 2:12:49 PM

Theories in Social Psychology

Edited by

Derek Chadee

A John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., Publication

Chadee_ffirs.indd iiiChadee_ffirs.indd iii 12/13/2010 2:12:49 PM12/13/2010 2:12:49 PM

This edition first published 2011

© 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

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Theories in social psychology / edited by Derek Chadee.

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ISBN 978-1-4443-3122-6 (hardcover : alk. paper) – ISBN 978-1-4443-3123-3 (pbk. : alk. paper)

1. Social psychology. I. Chadee, Derek.

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Set in 10/13 Minion by SPi Publisher Services, Pondicherry, India

1 2011

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To my daughter, Rúhíyyih – providing another perspective

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List of Contributors ix
Acknowledgments xiv

Introduction 1

Part I Social Cognition 11

1 Toward Freedom: Reactance Theory Revisited 13
Derek Chadee

2 Inconsistency in Cognition: Cognitive Dissonance 44
Paul R. Nail and Kurt A. Boniecki

3 Attribution Theories: How People Make Sense of Behavior 72
Bertram F. Malle

4 The Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion: Thoughtful and
Non-Thoughtful Social Influence 96

Benjamin C. Wagner and Richard E. Petty

Part II Social Comparison 117

5 Social Comparison: Motives, Standards, and Mechanisms 119
Katja Corcoran, Jan Crusius, and Thomas Mussweiler

6 Relative Deprivation: Understanding the Dynamics of Discontent 140
Jenny Carrillo, Alexandra F. Corning, Tara C. Dennehy,

and Faye J. Crosby

Part III Social Reinforcement 161

7 Evaluating Fairness: Critical Assessment of Equity Theory 163
Denise M. Polk


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viii Contents

8 Interdependence in Social Interaction 191
Ann C. Rumble

Part IV Self 209

9 Self-Categorization and Social Identification:
Making Sense of Us and Them 211

Katharina Schmid, Miles Hewstone, and Ananthi Al Ramiah

10 Social Categorization Theories: From Culture to Cognition 232
Richard J. Crisp and Angela T. Maitner

11 Symbolic Interactionism: From Gestalt to Cybernetics 250
Andreas Schneider

12 Impression Management: Influencing Perceptions of Self 280
Meni Koslowsky and Shani Pindek

Author Index 297
Subject Index 301

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Derek Chadee is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Behavioural Sciences and Director of
the ANSA McAL Psychological Research Centre, University of the West Indies, St. Augustine
Campus. His current research interests include the social psychology of fear of crime and
general fear, antecedents of emotions, copycat behavior, the media, HIV/AIDS and jury
decision-making. In 2004, he was a Fulbright Scholar undertaking research on fear of crime
in two American universities. He has maintained a cross-cultural research agenda.

Ananthi Al Ramiah is a Leverhulme Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Department of
Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford, and her research interests lie broadly in the
area of intergroup conflict and cooperation. One line of her research assesses how social
identity, threat, and status differentials contribute to intergroup conflict. In addition, her
research aims to uncover the role that ethno-religious diversity plays in explaining percep-
tions of intergroup trust and the extent to which these relationships are moderated by
intergroup contact. Another line of work assesses how the intergroup context is perceived
and contributed to by members of majority- and minority-status groups in an effort to find
models of intergroup harmony in diverse settings.

Kurt A. Boniecki is Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Central Arkansas
and gained his Ph.D. in social psychology from the University of Florida in 1997. His
research primarily examines the causes of prejudice and stereotyping. He also has academic
interests in the teaching of psychology, interpersonal attraction, and the home-field advan-
tage in sports.

Jenny Carrillo is Senior Vice President of External Affairs and Organizational Effectiveness
at Planned Parenthood of Southern New England (PPSNE). Her work at PPSNE is consist-
ent with her doctoral research at Yale University on women’s and immigrant health and the
acculturative process. Prior to this, she worked with adolescents focused on social justice
and education. She is active as a board member in several non-profit organizations that

Chadee_flast.indd ixChadee_flast.indd ix 12/13/2010 2:13:12 PM12/13/2010 2:13:12 PM

x Contributors

center on health, education, and racial disparities. She previously worked as a consultant
with McKinsey & Co. and at Pace University.

Katja Corcoran (née Rüter) currently works as an Assistant Professor at the University of
Cologne, Germany. She studied psychology in Tübingen and Berlin in Germany, and
Amherst, USA. She gained her Ph.D. at the University of Würzburg, Germany, in 2004, and
spent one year at Northwestern University, USA, with a Feodor Lynen fellowship granted by
the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. Her research focuses on social comparisons,
especially on standard selection processes and aspects of efficiency. She has published in the
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology,
and Social Cognition.

Alexandra F. Corning is professor in the Department of Psychology, University of Notre Dame.
Her research is concerned with problems that affect groups unevenly. Much of her work is
aimed at identifying and explaining the mechanisms underlying the perception of discrimina-
tion; in particular, how people arrive at the conclusions that discrimination has or has not taken
place when the situation is ambiguous. Taking a social-cognitive approach, her research is
focused on identifying individual-difference as well as situational factors that influence these
perceptions. She also conducts research aimed at identifying the processes that influence young
women’s and girls’ body dissatisfaction and eating problems.

Richard J. Crisp is Professor of Psychology in the Centre for the Study of Group Processes,
University of Kent. He completed his BA in experimental psychology at Oxford University
and his Ph.D. at Cardiff University. He has published widely on the psychology of prejudice,
social categorization, group processes, and intergroup relations. He is a past winner of the
Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues Louise Kidder Early Career Award and
was the 2006 recipient of the British Psychological Society’s Spearman Medal. He is cur-
rently Associate Editor of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology and in 2009 he was
elected an Academician of the Academy of Social Sciences.

Faye J. Crosby is Professor in the Psychology Department, University of California, Santa
Cruz. She is a scholar, writer, consultant, and social activist. She received her Ph.D. in 1976.
Previous faculty appointments include Rhode Island College, Yale University, the Kellogg
School of Management, and Smith College. Crosby has authored or coauthored five books
and has edited or co-edited a further ten volumes, and over 150 articles and chapters. Most
of her work concerns sex and race discrimination and focuses on remedies. She is the recip-
ient of numerous awards and is the founder of Nag’s Heart, an organization whose mission
is the replenishment of the feminist spirit.

Jan Crusius is an Assistant Professor in Social Psychology at the University of Cologne,
Germany. After studying psychology in Jena, Germany, and Seville, Spain, he finished his
doctoral degree in Social Psychology at the University in Cologne in 2009. He is interested
in the role of social comparisons in emotion, judgment and decision making, and con-
sumer behavior.

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Contributors xi

Tara C. Dennehy is a graduate student in the Mind, Brain, & Behavior Program at San
Francisco State University. She received her BA in 2007 with highest honors in psychology
from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her main research interests lie in the inter-
section between cognitive psychology and social cognition. Specifically, she conducts
research examining the relationship between categorization and psychological essentialism,
and research on the action-related determinants of entry into attentional awareness.

Miles Hewstone is Professor of Social Psychology and Fellow of New College, University of
Oxford. He has published widely on the topics of social cognition and intergroup relations.
He was awarded the British Psychological Society’s Spearman Medal in 1987 and its
President’s Award for Distinguished Contributions to Research in 2001. He was a Fellow at
the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, California 1987–8 and
1999–2000, and is a Fellow of the British Academy.

Meni Koslowsky is Professor at Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, Israel. He received his
Ph.D. in psychology from Columbia University and is presently a Professor in the Psychology
Department of Bar-Ilan University. His main focus of research includes organizational
behavior, the stress–strain relationship, social power, and methodological issues. He has
written more than 100 articles, authored and edited five books, and has presented at nearly
100 conferences.

Angela T. Maitner is currently an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the American
University of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates. She completed her Ph.D. at the University of
California, Santa Barbara. Broadly, her research investigates intergroup relations from a
social cognitive perspective. More specifically she investigates the impact of exposure to
diversity and multiple categorization on person perception and stereotyping, and the regu-
latory role of emotion in intergroup relations.

Bertram F. Malle is Professor in the Department of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological
Sciences, Brown University. He received his Ph.D. at Stanford University in 1995 and joined
the University of Oregon Psychology Department. He received the Society of Experimental
Social Psychology Outstanding Dissertation award in 1995 and a National Science Foundation
CAREER award in 1997. His research focuses on social cognition and the folk theory of mind,
exploring such issues as intentionality judgments, mental state inferences, behavior explana-
tions, and moral judgments. Malle is currently writing a book on Social Cognitive Science.

Thomas Mussweiler has been Professor at the University of Cologne since 2004. His research
examines a variety of issues in social cognition, social judgment, and decision making, in
particular how comparison processes shape human judgment, affect, and behavior. He has
published in the Psychological Review, Psychological Science, the Journal of Personality and
Social Psychology, and the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, among others. His
research has been recognized by awards including the European Science Foundation’s
European Young Investigator Award, the German Science Foundation’s Gottfried-Wilhelm
Leibniz award, and the European Association of Social Psychology’s Jos Jaspars award.

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xii Contributors

Previously Mussweiler taught at the University of Würzburg, Germany, was a postdoctoral
fellow at Northwestern University, USA, and received his Ph.D. from the University of Trier,

Paul R. Nail has been Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Central Arkansas
since 2005 and holds a Ph.D. in experimental psychology from Texas Christian University
(1981). Previously, he was a Professor at Southwestern Oklahoma State University for 25
years. He has published articles in the Psychological Bulletin, the Journal of Personality and
Social Psychology, the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, and Basic and Applied Social
Psychology, among others. Besides cognitive dissonance theory, his research interests include
social influence in groups, contemporary theories of racism, political psychology, and indi-
vidual differences in psychological defensiveness. He is currently an Associate Editor of the
interdisciplinary journal Social Influence.

Richard E. Petty is Distinguished University Professor of Psychology at Ohio State University.
He received his BA from the University of Virginia and his Ph.D. from Ohio State. His
research focuses on understanding changes in attitudes and behaviors. He has published
eight books and over 250 articles and chapters. Honors received include the Scientific
Impact Award from the Society of Experimental Social Psychology, Distinguished Scientific
Contribution Awards from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP) and
the Society for Consumer Psychology, and service as President of SPSP and the Midwestern
Psychological Association. He is past Editor of the Personality and Social Psychology

Shani Pindek is a doctoral student in the Psychology Department of Bar-Ilan University,
with particular interests in impression management, organizational citizenship behavior,
and altruism.

Denise M. Polk is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at
West Chester University of Pennsylvania. Her teaching and research areas focus mainly in
the areas of interpersonal communication, work–family integration, conflict resolution,
and health communication. She has focused mostly on romantic and family relationships.
She holds a BA from Baldwin-Wallace College, a Master’s from Miami University, and a
Ph.D. from Kent State University.

Ann C. Rumble is Assistant Professor of Psychology at Ohio University-Chillicothe. She
received her Ph.D. from Washington State University in 2003, with a specialization in inter-
dependent behavior and social dilemmas. She continued her work with Marilynn Brewer at
Ohio State University as a National Institute of Mental Health postdoctoral fellow, following
which she accepted a position at Ohio University-Chillicothe.

Katharina Schmid is currently a Research Fellow and Lecturer in Psychology at New College,
University of Oxford. She previously held appointments at the Max-Planck-Institute for the
study of ethnic and religious diversity in Germany, and at Royal Holloway University of

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Contributors xiii

London, and completed her Ph.D. in Social Psychology at Queen’s University Belfast. Her
research interests lie broadly in the areas of social identity and intergroup relations. Her
research focuses in particular on the role of multiple categorization processes, and espe-
cially social identity complexity, in intergroup relations.

Andreas Schneider is Associate Professor of Sociology at Texas Tech University. While
study ing social psychology, sociology, management, and marketing at Mannheim University,
Germany, he visited Indiana University in 1987 and became fascinated with the new emerg-
ing cybernetic symbolic interactionist model of Affect Control Theory. He received his
Ph.D. in sociology from Indiana University, Bloomington, in 1997. His publications in
Social Psychology Quarterly, the Journal of Mathematical Sociology, Quality & Quantity, and
Organization Studies demonstrate his research interests in the methodological development
of symbolic interactionism and the cross-cultural application in the fields of deviance, sex-
uality, and management.

Benjamin C. Wagner is a doctoral candidate in social psychology at Ohio State University,
studying under Richard E. Petty. His research interests include attitudes and persuasion,
embodied cognition, metacognition, moral reasoning, and emotion. In 2007, he earned his
Master’s degree in psychology from Ohio State, having completed his BA two years earlier
at Denison University, Granville, Ohio.

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This book would have been impossible were it not for the assistance of the following persons
and institutions. Thanks to the staff at Wiley-Blackwell, in particular, Andrew McAleer,
Annie Rose, Karen Shield, and Juanita Bullough, for their efficiency and help at every
stage. To all the contributors, I am grateful for your contributions. Specifically I express my
gratitude to Ananthi Al Ramiah, Kurt Boniecki, Jenny Carrillo, Katja Corcoran, Alexandra
Corning, Richard Crisp, Faye Crosby, Jan Crusius, Tara Dennehy, Miles Hewstone, Meni
Koslowsky, Angela Maitner, Bertram Malle, Thomas Mussweiler, Paul Nail, Richard Petty,
Shani Pindek, Denise Polk, Ann Rumble, Katharina Schmid, Andreas Schneider, and
Benjamin Wagner. I am grateful for and acknowledge the comments by the publisher’s
anonymous reviewers, which were instructively helpful in the preparation of the final

I would like to express my gratitude to Professor Ramesh Deosaran for his valuable
mentorship, and to the University of the West Indies for its support, particularly the ANSA
McAL Psychological Research Centre, of whose academic output this publication is a part.
I am grateful to and thank everyone who provided the necessary technical and other
support leading up to final publication, and wish to express my deepest gratitude for the
assistance of anyone whom I may have inadvertently left unacknowledged.


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Gordon Allport (1968) defined social psychology as “an attempt to understand and explain
how the thoughts, feelings and behavior of individuals are influenced by the actual, imag-
ined or implied presence of others.” As limited as definitions are, this definition of social
psychology captured the dynamism, focus, and direction of the discipline. Important to an
understanding of social psychological behavior is taking into consideration not only what
is happening socially to the person but also what is occurring internally and cognitively to
the individual which, in turn, affects social behavior. From its genesis rooted in the work of
William James’s Principles of Psychology to current development of the discipline, there has
always been an emphasis on the individual within the social interaction paradigm.
Theorization, therefore, within the discipline has fallen within this paradigm, which is now
extended to include the neurological functioning of human beings within the social psy-
chological context.

The early works on social psychology by the psychologist William McDougall (1908) and
the sociologist Edward Ross (1908) weighted social behavior on instinctual or social factors,
respectively. Later, Floyd Allport (1924) emphasized a behaviorist stimulus–response para-
digm for the understanding of social psychological behavior. Theories of psychology and
sociology during this early period seem to have been competing to understand a realm that
had neither the theorization nor the research sophistication to claim discovery status. Much
of the work undertaken in social psychology has been done within the discipline of psy-
chology, with sociological social psychology contributions being relatively sparse. Notably,
the discipline of sociology has contributed tremendously to the early development of the
concept and theorization of self, especially via theories of symbolic interactionism, phe-
nomenology, and, later, ethnomethodology. On the other hand, psychological social psy-
chology’s contributions have been crucial to the genesis and development of both the pure
and applied branches of the discipline.


Theories in Social Psychology, First Edition. Edited by Derek Chadee.
© 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published 2011 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

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2 Introduction

Social psychology has seen numerous studies testing hypotheses drawn from concepts or
theories. However, less frequent in the literature is the emergence of theories – a renaissance
that is much needed for the development and impetus of the discipline. However, many of
the theories that currently exist within social psychology are as important to the discipline
as they were over forty years ago. A renaissance starts with a reassessment of the efficacy of
current theories.

Theories have the power of insight and understanding, allowing scientists to see phe-
nomena that previously they would have been unable to conceptualize. Albert Einstein
is quoted as saying, “Whether or not you can observe a thing depends on the theory you
use. It is the theory which decides what can be observed.” The assumptions, proposi-
tions, hypotheses, and supporting confirmed “facts” all provide the theory with a power
of vision. The assumptions are givens that the theorist is allowed to utilize in the con-
struction of his theory. They are like the basic tools of a carpenter. These assumptions
are grounded on some philosophy or principle, and are often not the bases on which a
theory is criticized. However, assumptions give a theory direction. On the other hand, a
theory’s power of vision is myopic, limited by the same tools that give the theory its
power. This is a dilemma that the finite scientist must explore in any discipline. However,
the beach-ball approach to the understanding of the world within one’s discipline is a
compromise accepted by social psychologists. That is, it is recognized that a theory is an
academic creation, in this sense, and has limitations. The adoption of a number of theo-
retical positions provides a more comprehensive understanding of the multidimensional
nature of a phenomenon.

A theory can be criticized on a number of grounds, including consistency – how logically
well the theory holds together with its propositions and hypotheses; external – standing up
to criticisms of other theories (theory A vs. theory B); historical – temporal perseverance of
the theory (e.g., does Freud’s psychoanalytical theory or Heider’s attribution theory still
hold today?); applicability – the generalizing of findings from research to social situations;
and methodological – the strengths and weakness of the methodology used in the construc-
tion of the theory, especially if the theory is an empiricist one.

The recent social psychological literature has been lacking a volume systematically dedi-
cated to a range of theories within the discipline. The emphasis of this book, therefore, is on
social psychological theories, with an evaluation of some of the main theories still discussed
and relevant to understanding behavior. The volume is divided into four parts. Part I
presents critical assessments of social cognitive theories – from their genesis to their current

Derek Chadee revisits Brehm’s theory of psychological reactance, identifying the genesis
of this theory in the womb of cognitive dissonance theory. However, the baby grew with
many different characteristics from the mother. Both theories of cognitive dissonance and
psychological reactance are theories of motivational arousal and reduction. The theory of
psychological reactance, however, attempts to explain people’s reactions to perceived or
actual threat to loss of freedom. The theory builds on several assumptions of human behav-
ior, with a major underlying assumption of human persistence in maintaining free behav-
iors and the consequences that arise as a result of threats to importantly defined free
behaviors. The early emphasis of reactance theorizing and research was on psychological

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Introduction 3

reactance as being aroused by the situation. However, later studies have given emphasis to
reactance as dispositional – a reactant personality. Numerous instruments have been
designed to measure reactance as a disposition. The merit and demerits of these measures
are discussed.

This first chapter critically assesses the relationship between reactance and dissonance,
proposing reactance as a special case of dissonance though identifying the distinctness of
reactance. Critical to this chapter is the identification of the systematic void in the literature
concerning any discussion on affect in reactance. The last part of the chapter evaluates
the relationship between affect and reactance, proposing a reactance emotion theory.
Chadee concludes by noting that reactance theory is an important theory in the discipline
of social psychology and has contributed to an understanding of reactance behavior to
actual or perceived threats in a wide variety of settings. The theory is as useful today as it
was over forty years ago. However, the theory needs modification.

Paul Nail and Kurt Boniecki critically assess Festinger’s (1957) cognitive dissonance and
related theories, from dissonance theory’s inception and rise to prominence in the 1950s,
1960s, and 1970s, to its near-death by the early 1980s, to its rebirth in the 1990s and 2000s.
The original statement of the theory was stunning in its simplicity – that an unpleasant
psychological state called cognitive dissonance exists whenever one important thought is in
conflict with another. Yet this very simplicity was a major factor that has led to a large
number of academic debates and controversies over the years. Nail and Boniecki describe
how the germ of the theory got started when Festinger read of the events surrounding a
massive earthquake that occurred in India in 1934.

They review Festinger’s major theoretical constructs and how these gave rise, early on,
to a series of counterintuitive predictions that were generally supported by the empirical
evidence. Most famous is the finding of Festinger and Carlsmith (1959) that research par-
ticipants reported a greater liking for boring laboratory tasks if they were paid $1 as
opposed to $20 for performing them. Nail and Boniecki summarize major paradigms
that were created to test dissonance theory, followed by rival theoretical accounts, such as
Bem’s (1967) self-perception theory. The success of these accounts eventually caused inter-
est in the theory to wane, but more recently has led to a flurry of empirical interest in dis-
sonance and related phenomena, reviewed by Nail and Boniecki, which persists to the
present day. One major focus of the chapter are the “self ” theories of dissonance (e.g.,
Aronson, 1968, 2007; Steele, 1988), which hold that dissonance processes have their origins
in the need for self-esteem rather than in a need for logic-like consistency, as originally
conceived by Festinger (1957). Another focus is individual differences, e.g., how the differ-
ent versions of dissonance theory make conflicting predictions for those varying in self-
esteem. The chapter evaluates the theory in terms of its applicability, efficiency, heuristic
value, and originality. Nail and Boniecki close by calling for new research that could
possibly reestablish Festinger’s (1957) version as the single most adequate account of dis-
sonance phenomena.

Bertram Malle examines the history of research on behavior explanations, identifies
missing pieces, and introduces a theoretical model that is meant to account for explana-
tions at the conceptual, psychological, and linguistic levels. Heider (1958) was the first to
examine systematically how people make sense of each others’ behavior. He introduced the

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4 Introduction

notion of personal causality – ordinary people’s conception of how purposeful behavior
works. When a behavior obeys personal causality, it is seen as caused by the agent’s inten-
tion, whereas such an intention is absent in behavior that obeys impersonal causality. Thus,
Heider captured what was later called intentionality – a core distinction in people’s under-
standing of human behavior.

Subsequent attribution research turned to different directions. Jones and Davis
(1965) shifted from considerations of intention inferences toward considerations of
personality and attitude inferences. Kelley (1967) set aside Heider’s distinction between
personal and impersonal causality and instead focused on a distinction between person
(internal) and situation (external) causes. This internal–external dimension, however,
applies only to people’s explanations of unintentional events, not to their explanations
of intentional action.

Decades passed before Heider’s original concern with intentionality and people’s
inferences of motives and reasons became a topic of research again. Committed to these
concerns, the second part of the chapter introduces the folk-conceptual theory of behav-
ior explanation (Malle, 1999, 2004). It locates explanations in the network of folk con-
cepts people use to make sense of human behavior and specifies the psychological
processes and linguistic manifestations of explanations. For example, people offer very
different kinds of explanations for intentional and unintentional behavior. Unintentional
behavior is explained by causes, which can be classified in a variety of ways, including an
internal–external dimension. Intentional behavior, by contrast, is more complex. People
offer either reason explanations (referring to the beliefs and desires in light of which the
agent formed an intention to act) or causal history of reason explanations (referring to
factors that led to those reasons in the first place – upbringing, personality, unconscious
mental states, etc.). People’s choice between these two explanation modes reflects both
cognitive and motivational processes and is sensitive to the explainer’s role (actors vs.
observers), the type of agent (group vs. individuals), and the explainer’s impression-
management goals.

Thus, the folk-conceptual theory tries to carve out the concepts and processes that mat-
ter when people construct and respond to explanations; and these distinctions reveal a rich,
sophisticated system of folk-behavior explanations. Malle’s chapter is a dynamic contribu-
tion to the evolution of the field of attribution.

Benjamin Wagner and Richard Petty examine the Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM),
which is a general theory of persuasion that is also applicable to social judgment (Petty &
Cacioppo, 1986). The ELM holds that people’s attitudes can be modified in both relatively
effortful (central route) and non-effortful (peripheral route) ways. Persuasion via the cen-
tral route depends on the strength and cogency of the arguments contained in the message
and is determined by the number, valence, and confidence people have in their thoughts to
the advocacy. Persuasion via the peripheral route is determined largely by reliance on sim-
ple cues and heuristics that are not necessarily central to the merits of the advocacy (e.g.,
being in a good mood). The extent of elaboration is the chief determinant of the route to
persuasion, and several factors have been shown to influence the extent of thinking. Broadly
speaking, these factors relate to motivation (e.g., personal relevance of the topic) and ability
(e.g., knowledge about the topic) to think about the advocacy. With greater motivation and

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Introduction 5

ability comes an increased likelihood that a person will extensively elaborate a persuasive
message and be less reliant on issue-irrelevant cues. Importantly, attitudes formed under
the central route are generally more durable and impactful than are attitudes formed under
the peripheral route.

An important component of the ELM is the idea that any variable can serve multiple
roles in persuasion. Specifically, persuasion variables such as source expertise or momen-
tary emotions can operate in five roles: (a) as simple cues to persuasion (e.g., “experts are
usually right”), (b) as arguments that are relevant to a particular conclusion (e.g., “an
expert’s endorsement speaks to the product’s quality”), (c) by biasing the thoughts that a
person generates (i.e., expert sources lead to more favorable thoughts concerning the
message than non-expert sources), (d) by affecting the amount of thinking a person does
(i.e., expert sources enhance thinking about the arguments since they seem more wor-
thy), and (e) by affecting whether people use their thoughts in response to the message
in forming their attitudes toward the topic (i.e., “if my thoughts were provoked by an
expert, they must be valid”).

The ELM has not only integrated research in persuasion but has also been applied in
diverse areas of application such as consumer attitudes, health promotion, and legal
domains. The model continues to generate interesting and important research findings,
both at the basic and applied levels.

Social comparison has evolved and been modified since the 1950s. The social compari-
son process is a process that is present in numerous theories. Relative deprivation assumes
the presence of social comparison. Both social comparison and relative deprivation are
discussed in Part II.

Katja Corcoran, Jan Crusius, and Thomas Mussweiler provide a comprehensive over-
view of social comparison theory. Social comparisons – comparisons between the self
and others – are a fundamental psychological mechanism influencing people’s judg-
ments, experiences, and behavior. In this chapter, they review the social psychological
theorizing and research on social comparison. They start by summarizing the basic
tenets of Leon Festinger’s seminal social comparison theory and continue by addressing
three questions that are central to Festinger’s ideas and to the research that followed his
initial work. The first question is: Why do people engage in social comparisons? While
social comparison is mostly understood as a process which is engaged to fulfill funda-
mental needs like self-evaluation, self-enhancement, and self-improvement, the chapter
discusses logical reasons for social comparisons and considers the efficiency advantage
of comparative information-processing. The second question is: To whom do people
compare themselves? The chapter explores how motivational concerns influence the
selection of comparison standards and how routine standards can provide an efficient
means to fulfill the need to self-evaluate. The third question is: How do social compari-
sons influence the self? The diverse factors that lead to assimilation or contrast of the self
as a consequence of social comparison are reviewed. Furthermore, these factors are dis-
cussed in light of the Selective Accessibility Model, which explains them by the changes
of accessible self-knowledge during social comparisons. Finally, Corcoran et al. address
the role of social comparisons in health psychology and the impact of idealized media
images on self-evaluation as applied examples of social comparison research. Their

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6 Introduction

review shows that comparative processes are marked by striking complexity and multi-
facetedness and that consequences of social comparisons span all core areas of human
psychological functioning. They argue that future research could benefit from a perspec-
tive that integrates cognitive, motivational, and affective determinants and consequences
of social comparisons.

Underlying the theory of relative deprivation is the social comparison process. Relative
deprivation (RD) theory helps social scientists predict who will become dissatisfied under
what conditions. RD theory is a theory of perceived social inequity which helps to explain
why some people with paltry resources experience contentment while some others with
abundant access to a wealth of resources are dissatisfied. Jenny Carrillo, Alexandra Corning,
Tara Dennehy, and Faye Crosby review the history, development, and utility of RD. After
detailing the initial writings about the concept of RD, they trace the development of various
models of RD articulated from the 1960s to the 1980s and assess the more contemporary
work on RD, focusing on the distinction between personal and group-based feelings of
relative deprivation and on a validated means of measuring the construct that was pre-
sented in 2000. Directions for the future application of RD theory to social problems are

Part III assesses two theories that start with the behavioral premise that human beings
are hedonistic. The theories also assume that actions are governed by a reinforcement–
punishment structure which extends into interpersonal interaction. The power dynamics
of interpersonal interaction is absent from equity theory but elaborated in interdependency

Denise Polk’s chapter provides a useful understanding of equity theory. The theory
stems from principles of reinforcement and basic principles of economics. The basic
premise of the theory is that people evaluate their relationships in terms of inputs and
outcomes. The principle of distributive justice is core to equity theory (Deutsch, 1985).
Imbalances in input–outcome ratios result in inequity. Two types of inequity can occur.
People may be underbenefited, or they may be overbenefited. However, according to
equity theory, people are driven to restore equity once they perceive inequity. When peo-
ple experience inequity, they may attempt to restore actual equity or psychological equity.
Polk posits that because no magic formula for equity exists, relational partners must
determine equity for themselves. Equity is a key consideration in relationships because
people’s perceptions about equity shape people’s feelings, decisions, and actions toward
their relational partners (Adams, 1965; Sprecher & Schwartz, 1994), so equity theory is
appropriate to help explain the development, maintenance, and dissolution of relation-
ships. Polk explores research which has tested equity for links with many variables
including personality, emotions, gender, the distribution of domestic duties, and rela-
tional quality.

The chapter by Ann Rumble explores interdependence theory, as developed by John
Thibaut and Harold Kelley. Thibaut and Kelley employed outcome matrices in order to
understand an actor’s available behavior choices and outcomes. The given matrix repre-
sents the choices and outcomes that are available to the actors in a specific situation, and
through the transformation process develops into the effective matrix (Thibaut & Kelley,
1959). By examining the components of the given and effective matrix, we will be

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Introduction 7

able to explain human behavior in a number of interdependent situations, including
close relationships.

The final part of the book is devoted to theories related to self and identity and covers
social identity, social categorization, symbolic interactionism, and impression manage-
ment. Katharina Schmid, Miles Hewstone, and Ananthi Al Ramiah’s chapter provides a
general overview of social psychological theory on social identity, including social iden-
tity theory (Tajfel, 1978; Tajfel & Turner, 1979) and self-categorization theory (Turner,
Hogg, Oakes, Reicher, & Wetherell, 1987). However, this chapter takes a somewhat more
encompassing approach to portraying what is commonly referred to as the social identity
perspective (Abrams & Hogg, in press). The authors thus not only focus on social iden-
tity theory and self-categorization theory but also pay particular attention to defining the
concept of social identity, and consider the consequences of social identity phenomena
for intergroup relations, above and beyond the predictions of social identity theory,
taking into consideration the extent to which multiple categorization processes help
explain intergroup relations.

The chapter is organized into four sections, the first two of which conceptually define
self-categorization and social identification, whereas the last two examine the extent to
which self-categorization and social identification are involved in, and help explain,
intergroup relations. Section one of this chapter provides a brief definition of self-
categorization and describes the theoretical foundations of self-categorization theory.
The authors describe in detail what is meant by self-categorization, and how, why, and
when individuals make use of social categories. In Section two, they define social iden-
tification as a psychological process associated with group membership and explain that
identification is a multidimensional phenomenon. Section three presents a detailed
description of social identity theory, with reference to the findings that emerged from
the minimal group paradigm. Schmid, Hewstone, and Al Ramiah address, with refer-
ence to the predictions of social identity theory, the extent to which self-categorization
and social identification are related to intergroup attitudes and behavior. Finally, Section
four is devoted to an overview of multiple categorization and its consequences for inter-
group relations, showing how more complex consideration of others and oneself in
terms of multiple group memberships is associated with tolerance and improved inter-
group relations.

Richard Crisp and Angela Maitner’s chapter complements the previous chapter. They
argue that in contemporary society the traditional boundaries that have previously defined
social group memberships are being steadily eroded and replaced with more complex con-
ceptualizations of identity. Crisp and Maitner review classic and contemporary theories of
social categorization in the context of this increasing social and cultural diversity. They
argue that broad-ranging and pervasive changes to the categorical structure of society have
fundamental implications for how individuals perceive, represent, and understand their
social environments. They review existing social cognitive, self-categorization, and situ-
ated cognition accounts, arguing that an increasing focus on the context-specific nature of
social categorization reflects the more fluid and fluctuating nature of identity in contem-
porary society. They conceptualize a diversity-driven social categorization theory, arguing
that the functional nature of human cognition implies that exposure to diversity must

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8 Introduction

change how individuals psychologically engage with their social worlds. The authors con-
clude that to understand fully the evolving nature of social categorization psychologists
should seek to incorporate a broader multidisciplinary analysis of the changing nature of
culture and society.

Andreas Schneider’s chapter is a comprehensive overview of symbolic interactionism
(SI). Today the framework of symbolic interactionism has been delineated into many theo-
retical approaches using qualitative and quantitative methods of investigation that are
applied in numerous areas of research. SI has evolved a long way from early philosophies of
North American pragmatism to the computer simulation of human interaction. Describing
this path, this chapter overcomes dichotomies such as the Chicago school versus the Iowa
school, or quantitative versus qualitative, that have been used in the past to pigeonhole
one or the other line of research. Instead it portrays the development from the grandfathers
and their philosophical backgrounds to explain the different agendas addressed by the
founding fathers of the Chicago school. This historical context is necessary to understand
contemporary contrasting schools of thought and their roots in social psychology, as well
as sociology. This chapter then shows how ideas and methodologies of these qualitative and
quantitative approaches are integrated into the most recent development of cybernetic
control models in SI. Finally it is demonstrated how SI is applied in the fields of deviance,
sexuality, children, gender, emotions, organization/management, cross-cultural compari-
son, and ethnomethodology/conversation analysis. Descriptions of these applications are
supported by interviews of key researchers in the respective fields.

Meni Koslowsky and Shani Pindek’s chapter on impression management (IM) is a
refreshing contribution to the literature. They note that IM is an activity which takes place
in many, if not most, interactions between people. In this chapter they start by exploring the
different definitions of the construct, from a narrow view of IM as a set of manipulative
behaviors, performed mainly in order to present them in a positive light, to a more expan-
sive definition which assumes that all people unconsciously manage their impressions in
ways that assist in achieving goals both at the individual and group level. This expansive
view of IM allows us to deal with its association to constructs such as the self-concept, indi-
viduals’ social identities, and other social phenomena.

When applying or measuring IM, behaviors are usually considered as belonging to one
of several distinct subcategories. These categories include verbal/nonverbal behaviors,
defensive/promotional, positive/negative, and several other related taxonomies. The chap-
ter also explores specific antecedents and outcomes of IM. Prominent among the former
are gender, self-monitoring, and self-regulation, as well as demographic and personality
variables. In addition, research on situational antecedents and on IM outcomes has been
conducted in applied settings such as human resource management. Since the work envi-
ronment supplies the individual with many incentives as well as opportunities to benefit
from impressions that are well managed, this area has been the focus of much of the research
in recent years.

Finally, they identify several areas for future researchers to consider so as to better explain
the phenomenon.

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Introduction 9


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affectional bond: Justice in close relationship (pp. 11–41).

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Tajfel, H. (1978). Interindividual behaviour and intergroup

behaviour. In H. Tajfel (Ed.), Differentiation between

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of groups. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books.

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Part I

Social Cognition

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Theories in Social Psychology, First Edition. Edited by Derek Chadee.
© 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published 2011 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Reactance theory was developed by Jack W. Brehm and articulated in his Theory of
Psychological Reactance (1966). Leon Festinger and Stanley Schachter were the editors of the
monograph series which included Brehm’s seminal work. In fact, Brehm’s Ph.D. supervisor
was Leon Festinger and his Ph.D. dissertation tested the free-choice dissonance paradigm
which later appeared in 1956 in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology as the first
empirical research on cognitive dissonance. Later, Brehm systematically wrote on cognitive
dissonance (e.g., Brehm, 1962; Brehm & Cohen, 1962).

The genesis of the theory of psychological reactance appears to have taken place in the womb
of cognitive dissonance theory. However, the baby grew with many different characteristics
from the mother. Both theories of cognitive dissonance and psychological reactance are theories
of motivational arousal and reduction. In fact, Miron and Brehm (2006, p. 9) recognize that

Festinger had constructed a theory (cognitive dissonance) that assumed an inner motivational

process rather than assuming that all influences between stimuli and behavior were simple and

direct. It was in this context that Brehm and Cohen (1962), both in the Yale Attitude Change

Program at the time, carried out an extensive program of research on persuasion, largely based

on dissonance theory, but with some attention to special cases of resistance to social influence.

After [Brehm] … became more interested in the occurrence of resistance to social influence,

and that interest eventuated in the formulation of reactance theory.


The theory of psychological reactance attempts to explain people’s reactions to a perceived
or actual threat to loss of their freedom(s). The concept of freedom is defined “as a belief
that one can engage in a particular behavior” (Brehm & Brehm, 1981, p. 35). Brehm
(1966, p. 9) defines “psychological reactance as a motivational state directed toward the


Toward Freedom: Reactance
Theory Revisited

Derek Chadee

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14 Derek Chadee

reestablishment of the free behaviors which have been eliminated or threatened with
elimination.” The theory makes no assumption about psychological reactance being
aroused to acquire a freedom but refers solely to reinstating a threatened or eliminated
freedom (Brehm & Brehm, 1981). Psychological reactance, therefore, arouses an individual
and motivates toward restoration of freedom. As Miron and Brehm (2006) point out, reac-
tance is not a proactive force but is reactive to actual or perceived threats toward freedoms.

The theory makes a number of assumptions about human behavior. Brehm (1966, p. 1)
notes the following about human behavior: First, freedom of behavior is pervasive. Second,
it is an important aspect of human interaction and living. Third, human beings are goal-
oriented and incessantly reflect on themselves and the external environment in assessing
what, how, and when they will undertake particular behaviors. He states: “They consider
their wants and needs, the dangers and benefits available in their surroundings, and the
ways in which they can accomplish various ends” (1966, p. 1). Many times people undertake
behaviors when they are not fully aware of the rationale that drives the behaviors. At other
times behaviors are performed while they are fully aware of constraints and lack of freedom
in the performance of the behaviors. As a fourth assumption, however, Brehm assumes that
most of the time human beings feel relatively free to participate in a range of behaviors.
Fifth, the theory assumes that people have a set of behaviors to engage in. These behaviors
have been engaged in in the past, are engaged in in the present, and will be engaged in in the
future. He refers to these behaviors as the individual’s “free behaviors” and identifies a
number of criteria to define a behavior as a free behavior. These include the behaviors being
practically achievable, the individual having the physical and psychological capacity to
engage in these behaviors, and individuals also being fully cognizant that they can partici-
pate in these behaviors. Such awareness of engagement emerges from social norms, cus-
toms, legislations, and other kinds of formal agreement and informal interaction. Worchel
(2004) elaborates on how particular actions over time are perceived as free behavior. For
reactance to occur an individual must believe in the possession (perceived or actual) of a
freedom (Miron & Brehm, 2006). A threat to this freedom creates the arousal – reactance.


A threat emerges from any power or force that attempts to reduce or eliminate the expres-
sion of a specific freedom (Brehm & Brehm, 1981). Threats can be explicit or implicit (i.e.,
subtle by implication). Brehm and Brehm (1981) describe threats to freedom as either
external or internal. Internal threats arise out of choices and decisions we make from alter-
natives, accepting and rejecting among options. On the other hand, external threats have
two dimensions – impersonal versus personal and social versus nonsocial. Impersonal
threats are not easily perceived, unlike personal threats in which motives and intentions
of threats can be identified by the individual and have implications for perception of future
threats. Specifically, personal threats will carry greater implications for future threats from
the same source because of possible future interaction. Impersonal threats, however, create
less reactance arousal, since they are not directly focused at the individual, and therefore
no implications for future threats. However, the term personal, as Brehm and Brehm (1981)

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Toward Freedom: Reactance Theory Revisited 15

indicate not only refers to interaction with known others but can apply to infrequent inter-
action with an entity/person.

Impersonal threats can also be derived from persons or institutions that we interact with
on a personal level, for example, working for a large corporation or governmental organiza-
tion. An impersonal threat from such an organization is not directed toward a specific
individual, but any threat to freedom would have consequences to individuals in the organiza-
tion. The depth of future interaction with a threatening source is an important prediction of
psychological reactance. Brehm and Brehm (1981) postulate that anticipation of future inter-
action with a threatening source is likely to increase psychological reactance as compared to
anticipation that there will be minimal or no future interaction with a threatened source.

Another dimension of threat which Brehm and Brehm (1981) identify is the social versus
nonsocial dimension. However, they also hold the view that nonsocial exists in degrees,
since humans are social and reactance emerges out of social interaction, and there will be
social interpretations of nonsocial dimensions. The source of threat can emanate from
either level. Studies that consider the social dimension expose subjects to a socially threat-
ening situation (e.g., one individual directly threatens the freedom of another). The non-
social studies created threats via nonsocial interaction (e.g., barriers to toys, removal of
choice alternatives).

Magnitude of Reactance

Psychological reactance is influenced by both threat and freedom (Wright, Greenberg, &
Brehm, 2004). The theory postulates that there are a number of factors which influence the
magnitude of psychological reactance. These include the strength of the threat to one’s free-
dom; the presence of freedom which emerges from the interruption of free behaviors or
barriers preventing their expression; the importance of freedom in the realization of needs;
and the extent to which the needs are core to the individual’s existence. There is a direct
relationship between reactance and the importance of the threatened. For example, being
forced to choose between two valueless alternatives will not create as high a psychological
reactance as being forced to choose between attractive alternatives. The relative importance
of the freedom, and not only the importance, is a determining factor of reactance. For exam-
ple, if choice alternatives are of equal cost (e.g., the choice alternative of dining at similar
kinds of restaurants), removal of one alternative or the other will lead to relatively the same
degree of reactance. However, in the same example, if the choice alternative included a high-
end computer and this alternative was denied, the magnitude of psychological reactance
would be relatively much higher because of the relatively higher attractiveness of the com-
puter. The proportion of freedom threatened also impacts on the magnitude of reactance
and arises from the number of free behaviors that are at risk in proportion to the number of
free behaviors. Threats that have implications for future threats to free behavior also arouse
reactance (Brehm, 1966; Brehm & Brehm, 1981; Miron & Brehm, 2006; Wicklund, 1974).

Threats may be defined or arbitrary. Threats that are defined and specific have limits to
the threats and are justified (e.g., the denial of entry to any vehicles other than taxis into a
particular roadway). This threat has a physical limit and a rationale which allows for

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16 Derek Chadee

reduction of traffic congestion. Arbitrary threats are ill-defined (e.g., an office imposing
restrictions on casual conversations during working hours). This kind of threat carries high
ambiguity and leads to extrapolations and speculations about different kinds of future
prohibitions and restrictions. The magnitude of reactance will, therefore, be higher for
arbitrary threats than defined threats.

Brehm and Brehm (1981) discuss the aggregated impact of a number of sub-threshold
threats from a source that, when collectively combined, is potent enough to be considered
a threat to one’s freedom. Each sub-threat on its own does not have the efficacy to constitute
a threat. Threats reach an optimum point. Brehm and Brehm (1981, p. 58) write about the
threshold of freedom elimination which exists when the “perceived magnitude of threat
overshadows the perceived importance of freedom,” and about the optimum point of a
threat: “the point at which a threat turns into an elimination of freedom is the point at
which the magnitude of reactance is greatest. Additional force (and perceived threat)
beyond that point has no effect on the magnitude of reactance.”

Reactance is moderated by the importance of the freedom. In other words, the threat in
itself does not produce the psychological reactance. For example, threats to freedoms of low
importance, even with high-level threats, would create low levels of arousal and non-
expression of the freedom. However, freedoms of high importance create high reactance
and an arousal to express the threatened freedom.

The magnitude of the threat is influenced by the number of freedoms threatened by one
or more factors. Time is a moderator here. Reasonable time lapses between one threat and
another prime the person to a second threat, and reactance is increased as compared to two
or more threats being experienced simultaneously. Primed persons are more likely to
express greater psychological reactance (Brehm & Brehm, 1981; Miron & Brehm, 2006).

Wicklund (1974) postulates the hydraulic principle or summation effect of reactance.
The principle states that when two freedoms are threatened, the reactance arousal of the first
threat (in which there are restrictions in the expression of reactance) is channeled into
the reactance arousal of the second threat to freedom. Brehm and Brehm (1981) later
complemented the principle by identifying conditions under which the principle would best be
applied. They identified three conditions: threats must be different, and at least two present,
with some relationship between the threats or freedoms; a time lapse must exist between threats;
and there is no reduction of reactance for the first threat – the reactance is still present.

Some social factors that contribute to the magnitude of psychological reactance include
monetary and verbal inducements, the attractiveness of the communicator, instructions,
modeling behavior, role play, and the exertion of pressure for compliance (Brehm &
Brehm, 1981).

Effects of Reactance

Reactance as a motivational force pushes the individual to reduce levels of arousal. Display
of reactance decreases arousal and leads to restoration of free behavior either directly, via
exhibiting the threatened behavior, or indirectly, via focusing on the source (i.e., discred-
iting or attacking). Reactance is displayed on two levels – behavioral and nonbehavioral

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Toward Freedom: Reactance Theory Revisited 17

(subjective) – and a range of reduction options exist on these levels (Brehm, 1966; Brehm &
Brehm, 1981; Miron & Brehm, 2006).

The individual adopts a number of behaviors to reestablish a sense of freedom, includ-
ing direct behavioral reassertion of freedom; developing a greater liking for the behavior
that was threatened and displaying the threatened behavior; indirect reassertion of free-
dom by adoption of extreme (e.g., costly, taboo, or dangerous) behaviors that imply power
to display eliminated behaviors (boomerang effect); and aggressive behavior directed
toward the entity threatening the freedom. There are situations in which outcomes are
uncontrollable (a situation of learned helplessness) and freedoms are impossible to restore.
In these situations an individual may relinquish a freedom so as to reduce or eliminate
reactance (Brehm & Wortman, 1975). In situations of exposure to threats by powerful
communicators reactance is reduced when there is possibility of future interaction, nega-
tive consequences to others, and negative consequences to oneself (Miron & Brehm, 2006).
In group situations, individuals may comply with the group’s alternatives rather than
display reactance for the eliminated alternative by the group. Consequences for future
interaction within the group are considered. In both situations, the cost and benefit analysis
will determine the reduction of reactance strategy (Miron & Brehm, 2006).

Reactance effects exist on a continuum from physiological arousal with no observable
signs to hostility. Other reactance reduction strategies include the following:

1. Derogate and discredit threatening sources. This strategy is adopted especially if the
source does not have legitimate power to threaten the freedom.

2. Display aggression and hostility toward the threatening source. Hostility is a subjective
experience of reactance and should be distinguished from instrumental hostility.

3. Decrease the proportion of freedoms that were threatened.
4. Compensate by increasing other freedoms.
5. Seek opportunities to counter threatening messages/sources.
6. Increase the number of available freedoms.
7. Reduce compliance behavior.
8. Position oneself to increase future freedom behavior.
9. Increase self-direction to one’s own behavior in achieving one’s goal of reducing

10. Change cognition (e.g., reevaluate the threat and define it as not posing a threat

to freedom).
11. Change behavior (e.g., engage in behaviors that would compensate for the threat).
12. Remove the threat (e.g., leave the relationship).
13. Reconcile oneself to the loss of freedom.
14. Reduce reactance by implication. Reactance by implication occurs when we observe

someone’s freedom being threatened. Reactance can also be reduced vicariously in the
same way by observing the restoration of the other’s freedom.

15. Seek out others who can assist in the restoration of our freedom.
16. Increase perceived available behavior.
17. Subjectively, imaginatively, seek out others who can assist in the restoration of our free


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18 Derek Chadee

18. Deny the presence of a threat.
19. Persevere by focusing on maintaining and protecting non-threatened free behaviors.
20. Adopt impression-management strategies.

Research on Reactance

Research on psychological reactance has been immense over the years, with findings that
have questioned conventional wisdoms. Research on reactance has been useful in critically
developing the dynamism of the theory to offer explanations for a wide range of phenom-
ena. This section describes some of the important reactance research undertaken over the
years and focuses on situational factors in the arousal of reactance.

Social interaction

Andreoli, Worchel, and Folger’s (1974) research examines arousal by implication
(i.e., observing another’s freedom being threatened – indirect) and not only by the presence
or intended presence of a future threatener. Earlier work by Sensenig and Brehm (1968)
found that the magnitude of reactance was increased for persons who expected future
interaction with a previously direct threatener. The 1974 study asked persons to give a
ranking of five desired topics for discussion. Subjects were randomly assigned to one of
three conditions and then placed in a room and, while waiting, heard a discussion in which
a person’s (B) freedom-of-topic choice was threatened by another person (A) (threat con-
dition). The subject’s first-ranked topic choice was chosen by A without consultation with
B. The threatened and restored condition by the experimenter (restored condition) involved
the subject’s first-ranked topic choice being chosen by A without consultation with B, but
the experimenter intervened to ensure B’s participation in the topic selection. The third
condition was a non-threat (neutral condition), where there was a preference for the
subject’s first topic choice, but consultation with B was implied. Following this exposure,
subjects rated the five topics.

The major findings of the study suggest that threats to the freedom of others (indirect threat
to the observer) provoked reactance in the observer as though it was a direct threat and in spite
of whether there would be future interaction with the threatener. As a result of the threat to
their freedom to choose their first-ranked topic in the threat condition, subjects were more
desirous of their second- and third-ranked topics than the first. The study also found that reac-
tance emerging from implication can also be restored by implication, as in the restored condi-
tion with the experimental intervention. Unlike previous studies (Worchel, 1974; Worchel &
Andreoli, 1974), derogation of the threatener was absent, with no significant difference in
the attractiveness rating of the threatener among the three conditions. In the previous studies
there were direct interactions with the threatener. However, in this study there is an indirect

Baer, Hinkle, Smith, and Fenton’s (1980) study assesses the extent to which the expression
of autonomy moderated by self-presentation can reduce psychological reactance. Though
their research tested a similar hypothesis to Brehm and Mann’s (1975) study, which did not

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Toward Freedom: Reactance Theory Revisited 19

find differences in psychological reactance in public and private expressions of autonomy,
they used a different experimental design than the 1975 study. Instead of the within-subject
design utilized by Brehm and Mann, Baer et al. randomly assigned subjects to each of
the experimental conditions to ensure that subjects were not primed in their response in the
public or private attitude conditions. The study utilized a 3 (prior exercise of freedom: public
exercise, private exercise, no exercise) × 2 (threat: mild or severe) × 2 (manner of postcom-
munication attitude disclosure: public or private) factorial design. The study hypothesized
that the prior exercise of public expression of freedom condition would more likely reduce
reactance than private and nonprior conditions since it acted as a mechanism for the pro-
jecting of autonomy. The study also found that postcommunication attitude change occurred
in an opposite direction to the threatening communication, and only in the the projection
of autonomy condition, that is, the public postcommunication condition.

The findings of Baer et al. (1980) suggest that private attitudes, although maintaining
autonomy, do not allow for the projection of autonomy and are unable to reduce psycho-
logical reactance. The major findings of the study support the self-presentation model of
projected autonomy in the reduction of psychological reactance. This held true whether the
expression of the autonomy was prior or subsequent to the threat. The inability of project-
ing autonomy motivated people to engage in postcommunication reactance attenuation.

Social exchange theory suggests that norms of reciprocity underlie social interaction and
people are motivated to return rewards and favors of others (Homans, 1974). Counter to
the social exchange proposition on norms of reciprocity, Brehm and Cole (1966) argue that
favors and rewards may provoke non-reciprocation. They posit that the favored person will
experience reactance because there is a pressure, as a result of the norms of
reciprocity (see Gouldner, 1960), to return the favor which is interpreted as a threat to one’s
freedom. The intensity of reactance actually experienced will result from the degree to
which one will want to be freed from the pressures of reciprocation, that is, returning the
favor. The authors (p. 420) note:

If a person thought he was free to engage in Behaviors X, Y, and Z, and Behavior X were then

somehow made impossible, he would experience reactance and would be motivated to recover

his freedom to engage in X. Conversely, if he were “forced” to engage in X, his consequent

reactance would lead him to avoid X and attempt Y or Z.

The reactance reduction strategy may involve the elimination of any sense of obligation
toward the favorer and show little or no gratitude to the favorer.

Reactance theory also questions the hypothesis on the inverse relationship between group
attractiveness and disagreement with others in groups – that is, as group attractiveness
increases, group disagreement within the group decreases. Brehm and Mann’s (1975) study
hypothesizes that threats to freedoms of low importance encourage a direct relationship
between group attractiveness and movement toward the group position. However, there is
an inverse relationship between group attractiveness and gravitation to group position in
conditions of high importance of freedom. The findings showed that a boomerang effect
(reactance resistance) occurred privately and pushed behaviors toward public display of
this effect in the high importance of freedom condition with pressure for conformity.
However, modifications of this condition (high importance of freedom condition with

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20 Derek Chadee

pressure for change), with removal of the pressure but keeping the high importance of
freedom, created a sleeper effect (change occurring but not immediately), with private
opinion modifying in a positive direction toward the group.

The forbidden fruit

Messages are sources of information. Reactance theory emphasizes the sensitivity of the
message in persuasion. For example, in one of the many studies undertaken in this area,
Bushman (1998) assesses the relationship between reactance and warning labels, that is, to
what extent were warning labels viewed by consumers as a constraint to their choice of
freely using a product – did labels create the effect of “forbidden fruit” or “tainted fruit”?
The forbidden fruit theory underlies psychological reactance in that restrictions on the
acquisition of something act as a constraint on our freedom, inducing reactance. Proscribed
behaviors become more attractive and reduce reactance. Authoritative warning labels on
products may create a boomerang effect, making the product more attractive to the con-
sumer. Bushman posits that the tainted fruit theory reduces attractiveness to the product
because consumers conceptualize warning labels as signals of possible harm. However,
citing Bushman and Stack (1996) and Snyder and Blood (1992), he notes that research is
more supportive of attraction than repulsion by warning labels. Utilizing information
labels, warning labels (information labels from an authoritative source), and no label (no
warning/information label) on a fatty product, Bushman found that though the warning
label and no label conditions were more attractive, people were less likely to taste the prod-
uct in the information and warning label conditions. Bushman (2006) also found that
warning labels on violent television programs across five age groups (ranging from 9 to 21
years and over) were more likely to attract persons in these groups to the violent program
than information labels and no label. Psychological reactance was utilized to explain the
attraction to the “forbidden fruit.”

Gender (nature–nurture)

Is psychological reactance only experienced and displayed by those who have an under-
standing of their sense of freedom? As Brehm and Weinraub (1977) put it, must there be
complex cognitive ability for psychological reactance to be displayed, in that an under-
standing of sense of freedom is needed for the arousal of psychological reactance? Their
study utilized children (boys and girls) at the age of 2 and randomly assigned them to one
of three physical barrier conditions: (1) a large physical barrier with identical objects behind
the barrier; (2) a large barrier with dissimilar objects; and (3) a small barrier with dissimilar
objects. Boys were more attracted to objects in the second condition, while girls were more
attracted to objects in the third condition. The boys were more sensitized to situations of
threats to their freedom to freely obtain objects created by the barriers. Once the desired
object was obtained there was a decrease in psychological reactance and factors other than
reactance became influential, including the intrinsic attraction of toys and attention span.
Girls were more likely to approach objects that were less difficult to obtain. This study dem-
onstrated that there are motivational processes that may transcend cognitive ability in the

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Toward Freedom: Reactance Theory Revisited 21

arousal of psychological reactance. Possible explanations proposed in the study for the
gender differences in the findings include a greater emphasis on visual cues by boys and
verbal cues by girls (Maccoby & Jacklin, 1974), the higher accommodation of restrictions by
girls than boys, and the evasion of obstacles by boys (Goldberg & Lewis, 1969).

Social Influence

Reactance is also a function of pressure to comply (social influence), which can vary from
subtle to outright attempts to achieve compliance. A consequence of social influence is its
eroding effect on an individual’s effort to exert influence in a social setting. For example,
Brehm and Sensenig (1966) argue that social influence that attempts usurpation of choice,
especially when we are aware of our freedom to make the particular choice, will arouse
reactance and lead to rejecting the source of the social influence. Their study also showed
that the evaluation of continuing perception of threat was a function of the magnitude of
reactance and inclination toward the denunciation of the social influence.

How does reactance or compliant behavior influence regret? Crawford, McConnell, Lewis,
and Sherman (2002) assess the relationship among reactance, compliance, regret, and per-
suasive attempts at changing behavior. The study found that individuals, in assessing future
anticipated regret, were more likely to estimate higher regret for any loss if reactant behavior
rather than compliance was likely to be displayed to a persuasive attempt. However, in actual-
ity, in an attempt to reduce anticipated regret, individuals were more likely to engage in
complying behavior to a request. In fact, individuals displaying anticipated regret and com-
pliant behavior, as against persons displaying reactant behavior, actually experienced higher
regret. The authors argue that compliant behavior is associated with dependency and attri-
bution of blame is externalized, as compared to reactance behavior, which involves an inde-
pendent choice in which the acting person assumes responsibility for their behavioral

Silvia (2005) assesses the relationship between interpersonal interaction, similarity, and
psychological reactance. Similarity between interacting parties reduces resistance and
enhances compliance in that similarity tends to increase attraction and liking, which, in
turn, leads to the threatening behavior of liked persons being interpreted as less coercive.
The findings of this study suggest that reactance is more likely to be aroused when a message
that is threatening emanates from a dissimilar other. However, when the communicator of a
threatening message was similar, persuasion occurred as though the message was not threat-
ening (a normal message). Similarity as a positive interaction factor intervened in influenc-
ing compliance and reducing resistance which the threatening message aroused. The findings
also suggest that even in a threatening situation the magnitude of reactance can be reduced
by positive social influence. In this study, the researchers created similarity by creating iden-
tical first name, date of birth, and congruent values of communicator-participants.

Resistance can be used to reestablish one’s sense of freedom via a freedom-affirmation
intervention. Heilman and Toffler (1976) studied the reaffirming of freedom, assessing the
relationship among message (threat or promise), option (no choice or choice option), and
interpersonal interaction (interpersonal or non-interpersonal). The research found that

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22 Derek Chadee

compliance was higher in threatening situations when a choice was available, and both
threats and promises were equally effective in obtaining compliance in a choice situation.
An important factor in the interpretation of a threatening situation is the degree of inter-
personal interaction. Overall, the greater the interpersonal interaction, the greater the
compliance. However, an important finding of the study was the fact that though liking
(interpersonal concern) was not the only variable that induced compliance, it moderated
responses to freedom reduction (reactance).

Table 1.1 summarizes research that focuses on psychological reactance as a state condi-
tion (i.e., influenced by the situation).

Reactance as a Trait

Is psychological reactance strongly associated with a disposition or, as most of the earlier
research assumed, is it a state condition? The relationship between reactance and personality
traits was discussed by Dowd, Wallbrown, Sanders, and Yesenosky (1994). They identified a
number of factors that may contribute to obstacles in therapeutic sessions including reactance.
A psychological reactant personality profile was identified using the California Psychological
Inventory – Revised (CPI-R), the Therapeutic Reactance Scale (TRS), and the Questionnaire
Measuring Psychological Reactance (QMPR). Their study found that psychologically reactant
individuals were less concerned with impressing others or adhering to social norms and regu-
lations, were “somewhat careless about fulfilling duties and obligations,” were inclined to
express strong emotions and feelings, and were preoccupied with future possible problems.
The researchers also found that women who were classified as reactant displayed more capa-
bility in decision making and were more “self-assured, sociable, and action-oriented.” The
psychological profile developed in this study highlighted certain similarities between reactant
persons and individuals with psychopathic and narcissistic personality disorders.

Another study (Huck, 1998) found that paranoid, antisocial, and sadistic disorders were
highly correlated with reactance, and that persons with histrionic, avoidant, and/or depend-
ent disorders displayed low reactance behavior. According to Seibel and Dowd (2001), there
is an optimum normal level of reactance. Once this threshold is crossed, excessive reactance
behavior loses utility and begins to have a negative impact on the individual. The authors
found that persons with personality disorders (e.g., obsessive-compulsive) characterized by
autonomy or mistrust exhibit high reactance.

Dowd and Wallbrown (1993) tested motivational components of psychological reactance
utilizing the QMPR, the TRS, and a Personal Research Form (PRF). Their findings suggest
that persons high in reactance are aggressive, dominant, defensive, autonomous, quick to
feel offended, and low in social desirability. In sum, they are deemed loners who are deficit
in strong relations with others. Positive characteristics associated with high-reactant indi-
viduals were high levels of confidence in their beliefs and goal orientation.

Persons higher on external locus of control were more likely to be reactant (Pepper, 1996).
These findings contradict previous studies (Mallon, 1992; Morgan, 1986 as cited in Pepper,
1996). However, an earlier study found no significant difference in levels of reactance between
internally and externally oriented persons on locus of control (Cherulnik & Citrin, 1974).

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Toward Freedom: Reactance Theory Revisited 23

Table 1.1 Research on situational reactance.

Author Comments

Brehm, J. W. (1966) Psychological reactance theory formally presented in this monograph.

Brehm, J. W., &

Cole, A. H. (1966)

Explored the effects of a favor on reactance arousal. This study found that the importance

placed on the behavioral freedom influences the arousal and magnitude of reactance.

Brehm, J. W., &

Sensenig, J. (1966)

Examined social influence as a function of implied or attempted threat to freedom. Results

from this study showed that when a person’s freedom of choice is usurped, the individual will

experience psychological reactance and thus reject the influence.

Hammock, T., &

Brehm, J. W. (1966)

Explored the attractiveness of alternatives when freedom is reduced or eliminated. The two

experiments yielded the results that a choice alternative which is eliminated by another

person will tend to become more attractive, and a choice alternative forced by another

person will tend to become less attractive.

Kornberg, A., Linder,

D., & Cooper, J.


Proposed how psychological reactance can provide a new perspective on understanding

political behavior. Results supported the idea that reactance theory can be applied to political


Linder, D. E., &

Crane, K. A. (1970)

Analyzed the converging attractiveness of two alternatives as the time for a final decision

approaches. This study found that the importance of the decision and the initial attractiveness

of the alternative combined to arouse reactance within a short period of time.

Wicklund, R. A.


Examined cognitive dissonance theory and reactance theory as theoretical explanations for

regret when decision freedom is threatened. The results indicated that under conditions

designed specifically to discriminate between the two theories, the prediction from reactance

theory was supported while the prediction from dissonance theory was not.

Worchel, S., &

Brehm, J. W. (1970)

Examined the effect of strong threats to a person’s freedom in adopting the attitudinal position

and the effect of responses to threat as a function of initial agreement or disagreement with

the position of the communicator. Findings detected that subjects who received freedom

threatening communications in agreement with their own position tended to move away from

the advocated position, while subjects in all other conditions tended to move toward the

advocated position.

Linder, D. E.,

Wortman, C. B., &

Brehm, J. W. (1971)

Time prior to decision making was manipulated, with results supporting the hypothesis that

the shorter the decision time the more the attractiveness of alternatives converges.

Worchel, S., &

Brehm, J. W. (1971)

Explored direct and implied restoration of freedom. Results from both experiments supported

the hypothesis that restoration of freedom reduces the increase in desirability of the alternative

which results from a threat to freedom.

Berkowitz, L. (1973) The author reviewed studies that displayed individuals’ unwillingness to aid others and

utilized reactance theory.

Andreoli, V. A.,

Worchel, S., &

Folger, R. (1974)

Identified conditions necessary for the arousal of reactance by implication. This

study supported the idea that reactance can be aroused by implication (by observing another

person’s freedom being threatened) and restored by implication (by observing another person’s

freedom restored).


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24 Derek Chadee

Table 1.1 (cont’d)

Author Comments

Wicklund, R. A.


Reviewed studies undertaken on reactance.

Brehm, J. W., &

Mann, M. (1975)

Examined the effect of group conformity pressure on public and private opinions

with regard to reactance. Results displayed that if importance of freedom is relatively

great to the individual, both private and public compliance decrease, as group attraction


Heilman, M. E., &

Toffler, B. L. (1976)

Investigated the conditions under which the negative consequences of social influence

attempts can be mitigated by freedom-affirming interventions. The results showed that in

social situations individuals’ concerns about their freedom were interpersonally


Miller, R. L. (1976) Assessed the impact of varied intensities of exposure to a persuasive message on attitude

change and psychological reactance. This study showed that mere exposure enhances the

evaluation of stimuli whereas overexposure dampens positive attitudinal effects.

Snyder, M., &

Wicklund, R. A.


Examined the effect of exercising prior freedom and reactance effects. The two experiments of

this study showed that when individuals exercise their freedom prior to it being threatened,

they do so to prevent the onset of reactance.

Brehm, S. S., &

Weinraub, M. (1977)

Applied the theory of reactance to the attractiveness of goal objects when impeded by barriers.

This study found that 2-year-old boys were more reactant than 2-year-old girls and this was

due either to perception of cues or to culture.

Carver, C. S. (1977) Investigated the role of self-awareness in the perception of threat and resultant reactance.

Found that an individual will resist persuasion once a communication is interpreted as

coercive, and this can happen when the individual has some degree of self-awareness.

Stillman, P. G. (1977) A review of Freedom and Reactance by Robert A. Wicklund.

Baer, R., Hinkle, S.,

Smith, K., &

Fenton, M. (1980)

Examined the extent that individuals can project autonomy before or after a threat to

freedom. This study supported the self-presentational view of reactance, in that reactance

effects were confined to participants’ public attitudes, whereas their private attitudes were

unchanged. When prior exercise of freedom was public, the reactance process for

participants was hindered.

Clee, M. A., &

Wicklund, R. A.


A review of psychological reactance and its broad applicability to consumer behavior.

Brehm, S. S., &

Brehm, J. W. (1981)

Described the theory and research of psychological reactance.

Wright, R. A., &

Brehm, S. S. (1982)

Critically reviewed reactance and impression management.

Brockner, J.,

Gardner, M.,

Bierman, J.,

Mahon, T., Thomas,

B., & Weiss, W. (1983)

Explored the influential properties of self-esteem and self-consciousness in interaction with

the Wortman–Brehm model of reactance and learned helplessness. Low-self-esteem

individuals exhibited more reactance effects when they had high self-consciousness, and

with extended failure they were more likely to show helplessness than individuals with high


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Toward Freedom: Reactance Theory Revisited 25

Table 1.1 (cont’d)

Author Comments

Seltzer, L. F. (1983) Explored the dynamics of paradoxical intervention by stressing external or situational

pressures and the link to psychological reactance. Results suggested that the final choice was

influenced by reactance, although its primary determinants were the student’s self-efficacy and

opportunistic ideals.

Mikulincer, M.


Examined the effects of the internal–external attributional style on affective and performance

reactions following different amounts of failure. Results indicated that following exposure to

four unsolvable problems, internal attributors exhibited stronger feelings of incompetence and

a decrease in performance compared with external attributors.

Nail, P. R., Van

Leeuwen, M. D., &

Powell, A. B. (1996)

Tested the effectance vs. self-presentational view of reactance. The study claims support the

idea that interpersonal processes can affect the expression of reactance and suggests that in

some cases concern for self-presentation may be a necessary condition for measurable

reactance effects to occur.

Wicklund, R. A. (1997) Reviewed the theory of psychological reactance.

Bushman, B. J. (1998) Investigated the effect of informational warning labels on consumables. Results were consistent

with the prediction, although not significant, that warning labels may have considerable

influence on behavior in situations in which there are clear low-cost behavioral alternatives

that are reasonably satisfactory.

Burger, J. M. (1999) A review of foot-in-the-door manipulation and psychological reactance and other

psychological processes.

Beutler, L. E.,

Moleiro, C., &

Talebi, H. (2002)

Review of resistance and reactance in psychotherapy.

Crawford, M. T.,

McConnell, A. R.,

Lewis, A. C., &

Sherman, S. J. (2002)

Assessed whether anticipated regret impacted on one’s decision to react or comply. The results

suggest that anticipated regret cannot account for reactance effects. Participants were more

likely to perceive greater anticipated regret associated with reactance versus compliance, and

thus complied.

Silvia, P. J. (2005) Explored psychological reactance with focus on individuals and their similarity to persons/

communicators who are threatening their freedom. Findings indicated that dissimilarity with

the communicator invoked reactance whereas similarity to the communicator increased liking

and consequently compliance.

Bushman, B. J. (2006) Investigated the effect of informational warning labels on attraction to violence in television

viewers of different ages. Across age groups, viewers consider warning labels to be a restriction

on their freedom to watch what they want.

Miron, A. M., &

Brehm, J. W. (2006)

Review of psychological reactance from 1966 to 2006.

Silvia, P. J. (2006) Explored whether threats to freedom can cause disagreement and examined the implications of

reactance-based sleeper effects. This study showed that disagreement based on cognitive

responses (threat at the start) was more stable over time; however, disagreement based on

motivation to restore freedom (threat at the end) was unstable over time and persons agreed

with the communicator.

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26 Derek Chadee

Findings from Pepper (1996) suggest that type A personalities are more reactant,
oppositional, perceive more threats to freedom, and show increased attraction to the
eliminated choice and non-compliance to clinical treatment. Individuals with high reac-
tance were more likely to make self-attributions, having a stronger belief that they can
manage problems for themselves. In actuality they were unable to perform equally or bet-
ter than persons who had sought assistance (Rhodewalt & Marcroft, 1988 as cited in
Pepper, 1996). Carver (1977), exploring self-awareness and reactance, suggested that
greater self-awareness led to increased feelings of coercion by reactant persons. Further
studies (Brockner et al., 1983; Carver & Sheier, 1981 as cited in Pepper, 1996) categorized
self-awareness into private self-consciousness and public self-consciousness. Private
self-consciousness encompasses the subjective awareness of an individual’s feelings and
perceptions, whereas public self-consciousness is an awareness of oneself as a social
object. Private self-consciousness was associated with high reactance, whereas public self-
consciousness acted as a suppressant of reactance.

Pepper (1996) found no significant relationship between gender and reactance, identify-
ing gender as a situational variable better explained by cultural factors. These findings have
also been supported by Dowd, Trutt, and Watkins (1992) and Carli (1989).

Using Erikson’s stage theory, Pepper (1996) argues that inherent in many of the stages is
the potential for psychological reactance. Reactance was linked with both the successful and
unsuccessful completion of stages, and he identifies autonomy, mistrust, intimacy, and iso-
lation as being associated with psychological reactance.

Family history was also found to be a predictor of psychological reactance. Persons who lived
in a high-conflict family environment or a family that emphasized autonomy, achievement,
and moral values were more likely to show psychological reactance (Buboltz, Johnson, & Woller,
2003). These persons may be more aware of perceived or actual threats to their freedom.

The literature, with few exceptions, paints a negative portrait of the personality profile of
a psychologically reactant person, who is seen as antisocial, low in social desirability, inca-
pable of strong relations with peers, isolated, independent, aggressive, not easily trusting,
dominant, and worried about an uncertain future. Similarly, there is a negative association
between reactance and histrionic personality styles.

Table 1.2 summarizes research that focuses on psychological reactance as a disposition.

Measuring Reactance

From its genesis, psychological reactance was conceptualized as arising from situational
factors, and research and measurements therefore were consistent with psychological reac-
tance as a state phenomenon. In attempting to study reactance, researchers created experi-
mental freedom-threat situations to arouse psychological reactance. In many of the studies
discussed, reactance was inferred by comparing responses across conditions experimentally
created (e.g., reactance vs. non-reactance), whether those measures were on attitudes, eval-
uation of message, or rating of communicator (Wright et al., 2004).

Sharon Brehm (1976) wrote on the implications of reactance theory to that area of
clinical psychology concerned with changing behavior and non-successful treatments.

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Toward Freedom: Reactance Theory Revisited 27

Table 1.2 Research on dispositional psychological reactance.

Author Comments

Cherulnik, P. D., &

Citrin, M. M. (1974)

Explored individual differences and psychological reactance with relevance to locus of control.

Found both external and internal locus of control participants exhibited the same levels of


Tucker, R. K., &

Byers, P. Y. (1987)

Assessed the factorial validity of Merz’s Psychological Reactance Scale. Findings were

inconsistent with Merz’s, concluding that the instrument is psychometrically unacceptable.

Hong, S-M., &

Ostini, R. (1989)

Evaluated the questionnaire for the measurement of psychological reactance. Identified a

four-factor structure that was inconsistent with findings of Merz (1983) and Tucker & Byers

(1987), concluding the scale psychometrically unstable.

Hong, S-M., & Page,

S. (1989)

Developed Hong’s Psychological Reactance Scale. Identified a four-factor structure to measure

reactance that was reliable.

Joubert, C. E. (1990) Used Hong’s Psychological Reactance Scale to assess the relationship among self-esteem,

reactance, and personality variables. Men scored significantly higher than women on

psychological reactance measures. Happiness ratings correlated negatively with psychological

reactance. Women’s self-esteem scores were negatively correlated with psychological reactance.

Dowd, E. T., Milne,

C. R., &

Wise, S. L. (1991)

Developed the Therapeutic Reactance Scale (TRS) to measure trait psychological reactance.

Factorial analysis identified two sub-scales: verbal reactance and behavioral reactance

Hong, S-M. (1992) Assessed the validity of Hong’s Psychological Reactance Scale. Findings supported the factorial

stability and reliability of the scale.

Mallon, K. F. (1992) Reviewed the Questionnaire for Measuring Psychological Reactance (QMPR), Hong’s Psychological

Reactance Scale, and TRS. Developed the Proneness Reactance Inventory to measure dispositional


Dowd, E. T., &

Wallbrown, F. (1993)

Determined the motivational personality characteristics associated with psychological

reactance. Findings identified a personality pattern of the psychologically reactant person as

defensive, aggressive, dominant, autonomous, and nonaffiliative.

Dowd, E. T.,

Wallbrown, F.,

Sanders, D., &

Yesenosky, J. M.


Further explored personality characteristics of a psychologically reactant individual. Identified

that psychologically reactant women were more decisive and self-assertive than non-reactant

women. Reactant individuals tend to worry more about future problems and have weak social


Hong, S-M.,

Giannakopoulos, E.,

Laing, D., &

Williams, N. A.


Used Hong’s Psychological Reactance Scale to explore gender and age effects on dispositional

reactance. Found that younger persons displayed more reactance than older participants, and no

difference between genders was observed.

Hong, S-M., &

Faedda, S. (1996)

Refined Hong’s Psychological Reactance Scale to 11 items that showed greater factorial stability

than the original 14-item scale.

Pepper, H. F. (1996) Explored the psychosocial precursors of psychological reactance with emphasis on Erikson’s

developmental theory. The following factors predicted psychological reactance: autonomy,

trust, intimacy, and isolation.


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28 Derek Chadee

Table 1.2 (cont’d)

Author Comments

Hellman, C. M., &

McMillin, W. L.


Examined the relationship between psychological reactance and self-esteem using Hong’s

Psychological Reactance Scale. These results suggest that the scale should be used with caution, since

combining its four factors in an additive format may suppress its potential to measure reactance.

Huck, N. O. (1998) Assessed psychological reactance and its relations to personality through the utilization of

Millon’s personality theory. Found seven personality disorders that are more likely than others

to evoke reactance.

Seibel, C. A., &

Dowd, E. T. (1999)

Analyzed the relationship between the client’s psychological reactance and specific

compliance behaviors and general improvements in an actual therapy situation. Identified

that reactant clients would engage in Boundary Augmentation and Boundary Reducing

behaviors, as opposed to non-reactant clients.

Johnson, P., &

Buboltz, W. C., Jr.


Explored the link between Bowen’s (1978) concept of differentiation of self and psychological

reactance. Detected three measures of differentiation that predicted psychological reactance

(intergenerational individuation, peer intimacy, and peer individuation).

Donnell, A. J.,

Thomas, A., &

Buboltz, W. C., Jr.


Assessed the factor structure and internal consistency of the Questionnaire for Measuring

Psychological Reactance. Concluded that the QMPR was an unreliable measure of the

dimensions of psychological reactance.

Seibel, C. A., &

Dowd, E. T. (2001)

Further explored the psychological profile of a psychologically reactant person as well as

delved into corrective techniques for developmental issues that arise due to separation and

individuation. Identified that individuals have an optimum level of reactance that balances

issues of engulfment and separation. Personality disorders based on trust and autonomy were

predictors of reactance.

Baumeister, R. F.,

Catanese, K. R., &

Wallace, H. M. (2002)

Explored a narcissistic reactance theory approach to sexual coercion and rape. Concluded that

theories of reactance and narcissism combined are a good tool of analysis when exploring

cases of rape.

Buboltz, W. C. Jr.,

Thomas, A., &

Donnell, A. J. (2002)

Analyzed and assessed the factors and consistencies of the Therapeutic Reactance Scale (TRS).

Results showed that reactance is seemingly a multidimensional construct with four relatively

independent structures underlying psychological reactance. The use of a one-dimensional

score may not give an accurate picture of the reactance level/potential of an individual.

Buboltz, W. C., Jr.,

Johnson, P., &

Woller, K. M. P.


Assessed the relationship between variables concerned with origins of family and psychological

reactance. Findings displayed that five family dimensions (cohesion, conflict, moral–religious

emphasis, independence, and achievement orientation) can encourage psychological reactance.

Dillard, J. P., &

Shen, L. (2005)

Applied reactance theory to persuasive health communication. Showed that the tendency for

reactance proneness interacting for some topics and not others is additive for one topic and

multiplicative for another, thereby suggesting that some topics are especially potent with regard to

their ability to elicit state reactance from individuals high in the propensity to experience reactance.

Seeman, E. A.,

Buboltz, W. C., Jr.,

Thomas, A., Soper,

B., & Wilkinson, L.


Further elaborated the profile of a psychologically reactant person by implementing the

five-factor model of personality as measured by the NEO PI-R. Results suggested that highly

reactant individuals appear very independent and somewhat suspicious; are likely to be skeptical

of others’ intentions; are competitive, intolerant, distrustful, secretive, and detached; and they put

on a good social face, but are actually uncomfortable in social situations.

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Toward Freedom: Reactance Theory Revisited 29

Table 1.2 (cont’d)

Author Comments

Shen, L., &

Dillard, J. P. (2005)

Assessed the psychometric properties of the 11-item version of Hong’s Psychological

Reactance Scale. They concluded that a single score on the scale is theoretically and empirically


Jonason, P. K., &

Knowles, H. M.


Assessed the one-dimensional measure of Hong’s Psychological Reactance Scale. They

concluded that the scale is only moderately stable and reliable, although its one-dimensional

characteristic appears to be the most consistent and reliable construct.

However, she referred to reactance theory as a motivational state that is aroused from
situational factors. The construct of reactance was later modified to accommodate to a
clinician’s environment, with reactance being conceptualized as a personality trait.
A major concern of the clinician was the interaction of this trait (reactant personality)
with treatment (Beutler, Mohr, Grawe, Engle, & MacDonald, 1991; Shoham-Salomon &
Hannah, 1991; Snow, 1991). The genesis toward a psychometric scale emerged from
attempts to measure reactance as a disposition (Buboltz, Thomas, & Donnell, 2002; Hong &
Page, 1989; Merz, 1983). Reactance is most likely to occur in the clinical setting to persons
with volitional/free problem behaviors (e.g., drinking, smoking) as compared to uncon-
trollable behaviors (e.g., panic, obsessive-compulsive) (Shoham, Trost, & Rohrbaugh,
2004). Psychological reactance as a disposition has been measured by a number of scales
and techniques.

Merz’s (1983) Questionnaire Measuring Psychological Reactance (QMPR) was the first-
ever scale designed to capture a measure of psychological reactance and consisted of 26
items utilizing a four-point Likert scale ranging from “not at all appropriate” to “extremely
appropriate.” The original scale attempted to obtain measures on resistance, defiance,
boom erang effect and the inclination to do the opposite to what others expect of you
(Tucker & Byers, 1987). The scale was later modified by Tucker and Byers (1987) to an
18-item reactance scale utilizing a five-point Likert range from 1 = “not at all appropriate”
to 5 = “extremely appropriate.” Two major constructs in the scale were behavioral freedom
(encompassing measures of reactions to praise, subservient behavior and expectations, and
advice of others) and freedom of choice (encompassing measures of freedom and decision
making). The QMPR has been found to have convergence validity with the Personality
Research Form (PRF), suggesting that psychologically reactant individuals are more likely
to be defensive, easily offended, aggressive, autonomous, and impulsive (Dowd & Wallbrown,
1993). These characteristics are consistent with the QMPR’s reactant individual who is seen
as dominant, individualistic, with low social ties, and who creates unfavorable impressions
on others (Dowd, 1993).

Hong and Ostini (1989), utilizing a four-point Likert format of the translated QMPR, found
factorial instability and low correlations among factors. Hong and Page (1989) argue that Tucker
and Byers’s QMPR was considered to be psychometrically unstable. Other criticisms came from
Donnell, Thomas, and Buboltz (2001), who also questioned Tucker and Byers’s modification of
the original scale, noting that the instability of the scale may have also been a result of both the
translation of the original scale from German and the adoption of a five-point scale format.

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30 Derek Chadee

The stability of the QMPR translated by E. T. Dowd was further tested by Donnell et al.
(2001), utilizing a six-point Likert-type scale ranging from 1 = “does not apply at all” to 6 =
“always applies.” The results of a three-factor scale structure were found to be inconsistent
with both Tucker and Byers (1987) and Hong and Ostini (1989). Though reactance appeared
to be a multidimensional construct, the QMPR was not accepted as a stable measure of
reactance (Donnell et al., 2001).

Hong and Page’s (1989) 14-item psychological reactance scale attempted to create a
factorial stable measure of psychological reactance and emerged as a critique of the QMPR.
Hong’s Psychological Reactance Scale (HPRS) utilizes a five-point Likert scale (1 = “disa-
gree completely” to 5 = “agree completely”) and has four distinctive factors: freedom of
choice, conformity reactance, behavioral freedom, reactance to advice and recommen-
dation. Hong (1992), a replication of Hong and Page (1989), supported the factorial struc-
ture of the HPRS. The HPRS was later revised (Hong & Faedda, 2006) to an 11-item scale.
Three items of the original scale were considered to be vague and were removed.

Shen and Dillard (2005) argue that a single score on the HPRS to measure trait psycho-
logical reactance is theoretically and empirically justifiable. However, Jonason and Knowles
(2006) and Jonason (2007) indicate that while the HPRS tends toward unidimensionality,
it is a moderately stable and a reliable measure of reactance and improvement of the scale
is needed.

Another method utilized in the measuring of reactance is the Trait Reactance Scale (TRS).
This scale uses a 28-item self-report questionnaire in attempting to measure reactance as a
trait. The TRS has recorded convergence validity with personality characteristics of domi-
nance, locus of control (internal), and aggression (Dowd & Wallbrown, 1993; Shoham et al.,
2004). A major problem identified with this measurement of reactance is the lack of con-
struct validity. Shoham et al. (2004) argue that what has been conceptually identified as a
reactant disposition may not necessarily be a disposition or trait but rather an oppositional
style consistent with particular behavioral styles.

In another attempt to measure reactance, Beutler et al. (1991) utilized two indices
from the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) in developing what they
refer to as a reactant score. The two scales that they adopted were Taylor’s Manifest
Anxiety Scale and the Edwards Social Desirability Scale. The authors utilized an arithme-
tic summation of the scores from both scales to derive a reactance score. Critics of Beutler
et al. (1991) noted that there is no rationale articulated as to why high anxiety and social
desirability should correlate with reactance (Lukin, Dowd, Plake, & Kraft, 1985; Shoham
et al., 2004). In fact, Spielberg’s State-Trait Anxiety Inventory and the TRS have no sta-
tistical relationship. Shoham et al. (2004) reported that Dowd et al. (1994) showed a
weak correlation between the TRS and social interaction. A question that can be asked is:
Are Beutler et al. (1991) and the TRS measuring the same construct? Baker, Sullivan, &
Marszalek (2003) found that there was no correlation between these two reactance

Shoham, Bootzin, Rohrbaugh, and Urry (1996) utilize a naturalistic method to measure
expressed reactance. This method involves the rating of participants’ content-filtered voice
in reply to a question that provokes reactance. High-reactant persons’ voice tones sound
inhibited, spiteful, and active.

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Toward Freedom: Reactance Theory Revisited 31

Cognitive Dissonance and Reactance

To what extent is psychological reactance the same as cognitive dissonance? Do we always
experience cognitive dissonance when we experience reactance? There are a number of
commonalities between psychological reactance and cognitive dissonance. Both theories
are motivational arousal theories emphasizing cognitive evaluation and a gravitation toward
psychological consistency. Arousal is a noxious state (i.e., dissonance or psychological reac-
tance) and a drive is buildup-directed to achieve a state of equilibrium (consonance or
removal of threat to freedom). The level of importance of the cognition or threatened free-
dom determines the degree of cognitive dissonance or psychological reactance, respectively.
A number of strategies are used to obtain equilibrium, and these methods vary from cogni-
tive to behavioral to emotional changes. The reevaluation of importance, changing or
adding new cognitions, adoption of new behavior, or changing existing behaviors are some
of the common strategies of arousal reduction adopted by both theories. Neither theory is
set up to be scientifically falsified, and therefore they cannot be considered scientific theo-
ries. Also, both theories are parsimonious.

However, there are some major differences. Although both theories state that arousal is
unpleasant, in the case of reactance the unpleasantness is always associated with negative
emotions, unlike dissonance, in which both positive and negative emotions can be experi-
enced. Sources of the arousal are different: reactance involves a threat associated with a
freedom, and therefore there is a “victim” and “victimizer” interaction, an externally social
threatening factor, which is not the typical cognitive dissonance scenario. Therefore, there
is a narrower scope of the application of reactance theory as compared to cognitive disso-
nance. The difference in parsimoniousness of the theories is one of degree.

Wicklund (1974) was one of the first authors to attempt to address the issue of overlaps
between the theories of dissonance and reactance. He argues that as far as decision making is
concerned, cognitive dissonance occurs at the postdecisional stage but reactance at the pre-
decisional stage. This sequential effect is a distinguishing difference. That is, prior to the
reactant behavior is the motivational drive of psychological reactance. After the behavior, the
decision, is the postdecisional dissonance and dissonance reduction to justify the committed
action. The force compliance studies of dissonance (e.g., Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959) and
the barrier studies of reactance research provide a conceptually similar situation. However,
Wicklund (1974) advocates that the difference between these groups of studies lies in the
pre-decisional making without a behavioral commitment in reactance and the postdeci-
sional dissonance as a result of behavioral commitment. However, dissonance is not only
experienced in postdecisional situations. The threat to remove a freedom or the actual
removal of a freedom is inherently a dissonant phenomenon. In fact, Wicklund (1974, p. 57)
acknowledges this:

There is a parallel between the two theories when simple statements of preference are made,

independent of whether or not those statements constitute absolute commitments. Dissonance

theory allows that the statement will produce dissonance and regret (convergence) while reac-

tance theory indicates that the preference statement will threaten freedom and thereby result in


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32 Derek Chadee

Therefore, if there is an overlap between reactance and dissonance the investigation of
the neurosocial psychological processes has to be evaluated. However, it should be remem-
bered that reactance theory, from its genesis, had conceptual similarities and was being
developed as a special case of cognitive dissonance. The literature has still to address a
precise demarcation between the two theories.

Application of Reactance

The application of the theory of psychological reactance has been diverse, from its use in
the clinical setting to the understanding of social problems, consumer behavior, and power
relationships. Specifically, the theory of psychological reactance has been applied within
psychology and other fields and has provided useful insights in areas such as persuasion
and resistance to persuasion, attitude change, pro-social behavior, group attractiveness,
family interaction, effects of warning labels, littering, promotional influence, manipulative
advertisements, product availability, government regulations as threats to freedom, internet
and website interaction, health communication, clinical interaction/counseling and reac-
tant personality, family therapy, political behavior, jury behavior, learned helplessness, and
even the understanding of behavior in dispute resolution.

Some studies on littering (e.g., Brasted, Mann, & Geller, 1979) utilized a reactance theory
model to understand the relationship between antilittering advertisements and compli-
ance. Messages that were strongly stated and suggested threats to freedom aroused psycho-
logical reactance and attempts to restore freedom. Consumers are influenced by promotional
campaigns but the hard-sell advertisements have less of an impact than the soft-sell (low-
threat) ones (Regan & Brehm, 1972).

A multitude of studies were undertaken in the area of reactance and attitude change and
persuasion, including Worchel and Brehm (1970) on freedom-threatening communication
and attitudinal position; Miller (1976) on persuasive messages and attitude change;
Carver (1977) on self-awareness, coercion, and persuasion; and Baer et al. (1980) on self-
presentation and public attitudes. Studies by Bushman (1998, 2006) and Clee and Wicklund
(1980) are just a few of the many studies that emphasize the impact of message insensitivity–
sensitivity on persuasion and compliance.

Baumeister, Catanese, and Wallace (2002) assess the relationship among narcissism, reac-
tance, and sexual concern, arguing that a man with high sexual expectancy of sexual inter-
action would experience psychological reactance when there is refusal of sexual contact by
a woman. Narcissistic inclination may mediate reactance, motivating the individual to
attempt sexual coercion and rape.

Family socialization impacts on freedom sensitivity, which in turn makes the individual
more responsive to freedom threats. In particular, persons with an achievement orienta-
tion, high independence and moral–religious values were positively associated with psycho-
logical reactance (Buboltz et al., 2003).

The application of reactance in understanding virtual interaction on the internet was
undertaken by Daily (2004). Restrictions and blocks to navigation on the internet create psy-
chological reactance and lead to negative emotions and avoidance behavior toward the blocked

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Toward Freedom: Reactance Theory Revisited 33

websites. Another study assessed forced exposure via pop-up advertisements and psychological
reactance, attempting to understand factors that contribute to negative reactions to informa-
tion and particularly advertisements via the internet (Edwards, Li, & Lee, 2002).

Criticisms of Reactance

The theory of psychological reactance has been criticized on a number of grounds. First, the
theory is difficult to falsify. The emphasis of research has been on situational reactance, with
experimental conditions set up to create threats to freedom. Inconsistent findings are easily
explained by reference to the situation rather than an exploration of the theory to identify
theoretical problems. The lack of explicitly stated propositions and hypotheses provides
further insulation of the theory from the systematic assaults of science. However, other
theories such as Freud’s psychoanalytical theory and Festinger’s cognitive dissonance the-
ory have also been criticized on these grounds.

Second, the concept of reactance is a scientifically vague concept. There is tremendous
latitude left to the interpretation of exactly what behavior is reactance or non-reactance.
Premised on the concept of reactance, the magnitude of reactance is discussed. The concept
of magnitude assumes some kind of scale or degree distinction between one level of reac-
tance and another. Exactly how to evaluate the magnitude of reactance is not stated in the
theory. Therefore, the concept of magnitude of reactance has two ambiguous terms which
have implications for scientific measurement of the concept. Reactance cannot be physi-
cally observed but is inferred from measures of indicators of reactance which vary from
study to study. Third, the theory is parsimonious and can, therefore, explain a wide range of
behavior in a variety of social settings. A theory with such versatility loses its efficacy in
explaining and creates a diminishing level of confidence.

Fourth, reactance theory is not designed to assess the dynamism of social interaction and
exchanges in the movement toward reduction of the psychological tension and achieve-
ment of equilibrium. Freedom can only be threatened by a powerful other. The exchanges
and power dynamics in reasserting one’s freedom are not examined or articulated in the
theory. The magnitude of reactance, the persistence of reduction, the kinds of reduction
strategies, and the acceptance or removal of threat to freedom can all be better compre-
hended if an analysis of the power dynamics complements the theory.

Fifth, the psychological processes involved in internalizing these freedoms are not
articulated by the theory (Wicklund, 1997). This is an assumption, a given, that the theory
builds upon. An elaboration of the dynamics involved in the development of free behaviors
will provide a profound understanding of the processes involved in reactance. The cultural
contexts and their contribution to one’s sense of freedom need elaboration via cross- cultural

Sixth, is reactance a behavioral attempt to demonstrate and project an impression of
autonomy and power to others in the interaction situation? In other words, is there a dis-
tinction between impression management and reactance? Heilman and Toffler (1976), for
example, argue that reduction of reactance was a direct function of balance of power, or the
impression of it, in interaction. Baer et al.’s (1980) findings support the view that there is a

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34 Derek Chadee

greater concern with demonstrating the possession of a freedom than concern about the
removal of the freedom. Wright and Brehm (1982, p. 616), in being critical of the impression-
management explanation of reactance, wrote:

In summary, then, the impression management explanation of reactance, in contrast to reactance

theory, predicts no effects when (a) threats to freedom are nonsocial or social threats are uninten-

tional, (b) subjects’ responses are private (nobody who has witnessed the threat will see them, or

subjects’ responses cannot be traced back to them individually), and (c) freedom restoration

occurs without the agent or an observer being aware of it. We believe that it is doubtful that reac-

tance effects can best be understood as a manifestation of impression management.

Seventh, reactance theory places great emphasis on the cognitive but very little emphasis is
given to the affect. The next section proposes the systematic introduction of the affect into
the theory of psychological reactance.

Toward a Reactance Emotion Theory

Philip Cowan, in his preface to Piaget’s Intelligence and Affectivity (1981, p. xi), wrote:

Affect is likened to the gasoline that activates the car, while the engine (cognition) provides

structure for the energy and direction of the car’s motion. Affect as “energetics” can combine

with cognitive structural schemes to focus the individual’s interest on a specific thing or idea.

Because it influences an individual choice of whether to exert intellectual effort, affect serves as

a regulator of action. Because it influences the choice of specific goals, affect also plays a role in

determining values (internal interest projected outwards so that things and people appear to

have a certain worth). By regulating action and determining values, affect influences our ten-

dency to approach or avoid situations.

An understanding of human emotions in influencing the magnitude of psychological reac-
tance is crucial to the development of reactance theory, which, over the last forty years, has
comfortably maintained itself as a purely cognitive theory. Even though reactance theory
can be classified within an appraisal theory of emotions, the literature has consistently
focused on a cognitive model in the application of the theory. The degree of psychological
reactance is moderated by the particular emotion(s) aroused as a result of the cognitive
evaluation of a particular threat to freedom. The degree of reactance, therefore, is a func-
tion of emotional arousal, which, in turn, is influenced by the particular emotion provoked.
Reactance is unpleasant, and therefore will provoke negative emotions (primary and
secondary) such as frustration, shame, fear, anger, sadness, guilt, contempt, and disgust
(Smith & Ellsworth, 1985, 1987). Some important contributions to the understanding of
emotions provide a strong rationale for a reactance emotion theory.

An emotion energizes and prepares the individual to respond and has at least four different
aspects – feelings, actions, physiological arousal, and motivational programs (Rosenzweig,
Breedlove, & Watson, 2005). As Nolen-Hoeksema, Fredrickson, Loftus, and Wagenaar
(2009) recognize (also see Lazarus, 1991; Rosenberg, 1998), an emotion involves
cognitive appraisal, subjective experience, thought–action tendencies, internal bodily

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Toward Freedom: Reactance Theory Revisited 35

changes, and facial expression. Plutchik (1994) identifies eight basic emotions. These
emotions are arranged in pairs of opposites: joy/sadness, affection/disgust, anger/fear,
and expectation/surprise. However, Smith and Ellsworth (1985) argued earlier that com-
paring emotions in such pairs is somewhat problematic since, for example, joy is a posi-
tive emotion and sadness a negative one, but both anger and fear are negative
emotions – these pairs do not exist in comparable continuums from positive to negative,
but are typologies. Smith and Ellsworth (1985) utilized six dimensions in the description
of 15 emotions (primary and secondary emotions). These dimensions were: desirability
of the situation (pleasant or unpleasant); anticipated effort in the situation (low effort or
high effort); situational certainty (certain or uncertain); attentional activity to the
situation (low attention to high attention); degree of control over the situation (self or
others); and control attributed to the situation (situational control and human control).
Therefore, emotions (e.g., anger and frustration) would vary depending on the dimen-
sions that are involved in determining the particular emotion. A major conclusion drawn
from their study was (p. 831):

Our results show that people’s emotions are intimately related to their cognitive appraisals of

their circumstances. The subjects rated past emotional experiences along six appraisal dimen-

sions, and different patterns of appraisals were strongly associated with different emotions.

Zajonc (1980) puts another light on the expression of emotions. He argues that there are
emotions that are grounded on cognitive appraisal (postcognitive emotions) and emotions
that emerge before cognitions (precognitive emotions). On postcognitive emotions Zajonc
(1980, p. 151) writes:

An affective reaction, such as liking, disliking, preference, evaluation, or the experience of

pleasure or displeasure, is based on a prior cognitive process in which a variety of content dis-

criminations are made and features are identified, examined for their value, and weighted for

their contributions. Once this analytical task has been completed, a computation of the com-

ponents can generate an overall affective judgement.

Bargh and Apsley (2001), writing on Zajonc’s argument against this temporal order of cog-
nition and emotion, state:

He (Zajonc) asserted that the notion that people go through life in a rational manner, objec-

tively weighing the pros and cons of various alternatives prior to taking a position as suggested

by extant information-processing models, might be little more than wishful thinking. Instead,

he argued that the affective qualities of stimuli such as good/bad, like/dislike, or approach/

avoid might be processed extremely quickly and efficiently and, consequently, could be among

the very first reactions of an organism to its environment. Within an affective primary frame-

work, individuals gather information about various alternatives, not to make more informa-

tion choices, but to corroborate their initial preferences and desire.

The intensity of emotions differs. The sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system
is crucial in creating the necessary physiological arousal for negative emotions involving

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36 Derek Chadee

brain activity in both the hypothalamus and the amygdala. The debate on autonomic
arousal of emotions has consistently appeared in the literature, from the James-Lange the-
ory to Canon-Bard’s critique, and from advocacy on similarities of autonomic response to
empirical testing of physiological arousal of different emotions (Funkenstein, 1955).
However, this debate was systematically addressed by Levenson, Ekman, and Friesen (1990),
who found distinctive autonomic response among emotions. Their study also shows that
the highest emotional intensity was displayed for anger, followed by fear and sadness –
negative emotions that are associated with reactance.

Research by Keltner, Ellsworth, and Edwards (1993) is supportive of the view that affects
influence the way we make judgments and attributions of future events and responsibility.
Siemer’s (2001) study supports the dispositional mood model’s view that our moods influ-
ence our generalized appraisal inclinations. Findings by Lerner and Keltner (2001) have
also shown that our cognitive evaluation of risk is influenced by the specific emotional
state, in that fear states were more likely to incite pessimistic risk evaluation than anger,
which was more likely to create optimistic risk assessment. These effects were moderated by
certainty and control (see also Johnson & Tversky, 1983).

The importance of appraisal to emotions (primary, secondary, reappraisal) was articu-
lated by Lazarus (1982) and later elaborated by Smith and Lazarus (1993), who catego-
rized six appraisal components related to primary and secondary appraisals. These
categories falling within the primary and secondary appraisals include motivational con-
gruency (evaluation of goals); motivational relevance (commitment); accountability
(assignment of responsibility of blame and praise); problem-coping potentiality (resolv-
ability); emotional-focused potentiality (emotional management of situation); and future
expectancy (changeability of situation). The emotions aroused would be determined by
the set of components that are present. Smith and Kirby (2001), in elaborating on Smith
and Lazarus’s (1993) theory, note that the appraisal processes take place correspondingly
and involve an automatic associative process, a conscious reasoning of events, and a
continuous appraisal- detector process that assess the information that comes from the
associative and reasoning processes. The emotion that is experienced is a result of these

Berkowitz and Harmon-Jones (2004) posit that anger emerges as blame and is assigned
as a negative event to a causal agent external to the individual. Unlike other negative emo-
tions, anger is associated not with an avoidance tendency but with an approach motivation
inclination. Berkowitz’s (1990, 1993, 1999, 2003) cognitive–neoassociationistic (CNA)
model of anger emergence postulates that both avoidance and approach tendencies can be
generated by an aversive situation and not just one or the other. Extending this argument to
reactance theory, a removal of a freedom can create both fear (flight) and anger (fight),
depending on the circumstances. One emotion may overpower the other, which will deter-
mine the behavior.

Harmon-Jones and Allen (1998) found that anger was associated with more left anterior
cortical activity than right. This brain activity was explained more by approach motivation
associated with dispositional anger. Generally, negative emotions and avoidance motivation
are associated with the right anterior cortical area of the brain, while positive emotions and

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Toward Freedom: Reactance Theory Revisited 37

approach motivation are associated with the left anterior cortical area (Harmon-Jones &
Allen, 1998). The authors suggest that high dispositional anger is associated with higher
approach motivation and lesser withdrawal motivation. Later, Harmon-Jones and Sigelman’s
(2001) research findings confirmed that state-induced anger was also associated with left
prefrontal cortical activity. Further, left frontal activity created by anger does not restrain
amygdala action but is “co-varying with it” (Harmon-Jones, 2004). The relationship between
left frontal cortical activity and resolution of inconsistency via approach motivation is also
supported by Harmon-Jones (2004). Reactance will evoke particular kinds of emotion, and
emotions evoked will determine whether there is left or right frontal brain activity. This fact
has implications for the reduction of reactance, especially in volatile and high-risk

Mention of physiological arousal and emotions are scattered across the many works indi-
rectly related to reactance theory. A few reactance studies have used the emotion dimension
to assist in explanations of behavior. For example, earlier research had indicated that reac-
tance was associated with somatic tension and increased activation of the sympathetic
nervous system, as reflected in increases in both epinephrine and norepinephrine (Price,
Barell, & Barell, 1985). Brehm and Wortman’s (1975) model implies emotional intensity as
a factor that increases striving to overcome failure and decreases in motivation as a function
of being unable to control and determine outcome. However, the concept of emotional
intensity was never integrated or elaborated in the theory.

The literature is practically void of systematic research on reactance and emotions.
Neither is there an integration of findings on affect into the theory or any kind of theory
modification. Brehm (2004) notes, with respect to cognitive dissonance, that more consid-
eration is needed of the role of affect, to which little emphasis has been given. Miron and
Brehm (2006, p. 8) acknowledged the importance of understanding the processes in arousal
when they stated:

Obviously, more work is needed to chart the physiology of reactance. An investigation of this

sort would help explore important questions such as what happens to reactance arousal when

one cannot restore an eliminated freedom or whether observers experience reactance arousal

when they witness threats to other people’s freedoms.

Figure 1.1 describes the process involved in the emergence of psychological reactance but
taking into consideration the affect state. A threat to a free behavior is evaluated, provoking
a negative emotion – the more important the threat, the greater the intensity of the emo-
tion. Cognitive appraisal, together with the concomitant emotion, leads to a motivational
or withdrawal approach. Continuing evaluation is undertaken and, should threat persist,
reactance behavior continues. However, as discussed, reactance is moderated by a number
of factors.

The subjective experiences of emotions influence: the processing of information,
decision-making processes, our attention, reaction time, and the way we intend to behave
or actually behave (e.g., Clore, Gasper, & Garvin, 2001; Derryberry & Tucker, 1994). Recent
research undertaken by Kostic, Chadee, and Nedeljkovic (in press) has shown that the

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38 Derek Chadee

subjective experiences of emotions vary across cultures with respect to intensity. So an
unpleasant situation of uncertainty needing high attention and effort which is controlled
by others will definitely lead to frustration and anger, two emotions with the highest levels
of intensity compared to other emotions. Therefore, threat to freedom that provokes these
emotions will create a higher magnitude of reactance, other things remaining equal, than
other emotions. However, the magnitude of psychological reactance may vary across cul-
tures, and this may not necessarily be a result of situational factors but a consequence of the
subjective experience of emotions in these cultures. Clearly, research is also needed to test a
reactance emotion theory.


Reactance theory is an important theory in the discipline of social psychology and has
contributed to an understanding of behavior in response to actual or perceived threats in a
wide variety of settings. The theory is as useful today as it was over forty years ago. However,
the theory needs modification. The systematic introduction into the theory of the affect
state is crucial, with an understanding of the relationship between emotions and motiva-
tion. This much-needed structural modification will definitely give new insights into previ-
ous research. A reactance emotion theory will have heuristic utility in the understanding
and reduction of arousal states, including situations that are volatile and interactions that
are potentially aggressive. As the theory evolves so too will our understanding of human

Figure 1.1 Reactance emotion model.






disgust, sadness, fear, anger


shame, guilt, hate


Frontal lobe activity




Number of threats
Number of freedoms

Decrease in threat

Persistence of threat


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Festinger’s (1957) theory of cognitive dissonance is arguably one of the most well-known,
studied, powerful, applicable, debated, controversial, and resilient theories in the field of social
psychology, if not psychology as a whole. Unlike more modern theories that are not yet time-
tested, or older theories that have faded into obscurity, cognitive dissonance theory has a long,
colorful, and still unfolding history (see Aronson, 2007; Bendersky & Curhan, 2009; Cooper,
2007; Hart et al., 2009; Nail & MacDonald, 2007; Tavris & Aronson, 2007). Its influence on
basic and applied psychology as well as popular culture has been almost unprecedented. In
the first 15 years after its publication, the theory generated over a thousand experiments
(Thibodeau & Aronson, 1992), most of which supported the theory. In preparing to write this
chapter, we conducted a computer search of the professional psychological literature with the
term dissonance as a key word or subject heading. It yielded more than 1,800 hits.

From the outset, one of the most appealing aspects of the theory has been its ability to
make correct, often counterintuitive predictions. In so doing, it frequently explains, inte-
grates, and offers compelling insights into otherwise mystifying observations of human
behavior, for example: (a) why people report liking a boring task more if they are paid less
for doing it (Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959); (b) why members of various groups such as the
Marines, military academies, college fraternities and sororities, and athletic teams report
high levels of commitment to these groups despite the fact that they had to go through
“Hell on Earth” to become members (Aronson & Mills, 1959; Gleick, 1997; Styron, 1977);
(c) why millions of Americans and seemingly countless authors remain fascinated by, and
construct fantastic conspiracy theories to explain, the Kennedy assassination, this despite
overwhelming scientific evidence that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone (Bugliosi, 2007;
Manchester, 1967); (d) why religious cults increase the strength of their beliefs after their
leader’s prophecies or group’s beliefs have been unequivocally disconfirmed or discredited
(Batson, 1975; Festinger, Riecken, & Schachter, 1956; Stafford, 2009); (e) why people often


Inconsistency in Cognition:
Cognitive Dissonance

Paul R. Nail and Kurt A. Boniecki

Theories in Social Psychology, First Edition. Edited by Derek Chadee.
© 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published 2011 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

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Inconsistency in Cognition: Cognitive Dissonance 45

blame innocent victims, whether the victims of fate (Klugel & Smith, 1986) or the targets of
one’s own wrongdoing (Davis & Jones, 1960; Glass, 1964), etc. (Aronson, 1999, p. 108).

Another strong feature of dissonance theory is that its predictions have frequently pre-
vailed when compared to the predictions of competing theories (e.g., Bushman, 2002;
Gerard & Mathewson, 1966; Kahn, 1966). For example, the catharsis hypothesis from
orthodox psychoanalytic theory holds that venting anger through aggression will often help
diminish its lingering, unwanted effects. Thus, expressing aggression should help dissipate
anger, predisposing actors to see their victims more favorably. Almost all of the empirical
evidence, however, is diametrically opposed to this prediction. In line with dissonance the-
ory and (e) above, most evidence indicates that once people behave aggressively toward
others, they have a strong tendency to justify their behavior by derogating their victims.
“When people vent their feelings aggressively they often feel worse, pump up their blood
pressure, and make themselves even angrier” (Tavris & Aronson, 2007, p. 26).

In this chapter, we focus on some of the highlights from the story of cognitive disso-
nance, from its origin, through its evolution, to its decline in the 1980s, to its resurgence
over the last 20 years or so (e.g., Aronson, 1999; Cooper, 2007; Harmon-Jones & Mills, 1999;
Hart et al., 2009; Higgins, 1987; Nail, MacDonald, & Levy, 2000; Steele, 1988). Over the
years, the meaning of the term cognitive dissonance has changed in various and important
ways, often depending on the theorist and the context. Yet, in the concluding section of this
chapter, we suggest a line of research that might restore the original definition of cognitive
dissonance as proposed by Festinger (1957).

Prophecies of Doom

The story begins with a tragedy. On January 15, 1934, a magnitude 8.1 earthquake shook
the Himalayan region of northern India and southern Nepal (Dunn, Auden, Gosh, & Roy,
1939/1981). Over the coming days and months, news reports of the death toll climbed to
over 10,000. While residents of the most devastated areas grappled with rescue and clean-up
operations, extraordinary levels of fear gripped the outlying populace less affected by the
earthquake. Rumors spread that even greater disasters were about to hit these nearby vil-
lages (Prasad, 1950). Although these villagers had only experienced minor tremors, many
believed that floods, cyclones, and further earthquakes were imminent.

Nearly two decades later and a half a world away, a group of social scientists headed by
Leon Festinger was searching the existing literature on the propagation of rumors when
they came across the events following that 1934 earthquake. Festinger and his group were
puzzled, not by how the rumors spread, but rather, why people created them in the first
place. Why in the aftermath of such a natural disaster would people create such frightening,
largely unfounded beliefs? After thinking about this question for some time, Festinger even-
tually hit upon a tentative solution. Perhaps, he reasoned, the rumors of further impending
destruction were being spread not in spite of the fact that they caused increased fear and
anxiety, but rather, because of the fact that fear and anxiety already existed. The rumors
were not created to provoke fear, but to justify it (Festinger, 1957). Thus, the rumors did not
cause the fear; rather, the fear caused the rumors. This germ of an idea – that people might

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46 Paul R. Nail and Kurt A. Boniecki

create or change their beliefs to justify their current affective state – was the seed that even-
tually grew into cognitive dissonance theory.

The essence of the theory can be summarized as follows: When people become aware
that they simultaneously hold two inconsistent cognitions, they experience an unpleasant
state of psychological tension, which Festinger (1957) called cognitive dissonance. A cogni-
tion can be any bit of knowledge people may hold about the world, their more immediate
environment, or themselves, including their attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and affective states.
The Asian villagers experienced an involuntary rush of anxiety as a result of the nearby
earthquake and devastation that befell their neighbors. Who would not feel such trepida-
tion after such a near-miss? Yet, having only felt minor tremors, there was no rational expla-
nation for the very high level of fear the villagers were experiencing. In dissonance theory
terms, they knew they felt fearful (first cognition), but they also knew, logically, that there
was not much to fear (second, inconsistent cognition). Because dissonance is aversive and
unpleasant, Festinger proposed that people are motivated to reduce it. One obvious way is
to change one of the inconsistent cognitions. Thus, the Asian villagers could eliminate the
dissonance by creating a belief and convincing themselves that there was indeed something
to fear: Impending doom was about to strike.

What happens when the doom does not occur, however? Imagine that you believe with
tremendous conviction that a great disaster is about to occur on a particular date, such as
the end of the world. Further, imagine that you state this belief publicly and go about mak-
ing numerous preparations for the impending disaster. When that disaster does not come
to pass, Festinger’s theory predicts that you would experience a great deal of cognitive dis-
sonance. However, in this case, reducing the dissonance by changing one of the inconsistent
cognitions may not work. You could not change your knowledge of the evidence in front of
you, namely that the disaster did not occur. You might admit that there was never any
imminent danger after all, but then you would only be exchanging one inconsistency for
another. If there was no danger, why did you say there was? Why did you go about preparing
for the disaster? Are you a fool? Are you crazy? Surely not. Again, you would experience
cognitive dissonance. Anticipating such circumstances, Festinger (1957) offered alternative
methods of dissonance reduction; for example, you could rationalize by adding a third
cognition, one that helps explain away and diminish the inconsistency inherent in the origi-
nal, conflicting cognitions. For instance, you might come to believe that your conviction,
faith, and prayers had, in fact, saved the world.

Festinger had the opportunity to test this very prediction even as he was still working on
the book that would become the first formal statement of cognitive dissonance theory
(Festinger, 1957). He did so by infiltrating a doomsday cult and documenting the members’
behaviors preceding and following the prophesized cataclysm. In the classic, When Prophecy
Fails, Festinger and his colleagues, Henry Riecken and Stanley Schachter (1956), detailed
how they became professed members for a few weeks of a small religious cult whose mem-
bers believed that much of North America, and eventually most of the world, would be
destroyed by a great flood. The flood was to come just before dawn on December 21, 1954,
the consequence of the rising of the lost continents of Mu and Atlantis from the Atlantic
Ocean. Fifteen members of the cult, including Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter, gathered
on the evening of December 20 at the home of the group’s leader, a Mrs. Marian Keech, to

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Inconsistency in Cognition: Cognitive Dissonance 47

await the disaster. The core members of the group believed that they alone would be saved
from the cataclysm. Mrs. Keech, in communication with a group of extraterrestrials known
as the Guardians through the means of automatic writing, learned that she and her group,
the true believers, would be whisked away to safety just after midnight in the early morning
of December 21 by a flying saucer sent by the Guardians.

Midnight came and went, however, and no spacemen arrived. Word soon came from the
Guardians to be patient, but the group was understandably shaken and becoming increas-
ingly distraught and anxious; the cataclysm was less than seven hours away, and their proph-
esized rescue was apparently not going to happen. At 4:45 a.m., however, Mrs. Keech excitedly
summoned everyone to reassemble in the living room for a major announcement. She had
just received yet another message from the Guardians, but this message was unprecedented
compared to all previous communications. It would change everything. As per the Guardians’
instructions, it was labeled “The Christmas Message to the People of Earth.” Herein the
Guardians proclaimed that “the force of Good and light” emanating from Mrs. Keech and
her followers this very night had moved God to take the unusual step of supernaturally
intervening in the Earth’s geology. The flood was not going to happen! The group’s faith had
averted the disaster! Thus, the Festinger et al. (1956) prediction – that the group would need
to add cognitions or beliefs to help rationalize, explain away, and diminish the inconsistency
inherent in the failed prophecy – was supported (see also Stafford, 2009).

Festinger et al. (1956) further predicted that such rationalizations would require social
support to become sustained and be sufficiently effective. Indeed, the Guardians instructed
the group to inform the newspapers of the miracle. Festinger et al. report that whereas in the
days leading up to December 21 the group had lived in relative secrecy, generally shunning
outsiders, nonbelievers, and the occasional reporter, now the group vigorously sought pub-
licity. If the rest of the world could be convinced of the “truth,” the group’s beliefs and the
rationalization that held them together would gain further legitimacy. The group’s residual
dissonance could be further reduced. In reporting the findings of this study, Festinger et al.
changed the names of the cult leader and her members to protect their identities.

Major Theoretical Concepts

Festinger et al. (1956) provided the first outline of cognitive dissonance theory. In a book
published the very next year, however, Festinger (1957) formalized, expanded, and elabo-
rated the theory in elegant detail. The basic idea that dissonance is caused by cognitive
inconsistency is accurate but inadequate if the theory is to make correct predictions in spe-
cific circumstances. According to Festinger (1957), “elements” of cognition could be conso-
nant, dissonant, or irrelevant to each other. Two elements are consonant if a person perceives
that one element follows logically from another. If you are a Democrat and you vote for a
Democratic candidate, these elements would be consonant. Two elements are dissonant if
the perceived opposite of one element is expected to follow from another element. For
example, being a Democrat and preferring a Republican candidate would be dissonant.
In Festinger’s words, “x and y are dissonant if not-x follows from y” (p. 13). Elements are not
necessarily dissonant just because one element does not follow from another, however; the

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48 Paul R. Nail and Kurt A. Boniecki

elements may be simply irrelevant. For example, being a Democrat and purchasing a Ford
Mustang would not induce dissonance because the elements have nothing to do with one
another. However, if the Democratic Party began vigorously promoting increases in fuel-
efficiency standards, then being a Democrat and purchasing a gas-guzzling sports car may
become very dissonant indeed. Thus, the addition of further knowledge may cause two
previously irrelevant elements to become relevant to each other, and thereby either conso-
nant or dissonant.

Festinger (1957) noted that any specific element of cognition is, in all likelihood, conso-
nant and dissonant with many other elements. Thus, the total magnitude of dissonance
experienced at any moment is more than the discrepancy between any two elements. Rather,
the total dissonance is dependent on the proportion of all relevant elements that are
dissonant to a given element. It can be expressed in the following formula:




where D* equals the total magnitude of dissonance, D equals the sum of all elements
dissonant with the element in question, and C equals the sum of all elements consonant
with the same element. For example, if you are a Democrat but decide to vote for a
Republican candidate, you should experience cognitive dissonance. The overall dissonance
could be reduced, however, by adding the consonant cognition that this particular
Republican candidate supports more typically Democratic issues than this year’s Democratic
candidate. Mathematically, adding any consonant cognition to the denominator must nec-
essarily reduce the quotient, thereby reducing the overall magnitude of dissonance.

Festinger (1957) further proposed that the magnitude of dissonance would be affected by
the importance of the elements involved in any particular consonant or dissonant relation – the
more important the dissonant elements, the greater the magnitude; the more important the
consonant elements, the lower the magnitude. Once more, Festinger’s primary thesis was
that cognitive dissonance is psychologically aversive and unpleasant. As a result, a person
experiencing it will feel pressure to reduce or eliminate it entirely. Festinger conceptualized
dissonance as similar to other physical and psychological drives, such as hunger and frus-
tration. Just as someone who is hungry will engage in behaviors to reduce the hunger, a
person experiencing dissonance will engage in behaviors to reduce the dissonance. The
degree of pressure to reduce dissonance will be in direct proportion to the magnitude of the
dissonance felt. The lower the magnitude, the less pressure the person feels. As summarized
above, three factors – the dissonant elements, the consonant elements, and the importance
of the elements – can be manipulated to reduce the magnitude, and thereby the pressure.

Perhaps the most direct method of reducing cognitive dissonance is to make the disso-
nant elements consonant by changing one of the inconsistent elements. If a dissonant
element is based on one’s own behavior, changing the behavior may suffice. For instance, a
smoker, knowing that smoking is bad for one’s health, can just stop smoking. If a dissonant
element is a belief or attitude about the environment, then a person can reduce or eliminate
dissonance by changing that belief or attitude. Thus, a smoker could decide that smoking
does not pose so much of a health hazard after all. Which dissonant element is changed

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Inconsistency in Cognition: Cognitive Dissonance 49

depends on each element’s resistance to change. Some dissonant behaviors may be seen as
irrevocable, and therefore behavioral change would be impossible. Consider a Democrat
who voted for a Republican candidate; this person cannot return to the voting booth and
vote again. Thus, he or she may abandon affiliation with the Democratic Party and self-
identify now as an independent to reduce the dissonance. Other dissonant behaviors may
be so reinforced by normative social pressure or so addictive (like smoking) that stopping
the behavior is more difficult than changing one’s discrepant beliefs or attitudes. However,
changing one’s belief or attitude is not always easier. People’s cognitions are constrained by
the “reality” they perceive. Convincing oneself that cigarettes are not hazardous to one’s
health may be daunting when each package is emblazoned with the Surgeon General’s
warning and one is inundated by numerous anti-smoking print and television ads.

What happens if the dissonant elements are so resistant to change that a person experi-
encing dissonance is unable to eliminate the discrepancies? Although completely alleviat-
ing cognitive dissonance would require eliminating all of the dissonant elements (so that
the sum of the dissonances would equal zero), again, one could sufficiently reduce disso-
nance by increasing the number of consonant elements. Because the overall magnitude of
cognitive dissonance is dependent on the proportion of dissonant elements, adding conso-
nant elements reduces that proportion and thereby reduces the dissonance. For example,
smokers, if unable to quit or change their beliefs about smoking, may add the consonant
cognition that smoking suppresses their appetite and therefore helps them maintain a
healthy weight. Alternatively, smoking helps them relax and thus reduces unhealthy stress.
The more credible rationalizations a person creates, the less pressure one feels to reduce the
dissonance. Ultimately, the magnitude of dissonance becomes small enough that it is bear-
able and motivates no further action besides avoidance of situations and information that
may add dissonant elements. Of course, adding any consonant element is not always
possible; like changing dissonant elements, rationalizations are constrained by a person’s
subjective reality. Although a rationalization may appear irrational, unbelievable, or non-
credible to others (e.g., Mrs. Keech’s claim that she and her group had saved the world), as
long as it does not contradict that person’s “reality” or, frequently more importantly,
that person’s shared “social reality,” it may effectively reduce dissonance (Stafford, 2009).
The fact that groups often create their own reality points to the important role of yet
another possible, often supplementary method of dissonance reduction – social support
(Festinger et al., 1956).

If people are unable either to change the dissonant elements or to add consonant ele-
ments, aided or not by social support, a possible means of dissonance reduction that
remains open is the importance of the elements. Specifically, people can reduce dissonance
by decreasing the importance of the dissonant elements through cognitive reframing or
distortion – a process Simon, Greenberg, and Brehm (1995) have referred to as trivializa-
tion. For example, people who engage in unhealthy behaviors – smoking, binge drinking,
overeating, steroid use, tanning, etc. – may embrace a “devil-may-care” attitude about their
health. Have you heard, or maybe used, some of the following statements? “Everything that
is fun is bad for you.” “Who wants to live forever?” “If (add one’s vice here) does not kill me,
something else will.” None of these remarks are designed to eliminate the dissonant
elements; people who make such statements still acknowledge the potential hazards of their

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50 Paul R. Nail and Kurt A. Boniecki

actions, but they do not plan to quit. Rather, they are minimizing the impact of those dis-
sonant elements by trivializing the goal of staying healthy and living for a long time. By
lowering the importance of the dissonant elements, the overall magnitude of dissonance
decreases. Some of the quotes above may also reduce dissonance by increasing the relative
importance of consonant elements. Thus, when smokers say, “Life is too short not to enjoy
a good cigarette,” they are simultaneously trivializing their values in a healthy life while
strengthening their values in having a pleasurable life. Once more, the social support of
others for any means of dissonance reduction can add to its effectiveness. Many smokers
agreeing that “Life is too short not to enjoy a good cigarette” is more effective than one
smoker saying the same thing either to oneself or in a group of skeptical nonsmokers.

A key prediction of the theory concerns dissonance that is aroused in research settings
when one is induced to engage in behavior that is inconsistent with one’s attitudes or beliefs
(viz., counter-attitudinal behavior). In this situation, the degree of dissonance will be
inversely proportional to the degree of perceived external pressure on the person to engage in
the counter-attitudinal behavior. External pressure could be defined operationally, for exam-
ple, by the degree of financial incentive one is offered to perform the inconsistent behavior,
or the amount of social pressure one is under from the experimenter to behave counter-
attitudinally. Whichever way external pressure is operationalized, if there is too much of it,
there is too much justification for the behavior, and the person should experience little or no
dissonance. Again, the D* = D/D + C formula is informative. Strong external pressures can
be seen as adding consonant cognitions to the dissonance equation, thereby justifying one’s
counter-attitudinal behavior and reducing the overall magnitude of dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance theory was firmly grounded in the developing zeitgeist of social
psychology that began with Kurt Lewin (1943). Indeed, Festinger and Lewin were colleagues
at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the early 1940s, before Festinger
moved to the University of Minnesota and later to Stanford University. Lewin had immi-
grated to the United States from Germany shortly after Hitler came to power in 1933, bring-
ing with him a Gestalt perspective of social behavior (Blass, 2004). German Gestalt
psychologists had demonstrated that perception went beyond the environmental stimuli
that people experienced through their sensory systems; rather, the Gestaltists convincingly
demonstrated that mental processes organize sensory information into a meaningful whole
that is more than the sensory representations of the environment. Lewin expanded on this
general idea, suggesting that behavior is not only a reaction to environmental stimuli, but
also dependent on a person’s subjective construal of these stimuli. Like Lewin, Festinger
(1957) emphasized this interaction between the person and the environment. The various
factors that contribute to cognitive dissonance – dissonant elements, consonant elements,
social support, and importance – are dependent on individuals’ goals, social groups, cul-
ture, and expectations that influence the “reality” they perceive. Thus, given the same two
relevant cognitive elements, one person may perceive them to be dissonant whereas another
perceives them as consonant. Alternatively, one may perceive the elements to by very impor-
tant whereas another perceives them as trivial.

While Lewin, Festinger, and others (e.g., Heider, 1958) followed this Gestalt-based
approach, other social psychologists such as Carl Hovland, Irving Janis, Harold Kelley, and
John Thibaut were applying learning principles from behaviorism to understanding

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Inconsistency in Cognition: Cognitive Dissonance 51

persuasion and attitude change (Hovland, Janis, & Kelley, 1953) and interpersonal relations
(Thibaut & Kelley, 1959). In contrast to the Gestalt approach, behaviorism generally ignored
mental processes and focused primarily on the environmental contingencies that influ-
enced observable behavior. Thus, learning theorists argued that people’s attitudes and
behaviors were the result of reinforcement and punishment; we like those things that ben-
efit us and do not like those things that harm us. During these formative years in the history
of social psychology, Gestalt theorists and behaviorists battled for the soul of the field, and
cognitive dissonance theory became the front line of that battle.

Early Research Paradigms and Tests of Cognitive
Dissonance Theory

Dissonance researchers have created a number of laboratory paradigms over the years
whereby dissonance can be aroused and investigated under controlled conditions. The most
important of these paradigms include induced compliance (e.g., Scher & Cooper, 1989; orig-
inally labeled forced compliance, Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959), free choice (Brehm, 1956),
justification of effort (Aronson & Mills, 1959), forbidden toy (Aronson & Carlsmith, 1963),
blame the victim (Glass, 1964), and hypocrisy (Aronson, Fried, & Stone, 1991). To illustrate,
we focus on the first two of these.

The induced compliance paradigm

In the first laboratory study designed by Festinger to test his new theory, Festinger and
Carlsmith (1959) tackled one of the more provocative and risky predictions of cognitive
dissonance theory – that under certain conditions, people may like a job more the less they
are paid for doing it. This prediction follows directly from the theoretical propositions out-
lined above; yet it runs counter to most people’s intuition, as well as a straightforward
extension of the principles of behaviorism and learning theory, which was the dominant
school of thought in American academic psychology from the 1920s through most of the
1950s and 1960s. Festinger and Carlsmith were about to turn behaviorism on its head.

The basic idea of the induced compliance paradigm is to get participants to do or say
something against that which they would normally say or do (viz., counter-attitudinal
behavior). Dissonance is manipulated by the degree of external pressure brought to bear on
the counter-attitudinal behavior. Festinger and Carlsmith (1959) had each participant in
their study perform a deliberately boring task for 30 minutes, loading and unloading spools
from a tray. Next each participant performed another boring task, turning ornaments on a
pegboard one-quarter turn, one after the other in turn, for another 30 minutes. At this
point, participants were allegedly debriefed, but this “debriefing” was in reality part of the
cover story and the still-unfolding procedure. Participants were told that the study was
really about the effects of expectations on the performance of manual tasks, which had been
designed to simulate assembly-line work, and that they had been in the no expectation
condition. The next participant, however, a female, was to be in the high expectation
condition, but an unanticipated problem had popped up. The student/experimental

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52 Paul R. Nail and Kurt A. Boniecki

confederate who was supposed to build up the female participant’s positive expectations
about how fun and enjoyable the experimental tasks were going to be had called in and
would not be able to serve as the confederate that day. As a result, the experimenter was in
a jam and was wondering if the participant might be willing to fill the confederate’s role.
Would the participant be willing to tell the waiting female participant how truly fun and
enjoyable the experimental tasks were?

Next was the manipulation of the independent variable, the external pressure or incen-
tive offered to participants. Some were offered and paid $20 for saying that the tasks were
quite fun and enjoyable, others only $1 (equivalent to $150 and $7.50 in 2010). A third
group of no-dissonance/control participants was not asked to contribute to the manipula-
tion of positive expectations for the next participant. At this point, as the participants were
leaving the experiment, all were told, incidentally, that the Psychology Department was
interested in evaluating the research being conducted by faculty members. Participants
were asked to stop by the office down the hall as they were leaving to help with the evalua-
tions. At the office, participants were asked to rate the experimental tasks regarding how
interesting and enjoyable they had been. The ratings were made on a −5 to +5 scale. Festinger
and Carlsmith (1959) had predicted that $1, unlike $20, would not be sufficient justifica-
tion for participants to say the tasks were fun and enjoyable when they actually were not.
Therefore, $1 participants should be more likely than $20 participants to rate the tasks
favorably. The results supported these predictions, as $1 participants gave the tasks a mod-
erately favorable rating on average (M = +1.35), a rating that was significantly higher than
that of both $20 participants (M = −0.05) and control participants (M = −0.45).

These findings challenged learning theory and the behaviorist establishment. According
to learning theory, the driving forces behind most behavior, human and nonhuman alike,
are reinforcement and punishment. Social psychologists had successfully applied these
same principles to the understanding of attitude formation and change (Hovland et al.,
1953). Simply stated, we should like objects and events that are followed by a reward and
dislike objects and events that are followed by punishment. Thus, learning theorists, as well
as most folk philosophers, would predict that participants paid $20 should rate the tasks
more favorably than those paid $1. However, the evidence was to the contrary, and many
psychologists, believing in the unassailable truth of learning theory, attacked the findings
while offering a litany of alternative explanations (Chapanis & Chapanis, 1964). We address
criticisms and revisions of Festinger’s (1957) theory later in this chapter. Suffice it to say for
the present that science thrives on controversy, and ironically, it was the critics of disso-
nance theory that helped to further refine the theory and establish it as one of the most
well-known and heuristically valuable theories in the history of psychology.

Another provocative aspect of Festinger and Carlsmith’s (1959) research is that it dem-
onstrated that attitudes can be influenced by behavior (behavior → attitudes). At the time,
this finding was outside most psychologists’ ideas about the relationship between attitudes
and behaviors, that attitudes predict or predispose behaviors in a general motivating way
(attitudes → behavior). Ultimately, the research of Festinger and Carlsmith, and other early
research based on the induced compliance paradigm, helped foster the contemporary view
regarding the relationship between behavior and attitudes – that they are reciprocally
related, always potentially both causes and effects of one another. The idea that behavior

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Inconsistency in Cognition: Cognitive Dissonance 53

can shape attitudes is especially noteworthy because of its relevance to one of the important
practical applications of dissonance theory we discuss in the final section of this chapter.

Although Festinger and Carlsmith (1959) invented and were the first to use the induced
compliance paradigm, later dissonance researchers have generally relied upon a more
direct variation that was developed by Brehm and Cohen (1962). This variation was pro-
posed in conjunction with one of the early revisions of Festinger’s (1957) theory. Here,
dissonance is induced by having participants write an essay or speech that runs counter
to their true attitudes (e.g., Nel, Helmreich, & Aronson, 1969). In the most frequently
used variation, college students are asked to write a counter-attitudinal essay arguing in
favor of a possible tuition increase at their school (e.g., Cialdini, Trost, & Newsom, 1995;
Steele & Liu, 1983). The experimenter explains to participants that an administrative
committee in charge of making a decision on the matter needs essays on both sides of the
issue so that a balanced judgment can be reached. Because almost all of the essays so far
have been against the increase, the committee really needs essays in favor of the increase.
Importantly, the independent variable is the choice participants are given in writing the
essay. Brehm and Cohen were the first of many subsequent dissonance theorists to empha-
size that one’s counter- attitudinal behavior must be seen by him or her as freely chosen if
it is to arouse much dissonance (e.g., Cooper & Fazio, 1984; Davis & Jones, 1960). Under
high choice, the experimenter politely asks participants, as a favor, to write in support of
the tuition increase. Under low choice, the experimenter just bluntly instructs partici-
pants that their assignment is to write in support of the increase. After writing the essays,
dissonance is usually measured by participants’ post-attitudes regarding the tuition hike.
The typically greater inferred attitude change on the part of high-choice participants as
compared to low-choice participants is taken as evidence of dissonance and its

The free choice paradigm

The induced compliance is the most well known of the dissonance paradigms, but Brehm’s
(1956) study using the free choice paradigm was actually the first to test dissonance theory
under controlled conditions. To begin, it is important to note that the word choice has a
different meaning in this context (see below) than it does under the manipulation of choice
in the induced compliance paradigm. Under the guise of a marketing study, Brehm invited
adult women to evaluate eight common household products, a coffee maker, lamp, radio,
etc. The women inspected each product and rank-ordered them from least desirable
(a ranking of 1) to most desirable (a ranking of 8). After the rankings, Brehm told partici-
pants that they could take home one of the products for free as a gift for participating in the
study. However, to ensure that the researcher did not run out of any one product, partici-
pants would need to choose between only two of the products (hence the label, free choice).
In one condition, Brehm gave participants a choice between two highly ranked products,
one ranked 5, 6, or 7 and the other ranked one point lower. In another condition, the choice
was between a highly ranked product (5, 6, or 7) and a product ranked two or three points
lower. Thus, in the former condition, participants faced a difficult choice between two
products that they had ranked nearly equally, whereas in the latter condition, participants

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54 Paul R. Nail and Kurt A. Boniecki

faced an easier choice between two, more disparately ranked items. After participants made
their choice, Brehm wrapped the gift for the participants to take home and continued the
study. Participants read consumer reports of four products they had evaluated, including
the two products from which they had to choose only one. After reading the consumer
reports, Brehm asked participants to rank all eight products a second time. This procedure
provided participants with a context and rationale for reevaluating the products as well as
a variety of positive and negative qualities about the chosen and rejected items that might
facilitate participants’ justification of their choice (i.e., reducing their dissonance).

Brehm (1956) predicted that the participants who had made the more difficult choice
would show a greater spread in the rankings of the chosen and rejected items than those
who made the easier choice (the so-called spread of alternatives), and that is exactly what
happened. Participants in the difficult-choice condition elevated their rankings of the cho-
sen items (M = 0.4) and lowered their rankings of the rejected items (M = −0.4), and they
did so significantly more than participants in the easy-choice condition (M = 0.13 and 0,
respectively). In cognitive dissonance terms, the women who were forced to make a tough
choice between two highly ranked products experienced more dissonance than those who
did not, and thus they were more motivated to change their evaluations of the chosen and
rejected items after the fact, apparently to justify their decision and reduce their dissonance.
Although these results did not ignite the same level of interest and controversy as Festinger
and Carlsmith’s (1959) study, Brehm had provided the first experimental evidence in sup-
port of cognitive dissonance theory. He also established the free choice paradigm as a valid
means of measuring dissonance and its effects in future research (e.g., Steele, Spencer, &
Lynch, 1993; Stone, 1999).

Development of the Theory

Whenever a theory starts to develop a reputation for making correct predictions, espe-
cially perhaps when the predictions are counterintuitive, novel, unexpected, or counter to
accepted knowledge, it is terribly tempting to think that the theory is correct, that all
bases have been covered, and that the theory must therefore be true. But this thinking is
wrong. All theories are false. The main reason is because nature, including human nature,
is infinitely subtle and complex. There is simply no way that any human being can antici-
pate all relevant circumstances with 100% accuracy, creating a set of abstract proposi-
tions before the fact, that will apply to all evidence that might have bearing on a theory.
The best a theorist can do is closely approximate the empirical world he or she is trying
to describe and explain, hopefully with closer approximations over time. As new evidence
comes in, all theories must change. And so it is with cognitive dissonance theory. As a
master theorist, Festinger (1987/1999, pp. 382–383) understood this fact about theories
better than most:

No theory is going to be inviolate. Let me put it clearly. The only kind of theory that can be

proposed and ever will be proposed that absolutely will remain inviolate for decades, certainly

centuries, is a theory that is not testable. If a theory is at all testable, it will not remain unchanged.

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Inconsistency in Cognition: Cognitive Dissonance 55

It has to change. All theories are wrong. One doesn’t ask about theories, can I show that they

are wrong or can I show that they are right, but rather one asks, how much of the empirical

realm can it handle and how must it be modified and changed as it matures?

Proposed revisions of Festinger’s (1957) theory started appearing almost before the
ink was dry on the first articles that reported support for the theory (e.g., Aronson,
1960, cited in Aronson, 1999; Brehm & Cohen, 1962; Rosenberg, 1965b). One reason
for these early revisions is that it soon became apparent to researchers that cognitive
inconsistencies do not always lead to measurable dissonance effects. “About 1958, the
standing joke among Festinger’s research assistants was, ‘If you really want to be sure
whether A is dissonant with B, ask Leon’ ” (Aronson, 1999, p. 109). The revisions of
Aronson, Brehm and Cohen, Rosenberg, and others (e.g., Cialdini et al., 1995; Tedeschi,
Schlenker, & Bonoma, 1971) were designed to tighten the conditions under which
empirical dissonance effects would most likely occur. Once more, for example, Brehm
and Cohen emphasized that participants’ counter-attitudinal behavior must be per-
ceived as freely chosen.

The Aronson (1960), Brehm and Cohen (1962), Tedeschi et al. (1971), and other early
revisions, however, are properly regarded as just that – revisions – because each retained
Festinger’s (1957) core idea that psychological inconsistency is the driving force that
underlies dissonance motivation. Other investigators, in contrast, have constructed
entirely or substantially new theories that attempt to explain dissonance effects with psy-
chological constructs other than the aversive tension of psychological inconsistency (e.g.,
Bem, 1967; Cooper & Fazio, 1984; Steele, 1988). Bem’s self-perception theory, for exam-
ple, is not a motivational theory at all, fitting as it does equally well within either the
information-processing or behavioral camps (see below). What is more, many of the early
and more recent efforts have extended dissonance-related work to domains that far exceed
the boundaries of dissonance theory as originally conceived by Festinger (e.g., Adams,
1965; Higgins, 1987; McGregor, Nail, Marigold, & Kang, 2005; Swann, 1984, 1996; Tesser,
1988; Wicklund & Gollwitzer, 1982). Other efforts have restricted dissonance theory to
the point that some theories only include a small fraction of the empirical world that
Festinger (1957) had originally envisioned (e.g., Cooper & Fazio, 1984; Rosenberg, 1965b;
Tedeschi et al., 1971). Yet all of these theories have generated their own bodies of sup-
portive and non-supportive evidence. Each theory can explain certain aspects of the
empirical world that no other theory can handle; still, no one theory can explain every-
thing. Complete consideration of all of this work would likely require an entire book
(cf. Cooper, 2007) and is therefore well beyond the scope of the present chapter. Accordingly,
we focus here on what we believe are a few of the most important developments in
dissonance theory and related work over the years. In order to fairly illustrate the level,
subtlety, and complexity of the theoretical issues involved, we have chosen to focus in
depth on a few issues rather than to have a necessarily shallow coverage of many issues. We
restrict ourselves to either (a) theories that use Festinger (1957) as a starting point and
propose various modifications therefrom or (b) entirely new theories, but ones that use
alternative interpretations of standard dissonance effects in the literature as a point of
departure from Festinger (1957).

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56 Paul R. Nail and Kurt A. Boniecki

Self-consistency theory (Aronson, 1960, cited in Aronson, 1999)

The earliest revision of dissonance theory was proposed by Elliot Aronson (1960, cited in
Aronson, 1999), who was a student of Festinger’s at Stanford beginning in the fall of 1956.
As a result of Aronson’s own research and his ongoing debates with Festinger, Aronson
eventually concluded that cognitive dissonance is more concerned with a person’s cogni-
tions about his or her self-concept and the need for consistency within one’s attitudes,
beliefs, and behaviors than it is with any need for a rationale or logic-like consistency, as
Festinger (1957) had originally posited. To clarify, dissonance in Aronson’s theory is not just
a conflict between any two relevant, important cognitions. Rather, dissonance theory makes
its clearest and strongest predictions when the inconsistent cognitions involve important
elements of a person’s self-concept. Looking back over the early work that had supported
dissonance theory, Aronson discovered in each case that the manipulations had challenged
widely desired self-conceptions, such as the desire to see one’s self as fair, honest, reasonable,
competent, and in control of one’s own behavior.

Consider the behavior of participants in Festinger and Carlsmith’s (1959) experiment,
for example. It is true enough that participants’ telling the incoming participant that the
experimental tasks were really fun and enjoyable is inconsistent with the fact that the
tasks were actually quite boring. What caused the dissonance from Aronson’s perspective,
however, was that telling a lie for no good reason ($1, insufficient justification) is incon-
sistent with most people’s valued self-conception that they are basically good and decent
human beings. Simply stated, good and honorable people do not do such morally ques-
tionable things. Yet a positive self-image can be essentially maintained in this context after
the fact if $1 participants say to themselves, in effect, “Come to think of it, the study
wasn’t that bad. Actually, there were all those spools and gadgets; being in the study was
really sort of fun when you think about it.” Note that in such thinking, $1 participants are
changing their attitude, thereby reducing the degree of the inconsistency of their lie, jus-
tifying their behavior to themselves, and thus reducing the magnitude of their dissonance
(i.e., self-inconsistency).

For $20 participants, in contrast, the situation is very different. These participants have
a good reason for lying – the $20 (sufficient justification). Thus, their self-concepts are not
threatened, and there is no need to justify their behavior after the fact. These hypothesized
processes explain why $1 participants changed their attitudes about the experiment,
reporting a moderately favorable reaction to it (M = +1.35), whereas $20 participants did
not (M = −0.05). In Aronson’s version of dissonance theory, dissonance arousal is centered
upon inconsistency with one’s self-concept, and dissonance reduction is all about self-
justification. Accordingly, the theory is frequently referred to as self-consistency theory. The
core aspects of most people’s self-concept according to self-consistency theory is that they
see themselves as competent, as morally good, and as a coherent whole (Aronson, 1968,
1999; Thibodeau & Aronson, 1992). Information that is at variance with people’s desired
self-views that they are fair, honest, reasonable, and competent causes dissonance; infor-
mation that does not, does not.

Because Aronson’s (1968, 1999) theory represents only a modification of Festinger’s
(1957) theory, it is important to note that Aronson’s theory incorporates other key aspects

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Inconsistency in Cognition: Cognitive Dissonance 57

of Festinger’s theory unaltered. For example, the total magnitude of dissonance in Aronson’s
theory can still be represented by the D* = D/D + C equation, and D* can be affected by both
the perceived importance of each element and the degree of social support. The only differ-
ence is that the D in Aronson’s theory concerns inconsistency with one’s self-concept,
whereas in Festinger’s theory D is more of a logic-like inconsistency.

Individual differences

One critical aspect of Aronson’s (1968, 1999) modified theory is that it led to testable pre-
dictions that would not have been readily apparent or very likely under Festinger’s (1957)
original formulation. In particular, Aronson’s self-consistency theory pointed to the poten-
tial for individual differences to become easily integrated within the theory. Consideration
of individual differences has led to a great deal of new, interesting, and enlightening research
(e.g., McGregor et al., 2005; Nail, Misak, & Davis, 2004; Steele et al., 1993). Festinger (1957)
had acknowledged from the outset that individual differences in sensitivity to cognitive dis-
sonance likely existed, but he gave little indication as to what these individual differences
might be or how to measure them. Under Aronson’s revised theory, however, the implica-
tions were clear. “Festinger’s original statement and all of the early experiments rested on
the implicit assumption that most people have a reasonably positive self-concept. But if a
person considered himself or herself to be a ‘schnook,’ he or she might expect to do sch-
nooky things” (Aronson, 1999, p. 111). The idea is that “schnooks” should not experience as
much dissonance in typical dissonance-arousing circumstances as “non-schnooks.” This
hypothesis has been supported in a number of studies (e.g., Aronson & Carlsmith, 1963;
Epstein, 1969; Swann & Read, 1981; Szabo, 1985).

Manipulators versus non-manipulators. We regard Aronson’s (1968, 1999) provision for
the inclusion and integration of individual differences within dissonance theory as one of
the singular achievements in the dissonance literature over the years (e.g., Bishop, 1967;
Cialdini et al., 1995; Glass, 1964; McGregor et al., 2005; Steele et al., 1993). In one particu-
larly relevant study, Szabo (1985) manipulated dissonance by having participants write
counter-attitudinal essays for a relatively large versus small monetary incentive. Importantly,
participants had been pre-classified as “manipulators” or “non-manipulators” based on a
Machiavellianism scale. The results indicated that non-manipulators showed the standard
insufficient justification effect; they displayed significantly greater attitude change in the
direction of their counter-attitudinal behavior under small incentive (M = 9.03) than large
(M = 7.6). For manipulators, in contrast, there was no reliable difference between the small
and large incentive conditions (M = 8.4 vs. 8.6, respectively). Apparently, because lying is
not atypical for manipulators, doing so is not at odds with their self-image and therefore
produces no particular dissonance that needs reducing. Interestingly, based on Aronson’s
(1968, 1999) theory and Szabo’s (1985) results (see also Epstein, 1969; Snyder & Tanke,
1976), manipulators should only experience dissonance under conditions where they might
get what they desire by lying, but do not lie, and have no good reason for not doing so! This
provocative hypothesis has not been put to the test to our knowledge, however.

Preference for consistency (PFC). Perhaps the most important body of work concerning
individual differences and cognitive dissonance is that of Cialdini and colleagues (e.g.,

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58 Paul R. Nail and Kurt A. Boniecki

Bator & Cialdini, 2006; Cialdini et al., 1995; Guadagno, Asher, Demaine, & Cialdini, 2001;
see also Nail, Bedell, & Little, 2003; Nail et al., 2001). Across a number of studies, Cialdini
and colleagues have shown that individuals scoring high on the Cialdini et al. (1995) PFC
scale generally behave consistently with dissonance theory, showing the typical dissonance-
reducing attitude change following counter-attitudinal behavior under high choice, whereas
those scoring low in PFC either show significantly less attitudinal-behavioral consistency
than high PFCs (Nail et al., 2001), none at all (e.g., Cialdini et al., 1995), or even anti-
consistency (Guadagno et al., 2001). Festinger (1957) originally conceived the need for
cognitive consistency as a nomothetic motive, meaning one applying to people, in general.
Work on PFC indicates, however, that Festinger’s hypothesized need for consistency may
apply strongly to as little as one-third of the population, thus significantly reducing the
scope of dissonance theory. However, in proposing alternative accounts of dissonance
phenomena, other theorists have suggested that standard dissonance effects in the litera-
ture have little or nothing to do with the need for either cognitive or self- consistency
(Bem, 1967; Cooper & Fazio, 1984; Steele, 1988). We turn now to the first of two such
accounts – self-perception theory and self-affirmation theory – that we will consider.

Self-perception theory (Bem, 1967)

Unlike Aronson’s (1968, 1969) self-consistency theory, Bem’s (1967) self-perception theory
is more than just a revision of Festinger’s (1957) theory. Further, steeped in the tradition of
American behaviorism, Bem’s theory has nothing to do with psychological drives of any
sort, much less the hypothesized tension that comes with either cognitive inconsistency à la
Festinger or self-inconsistency à la Aronson. Rather, the theory assumes that people are
often unsure of their own attitudes, feelings, and motives. To discover these, as the name of
the theory suggests, people simply watch or monitor their own behavior and then infer,
after the fact, what their attitudes and feelings must be, given the overall context in which
their behavior occurred. Self-perception processes are evident in the report of John Dean,
who was White House Counsel to President Nixon in the early 1970s before the Watergate
scandal. One day in July of 1970, when Dean was still working at the Justice Department, he
received a phone call from a White House staffer. The caller informed Dean that if he wanted
to go work for the President, he should make arrangements to catch the next flight to
California where he would meet Nixon, be interviewed by Nixon’s chief of staff, and spend
the weekend with some of Nixon’s top aides at the “Western White House.” In the made-for-
TV version of his book, Dean (1976) reports that he was never aware how very much
he was interested in politics and in climbing the ranks of power in Washington until after
he received that phone call. Judging from his behavior, however – how fast he booked the
next available flight and “dashed home to pack” (p. 13) – he guessed he had never wanted
anything so badly in all his life.

To further illustrate self-perception theory, consider once more the behavior of Festinger
and Carlsmith’s (1959) participants. Recall that after being in the study and telling the next
participant how interesting and enjoyable the tasks were, participants were asked to rate the
tasks. According to Bem, in the $1 condition participants would think something like this:
“Let’s see. I just told that girl that the tasks were really fun and enjoyable, and I only got paid $1.

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Inconsistency in Cognition: Cognitive Dissonance 59

So, I must have thought that the tasks were pretty enjoyable at least because I wouldn’t say
something that is untrue for only $1. I’ll give the tasks a moderately favorable rating.”
In the $20 condition, however, the hypothesized internal dialogue goes more like this: “Let’s
see. I just told that girl that the tasks were really fun and enjoyable, but I got paid $20, which
to me is a lot of money. I guess I probably told the girl that so I could get the $20. I would
have to rate the tasks, therefore, as not very enjoyable.” Support for self-perception theory
was obtained in a series of studies by Bem and his students in which the Festinger and
Carlsmith (1959) procedure was merely described to groups of observers. Importantly, the
observers produced the same pattern of results as the original participants by simply guess-
ing what the attitudes of original participants must have been in the $1, $20, and control
conditions (M = +0.52, −1.96, and −1.56, respectively; Bem, 1968; see also Bem & McConnell,
1970). Because the observers engaged in no attitudinal-behavioral or self inconsistency,
Festinger’s (1957) and Aronson’s (1968) versions of dissonance theory can not easily explain
these findings.

Dissonance and physiological arousal

The debate between Festinger’s (1957), Aronson’s (1968), and other consistency-based
accounts of dissonance phenomena on the one hand (e.g., Rosenberg, 1965b; Tedeschi
et al., 1971) and a self-perception account on the other raged in the literature for a good
part of the late 1960s and 1970s (Fazio, Zanna, & Cooper, 1977). The debate eventually
subsided, however, aided largely by the discovery that dissonance manipulations are often
accompanied by physiological arousal. This possibility was first suggested in the work of
Pallak and Pittman (1972), but with only an indirect measure of arousal (viz., consistent
with Zajonc’s, 1965, drive theory of social facilitation, dissonance manipulations had the
effect of energizing whatever responses were dominant in a particular setting). However,
the idea that dissonance manipulations cause physiological arousal has been supported in
numerous subsequent dissonance studies based on direct measures of arousal (e.g., GSR or
heart rate; Croyle & Cooper, 1983; Elkin & Leippe, 1986; Nail, Harton, & Decker, 2003).
Festinger (1957), his students, and other early dissonance researchers had often used terms
such as drive, arousal, drive-like, and drive reduction to describe dissonance processes, but
before Pallak and Pittman (1972), no one had ever gone so far as to suggest that the hypoth-
esized psychological arousal of dissonance might be accompanied by literal physiological
arousal as well. Nevertheless, this idea fit the theory neatly, and it had a great deal of intui-
tive appeal in retrospect. The presence of physiological arousal in dissonance research was
regarded by Festinger (1987/1999) as “an extremely important finding” (p. 384). Moreover,
it provided support for drive-based accounts of dissonance phenomena (Aronson, 1968;
Festinger, 1957) over self-perception theory (Bem, 1967).

Ever since the late 1970s, a truce of sorts between the drive-based and self-perception
accounts of dissonance phenomena has prevailed. It appears that self-perception processes
can and do occur but that these processes apply more to situations where people’s baseline
attitudes are either (a) not yet formed or (b) unclear and ambiguous. In situations where
people violate their clearly defined, preexisting attitudes, in contrast, psychological and
physiological arousal can and do occur, leading frequently to attitude change. In short,

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60 Paul R. Nail and Kurt A. Boniecki

self-perception theory applies fundamentally to attitude formation (e.g., John Dean),
whereas dissonance theory applies more to attitude change (Fazio et al., 1977). Further,
based on the Cialdini et al. (1995, pp. 325–326) conclusions regarding individual differences
in PFC and attitude change, it appears that the self-perception process may apply more to
people scoring low in PFC, whereas dissonance processes apply more to high PFCs.

Near-death and rebirth

At some point in the 1960s, cognitive dissonance theory became the dominant theoretical
orientation in social psychology. It remained so through much of the 1970s, and some still
regard Festinger (1957) as the single most important work in the history of social psychol-
ogy (Aronson, 1999; Nail, 2006). Yet, with the resolution of the conflict with Bem’s (1967)
self-perception theory (Fazio et al., 1977), and the rise of attribution theory and the infor-
mation-processing paradigm of the 1970s and 1980s, interest in cognitive dissonance the-
ory eventually waned. A key reason for this general lack of interest was stated succinctly by
“Ned” Jones (1985), one of the preeminent social psychologists from the 1960s until his
death in 1993: “Because the main propositions of dissonance theory have been confirmed
with sufficient regularity, there is not a great deal to be gained from further research in this
area” (p. 57). Uncharacteristically, in this instance, time has proven Jones wrong. At about
the time that Jones’s words were going to press, a number of different theorists working
independently began to consider more seriously and in divergent detail fuller implications
of Aronson’s (1968) proposal that dissonance processes reside in the self-concept (e.g.,
Higgins, 1987; Steele, 1988; Swann, 1984, 1996; Tesser, 1988; Wicklund & Gollwitzer, 1982).
Their work has led to renewed interest in dissonance theory, or at least in dissonance-
relevant phenomena, that persists to this day (e.g., Cooper, 2007; Hart et al., 2009; McGregor
et al., 2005; Nail, McGregor, Drinkwater, Steele, & Thompson, 2009). Steele’s (1988) self-
affirmation theory is one of the more prominent of these theories.

Self-affirmation theory (Steele, 1988)

Similar to Bem’s (1967) self-perception theory, Steele’s (1988) self-affirmation theory can
explain much of the dissonance literature, and it stands as an alternative and competing
theory of dissonance phenomena rather than just a modification of Festinger (1957; see
Aronson, Cohen, & Nail, 1999). Unlike Bem’s theory, however, self-affirmation theory can
accommodate the finding that psychological dissonance is physiologically arousing. Steele’s
theory is highly similar to Aronson’s (1968) self-consistency theory in that both theories
point to the critical role of the self in dissonance processes. Consequently, both theories
conceptualize dissonance as being grounded in the ego and not in a free-standing need for
cognitive consistency (Greenwald & Ronis, 1978, p. 55). However, unlike Aronson, but
similar to Bem (1967), Steele maintains that cognitive inconsistency is not at the heart of
dissonance motivation. According to Steele, dissonance is not the aversive tension of logic-
like inconsistency (Festinger, 1957), or even the tension of self-inconsistency (Aronson,
1968); rather, it is the tension of a “threatened sense of self-integrity” (Steele et al., 1993,
p. 893). Steele et al. postulate the existence of a “self system for maintaining a perception of

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Inconsistency in Cognition: Cognitive Dissonance 61

global integrity, that is, of overall moral and adaptive adequacy” (p. 885). Dissonance
occurs when one learns something or engages in behavior that threatens this overall
perception of self-integrity. Thus, attitude change in the induced-compliance paradigm
occurs not to reduce inconsistency, but rather to restore one’s overall sense of a good, com-
petent, and stable self-image.

Based on self-affirmation theory, Steele and Liu (1983, Study 1) predicted that partici-
pants would have no problem tolerating inconsistency provided that the experimental pro-
cedure afforded the opportunity to reaffirm values important to participants before
dissonance was measured. Students wrote essays in favor of a large tuition increase at their
university under high- or low-choice conditions. Immediately after writing the essay but
before attitude assessment, some high-choice participants were reminded of a pre- measured,
important component of their self-concept by completing an economic–political values
scale (value-oriented participants). Other high-choice participants went through the same
procedure, but they were chosen for the study precisely because economic–political val-
ues were not important to them (non-value-oriented participants). By definition, values
cannot be self-affirming if they are not important to a person. As predicted, the values scale
eliminated any semblance of attitude change among high-choice/value-oriented partici-
pants (M = 3.6) but not among high-choice/non-value-oriented participants (M = 9.1);
low-choice/control participants actually reported non-significantly greater attitude change
(M = 4.3) than high-choice/value-oriented participants (M = 3.6).1

According to Steele and Liu, these findings support self-affirmation theory over Festinger
(1957) because the values scale did nothing to reduce the inconsistency between attitude
and behavior among high-choice/value-oriented participants; still, these participants
revealed no tendency to rationalize their behavior. Stated differently, high-choice/value-
oriented participants experienced attitudinal-behavioral inconsistency but no threat to the
self because of the self-affirmational intervention. High-choice/non-value-oriented par-
ticipants, however, experienced both attitudinal-behavioral inconsistency and a threat to
the self because the affirmational intervention could not have been affirming to them. The
bottom line across both groups is that attitude change varied as a function of the threat to
the self inherent in writing the counter-attitudinal essay, not with attitudinal-behavioral
inconsistency, per se. Thus, the threat to the self must have been the cause of the dissonance
experienced by high-choice/non-value-oriented participants rather than the inconsistency.

Is self-affirmation theory necessary? Part I. The basic self-affirmation effect – that partici-
pants show no need to rationalize their counter-attitudinal behavior if they are reminded of
important, self-relevant values before their post attitudes are measured – has been repli-
cated many times (e.g., McGregor et al., 2005, Study 3; McGregor, Zanna, Holmes, &
Spencer, 2001; Steele & Liu, 1983, Study 3; Tesser & Cornell, 1991). Yet traditional disso-
nance/inconsistency theorists have questioned the need for a new and separate theory to
explain the dissonance-reducing benefits of self-affirmation (e.g., Beauvois & Joule, 1996;
Simon et al., 1995; Thibodeau & Aronson, 1992). After all, as Thibodeau and Aronson
(1992) have pointed out, adding new, consonant cognitions to the dissonant elements was
one of Festinger’s (1957) originally hypothesized modes of dissonance reduction. Such cog-
nitions are hypothesized to reduce dissonance because, once more, the absolute magnitude
of dissonance in both Festinger’s (1957) and Aronson’s (1968) theories is defined by the

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62 Paul R. Nail and Kurt A. Boniecki

ratio of dissonant elements to dissonant plus consonant elements (D* = D/D + C). Thibodeau
and Aronson asserted that once participants’ central values have been affirmed, they have
little need for attitude change because the affirmational intervention reminds participants
of valued, self-relevant cognitive elements that are consonant with a positive self-concept
overall. Given Aronson’s (1968, 1999) theoretical position that all dissonance processes
reside within one’s self-concept, once these consonant elements are added to the dissonance
equation, the magnitude of dissonance is quite obviously reduced.

The role of self-esteem. Steele et al. (1993) subsequently created a more pointed test between
self-affirmation theory and any of the consistency-based accounts (Aronson, 1968; Festinger,
1957; Swann, 1984). This research was based on the idea that consistency-based theories and
self-affirmation theory make conflicting predictions when considering individuals with
high versus low self-esteem. According to self-consistency theory, for example, high self-
esteem individuals should experience more conflict in dissonance-arousing situations than
low-esteem individuals (Aronson & Mettee, 1968). Assuming that self-inconsistency is the
driving force in dissonance motivation, it follows that the possibility of a bad choice as in the
free choice paradigm, for example, would be more inconsistent with the self-concept of high
self-esteem individuals than with that of low self-esteem individuals. Thus, high self-esteem
individuals should display greater dissonance-reducing rationalization – a greater spread of
alternatives – than lows. In sharp contrast, self-affirmation theory predicts that high self-
esteem individuals will experience less dissonance than individuals with low self-esteem.
High self-esteem individuals have positive self-concepts precisely because they have large
reservoirs of positive information, attributes, and thoughts regarding the self. Assuming that
a threatened sense of self-integrity is the driving force in dissonance motivation, it follows
that high self-esteem individuals would have greater self-resources to draw upon than low
self-esteem individuals. Thus, high self-esteem individuals should display a smaller spread
of alternatives following a difficult choice than low self-esteem individuals.

Steele et al. (1993, Study 2) tested these ideas in a 2 × 2 design that crossed trait high/low
self-esteem × focus/no-focus on one’s self-concept. Trait high/low self-esteem was deter-
mined based on a median split of scores on the Rosenberg (1965a) scale, which was admin-
istered several weeks before the experimental sessions began. Self-focus/no-self-focus was
manipulated by having randomly selected participants retake the Rosenberg scale at the
start of the experimental session or not. Dissonance was evoked employing a choice between
two similarly valued music CDs in the free-choice paradigm. The results were clear. They
showed that in the no-self-focus condition, there was no difference in the spread of alterna-
tives between high (M = 0.62) and low self-esteem (M = 0.56) participants. In the self-focus
condition, however, high self-esteem participants (M = −0.29) displayed a significantly
lower spread of alternatives than low self-esteem participants (M = 1.14). These results sup-
port self-affirmation theory over self-consistency theory. Presumably, the self-focus manip-
ulation caused participants to reflect on their self-concepts and self-resources. Self-reflection
resulted in low self-esteem participants rationalizing their choice more than high self-
esteem participants. Apparently, with their self-systems primed by the Rosenberg (1965a)
scale, high self-esteem participants simply had no need to rationalize their choice. In a con-
ceptual replication of Steele et al., similar results favoring self-affirmation theory were
reported by Nail et al. (2004).

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Inconsistency in Cognition: Cognitive Dissonance 63

Not all studies examining trait self-esteem, however, are consistent with self-affirmation
theory. Stone (1999, Experiment 1) replicated the Steele et al. (1993, Study 2) research but
varied the order of critical events in one condition. When Stone repeated the Steele et al.
ordering of events exactly, he found the same results; low self-esteem individuals rational-
ized their CD choice (M = 2.48) more than high self-esteem individuals (M = 0.55), thus
supporting self-affirmation theory. When Stone had some participants retake the Rosenberg
(1965a) scale after choosing one of the CDs but before the re-rating, however, the pattern
was reversed. High self-esteem participants showed greater self-justifying rationalization
(M = 1.35) than low self-esteem participants (M = 0.52), thus supporting self-consistency
theory. Further, at least three studies of manipulated rather than trait self-esteem have simi-
larly found that high self-esteem individuals display greater dissonance-reducing attitude
change than low self-esteem individuals, again supporting self-consistency theory (Aronson &
Mettee, 1968; Gerard, Blevans, & Malcolm, 1964; Glass, 1964).

To explain the complex relationship between self-esteem and the experience of cognitive
dissonance, Stone and Cooper (2001) have proposed an integration between self-affirma-
tion theory and self-consistency theory, the self-standards model of cognitive dissonance.
Stone and Cooper posit that people’s self-concepts are flexible enough to produce either a
self-affirmation effect à la Steele (1988) or a self-discrepancy effect à la Aronson (1968, 1999),
depending on the details of the situation. More specifically, the self can serve either as (a) a
resource that can buffer self-threats or (b) a standard that one may or may not have lived
up to. In essence, Stone and Cooper propose that if a study’s procedures and manipulations
remind participants of positive self-attributes that are irrelevant to the dissonance in ques-
tion, then the self should serve as a resource and high self-esteem individuals should display
less dissonance-reducing behavior than low self-esteem individuals – a self-affirmation
effect in line with self-affirmation theory (e.g., Nail et al., 2004; Steele et al., 1993; Stone,
1999). On the other hand, if a study’s procedures and manipulations remind participants of
positive self-attributes that are relevant to the dissonance in question but that they have
not lived up to, then the self should serve as a standard and high self-esteem individuals
should display more dissonance-reducing behavior than low self-esteem individuals – a
self-discrepancy effect in line with self-consistency theory (e.g., Aronson & Metee, 1968;
Glass, 1964; Stone, 1999).

Is self-affirmation theory necessary? Part II. Instead of attempting to integrate self-
affirmation theory and self-consistency theory, Simon et al. (1995) have proposed an expla-
nation of the self-affirmation effect that supports the Festinger (1957) and Aronson (1968)
consistency-based theories over self-affirmation theory. Simon et al. propose that self-
affirmation interventions may eliminate the need for dissonance reduction not because
they restore one’s self-image but because they establish a trivializing frame of reference
whereby the relative importance of dissonant elements can be reduced. As noted in the
third major section of this chapter, one of Festinger’s (1957) key, originally proposed meth-
ods of dissonance reduction is to decrease the importance of dissonant cognitions. Simon
et al. found that reminding high-choice participants of a generally important issue (e.g., world
hunger) following counter-attitudinal behavior eliminated the need for dissonance reduc-
tion in the form of attitude change whether or not the issue was of high personal importance
to participants (M = 3.25 and 3.27, respectively). These means did not differ significantly

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64 Paul R. Nail and Kurt A. Boniecki

from low-choice control participants (M = 2.55), whereas standard high-choice partici-
pants showed significantly greater attitude change than all three groups (M = 5.75). These
findings create problems for self-affirmation theory because, by definition, and consistent
with Steele and Liu (1983), an issue cannot be self-affirming unless it is of high personal
importance. At the same time, these data provide evidence consistent with dissonance proc-
esses as originally conceived by Festinger (1957) and as modified by Aronson (1968, 1999).

Evaluation of the Theory and Conclusions

In evaluating cognitive dissonance theory, it is sometimes difficult to separate Festinger’s
(1957) theory from Aronson’s (1968, 1999) version. First, with the exception of the distinc-
tion between logic-like inconsistency versus self-inconsistency, the theories are identical.
Second, given the prominence of the self-concept in contemporary social psychology,
Aronson’s theory is what many authors and researchers mean these days when they refer to
cognitive dissonance theory. Fundamentally in this section, we will treat the two versions as
one. When beneficial, however, we will differentiate between the two.

There are numerous recognized criteria by which any theory may be evaluated. One is a
theory’s usefulness or applicability in solving real-world problems. Here cognitive dissonance
theory gets high marks as the theory has been successfully brought to bear on numerous
real-world, important, and practical problems. These include fostering more successful child
rearing (e.g., Lepper, 1973; Mills, 1958), increasing condom use among sexually active college
students (Aronson et al., 1991; Stone, Aronson, Crain, Winslow, & Fried, 1994), promot-
ing pro-community behaviors such as water conservation (Dickerson, Thibodeau,
Aronson, & Miller, 1992) and waste-product recycling (Fried & Aronson, 1995), explaining
consumer behavior (Cialdini, 2009), increasing community service and charitable dona-
tions (e.g., Howard, 1990; Kraut, 1973; Sherman, 1980), reducing racial prejudice (e.g.,
Leippe & Eisenstadt, 1994; Son Hing, Li, & Zanna, 2002), and providing insight into the
treatment of phobias (Cooper, 1980) and the success of therapeutic interventions more
generally (e.g., Axsom & Cooper, 2004; Cooper & Axsom, 1982). In most of these applica-
tions, the basic idea is that since dissonance is unpleasant and aversive, less adaptive and
desirable behaviors can be decreased by associating them in people’s minds with cognitive
dissonance (i.e., times in the past where one has not lived up to one’s own standards [hypoc-
risy induction]), whereas more adaptive behaviors can be increased by associating them
with dissonance reduction. Some of this work is particularly impressive in that follow-up
measures have shown dissonance/hypocrisy interventions to still yield significant outcomes
even two and three months following the original induction of dissonance (Aronson et al.,
1991; Stone et al., 1994).

A quite different but potentially even more important application of dissonance theory
is more personal in nature and concerns what Aronson, Wilson, and Akert (1997) refer to
as the rationalization trap: “the potential for dissonance reduction to produce a succession
of self-justifications that ultimately result in a chain of stupid, immoral, [unethical, or ille-
gal] actions” (p. 222). A key problem with the experience of dissonance and the human
tendency to justify one’s behavior is that, over time, one’s self-regulatory boundaries can

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Inconsistency in Cognition: Cognitive Dissonance 65

expand. For example, few people start off stealing Post-it notes from their employer with
the thought they might eventually wind up embezzling thousands of dollars, getting caught,
and going to jail. Yet, once one begins stealing small things and rationalizing this stealing as
justifiable, it becomes easier and easier to graduate, over time, to higher and higher levels of
theft and impropriety (Lepper, 1973; Mills, 1958). Importantly, as documented by Tavris
and Aronson (2007), such escalation can occur with respect to any questionable behavior
whether the boundaries are personal, ethical, moral, or legal (e.g., lying, gambling, cheating
on one’s spouse or taxes, using illegal drugs or steroids). An anonymous quote is relevant to
this application of dissonance theory: “Be careful what you think because your thoughts
become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your character,
and your character determines your destiny.” Translating this quote into the more direct
language of dissonance theory, it becomes more poignant and to the point: “You must be
careful what you do because your behavior can influence your attitudes, your attitudes can
influence your values, and your values will determine your destiny.”

The efficiency of a theory can be thought of as the ratio of phenomena explained by the
theory to the theory’s complexity. Here again, dissonance theory gets high marks because,
as documented in this chapter, there are literally scores of seemingly diverse findings that
are adequately, neatly, even compellingly, explained and integrated by the theory
(cf. Aronson, 1999, p. 108). Yet the essence of the theory remains relatively simple, capable
as it is of being summarized with a handful of sentences. Still, no one version of dissonance
theory can explain all of the data. What about the relative efficiency of Festinger’s (1957)
theory versus Aronson’s (1968, 1999)? In principle, Festinger’s theory is potentially more
comprehensive because Aronson’s self-inconsistency can be correctly regarded as a special
case of Festinger’s cognitive inconsistency. On the other hand, Aronson’s theory more easily
and elegantly accommodates individual differences than Festinger’s theory. If dissonance
is caused by inconsistency within one’s self-concept, it follows directly that dissonance will
be highly subjective in nature and that what causes dissonance in one person may not do
so in another (Aronson, 1999; e.g., Epstein, 1969; Nail et al., 2001, 2004; Snyder & Tanke,
1976; Szabo, 1985).

The heuristic value of a theory refers to its ability to generate testable, empirical hypoth-
eses. Here, dissonance theory is perhaps second to none. What is more, the Aronson (1968,
1999), Steele (1988), and other self-versions of the theory (e.g., Tesser, 1988) have added
tremendously to the heuristic value of Festinger (1957), which was already very high. It is
interesting to note, however, that Festinger did not think much of any of the revisions of his
theory. For example, he regarded the Brehm and Cohen (1962) emphasis that counter-
attitudinal behavior must be perceived as freely chosen as merely a special case of his more
general concept of minimal external pressure:

It says in the original book that in order for dissonance to be large enough to exist there has to

be minimal pressure on the person to do what the person does. If there is too much pressure,

there is too much justification for having done it, and if it is all consonant with having done it,

there is no dissonance. Doesn’t that encompass the idea of choice? Isn’t choice one part of that?

I said to myself, these wonderful people whom I like and respect are taking one operation and

elevating it to the status of a construct, and it’s terrible. (Festinger, 1987/1999, p. 383)

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66 Paul R. Nail and Kurt A. Boniecki

According to Aronson (1999), Festinger was also not pleased with Aronson’s (1968)
self-consistency revision. Festinger felt that it narrowed the theory too greatly. Further, once
more, can not the concept of self-inconsistency be encompassed and conceptualized as
merely a special case of the more general concept of cognitive inconsistency? Perhaps more
importantly, logic-like inconsistency that does not involve one’s self-concept is clearly
excluded by Aronson’s (1968, 1999) theory.

In this same vein, Festinger (1957) was clear that only important inconsistencies should
arouse measurable dissonance effects. From Festinger’s point of view, can it not be rea-
sonably argued that one of the surest ways to make an inconsistency important to some-
one is to arrange things so that the inconsistency is relevant to that person’s self-concept?
If so, as Greenwald and Ronis (1978) have argued, dissonance research may have been
inadvertently pulled in the direction of investigating inconsistencies with the self- concept
only because significant dissonance effects in this domain were relatively easy to obtain
and replicate in comparison to dissonance effects that might be obtained from the purely
logic-like inconsistencies hypothesized by Festinger (1957). Yet, it is not logically possible
to accept the hypothesis that important logic-like inconsistencies cannot motivate the
type of dissonance-reducing behavioral and attitudinal changes hypothesized by Festinger
only because they have not heretofore been demonstrated. Attempting to do so would
involve the same logical fallacy as accepting the null hypothesis. Thus, it is possible that
a true test of Festinger’s theory – one where a purely logic-like inconsistency is not
confounded with self-inconsistency – has yet to be performed. Ironically, there is never-
theless ample evidence in the literature that supports dissonance processes as originally
conceived by Festinger, although this evidence is indirect and hidden to most observers.
We refer to the behavior of the many theorists who have proposed revisions of dissonance
theory to better square with the evidence the theory has generated, thus attempting to
reduce a purely logic-like inconsistency. “The behavior of the theorists doing the revising
is a near-perfect illustration of dissonance reduction of the sort intended in the original
statement of the theory” (Greenwald & Ronis, 1978, p. 55) but excluded by the Aronson
(1968, 1999) and Steele (1988) ego-based versions, as well as all other versions (e.g.,
Cooper & Fazio, 1984).

With final respect to evaluation, the originality of a theory refers to the novelty of its
constructs and hypotheses. Here, dissonance theory only gets mixed marks. If dissonance
processes are grounded in the ego or self-system as Aronson (1968, 1999), Steele (1988),
and others maintain (e.g., Higgins, 1987; Wicklund & Gollwitzer, 1982), then there is a
considerable body of theoretical work that highlighted inconsistencies within, or threats to,
one’s self-concept or ego system that antedated Festinger, Aronson, and Steele by several
years, even decades (e.g., Allport, 1943; Freud, 1924/1968; Hilgard, 1949; Rogers, 1951).
Rogers, for example, theorized how existing inconsistencies between a person’s actual and
ideal self-images can cause internal psychological tensions that are of critical importance
with respect to one’s personal growth, development, and mental health. On the other hand,
if dissonance refers only to the need for logic-like consistency, as Festinger (1957) proposed,
at least two social-psychological cognitive consistency theories were published before
Festinger (1957): the A–B–X model (Newcomb, 1953; Newcomb & Svehla, 1937) and con-
gruity theory (Osgood & Tannenbaum, 1955). Still, there is no question that Festinger’s

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Inconsistency in Cognition: Cognitive Dissonance 67

theory is far superior at generating testable hypotheses than any of the early self-theories or
any of the alternative cognitive consistency theories (e.g., Heider, 1958).

With further respect to the lack of originality of Festinger (1957), students of social
psychology who learn of Piaget’s (1937/1971) theory of cognitive development cannot
help but be struck by the parallels between the two systems. Whereas Festinger (1957)
hypothesized how inconsistencies among cognitive elements cause cognitive dissonance,
which motivates a person to make changes to restore consonance, Piaget (1937/1971)
hypothesized how inconsistencies among mental structures (viz., schemas) cause psy-
chological disequilibrium, which motivates a person to make changes (viz., accommoda-
tions) to restore equilibrium. These parallels suggest one potential place to look for
direct evidence that might support dissonance theory as originally conceived by
Festinger – the Piagetian tasks, which Piaget (1929/1979, 1941/1997) developed to test
various aspects of his theory (e.g., the object permanence, conservation of number and
volume, and displacement of liquid tasks). Our observations of preschool children,
clearly experiencing and overcoming cognitive dissonance en route to correct solutions
on these tasks, suggest that the solutions might occur either too early in a child’s devel-
opment, or too quickly and spontaneously, to involve the self-concept. Careful experi-
mentation might settle the issue. Evidence that success on these tasks is not mediated or
moderated by the self, we argue, would support Festinger’s (1957) original theory over
any of the competing versions. Importantly, such evidence could potentially reestablish
Festinger’s (1957) theory as the dominant, most generally adequate account of disso-
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In social psychology, the term attribution has two primary meanings. The first refers to
explanations of behavior (i.e., answers to why questions); the second refers to inferences or
ascriptions (e.g., inferring traits from behavior, ascribing blame to a person). What the two
meanings have in common is a process of assigning: in attribution as explanation, a behav-
ior is assigned to its cause; in attribution as inference, a quality or attribute is assigned to the
agent on the basis of an observed behavior. Despite the connection between these phenom-
ena, they have distinct psychological characteristics (Hamilton, 1998; Hilton, Smith, & Kin,
1995; Malle, in press). This chapter will focus on attribution as behavior explanation because
it is a far-reaching cognitive and social phenomenon that is embedded in the larger human
search for meaning (Malle, 2004).1

The discussion will begin with the undisputed founder of attribution work, Fritz Heider,
then briefly visit Jones and Davis’s contribution, and move on to Harold Kelley’s theoretical
model. Because many excellent reviews of the standard views on these theories are available
(see note 1), I will spend relatively little time recounting them. My goal is rather to point out
aspects of classic attribution theories that are not generally emphasized, highlight historical
misunderstandings, and bring to light theoretical difficulties that have not been adequately
addressed. In the second half of the chapter I then introduce an alternative theory of behavior
explanations that builds on previous theories but tries to overcome their major shortcomings.

Heider’s Theory of Attribution

Fritz Heider developed models of attribution for both object perception and person per-
ception. His theory of object perception (first described in Heider, 1920, his dissertation) is
rarely cited today, but it serves as the foundation for his later theory of person perception.


Attribution Theories: How People
Make Sense of Behavior

Bertram F. Malle

Theories in Social Psychology, First Edition. Edited by Derek Chadee.
© 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published 2011 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

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Attribution Theories: How People Make Sense of Behavior 73

Heider attempted to solve one of the core philosophical problems of phenomenology:
the relation between sensory information and real objects. That is, he asked how it was pos-
sible that humans perceive qualities of objects in the world even though all they have are
sensations in the mind. Heider argued that real objects shape “media” such as air pressure,
light reflections, and sense organs. These media have a considerable degree of variance (for
one thing, they reflect many real objects), but the perceptual apparatus reconstructs real
objects from their characteristic effects on the media. Heider labeled this reconstruction
attribution – a process that generates inferences of the relatively invariant qualities of objects
from the characteristic variance patterns they cause in their media. Perceivers faced with
sensory information thus experience perceptual objects as “out there” because they attribute
the sensory data to their underlying cause in the world (Heider, 1920).2

After his early work on object perception Heider turned to the domain of social interac-
tions, wondering how people perceive each other in interaction and especially how they
make sense of each others’ behavior. Heider proposed that a process of attribution is
involved in person perception as well, but he recognized that person perception is more
complex than object perception – due to the manifold observational data available and the
various causes (e.g., beliefs, desires, emotions, traits) to which these data can be attributed.
In addition, it was clear to Heider that persons are very different targets of perception than
inanimate objects. Persons are “perceived as action centers and as such can do something to
us. They can benefit or harm us intentionally, and we can benefit or harm them. Persons
have abilities, wishes and sentiments; they can act purposefully, and can perceive or watch
us” (Heider, 1958, p. 21). Note that Heider repeatedly refers to the intentionality of persons,
which he considered a core assumption in the conceptual framework that underlies social
perception. With the help of such concepts as intentionality and the inference of wishes,
purposes, sentiments, and other mental states, Heider argued, perceivers bring order and
meaning to the massive stream of behavioral data.

Even though in one sense person perception is like object perception – a process of
extracting invariance out of variance – Heider emphasized two distinct features of person
perception. The first is that in the social domain, variance refers to the agent’s stream of
ongoing behavior and invariance refers to the inferred perceptions, intentions, motives,
traits, and sentiments. Heider (1958) sometimes used the term disposition to refer to these
invariances, and even though he occasionally referred to traits and abilities when talking
about dispositions (e.g., pp. 30, 80), he considered “motives, intentions, sentiments … the
core processes which manifest themselves in overt behavior” (p. 34). It was the agent’s
motives that occupied a special role in Heider’s model: “The underlying causes of events,
especially the motives of other persons, are the invariances of the environment that are rele-
vant to [the perceiver]; they give meaning to what he experiences” (Heider, 1958, p. 81;
emphasis added). In social perception, then, Heider’s terms disposition and invariance
referred primarily to mental states.

The second distinct feature of person perception is that when people perform a causal
(i.e., attributional) analysis of human behavior, their judgments of causality follow one of
two conceptual models (Heider, 1958, chap. 4). The first is a model of impersonal causality,
applied to unintentional human behaviors (such as sneezing or feeling sad) and physical
events (such as waves splashing or leaves falling). The second is a model of personal causality,

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74 Bertram F. Malle

which is invoked whenever a human agent performs an intentional action (such as clean-
ing the kitchen or inviting someone to dinner). “Personal causality,” Heider wrote, “refers
to instances in which p causes x intentionally. That is to say, the action is purposive”
(Heider, 1958, p. 100).

Unfortunately, subsequent attribution research misrepresented both of these crucial
features of person perception. First, even though mental states make up the majority of
what Heider subsumed under dispositional properties (Heider, 1958, pp. 31–34, chap. 4,
passim), most scholars portrayed Heider’s notion of disposition as referring to stable
personality factors (i.e., traits, attitudes, or abilities). For example: “Heider began by
assuming that just as objects have enduring qualities that determine their appearances, so
people have stable psychological characteristics that determine their behavior” (Gilbert,
1998, p. 94; emphasis added). This interpretation of dispositions as necessarily stable can
be traced to two early sources. The first is Kelley’s (1960) review of Heider’s (1958) book,
according to which “Heider’s central theme is that perception leaps over the raw data
presented and enables the person to understand the stable, dispositional properties …
that account for them” (p. 2). The second is Jones and Davis’s (1965) influential paper
“From acts to dispositions,” in which they used the term disposition to refer to character
traits and attitudes only. Hence research on dispositional attribution became research on
trait inferences.

The second misunderstanding was that many scholars mistook Heider’s distinction
between personal and impersonal causality – the terms he used to characterize intentional
versus unintentional behavior (Heider, 1958, pp. 100–101) – for a distinction between per-
son causes and situation causes. Kelley (1967) famously posited that in all explanations,
“the choice is between external attribution and internal … attribution” (p. 194). Attribution
research applied this person–situation dichotomy to all behaviors alike, whether intentional
or unintentional, and thereby eliminated Heider’s central concepts of intention, purpose,
and motive from later models of social perception.

Ironically, Heider was credited for – and indeed identified with – “discovering” the simple
person–situation dichotomy himself:

How do we search for the causal structure of interpersonal events? According to Heider, we do

so by reliance upon attributions to the environment (external factors) or to something about

the other person (internal factors). (Weary, Edwards, & Riley, 1994, p. 292)

Central to Heider’s entire theoretical position is the proposition that man perceives behavior as

being caused, and that the causal locus can be either in the perceiver or in the environment.

(Hastorf, Schneider, & Polefka, 1970, p. 63)

But why the perception that Heider proposed a person–situation dichotomy in attribu-
tion? One small section of his book appears to have spawned this claim (Heider, 1958, pp.
82–84). There Heider characterizes any “action outcome” (the result of an action, not the
action itself ) as “dependent upon a combination of effective personal force and effective
environmental force” (p. 82). In elaborations of this claim (pp. 83–87), Heider offered
a complex picture. He argued that for an action outcome to occur, there needs to be a
concomitance of two elements: the agent’s attempt to perform the action (trying) and

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Attribution Theories: How People Make Sense of Behavior 75

supporting factors (can) that lie in the agent (effort, ability) or in the environment
(e.g., opportunity, luck, favorable conditions). Trying is the execution of an intention,
so Heider stayed true to his analysis of action in terms of intentionality (personal causal-
ity). Only for the can forces did Heider apply the distinction between person factors and
environmental factors, and these can forces play a very circumscribed role: they are the
necessary elements for an intentional action to be successful, the elements that enable the
desired outcome to occur (Heider, 1958, p. 109). Such enabling factor explanations (Malle,
1999) answer the specific explanatory question of how it was possible that the action
outcome was attained (Malle, Knobe, O’Laughlin, Pearce, & Nelson, 2000; McClure &
Hilton, 1997). Only for this explanation mode did Heider introduce the distinction
between internal and external causal factors. There is no indication in the text that Heider
thought people use the internal–external distinction when explaining behavior in gen-
eral. On the contrary, Heider stated that people explain why a person is trying to do
something by referring to the “reasons behind the intention” (Heider, 1958, p. 110; see
also pp. 125–129).

The contrast between these two types of explanations – why the action was chosen and
what enabled it to succeed – can be illustrated with the following passage from Gilbert
(1998, p. 96):

If a pitcher who wishes to retire a batter (motivation) throws a burning fastball (action) directly

into the wind (environmental influence), then the observer should conclude that the pitcher

has a particularly strong arm (ability). If a batter tries to hit that ball (motivation) but fails

(action), then the observer should conclude that the batter lacked coordination (ability) or was

blinded by the sun (environmental influence).

The observer’s reasoning here is entirely focused on accounting for successful or failed out-
comes; the question of why the batter and the pitcher acted as they did is not answered by
reference to either arm, wind, or sun. This why question is already answered by mentioning
the pitcher’s obvious desire to retire the batter and the batter’s obvious desire to hit the ball
and get a run. Talking about the arm, wind, and sun, by contrast, answers the question of
how the outcome was attained (Malle et al., 2000).

In an interview with Bill Ickes (1976, p. 14), Heider explicitly distinguished between these
two questions and hence between two types of explanation:

1. the attribution of outcomes to causal factors (i.e., enabling factor explanations);
2. the attribution of intentional actions to the actor’s motives (i.e., reasons for acting).

Heider himself never developed a model of motive attributions or reason explanations,
and he felt that these explanations had not been adequately treated by contemporary attri-
bution work (Ickes, 1976, p. 14). By contrast, Heider felt that outcome attributions
(e.g., what made a student fail or succeed on a test) were well developed in Weiner’s work
(e.g., Weiner, 1986; Weiner et al., 1972).

The misperception that Heider proposed the external–internal dichotomy as the funda-
mental dimension of explanation may thus stem from a confounding of outcomes

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76 Bertram F. Malle

(explained by enabling factors) and actions (explained by motives or reasons). The follow-
ing passages from Hastorf et al. (1970) illustrate this confusion:

Presumably the outcomes of action are caused by some combination of personal characteris-

tics and environmental forces [outcome attribution]. The person may have done something

because he had to do it … or because he wanted to do it [action explanation]. (p. 64)

When we infer that the combination of ability and effort was stronger than the external forces,

we infer that internal causality was present [outcome attribution]. Only then do we say such

things as “he did it because he wanted to” [action explanation]. (p. 89)

In both of these passages, the authors treat two different explanatory questions as if they
were one and the same. The judgment whether “he did it because he wanted to” or “because
he had to do it” clarifies the agent’s reasons for an action. These reasons can be given even before
the agent tries to perform the action because reasons explain the intention, whether or not
the intention gets fulfilled. By contrast, the judgments about ability, effort, or external forces
clarify how it was possible that the action outcome was attained (an enabling factor explana-
tion). This explanation can be given only after the agent tried to perform the action – if he
succeeded – whereas reason explanations track the motivation for the action in the first place.

Thus, whereas Heider has been consistently credited with introducing the person–situation
dichotomy in attribution theory, Heider’s actual theory was predicated on the distinction
between personal causality (which accounts for intentional events) and impersonal causality
(which accounts for unintentional events) – later recognized as a core constituent of social
cognition (Malle, Moses, & Baldwin, 2001; Zelazo, Astington, & Olson, 1999). Heider’s analy-
sis of personal causality revealed a complex set of mental states centered on intention; and
people, when trying to make sense of intentional behavior, attempt to infer those states (such
as beliefs, wishes, and sentiments), which were the reasons that guided the actor’s behavior.

Jones and Davis’s Abandoned Theory of Explanation

Jones and Davis (1965) were the first to introduce a theory of dispositional inference, speci-
fying conditions under which a perceiver infers a stable disposition (personality trait or
attitude) from an agent’s behavior. But before they introduced this theory, the first few
pages of their famous chapter appeared to go in a different direction. They targeted just the
issue that Heider had left open: exactly how people explain intentional action by means of
motives or reasons. In a short section, entitled “The Naive Explanation of Human Action:
Explanation by Attributing Intentions,” the authors attempted to account for “a perceiver’s
inferences about what an actor was trying to achieve by a particular action” (p. 222) and the
process of finding “sufficient reason why the person acted” (p. 220), because “the perceiver’s
explanation comes to a stop when an intention or motive is assigned that has the quality of
being reason enough” (p. 220). Despite an apparent plan to present a theory of action expla-
nation by reasons, this was the last that Jones and Davis wrote about action explanations.3
They immediately turned to the conditions under which perceivers infer traits (e.g., arro-
gance or dominance; see p. 223) from single behavioral events. This theory was refined
in several models of dispositional attribution (e.g., Gilbert, Pelham, & Krull, 1988;
Quattrone, 1982), and it inspired research on stereotypes (e.g., Gilbert & Hixon, 1991;

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Attribution Theories: How People Make Sense of Behavior 77

Yzerbyt, Rogier, & Fiske, 1998), judgment biases (e.g., Ross, 1977), and impression forma-
tion (e.g., Reeder, 1997; Trope, 1986). However, Jones and Davis (1965) wholly left behind
the social perceiver’s attempt to find the agent’s reasons for acting,4 and it was up to the next
attribution theorists to tackle this question.

Kelley’s Theory of Attribution as Causal Judgment

Kelley’s (1967) paper on attribution theory in social psychology is generally considered the
first systematic and general treatment of lay causal explanations. Kelley’s self-ascribed goal
in the paper was “to highlight some of the central ideas contained in Heider’s theory”
(Kelley, 1967, p. 192). Specifically, the two central ideas on which Kelley focused were:

1. In the attribution process “the choice is between external attribution and internal …
attribution” (Kelley, 1967, p. 194).

2. The procedure of arriving at these external or internal attributions is analogous to
experimental methodology.5

Two questions must be considered here, one historical, one substantive. First, were these
two ideas really central to Heider’s theory, as Kelley claimed? Second, do the two ideas
together provide a strong foundation for a theory of behavior explanation?

As argued earlier, Heider applied the external–internal dichotomy to action outcomes
that either succeeded or failed. Explanations of intentional action, by contrast, involve the
agent’s reasons, and for Heider an external–internal distinction was not useful in this
domain. Nonetheless, to support the notion that Heider considered the process of explain-
ing as analogous to experimental methodology (what Kelley termed the covariation princi-
ple), Kelley quoted a passage from the very end of Heider’s book (Heider, 1958, p. 297),
which is itself largely based on the section “Attribution of Desire and Pleasure” (Heider,
1958, pp. 146–160). In this section, however, Heider focused entirely on the attribution of
impersonal or unintentional events such as enjoyment. Heider never claimed that all
behavioral events are explained by means of covariation. Historically, then, Heider provided
at best partial backing for Kelley’s two postulates.

Whether Kelley correctly represented Heider or not, the question remains whether
Kelley’s theory generally accounts for folk explanations of behavior – and not merely for
explanations of unintentional events. As a starting point, consider the following example
that Kelley offers to illustrate the attribution process:

Am I to take my enjoyment of a movie as a basis for an attribution to the movie (that it is

intrinsically enjoyable) or for an attribution to myself (that I have a specific kind of desire

relevant to movies)? The inference as to where to locate the dispositional properties responsi-

ble for the effect is made by interpreting the raw data (the enjoyment) in the context of subsidi-

ary information from experiment-like variations of conditions. (Kelley, 1967, p. 194)

This example features an actor’s attempt to explain enjoyment – an unintentional event.
Indeed, throughout his chapter Kelley applies this attribution analysis to “effects such as
experiences, sensations, or responses” (p. 196) and “impressions” (p. 197), as well as arousal

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78 Bertram F. Malle

states and evaluative reactions (pp. 231–232). All of these events are unintentional. Kelley
occasionally claimed that his model also extended to the case of “inferring a person’s inten-
tions from knowledge of the consequences of his actions” (p. 196, see also p. 193). However,
no theory, empirical data, or examples clarified how this process might work.

Of course, the absence of such clarification is not yet proof that Kelley’s model fails to
account for intentional actions. But difficulties emerge quickly when one applies either the
person–situation dichotomy or covariation reasoning to intentional actions.

Consider the following scenario:

Having just arrived in the department as a new Assistant Professor, Pauline finds in her mail-

box a note that says “Let’s have lunch tomorrow. Faculty club at 12:30? – Fred.” Pauline is a bit

surprised. She met Fred W. during her interview, but she wouldn’t have expected him to ask her

out for lunch.

Pauline now tries to explain Fred’s (by assumption intentional) action of leaving the note
in her mailbox. Kelley’s attribution model would suggest that Pauline’s choice is between a
person attribution (something about Fred caused the action) and a situation attribution
(something about her or the circumstances caused the action). But right away, this is a confus-
ing choice. Surely something about Fred must have been present in order for him to put the
note in her mailbox: motives, an intention, a fairly controlled movement – all inescapable
implications of Fred’s action being intentional. In some basic sense, intentional actions are
always caused by the person (D’Andrade, 1987; Heider, 1958; Kruglanski, 1975; Malle &
Knobe, 1997). At the same time, the situation had to play some role in Fred’s choice as well –
but the situation as subjectively represented by Fred. He wouldn’t have put this note in Pauline’s
mailbox if he hadn’t expected her to check her mailbox and if he hadn’t thought about a good
time and place for the lunch and had not hoped her response to the invitation to be positive.
If Pauline knew Fred’s deliberations, she would at once understand and be able to explain why
he wrote the note. By contrast, she would not be able to explain it with the obvious conclusion
that “something about Fred caused the action” or the vague insight that “something about the
situation caused the action.”

Is there a sense in which the “experimental methodology” Kelley has in mind could prove
useful? If Pauline engaged in covariation reasoning, she would have to ask the three famous
questions about consensus, distinctiveness, and consistency to arrive at a plausible explana-
tion of Fred’s action. If we play it by the books, however, this will generate few answers.
Assume that no other faculty member has so far, on Pauline’s first day on the job, left a note
in her mailbox (low consensus). What can she conclude from that? Fred may have wanted
to welcome her, or go out on a date with her, or discuss some common research ideas with
her – there are just too many possibilities. All of these explanations might be labeled
“person attributions,” because they are possible goals/desires Fred had when leaving the
note. But making a sheer person attribution is uninformative in this case. Pauline does not
doubt that Fred had some goal; she rather wonders what goal Fred had.

Similar problems arise with the other covariation questions: has Fred performed this
kind of action before? Pauline won’t know, but assuming she finds out that this is the first
time Fred did it (low consistency), she learns only that his action has something to do with

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Attribution Theories: How People Make Sense of Behavior 79

her or with this particular point in time, while still not knowing why he did it. Finally, con-
sider that Fred has left this kind of note with other people as well (low distinctiveness). In
this case, Pauline may conclude that Fred shows some habit, which is also of limited use. She
would want to know specifically whether his habit is to invite all new faculty members, or
only women, or members of her research area, etc. Systematic collection of such covariation
information (if available) may sometimes prove helpful by ruling out some possible expla-
nations of the action in question. For example, if Pauline somehow learns that Fred doesn’t
act this way with others and that others don’t act this way, it can’t just be a habit or depart-
ment culture. But there are still critical steps to go, and in those steps the explainer will not
try to choose between “person” and “situation” but rather infer specific goals, beliefs, and
the like, that were – in the explainer’s assessment – the reasons for the agent’s action.

Over the years, Kelley’s covariation model and its refinements have been tested empirically
and appeared to receive reasonable support (e.g., Försterling, 1992; McArthur, 1972; Sutton &
McClure, 2001). However, these studies suffered from a pair of heavy demands. First, they
used person–situation ratings as dependent measures; people were not actually asked to
provide natural explanations. Second, the experimenter always presented covariation infor-
mation to the participants, and unsurprisingly they made use of it. There is no evidence that
people spontaneously search for covariation information when trying to explain behavior.
Lalljee, Lamb, Furnham, and Jaspars (1984) asked their participants to write down the kind
of information they would like to have in order to explain various events, and covariation
information was in low demand under these conditions. Similarly, Ahn, Kalish, Medin, and
Gelman (1995) allowed people to choose between receiving covariation information or some
other information, and explainers were less interested in covariation information than in
information about generative forces or mechanisms. Nonetheless, we can safely assume that
people occasionally seek out covariation information for such unintentional events as head-
aches or moods and such outcomes as success or failure. These events occur repeatedly, in
different contexts, and for many people, thus making covariation information more readily
available. However, as we have seen, covariation reasoning about person and situation causes
is ineffectual in the case of explaining intentional actions (Knobe & Malle, 2002).

To summarize, Kelley’s (1967) model of attribution contains two core propositions: (a) that
attribution is a choice between external and internal causes and (b) that the cognitive pro-
cedure by which people arrive at this choice is covariation assessment. Both propositions are
problematic. First, the internal–external dimension may be a relevant distinction in explana-
tions of unintentional events, but it does not capture people’s explanations of intentional
action. Second, covariation assessment is used far less than has been commonly assumed, and
it is not at all useful as a method to generate explanations of intentional actions.

Other Attribution Research

The three classic works by Heider, Jones and Davis, and Kelley were not the only important
contributions to the study of attribution. In particular, Weiner made seminal contribu-
tions to our knowledge of outcome attribution (Weiner, 1986; Weiner et al., 1972). In the
domain of achievements, he analyzed the emotions and evaluations people have of others

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80 Bertram F. Malle

who succeed or fail. He highlighted the causal dimension of stability as complementing
externality– internality and showed that people who failed because of lack of effort (unsta-
ble internal) were evaluated more negatively than those who failed because of inability
(stable internal). Later Weiner also analyzed other outcomes that happen to people, such as
sickness or stigma, and he focused on the dimension of controllability to account for social
perceivers’ responses to such outcomes (Weiner, 1995). For example, people are more angry
at agents who suffer negative outcomes brought about by controllable causes (e.g., illness
because of risky behavior) than agents who suffer negative outcomes brought about by
uncontrollable causes (e.g., illness because of a genetic precondition).

An overlooked aspect of Weiner’s (1986, 1995) work is that it provides considerable evi-
dence against Kelley’s theory, because two additional attribution dimensions are needed
besides external–internal to account for people’s emotional and moral responses to out-
comes, and Weiner’s predictions were developed without reference to covariation reasoning.

However, like models of dispositional attribution and covariation reasoning, Weiner’s
models of outcome attribution do not speak to Heider’s demands for a theory of action
attribution. Folk explanations of intentional action remain to be accounted for.

More in Heider’s spirit, Buss (1978) argued that ordinary people do not explain all
behavior with causes (as Kelley had suggested) but rather use reasons to explain inten-
tional behavior. Reasons and causes are fundamentally different types of explanation, so
Buss’s attribution theory confounded the two. Buss’s (1978) article drew rather negative
responses (e.g., Harvey & Tucker, 1979; Kruglanski, 1979), and mainstream attribution
theory remained unaffected by his critique. Over the next decade, other scholars launched
similar critiques, arguing that reasons are an autonomous form of explanation (Locke &
Pennington, 1982) and that attribution theories must incorporate reasons and goals
into their conceptual repertoire (Lalljee & Abelson, 1983; Read, 1987; for a review see
McClure, 2002). However, such an integration proved difficult, in part because it was not
made sufficiently clear why reasons are used to explain intentional behavior in the first
place. What makes intentional behaviors so special that they require a unique mode of

An important contribution to attribution theory emerged in a series of papers on the
conversational nature of explanations (Hilton, 1990; Kidd & Amabile, 1981; Turnbull, 1986),
which characterized explanations as answers to why questions. Such question–answer pairs
sometimes occur in people’s own heads, but more often they occur as an actual conversa-
tional exchange between a questioner and an explainer. This conversational analysis comes
with the important implication that, in answering a why question, explainers must take into
consideration (a) exactly what the questioner finds puzzling (Hilton & Slugoski, 1986;
Turnbull, 1986) and (b) what information the questioner already has available (Slugoski,
Lalljee, Lamb, & Ginsburg, 1993). In a sense, the explainer anticipates what kinds of possible
answers the questioner had in mind when asking the question (Bromberger, 1965).

The insight that explanations are subject to conversational processes was a minor revolu-
tion, because it pulled attributions out of their cognitive rabbit hole and highlighted the
fundamentally social nature of explanations. However, research into the conversational fea-
tures of explanations still did not challenge the conceptual apparatus of person–situation
causes inherited from Kelley (see, e.g., Norenzayan & Schwarz, 1999).

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Attribution Theories: How People Make Sense of Behavior 81

The preceding overview has pointed to a number of shortcomings in classic and con-
temporary attribution theories. First, after Heider, the conceptual framework underlying
people’s explanations was grossly simplified, ignoring such important concepts as inten-
tion, goal, and reason. As a result, no adequate accounts of intentional action explana-
tions were offered. Second, covariation analysis was the only psychological process
postulated to drive people’s construction of explanations, but because it is used much less
than was previously assumed, other processes need to be explored. Third, the conversa-
tional aspects of explanations must be integrated with the unique conceptual and cogni-
tive aspects of intentional action explanations.

To resolve these problems, we need to first locate behavior explanations in their proper
folk-conceptual framework – the network of concepts that people use to make sense of
human behavior. Second, we need to specify the psychological processes that enable people
to construct explanations. And third, we need to track the communicative and linguistic
manifestations of explanations because they are clearly used for a variety of social-interac-
tive goals, and language is the tool that accomplishes these goals. The folk-conceptual the-
ory of behavior explanation (Malle, 1999, 2004) tries to meet all three of these objectives.

The Folk-Conceptual Theory of Behavior Explanation

Folk concepts of mind and behavior

Past attribution theories ascribed to laypeople a simple framework of “effects” (behaviors,
outcomes, or events) and “causes,” with the latter falling into personal (dispositional or
internal) and situational (external) causes. This framework is incompatible with what we
know about children’s emerging theory of mind and behavior – the conceptual network
that 4–5-year-olds rely on when interpreting human behavior (Gopnik & Meltzoff, 1997;
Perner, 1991; Wellman, 1990). In children’s theory of mind, we see the importance of a
concept of intentionality, of the mind contrasted with observable behaviors, and of specific
mental states, such as beliefs and desires, that explain intentional behavior (Bartsch &
Wellman, 1995). It is unlikely that when children grow up they forget these concepts and
suddenly begin to explain behavior using a person–situation dichotomy.

Instead, the adult’s folk conception of mind and behavior is continuous with the child’s
framework, with more numerous and more subtle distinctions but essentially the same
two-part structure. First, people have perceptual and cognitive systems that filter, group,
and integrate certain stimuli into such concepts or categories as agent, intention, belief, and
reason (D’Andrade, 1987; Kashima, McKintyre, & Clifford, 1998; Leslie, 1995; Malle, 2004;
Malle & Knobe, 1997). Second, people make assumptions about these categories and their
relationships (Fodor, 1992; Morton, 1996). For example, coordinated movements of agents
are classified into the category intentional action (Wellman & Phillips, 2001; Woodward,
Sommerville, & Guajardo, 2001), and the concept of intentional action relies on the inter-
play of multiple mental state categories, including belief and desire (Malle & Knobe, 1997).
Intentionality is arguably the core of this framework (Malle et al., 2001). It directly connects
behavior with mind by classifying a behavior as intentional when it is characteristically
generated by certain mental states (such as belief, intention, and awareness). This postulate

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82 Bertram F. Malle

had the least impact on subsequent attribution research, and the greatest weakness of past
attribution theories has therefore been the treatment of intentional action. The folk-con-
ceptual theory of explanation tries to address this weakness.

Intentionality. When explaining behavior, people distinguish sharply between intentional
and unintentional events (Malle, 1999, 2004, 2007). Social perceivers show a high level of agree-
ment in their intentionality judgments (Malle & Knobe, 1997), and they do so by relying on a
shared folk concept of intentionality (Figure 3.1). This concept includes five requirements for
an action to be judged as intentional: the action must be based on a desire for an outcome,
beliefs about the action’s relationship with this outcome, a resulting intention to perform the
action, and skill and awareness when actually performing it (Malle & Knobe, 1997, Studies 2–4).
Subsequent studies showed that the core concept of intention is seen as a choice and commit-
ment to act that flows from a reasoning process, in which the agent weighs a number of beliefs
and desires and settles on a course of action (Malle & Knobe, 2001; Monroe & Malle, 2010).

Modes of explanation. Unintentional events are explained by referring to “mechanical”
causal factors (e.g., physical objects and events, but also traits or others’ behaviors), and we
may label them cause explanations (top of Figure 3.2). That is because people assume no
other link that mediates between behavior and explanation besides causality (i.e., no com-
ponents of intentionality such as awareness or intention). Consider the following examples,
extracted from original transcripts:

I almost failed my exams. – Why? – Oh, ’cuz I didn’t really prepare for them.

My dad got mad with me because something was wrong with my computer and he did not

know how to fix it.

A friend cried on the phone. – Why? – She felt that no one loved her.

In contrast, explanations of intentional behavior are far more complex because the folk
concept of intentional action is far more complex. As a result, explanations of intentional
action break down into three modes (bottom of Figure 3.2): reason explanations, causal
history of reason explanations, and enabling factor explanations.

Reason explanations. Reason explanations are the most frequently used mode, compris-
ing about three-quarters of all action explanations (Malle, 2004; Malle, Knobe, & Nelson,
2007). They link directly to the heart of the intentionality concept – the reasoning process

Belief Desire

Skill Intention Awareness


Figure 3.1 A model of the folk concept of intentionality.

Adapted from “The folk concept of intentionality,” by B. F. Malle and J. Knobe, 1997, Journal of Experimental Social

Psychology, 33, 101–121. © Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., with permission.

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Attribution Theories: How People Make Sense of Behavior 83

leading up to an intention. The concept of intentionality specifies two paradigmatic types
of reasons that precede the formation of an intention: the agent’s desire for an outcome and
a belief that the intended action leads to that outcome. For example, a student explained
why she chose psychology as her major by saying, “I want to go to graduate school in
counseling psychology [desire]; I think psychology is the right major to have as background
for counseling psychology [belief].” In many naturally occurring explanations, other rea-
sons are mentioned in addition to or instead of the paradigmatic reasons, such as desires for
avoiding alternative outcomes, beliefs about the context, beliefs about consequences, and
expressions of valuing the action itself.

Reasons have two defining features: subjectivity and rationality. Subjectivity refers to the
fact that reason explanations are designed to capture the agent’s subjective reasons for act-
ing. That is, social perceivers normally try to reconstruct the considerations the agent
underwent when forming an intention, and they thus take the agent’s subjective viewpoint
when explaining the action. For example, the explanation “She thought she was late for
her class” in response to the question “Why did she rush off?” illustrates the subjectivity
assumption, because the explainer subtly distances himself from the agent’s belief and
implies that, in reality, she probably was not late. But it was that subjective belief, not objec-
tive reality, that guided the agent’s action and thus explains it.

Rationality, the second defining feature of reason explanations, refers to the fact that the
contents of mental states that are cited as reasons have to hang together so as to offer sup-
port for the “reasonableness” of the intention and action they brought about. For an inten-
tional action to be adequately explained by reasons, the action must fulfill the agent’s
predominant desire in light of her beliefs. Philosophers often speak of a “practical reasoning
argument,” in which reasons are the premises and the decision to act is its conclusion.
Consider the following explanation: “Why did you go running?” – “Because I wanted to get
in better shape, and … I figured that I can do that by going running.” Schematically:

X wanted O [to get in better shape].

X believed that A [going running] leads to O [getting in better shape].

Therefore, X decided to A [go running].






Causal History

of Reasons

Figure 3.2 Four modes of explanation for unintentional and intentional behavior.

Adapted from “How people explain behavior: A new theoretical framework,” by B. F. Malle, 1999, Personality and

Social Psychology Review, 3, 23–48. © Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc, with permission.

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84 Bertram F. Malle

In everyday conversation, the logic of rationality will be somewhat cursory and
the premises will not always be made explicit. In the earlier example of an agent rushing off,
the action was rationally supported by her belief that she was late for class and the
unmentioned but implied desire to be on time for class. The action would not have been
rationally supported if the agent had thought there was plenty of time left or if she had had
no desire to be on time. Social perceivers would consider it irrational to rush off in this case,
or they would assume that some other reason can explain the action in a rational way.

Causal history of reason explanations. Even though people explain most intentional behav-
iors by reference to the agent’s reasons, they explain some of them by pointing to factors that
lay in the background of those reasons. These factors can be subsumed under the label causal
history of reasons (CHR) and include such forces as the agent’s unconscious mental states,
personality, upbringing, culture, and the immediate context (Malle, 1994, 1999; Malle et al.,
2000; O’Laughlin & Malle, 2002). Whereas reason explanations try to capture what the agent
herself considered and weighed when deciding to act, causal history explanations take a step
back and try to capture what led up to the agent’s reasons in the first place. For example, when
clarifying why Kim didn’t vote, an explainer might say “She is lazy” or “Her whole family is
apolitical.” These statements provide explanations of an intentional action, but they do not
pick out Kim’s subjective reasons for not voting. Causal history of reason explanations help
explain an intentional action by citing causal antecedents to the agent’s reasoning and her
decision to act, but there is no assumption that the agent actively considered those anteced-
ents in her reasoning process. Hence, when an explainer states that “Kim didn’t vote because
she is lazy,” he does not imply that Kim reasoned: “I am lazy; therefore I shouldn’t vote.”

Thus, even though CHR explanations help explain intentional actions, they are not sub-
ject to the constraints of subjectivity and rationality as reason explanations are (Malle et al.,
2000). The agent need not have considered or even been aware of the causal history factors
cited in the explanation, nor do CHR factors provide rational support for an explained
action. Offering CHR explanations is therefore not an act of perspective taking but rather
takes attention away from the agent’s subjective processes of choice and intention and
locates the agent’s action in a broader causal nexus.

Enabling factor explanations. The third, and relatively rare, mode of explaining intentional
action refers to factors that enabled the action to come about as it was intended. These ena-
bling factor explanations refer to the agent’s skill, effort, opportunities, facilitating circum-
stances, and the like. Whereas reason explanations and CHR explanations focus on clarifying
what motivated the agent’s intention and action, enabling factor explanations take it as a
given that the agent had motives and attempt to clarify how it was possible that the action
was successfully performed. For example, “She hit her free throws because she had practiced
all week.” This is not a motivational account of why the agent decided to hit the free throws;
rather, the agent’s practicing is identified as the critical factor that allowed her to perform
the action the way she had intended. Consequently, enabling factor explanations are offered
primarily for difficult actions (Malle et al., 2000, McClure & Hilton, 1997).

The folk-conceptual framework for explaining behavior thus contains four modes of
explanation: people explain unintentional behavior with causes, and they explain intentional
behavior by either referring to the agent’s reasons, citing causal factors that lay in the history
of those reasons, or clarifying what factors enabled an agent to successfully perform an

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Attribution Theories: How People Make Sense of Behavior 85

intended action. Before we move on to the psychological processes that guide people’s choices
among these modes, we need to briefly examine reason explanations more closely, for they
have two further features of psychological significance: explainers can offer either belief rea-
sons or desire reasons, and they can mark those reasons as subjective mental states by using
appropriate mental state verbs (such as “thinks,” “wanted”) or leave them unmarked.

Belief and desire reasons. In people’s folk concept of intentionality, both beliefs and desires
serve as necessary conditions of an intention to act (Malle & Knobe, 1997), and both are
frequently cited in explanations of intentional action. For example, when explaining why
Ian has been working so much lately, one might cite a desire such as “He wants that promo-
tion” or a belief such as “He realizes the project is due in a week.” At times it may not matter
whether the explainer mentions a belief reason or a desire reasons because one implies the
other (“He thinks hard work will get him the promotion” ⇔ “He wants that promotion”).
But at other times it matters quite a bit. For one thing, belief reasons, more than desire
reasons, provide idiosyncratic details about the agent’s decision-making process, such as
rejected options, specific plans of action initiation, and considered long-term consequences.
For another, belief reasons refer to the agent’s thinking and knowledge, drawing attention
to the agent’s rational, deliberative side, whereas desire reasons highlight what the agent
wants, needs, hence lacks (Malle et al., 2000).

Mental state markers. A reason explanation can be linguistically expressed in two different
ways. The explainer may use a mental state verb to mark the type of reason cited (i.e., a belief
or desire), or the explainer may omit such a verb and directly report the content of that rea-
son. Suppose our explainer is faced with the question “Why did she go to the Italian café ?”
If he chose to cite a desire reason, he could use the marked form of desire ascription:

She went to the café because she wants to have an authentic cappuccino.

Or he could use the unmarked form:

She went to the café [ ____ ] to have an authentic cappuccino.

Likewise, if the explainer chose to cite a belief reason, he could use the marked form of
belief ascription:

She went to the café because she thinks they have the best cappuccino.

Or he could use the unmarked form:

She went to the café because [ ____ ] they have the best cappuccino.

Marked or unmarked reasons do not express two different hypotheses about why the
action was performed; rather, they express the same hypothesis in two different ways. This
difference is not trivial, however. Citing or omitting mental state markers can serve signifi-
cant social functions, both for explainers’ self-presentation and for expressing their opinion
about the agent (Malle, 1999; Malle et al., 2000).

In the context of several examples of CHR explanations and reason explanations, Table 3.1
shows both types of reasons, marked and unmarked. (More examples of all modes and
types can be found in Malle, 2004.) Note that causal history factors can refer to the person,

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86 Bertram F. Malle

the situation, other people, traits, mental states, or interactions among them. In principle,
this choice could have psychological significance, but in our studies we have found no
interesting correlates of “causal locus” – neither within CHR explanations nor within cause
explanations (e.g., Malle et al., 2007; O’Laughlin & Malle, 2002).

Interlude: measurement concerns

Previously offered alternatives to attribution theory were not able to unseat the traditional
theory. This may have been in part because those alternatives were not comprehensive
enough – focusing, for example, only on goals or only on conversational structures. But
another obstacle was researchers’ deeply ingrained habit of using only rating scales to assess
attributions. Participants were typically asked to express their explanations on predefined
person–situation scales rather than in the more natural form of verbal utterances. As a
result, participants had to transform their complex explanatory hypotheses into simple rat-
ings, and the fact that they were willing and able to do so was mistaken for evidence that
they actually thought in those simple terms.

A few studies analyzed free-response explanations, but the coding was again limited to
person–situation categories. This person–situation coding reflects the linguistic surface of
explanations, such as the use of mental state markers (McGill, 1989; Nisbett, Caputo, Legant, &
Marecek, 1973; for evidence and discussion, see Malle, 1999, Study 4, and Malle et al., 2000,
Study 4). Predictable distortions result from treating intentional action explanations within
the person–situation frame, illustrated by the following example (cf. Antaki, 1994):

Why are you going to Iceland for your holidays? – Because it’s cool there.

The standard attribution treatment of such an explanation would be to call it a “situa-
tion cause.” However, the cool weather in Iceland can hardly cause the agent from afar to

Table 3.1 Reason explanations and causal history of reason (CHR) explanations for two

Behavior Reason explanation CHR explanation

Kim chose not to vote

in the last election.

She thought none of the candidates

was trustworthy.

She doesn’t realize that every

vote counts.

[marked belief reason]

She didn’t want to support the system. She is lazy.

[marked desire reason]

Brian used heavy drugs

last Sunday at the party.

He was curious what it would feel


A bunch of others used them.

[marked desire reason]

He thought it would be cool.

[marked belief reason]

He grew up in a drug-dealing


Note. The terms marked and unmarked refer to reason explanations that are expressed either with or without a

mental state marker (“he thought,” “she wanted”). Adapted from “How people explain behavior: A new

theoretical framework,” by B. F. Malle, 1999, Personality and Social Psychology Review, 3, 23–48. © Lawrence

Erlbaum Associates, Inc., with permission.

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Attribution Theories: How People Make Sense of Behavior 87

go there; rather, the agent thinks that it is pleasantly cool in Iceland, and that is her (belief )
reason for going there. (It would still be her belief reason even if it were in fact warm in
Iceland.) Instead of trying to diagnose the locus of some “cause” in the vague space
between person and situation, we have to recognize that most folk explanations of inten-
tional behavior refer to the agent’s reasons in light of which and on the grounds of which
she acted.

Once the proper folk-conceptual categories (of reasons, causal histories, etc.) are applied to
naturally uttered explanations, they can be reliably classified and analyzed (Malle, 1998/2009);6
and these classifications show more sensitivity to important psychological variables than either
person–situation codings or person–situation ratings (e.g., Malle et al., 2007; O’Laughlin &
Malle, 2002). The researcher does the theoretical work here, and participants simply do what
they do in everyday life – express explanations of behavior in their own words.

The lesson should be clear: if theoretical progress is to be made in the attribution domain,
both theory and measurement must reflect the complexity of people’s explanations. Multiple
modes, types, and linguistic forms have to be described, conceptually analyzed, and ade-
quately measured.

Psychological processes underlying behavior explanations

The conceptual layer of the folk-conceptual theory of explanation showed that explainers
have a number of choices to make when explaining behavior (Figure 3.3): they need to deter-
mine whether the behavior in question is intentional or not; if intentional, whether to explain
it with reasons, causal history factors, or enabling factors; and if a reason is chosen, whether
to cite the agent’s beliefs or desires and whether to use a mental state marker or not.7

if unintentional if intentional

Determine intentionality of behavior

offer cause offer EF offer reason offer CHR

belief desire





Figure 3.3 Choice points in constructing a behavior explanation.

Adapted from B. F. Malle, 2004, How the mind explains behavior: Folk explanations, meaning, and social

interaction. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Note: EF = enabling factor explanation. CHR = causal history of reason


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88 Bertram F. Malle

Adding a process layer now to the theory, a first important question is what psychological
processes determine the explainer’s choices among these various explanatory tools. A fair amount
of research is available to answer this question, and I will discuss it below. A second process
question is how the explainer goes about selecting a specific explanatory content (e.g., the belief
reason, “because she thought the door was locked”). No theory of behavior explanation will be
able to predict specific contents of explanations, but the psychological processes people rely on
when searching for those contents may be identifiable. Currently, very little research is available
on this issue, in part because the process of covariation reasoning has been so dominant in the
research literature. It is evident, however, that many more processes guide people’s search for
specific explanation contents – among them knowledge structures, projection, simulation,
explicit perspective-taking, and contrast analysis (Ames, 2004; Hilton, 2007; Lalljee & Abelson,
1983; Malle, 2004, 2008). All of these processes deserve greater attention in future research.8

What do we know about the psychological determinants of people’s explanatory choices?
At least three such determinants must be considered:

1. Judgments of behavior attributes
2. Pragmatic goals
3. Information resources

Judgments of behavior attributes. Before offering an explanation, social perceivers make
several (often implicit) judgments about the behavior to be explained. One such judgment
obviously concerns the intentionality of the behavior. If considered unintentional, explana-
tions will refer to a cause; if considered intentional, explanations will cite a reason, causal
history, or enabling factor (Malle, 1999).

Among intentional behaviors, a second judgment concerns the difficulty of the action.
If the action is considered difficult to produce, explainers will often choose enabling factors;
otherwise, they are likely to choose reasons or causal histories (Malle et al., 2000; McClure &
Hilton, 1997).

A third judgment determines whether the to-be-explained behavior is singular or repre-
sents a trend (across time or across multiple agents). If the behavior is judged to be a trend,
the rate of CHR explanations increases (O’Laughlin & Malle, 2002), primarily because mul-
tiple instances (or agents) can have multiple reasons, and a CHR explanation can some-
times tie these reasons together by citing an antecedent for all of them (e.g., “Why did you
go shopping so many times this week?” – “Because I have three children”).

Pragmatic goals. Pragmatic goals refer to the social projects that explainers try to accom-
plish with their explanations, such as lessening another person’s confusion, managing their
own status in the interaction, or fending off blame. Two groups of goals can be distin-
guished by their primary beneficiary: audience design, which chiefly benefits the conversa-
tion partner, and impression management, which chiefly benefits the explainer.

Audience design consists in tailoring an explanation so the audience can learn what it
wants to know. The clearest case of such design is when the explainer matches an explana-
tion mode to the type of question asked (Malle et al., 2000; McClure & Hilton, 1998). This
question can inquire either about the agent’s immediate motivation (“What for?”, which
triggers reasons), about the background of that motivation (“How come?”, which triggers

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Attribution Theories: How People Make Sense of Behavior 89

causal histories of reasons), about the factors that enabled successful action perfor-
mance (“How was this possible?”, which triggers enabling factors). More subtle adjustments
include offering a belief reason when it can be assumed that the audience already knows the
desire reason, or offering a CHR explanation when the reasons for the action are obvious.

Whereas audience design falls under the conversational maxim of relevance (Grice, 1975;
Sperber & Wilson, 1986), impression management does not merely try to optimize com-
munication but rather is an act of social influence. Its impact can reach all explanatory
choices, from both the actor and the observer perspective (Malle et al., 2000). As actors,
people increase their use of reasons, and especially belief reasons, when trying to appear
rational. As observers, they explicitly add a mental state marker to a belief reason when they
want to distance themselves from the agent (e.g., “Why is he looking at apartments?” –
“He thinks I am moving in with him”).

Information resources. Deficits in relevant information about the agent, the behavior, or
the context can limit the explainer’s ability to accomplish his goals, and such deficits often
require adjustments of one’s choices among explanatory tools. This can be seen, for exam-
ple, in the choice of belief reasons vs. desire reasons. We find that observers, compared to
actors, offer more desire reasons than belief reasons (Malle et al., 2007). That is because
desire reasons are easier to infer from contextual and cultural knowledge, whereas belief
reasons are more idiosyncratic and sometimes accessible only to the actor. However, when
observers know the agent well or were present when the action took place, their rate of
belief reasons increases to resemble that of actors (Malle et al., 2007).

A somewhat more complex case is the role of information resources in the choice between
reasons and causal history explanations (Malle et al., 2007; O’Laughlin & Malle, 2002).
In short, when explaining their own intentional behaviors (as actors), people are in the best
position to have every kind of information available and predominantly (in 80% of cases)
offer reasons. When explaining other people’s behaviors (as observers), people lack various
kinds of information and will try to infer or construct reasons, but this construction reaches
a limit, yielding an average of 65% reasons. Interestingly, this lower rate of reasons persists
even when observers are present at the time of action and when observers know the agent
well (Malle et al., 2007). This suggests that the actor–observer asymmetry is due not to
general knowledge differences but to access differences at a more fundamental level. For
example, because actors typically consider their reasons for acting before they decide to act,
they have the ability to directly recall their own reasons. Observers, by contrast, must guess
those reasons or infer them from observable information.

We can systematically relate the discussed psychological determinants to the range of
explanatory choices displayed in Figure 3.2, forming linear equations that connect a par-
ticular explanatory choice to a set of psychological determinants (Table 3.2). These equa-
tions have received some empirical support (Malle, 1999; Malle et al., 2000, 2007), but more
precise relations should emerge from future research.

This theoretical approach of linking the choice of explanatory tools to a limited set of
psychological determinants has been successfully applied to predicting strategies of impres-
sion management in explanation (Malle et al., 2000), differences between explanations of
group and individual behaviors (O’Laughlin & Malle, 2002), and a variety of actor–observer
asymmetries in explanations of behavior (Malle et al., 2007). Other domains are open to

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90 Bertram F. Malle

investigation as well, such as close relationships, negotiation, psychopathology, and cross-
cultural comparisons (Malle, 2004). To illustrate one application, I describe the death and
rebirth of the well-known actor–observer asymmetry in attribution.

Application: actor–observer asymmetries

Few hypotheses have been as widely accepted in the social-psychological literature as Jones
and Nisbett’s (1972) classic hypothesis of an actor–observer asymmetry in explanations:
“There is a pervasive tendency for actors to attribute their actions to situational require-
ments, whereas observers tend to attribute the same actions to stable personal dispositions”
(p. 80). Surprisingly, a meta-analysis of 173 published studies testing this hypothesis showed
that the average effect size for this pervasive difference between actor and observer attribu-
tions was zero (Malle, 2006). That is, when explanations are analyzed in terms of traditional
attribution concepts – referring to either person (or disposition) vs. situation causes – no
difference exists between actors’ and observers’ explanations of behavior.

But do people really explain their own behavior the same way as they explain other peo-
ple’s behavior? They do not. But to see this, we need to apply a different theory. When
explanations are analyzed within the terms of the folk-conceptual theory, strong and relia-
ble actor–observer differences emerge (Malle et al., 2007). In particular, consideration of
the choices people make when explaining intentional behavior and of the psychological
determinants of these choices leads to three actor–observer hypotheses (for more detail, see
Malle et al., 2007, pp. 495–496).9

First, actors are predicted to use relatively more reason explanations (and fewer CHR
explanations) than observers do. That is because actors have better access to their reasons
(often through direct recall) and engage in stronger impression management to portray
themselves in a positive light (which reasons accomplish better than CHR explanations).

Second, actors are predicted to use relatively more belief reasons (and fewer desire rea-
sons) than observers do. That is because actors’ advantage in information access is espe-
cially pronounced for the more idiosyncratic and context-specific belief reasons.

Third, actors are predicted to use relatively fewer mental state markers for belief reasons
than observers do. That is because actors directly represent the content of their beliefs (e.g.,
“The plants are dry”), not their own mental state of believing (“I believe: the plants are
dry”; Moore, 1993; Rosenthal, 2005). Actors will therefore typically leave their belief reasons

Table 3.2 Linking selected explanatory choices to their psychological determinants.

(1) REA/CHR/EF vs. CAU = b
(behavior intentionality)

(2) EF vs. REA/CHR = b
(behavior difficulty) + b

(explanatory question) +

(difficulty × question)

(3) CHR vs. REA = b
(behavior trend) + b

(information) + b

(impression management)

(4) belief REA vs. desire REA = b
(information) + b

(impression management)

(5) marked belief vs. unmarked belief = b
(impression management)

Note. REA = Reason explanation. CHR = Causal history of reason explanation. EF = Enabling factor

explanation. CAU = cause explanation.

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Attribution Theories: How People Make Sense of Behavior 91

unmarked: “Why did you turn the sprinkler on?” – “Because the plants were dry.” Observers,
by contrast, represent the actor as having beliefs and will therefore typically mark those
beliefs (especially when they don’t share them): “Why did she turn the sprinkler on?” –
“Because she thought the plants were dry.”

Tests of these predictions across nine studies provided consistent results (Malle et al.,
2007): Effect sizes for the three novel asymmetries averaged between d = 0.40 and d = 0.69,
whereas effect sizes for the classic asymmetry averaged between d = −0.08 and d = 0.10.
Thus, actors and observers differ in how they explain behavior; but these differences are
revealed only once we give up the traditional person–situation framework and instead assess
behavior explanations as part of people’s folk theory of mind and behavior – centered on
the concept of intentionality and giving rise to multiple modes and types of explanation.


Heider’s (1958) deep insights into the social perception of human action assured attribu-
tion phenomena a central position in social psychology. The fundamental assumption that
humans spontaneously explain behavioral and social events has led to many insights in the
domains of social influence, self-regulation, relationships, and health. However, after 50
years we must acknowledge that traditional formulations of attribution theory either
focused too narrowly on inferences of stable traits (following Jones & Davis, 1965) or over-
simplified the complex nature of behavior explanations (following Kelley, 1967). Once we
identify the conceptual framework within which people actually perceive, interpret, and
evaluate behavior, a folk-conceptual theory of behavior explanations emerges that describes
and predicts various explanatory phenomena that had previously been overlooked (e.g.,
reasons, causal history of reasons) or misrepresented (e.g., the actor–observer asymmetry).
According to this folk-conceptual theory, people’s explanations of behavior cannot be prop-
erly understood when categorized as “person” or “situation” causes. Rather, they fall into
multiple distinct modes (causes for unintentional behaviors and reasons, causal histories,
and enabling factors for intentional behaviors) and, within modes, into specific types (e.g.,
belief vs. desire reasons). These are the distinctions that matter when people construct and
respond to explanations; and these are the distinctions that must be part of an accurate
theory of explanation.

1 For previous reviews of attribution work that gave more weight to trait attributions, see Fiske and

Taylor (1991), Gilbert (1998), Hastorf, Schneider, and Polefka (1970), and Ross and Fletcher

(1985). For recent integrations of trait attributions within a larger attributional context, see Reeder

(2009) and Uleman, Adil Saribay, and Gonzalez (2008).

2 Philosophically, this theory may leave much to be desired, but psychologically it was a remarkable

model that successfully combined constructivism with causal realism.

3 But see Davis (2009), coauthor of the famous Jones and Davis paper, who recently discussed the

folk-conceptual theory of explanation.


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92 Bertram F. Malle

4 In Malle (2004, chap. 1), I discuss Gilbert’s (1998) attempt to find an account of reason explana-

tions in Jones and Davis’s (1965) theory. He pushes such an account as far as one can, but in the

best case it captures goal explanations of limited-option choices and more often it captures only

what the person was doing, not why she was doing it (as Jones and Davis, 1965, themselves point

out; p. 222).

5 More precisely, “experiment-like variations of conditions [that are] a naïve version of J. S. Mill’s

method of difference” (p. 194).

6 For applications by other researchers, see Kiesler, Lee, and Kramer (2006); Knight and Reese

(2008); and Levi and Haslam (2005).

7 There is another layer of choices, which stems from the classic attribution distinctions of person

versus situation and trait versus nontrait. Causes, enabling factors, and CHR factors can all be

classified into those subtypes. However, our research has not identified any psychological determi-

nants or consequences of these subtypes (e.g., Malle et al., 2007; O’Laughlin & Malle, 2002).

8 For illustrations of these processes in naturally occurring explanations, see Malle (2004, pp.


9 In the explanation of unintentional behavior no asymmetries emerged. Thus, even in the domain

in which classic attribution theory is theoretically most applicable (because one can reasonably clas-

sify causes into person, situation, and related categories), the predicted asymmetry failed to show.


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Despite the fact that persuasion has been the subject of philosophical and academic inquiry
since at least the time of Aristotle, the scientific study of persuasion did not begin until
the early post-World War II period. During this time, researchers were guided largely by the
notion that persuasion depended upon factors influencing people’s ability to learn the infor-
mation contained in a persuasive communication (Hovland, Janis, & Kelley, 1953). Not
surprisingly, researchers spent a great deal of time investigating source, recipient, message,
and contextual factors that were believed to contribute to attention, comprehension, and
retention of message information. As research findings accumulated, however, it soon
became clear that the story was not so simple. Published studies conflicted with one another.
One study would show that using an expert source enhanced persuasion, while another
would show that source expertise had no impact or, worse, was detrimental. Sometimes
good moods would lead to more agreement with the message, while other times bad moods
seemed to enhance persuasion. Additionally, some researchers (e.g., Wicker, 1969) noted
that attitudes often did not predict behavior, questioning the very utility of the attitude
construct for social scientists. In order to resolve these fundamental questions, the Elaboration
Likelihood Model of persuasion (ELM) was developed (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986a).

As we shall see, this model has made three main contributions to the literature on atti-
tude change and the attitude-to-behavior relationship. Namely, the ELM (a) suggests that
attitude change can result from relatively high- or low-thinking processes; (b) postulates
that attitudes that are formed or changed can be more or less consequential (e.g., impact
behavior more or less) as a function of the extent of thinking involved; and (c) specifies a
small number of ways in which any one variable (e.g., source credibility) can influence
attitudes. In this chapter, we will identify the major concepts contained within the ELM,
review empirical research supporting the model, identify and address some criticisms
of the model, point out important applications of the model, and, finally, explore some


The Elaboration Likelihood Model
of Persuasion: Thoughtful and
Non-Thoughtful Social Influence

Benjamin C. Wagner and Richard E. Petty

Theories in Social Psychology, First Edition. Edited by Derek Chadee.
© 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published 2011 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

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The Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion 97

implications of the model that relate to contemporary and likely future themes in social psy-
chological research. But first, let us turn to the model’s most central concept: elaboration.

The Elaboration Continuum

Similar to depth-of-processing models of learning and memory (e.g., Craik & Lockhart,
1972), the ELM assumes that individuals can differ in how carefully and extensively they
think about a particular subject – in this case, a persuasive communication or attitude
object (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986b). That is, in any given context the amount of elaboration,
or thinking about the relevant message or issue, can vary continuously from very low to very
high, and is determined by a combination of individual differences and situational factors.
Put simply, people can think a lot, a moderate amount, or very little about a persuasive
communication or attitude object. In turn, the amount of thinking they engage in goes a
long way in explaining how people will be persuaded – if they are persuaded at all.

Of course, individuals can think a great deal without actually considering the merits of a
particular message or attitude object. If a social psychology graduate student is watching a
television advertisement for McDonald’s restaurants but, instead, is carefully considering
the merits of the elaboration likelihood model of persuasion, she would have relatively few
cognitive resources remaining to process the McDonald’s advertisement. Despite the fact
that she is thinking a great deal, her thoughts are not about the advertisement and, as such,
do not qualify as message- or issue-relevant thinking. Clearly, amount of thinking per se is
not synonymous with elaboration likelihood. So, how can we predict the likelihood that a
person will think carefully about a message or issue?

Determinants of Elaboration Likelihood

A number of individual differences and situational factors can impact the likelihood that a
person will think carefully about a persuasive message or issue. According to the ELM,
understanding which variables affect thinking is important for several reasons. First, as we
will explain in more detail later, the amount of thinking a person engages in determines
what process is responsible for persuasion. For example, if the amount of thinking is low,
then attitudes can be affected by simple cues in the situation, such as the mere number of
arguments that are presented (Petty & Cacioppo, 1984a) or how credible the message source
is (Petty, Cacioppo, & Goldman, 1981). However, if the amount of thinking is high, then
attitudes are determined less by cues and more by an assessment of the merits of the posi-
tion. Thus, if the message arguments are good ones, then greater thinking leads to more
persuasion as people come to realize the merits of the evidence presented. On the other
hand, if the message arguments are specious, then persuasion is decreased as people think
more about these arguments and generate more unfavorable thoughts. Another reason why
it is important to understand how variables impact elaboration is that when attitude change
results from high amounts of thinking, it tends to be more consequential (e.g., guides
behavior more) than when it results from little thinking (Petty & Krosnick, 1995).

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98 Benjamin C. Wagner and Richard E. Petty

The factors that affect the extent of thinking can broadly be classified as relating to
motivation or ability to process, although some factors relate to both motivation and ability.
We first examine the implications of motivational factors and then go on to examine how
ability factors influence message processing.

Motivational factors. As far as motivation to process is concerned, the factor that has
arguably received the most empirical attention is personal relevance. When relevance is high,
the message’s proposal relates directly to the recipient and stands to impact his or her life in
some way (Petty & Cacioppo, 1990). For instance, college students have been shown to
process a message more carefully when its proposal relates to their own university than
when the proposal concerns another institution (Petty & Cacioppo, 1979). Moreover, peo-
ple process consumer advertisements more carefully when they expect the advertised prod-
uct to be test-marketed in their home city than when they believe the product will be
test-marketed only in faraway locales (Petty, Cacioppo, & Schumann, 1983). In addition to
geographic place, time also impacts personal relevance. That is, people process a message
more carefully when the message’s proposal concerns the near, rather than the distant,
future (Petty, Cacioppo, & Goldman, 1981). Also, consumers consider advertisements more
carefully when they believe they will soon have to make a decision about the advertised
product than when they have no such expectation (Petty et al., 1983). In all of these cases,
high personal relevance yields increased amounts of message-relevant thinking. Given that
all people are motivated to predict and control their physical and social environments
(Heider, 1958), such findings make sense: what could be more adaptive than forming a
veridical, well-considered attitude toward a novel issue when (a) the issue is of local import,
(b) the issue will affect the message recipient fairly soon, and (c) the recipient may soon
need to make a decision about the issue?

Of course, personal relevance need not always involve direct, material consequences for
the message recipient, as the above examples may suggest. A message can also be personally
relevant if it touches on core aspects of a recipient’s personality or identity. For instance,
messages matched to individuals’ levels of extroversion receive greater elaboration than do
mismatched messages (Wheeler, Petty, & Bizer, 2005). Also, messages framed in the second
person (i.e., directly referencing the recipient) are remembered better than messages framed
in the third person (Burnkrant & Unnava, 1995), indicating that directly addressing a recip-
ient can yield greater elaboration of a message, even holding other aspects of the message
constant. These findings comport well with other published research, which demonstrates
that an individual will process social information more carefully when that information
relates to salient or important aspects of the individual’s self-concept (Markus, 1977;
Markus, Smith, & Moreland, 1985). These findings also demonstrate that personal rele-
vance can be metaphorical as well as material, deriving from the message’s relationship to
certain aspects of the recipient’s self-concept or identity (Fleming & Petty, 2000). Importantly,
however, the consequences are the same in each case – with increased personal relevance
comes increased message processing.

Aside from personal relevance, several other sources of processing motivation exist. One
such source involves the chronic tendency to engage in and enjoy thinking about any idea
or subject, termed the need for cognition (Cacioppo & Petty, 1982). People high in the need
for cognition simply enjoy thinking. They are the type of people who are likely to spend

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The Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion 99

hours poring over crossword puzzles or contemplating the implications of an obscure phil-
osophical question. People low in the need for cognition, by contrast, tend not to enjoy
thinking for its own sake, and generally engage in deep thought only when they are required
to do so. In order to measure individual differences in the need for cognition, Cacioppo and
Petty developed the Need for Cognition (NC) scale (Cacioppo & Petty, 1982; Cacioppo,
Petty, & Kao, 1984), which has proven useful in a variety of research projects since its incep-
tion. What is important for the present purposes is that people scoring high on the NC scale
process persuasive messages more carefully than do those who score low on the scale (e.g.,
Cacioppo, Petty, & Morris, 1983). In other words, individuals high in the need for cognition
have an especially high elaboration likelihood, whereas individuals low in NC generally do
not process persuasive messages very carefully and are more dependent on simple cues in
the persuasion context (see Petty, Briñol, Loersch, & McCaslin, 2009, for a review of need
for cognition research).

Another source of processing motivation involves psychological consistency. People
strive to perceive their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors as consistent with one another, and
experience discomfort when considering an inconsistency between – or among – these fac-
tors. Indeed, people expend considerable effort in attempting to reduce or eliminate per-
ceived inconsistencies (Festinger, 1957; Heider, 1958). One type of inconsistency, termed
attitudinal ambivalence, can arise when an individual has several conflicting beliefs about
an attitude object. For instance, a person might enjoy the taste of chocolate ice cream but
dislike the fact that it is high in saturated fat and contributes to weight gain and elevated
cholesterol. According to Maio, Bell, and Esses (1996), individuals possessing such attitudes
are motivated to reduce their ambivalence by carefully scrutinizing attitude-relevant infor-
mation in the hope of developing a veridical, internally consistent attitude. In other words,
attitudinal ambivalence can lead to increases in message processing. But although early
findings (e.g., Maio et al., 1996) implied that people with ambivalent attitudes carefully
process any information relevant to their ambivalence, more recent research suggests that
ambivalent individuals are especially likely to attend to and elaborate upon pro-attitudinal
information (Clark, Wegener, & Fabrigar, 2008a), given that pro-attitudinal information is
more likely than counter-attitudinal information to reduce ambivalence. In addition, peo-
ple are more likely to think carefully about information when their thoughtful evaluations
of objects (i.e., explicit attitudes) conflict with their more automatic or “gut” evaluations
(i.e., implicit attitudes; Briñol, Petty, & Wheeler, 2006; Petty, Tormala, Briñol, & Jarvis,
2006). In such situations, people may not define their attitude as ambivalent (since they are
unaware of or deny the source of the conflict), but they experience psychological discom-
fort nonetheless (Rydell, McConnell, & Mackie, 2008).

The incidental emotions recipients experience during persuasion have also been shown to
impact message elaboration. In general, sadness has been associated with relatively careful,
systematic information processing, whereas happiness has been associated with relatively
shallow, heuristic processing (e.g., Bless, Bohner, Schwarz, & Strack, 1990; Bless et al., 1996).
Assuming that the emotional states are not overly arousing, most researchers have agreed
that emotions operate in a motivational manner, providing perceivers with information
regarding their progress in achieving personal goals (Carver & Scheier, 1990; Schwarz,
1990). According to this approach, negative emotions can signal insufficient goal progress

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100 Benjamin C. Wagner and Richard E. Petty

and motivate the perceiver to carefully scrutinize all available information, with the goal
of enhancing predictability and control over the environment and, thereby, speeding
goal progress (see Weary & Edwards, 1996, for a related discussion of negative affect and
information processing). Positive emotions, according to this perspective, indicate that
everything is “OK” and that no in-depth information-processing strategies are necessary.

Another approach to the relationship between emotion and elaboration considers the link
between emotions and cognitive appraisals (e.g., Lazarus, 1991; Smith & Ellsworth, 1985).
According to this perspective, because sadness is associated with an uncertainty appraisal, it
is expected to enhance information processing aimed at reducing that uncertainty, whereas
happiness and anger are expected to reduce information processing because they are asso-
ciated with certainty appraisals (Tiedens & Linton, 2001). A third approach involves emo-
tion-management concerns and assumes that individuals are generally motivated to achieve
and maintain positive emotional states. Because of this, individuals are expected to engage
in careful thought primarily when they believe such thought will contribute to restoring or
maintaining a positive state. This perspective, termed the hedonic contingency model, has
inspired a number of investigations (Wegener & Petty, 1994; Wegener, Petty, & Smith, 1995),
and has yielded a fair amount of empirical support. For instance, participants in happy states
process optimistic, uplifting messages more carefully than do participants in neutral or sad
states because people in positive states must be especially proactive in order to maintain
their positive moods. These findings refute the notion that positive emotions inevitably lead
to decreases in processing (relative to neutral or negative emotions).

Finally, the ease with which an attitude comes to mind, or attitude accessibility (Fazio &
Williams, 1986), impacts the degree to which attitude-related information is processed.
Specifically, in one study (Fabrigar, Priester, Petty, & Wegener, 1998), individuals with highly
accessible attitudes processed attitude-relevant information more carefully than did indi-
viduals with less accessible attitudes. As Fabrigar and his colleagues noted, there are two
possible explanations for this finding. The first possibility relates to processing motivation.
Specifically, people may infer, based on the ease with which an attitude is activated, that the
attitude object is especially important or self-relevant. In this case, attitude accessibility
would simply act as a precursor to personal relevance, which we have already discussed.
The second possibility relates to processing ability. That is, individuals with highly accessi-
ble attitudes might have a greater amount of attitude-relevant knowledge than individuals
with less accessible attitudes, thereby making them better able to scrutinize carefully per-
suasive communications relating to that attitude object. In other words, attitude accessibil-
ity could be a proxy for knowledge, which we will discuss in a moment. Yet, although each
possibility is plausible, the fact that Fabrigar and colleagues manipulated attitude accessibil-
ity via a repeated-expression procedure – and nonetheless observed elaboration differences
between the high- and low-accessibility groups – suggests that accessibility need not impact
elaboration via knowledge alone. Additionally, more recent research (Clark, Wegener, &
Fabrigar, 2008b) has shown that individuals with highly accessible attitudes carefully proc-
ess only counterattitudinal – and not proattitudinal – messages, likely because such mes-
sages are especially threatening or novel for these individuals. This finding, paired with the
earlier findings, suggests a more motivational role for attitude accessibility as an antecedent
to elaboration.

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The Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion 101

Ability factors. In addition to the aforementioned motivational factors (e.g., personal
relevance, need for cognition, ambivalence), a number of ability factors also influence the
likelihood that a person will carefully elaborate a persuasive message. One fairly obvious
example involves message repetition. That is, with increasing amounts of message repeti-
tion, people are better able to comprehend, scrutinize, and recall the arguments in a persua-
sive communication (Cacioppo & Petty, 1980). Also, message recipients must possess
adequate attentional resources in order to elaborate a message carefully. For instance, in one
study (Petty, Wells, & Brock, 1976), distraction reduced college students’ ability to distin-
guish between strong and weak arguments supporting a tuition increase. Relatedly, time
limitations can reduce the likelihood that a perceiver will be able to process a message
carefully (Ratneshwar & Chaiken, 1991). Finally, people are better able to comprehend and
scrutinize message arguments when they possess a high degree of knowledge and experi-
ence regarding the message’s topic (Wood & Kallgren, 1988). For instance, individuals
generate more cognitive responses to persuasive messages when these messages relate to
well-developed knowledge structures than when they do not (Cacioppo, Petty, & Sidera,
1982). Taken together, these findings highlight the importance of processing ability as a
precursor to message elaboration.

Two Routes to Persuasion

Having examined the factors influencing amount of message elaboration, we now move on
to the crux of the ELM. Specifically, the ELM holds that, at the endpoints of the elaboration
likelihood continuum, people can be persuaded via one of two processing modes, termed
the central and peripheral routes to persuasion. The likelihood that one or the other route
will predominate in any given situation is determined by the perceiver’s elaboration likeli-
hood, which we have already discussed in detail. Within each general processing mode, a
number of more specific mechanisms can lead to attitude change. It is to these mechanisms
that we now turn.

Peripheral route to persuasion. If a person does not think much about a persuasive com-
munication (i.e., low elaboration), he or she is likely to be persuaded by one of several low-
effort mechanisms, which collectively comprise the peripheral route to persuasion. To give an
example of how the peripheral route to persuasion operates, consider an advertisement in
which an attractive supermodel is paired with a particular brand of soft drink. One mecha-
nism producing persuasion in this case could be classical conditioning (Staats & Staats,
1958). That is, assuming that the supermodel activates positive affect in most recipients of
this advertisement, then with enough viewings of the advertisement pairing the (initially
neutral) soft-drink brand with the supermodel, the viewers would come to associate posi-
tive feelings with the soft-drink brand, even when the soft drink is presented without the
supermodel (see also Jones, Fazio, & Olson, 2009; Olson & Fazio, 2001). This process,
whereby attitudes are developed or changed via simple association principles, is referred to
as evaluative conditioning (see De Houwer, Thomas, & Baeyens, 2001). Relatedly, by encour-
aging viewers to develop an association between the (positively valued) supermodel and the
(initially neutral) soft-drink brand, the advertisement’s developers may be capitalizing on

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102 Benjamin C. Wagner and Richard E. Petty

consistency, or balance, processes (Festinger, 1957; Heider, 1958). That is, people generally
strive to possess consistent and coherent mental representations (e.g., “I like myself, I like
the supermodel, the supermodel likes this brand of soda, and so should I”), and the devel-
opment of such mental representations in many cases occurs without conscious intention
or awareness (Greenwald et al., 2002).

Another fairly low-effort mechanism leading to persuasion in this case could involve
misattribution of the affective reaction to the model as having arisen, at least in part, in
response to the soft-drink brand (Dutton & Aron, 1974; Schwarz & Clore, 1983). Again,
assuming that the affective reaction to the supermodel was positive, this process would
make attitudes toward the soft-drink brand more favorable. Finally, people who are not
carefully scrutinizing this advertisement may make use of a simple heuristic, processing the
supermodel as a simple cue to persuasion (e.g., Haugtvedt, Petty, Cacioppo, & Steidley, 1988).
For instance, the viewers of the advertisement might reason that they are likely to enjoy
products that people they like (e.g., supermodels) also enjoy, thereby developing a more
favorable attitude toward the soft-drink brand that the supermodel endorses (Chaiken,
1987). Each of the mechanisms we have outlined – classical conditioning, misattribution,
the implicit development of balanced mental representations, and the use of heuristic
cues – involves relatively little cognitive effort aimed at assessing the information relevant
to the merits of the attitude object, but nonetheless could lead (at least temporarily) to
attitude change in the direction favored by the advertisement’s developers.

Central route to persuasion. If a person is motivated and able to think carefully about a
persuasive communication (e.g., high personal relevance of the message, few distractions),
he or she is likely to follow the central route to persuasion. In the central route, individuals
carefully scrutinize the elements of the persuasive message in order to determine whether
the message’s proposal makes sense and will benefit them in some way. Specifically, the
central route to persuasion involves a focus on the strength of message arguments, which are
pieces of information in the communication intended to provide evidence for the commu-
nicator’s point of view. If the message contains strong arguments, then thoughtful individu-
als will generate predominantly favorable thoughts in response to the message and will
experience attitude change in the direction advocated by the message. In contrast, if the
message contains weak arguments, then thoughtful perceivers will generate predominantly
unfavorable thoughts in response to the message and will experience no attitude change or
even change in the direction opposite to that advocated by the message (i.e., boomerang).

Given the importance of argument quality – that is, whether arguments are strong or
weak – in the central route to persuasion, a fairly obvious question arises: What determines
the strength of message arguments? In most of the literature inspired by the ELM, argu-
ment quality has been determined on an empirical basis. This is because the goal of the
research was not to examine what makes arguments strong or weak, but instead to see if
some other variable (e.g., personal relevance) increased or decreased the extent of message
processing. Thus, arguments were pilot-tested by giving them to members of a particular
population, who were asked to think carefully about them. Those arguments eliciting
mostly favorable thoughts were considered strong, whereas those eliciting mostly unfavora-
ble thoughts were considered weak (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986a). Although this approach to
argument quality does a good job of identifying strong and weak arguments for particular

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The Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion 103

populations and is very useful for research purposes, it does not elucidate a general theory
of argument quality. Although there are many idiosyncratic reactions to particular argu-
ments (Petty, Ostrom, & Brock, 1981), research has suggested a few key factors that render
some arguments better than others. Consistent with expectancy-value models of attitudes
(Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975), two aspects of arguments are important: the desirability of the
consequence implied and how likely it seems that the consequence will occur. Thus, if an
argument said, “if you buy Detergent X, your clothes would be cleaner,” this argument
would be more persuasive the more favorably people perceive having clean clothes, and the
more likely this consequence is perceived to be if the detergent is used (see also Johnson,
Smith-McLallen, Killeya, & Levin, 2004). In addition, the more unique and important the
dimension the argument addresses, the higher in impact it may be (Petty & Wegener, 1991).
Finally, strong arguments tend to relate consistently with one another in the context of the
overall message: they are cogent, coherent, and compelling. Weak arguments, in contrast,
are often illogical and self-contradictory.

Of course, thinking a great deal about a persuasive communication does not mean that
the recipient will process the message’s arguments in an evenhanded, objective manner.
Although objective, normatively rational processing of persuasive arguments is one strategy
that individuals can take, interpretation of message arguments can also be biased by various
factors. For instance, individuals consider arguments consistent with their preexisting atti-
tudes to be stronger than arguments opposing their preexisting attitudes. In one study
examining the topic of capital punishment (Lord, Ross, & Lepper, 1979), individuals polar-
ized in the direction of their initial attitudes when exposed to both pro- and counterattitu-
dinal information on the issue. Also, in addition to its role in motivating processing of
persuasive communications – which we have already discussed – emotions can also bias
recipients’ evaluation of persuasive arguments. Specifically, high-elaboration participants
have been shown to evaluate persuasive arguments more favorably when they are in a happy
rather than a neutral state (Petty, Schumann, Richman, & Strathman, 1993). Given these
findings, it is clear that persuasion via the central route does not necessarily involve the
impartial consideration of message arguments but, instead, can involve biased interpreta-
tion of the information contained in the persuasive communication.

When people are thinking carefully about a message or issue, they also consider how
confident they are in the thoughts that they generate (Petty, Briñol, & Tormala, 2002). If
people are confident in the thoughts they have generated, these thoughts will have an impact
on their attitudes. If people doubt the validity of their thoughts for any reason, these
thoughts are unlikely to impact attitudes toward the issue. Thus, when thoughts about the
message or issue are largely favorable, enhancing confidence will increase persuasion and
instilling doubt will reduce persuasion. However, when thoughts about the message or issue
are largely unfavorable, enhancing confidence will reduce persuasion but instilling doubt
will undermine reliance on one’s negative thoughts, thereby increasing persuasion (see
Briñol & Petty, 2009, for a review of research on thought confidence).

A number of persuasion variables that have been examined in classic persuasion studies
have also been shown to impact thought confidence (Briñol & Petty, 2009). For instance,
individuals who nod their heads as they listen to a persuasive message containing either
strong or weak arguments show a stronger effect of argument quality on attitudes than do

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104 Benjamin C. Wagner and Richard E. Petty

individuals who shake their heads as they consider the same messages (Briñol & Petty,
2003), and follow-up analyses showed that this effect was due to increased thought confi-
dence among participants who were nodding their heads as compared with participants
who were shaking their heads. Emotion is another variable that impacts thought confi-
dence. Specifically, participants who are induced to experience a happy state after reading a
message and listing their thoughts in response to that message are more likely to use these
thoughts in forming an attitude than are participants who are placed in a neutral or sad
state after message elaboration and thought listing (Briñol, Petty, & Barden, 2007).

Critically, variables operate through meta-cognitive mechanisms – that is, by influencing
one’s evaluation of his or her own thoughts – primarily when people are thinking a great
deal (for a review, see Petty, Briñol, Tormala, & Wegener, 2007). After all, it takes a consider-
able amount of cognitive effort not only to generate thoughts in response to a message or
issue, but also to critically evaluate these thoughts. Timing is also important when it comes
to thought validation. That is, persuasion variables tend to influence thought confidence if
introduced during or after the message but can influence the amount of message processing
if introduced before the message. As an example, consider the case of source credibility. If a
perceiver learns that a message comes from an expert source before processing the message,
this perceiver will likely elaborate the message more carefully than if the message had come
from a non-expert source (Heesacker, Petty, & Cacioppo, 1983). If perceivers learn that a
message comes from an expert source only after elaborating the message, however, the expert
information will impact their confidence in the thoughts that they generated. Specifically,
thoughts generated in response to a message from an expert source will be held more confi-
dently than thoughts generated in response to a message from a non-expert source (Tormala,
Briñol, & Petty, 2007). Importantly, argument quality would have more of an effect on atti-
tudes under high (versus low) source expertise in both of the cases outlined above, but the
mechanisms responsible for the two effects would be quite different. It is to this issue – the
notion that variables can impact persuasion in multiple ways – that we turn next.

Putting It All Together: Multiple Roles for Persuasion Variables

As we have seen, people can be persuaded via one of two processing routes, and the likeli-
hood that they will use either route depends heavily on how much they are thinking about
the persuasive message. If people are not motivated or able to scrutinize a message, they will
be persuaded by one of several low-effort processes that comprise the peripheral route. If
they are motivated and able to think carefully about the message, persuasion will depend
primarily on people’s cognitive responses to the message. That is, in the central route, the
number and valence of thoughts, as well as the confidence with which these thoughts are
held, determine the extent of persuasion. And, as we have also seen, a number of factors
influence the likelihood that a message will be carefully elaborated. We have also touched
upon the notion that specific factors – such as moods and preexisting attitudes – can bias
the interpretation of message information, making the generation of positive or negative
thoughts more likely. Finally, we have also noted that certain factors can lead people to have
confidence or doubt in the thoughts that they have generated, which affects reliance on

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The Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion 105

these thoughts in forming or changing attitudes. Thus, without making it explicit, we have
already discussed many of the ways that variables can impact persuasion. This idea, namely
that variables can serve multiple roles in the persuasion process, is central to the ELM.
Specifically, the model holds that variables can (a) impact the amount of elaboration a
message receives, (b) operate as simple cues to persuasion, (c) serve as message arguments,
(d) bias the interpretation of message information, or (e) affect the confidence people have
in their thoughts (Petty, Briñol, & Priester, 2009; Petty & Cacioppo, 1986a).

To illustrate how a particular variable can serve in multiple roles in the persuasion proc-
ess in different situations, let us consider some concrete examples. First, we will summarize
how incidental emotions affect persuasion. As we have already noted, emotion can operate
as a simple cue to persuasion under low-elaboration conditions, producing change consist-
ent with its valence. Under high-elaboration conditions, emotions can bias interpretation
of message arguments (DeSteno, Petty, Wegener, & Rucker, 2000; Petty, Schumann, et al.,
1993) when it precedes the message and can affect how much confidence people have in the
thoughts they have generated when it follows message processing (Briñol et al., 2007).
Further, when elaboration is not constrained by other factors to be particularly low or high,
emotions can affect the amount of processing messages receive (Mackie & Worth, 1989;
Wegener et al., 1995). Lastly, one’s emotion can be scrutinized as a piece of information (i.e.,
an argument) relevant to a particular conclusion (Schwarz & Clore, 1983).

Another variable that has been shown to impact persuasion via multiple roles is source
credibility (i.e., trustworthiness and expertise). Messages presented by sources high in
expertise receive more processing than messages presented by sources low in expertise
(Heesacker et al., 1983). Additionally, messages presented by sources that are high in exper-
tise but low in honesty are scrutinized more carefully than messages presented by expert
sources perceived to be truthful (Priester & Petty, 1995). Under high-thinking conditions,
source credibility can bias processing of message information when the source is made sali-
ent prior to message processing. In particular, highly credible sources lead perceivers to
generate more favorable thoughts about a message than do less credible sources (Chaiken
& Maheswaran, 1994). Learning that a message comes from an expert (versus non-expert)
source after message processing can lead people to have more confidence in the thoughts
they generated in response to that message (Tormala, Briñol, & Petty, 2006). Finally, source
credibility can serve as a cue to persuasion under low elaboration conditions and as an
argument under high elaboration (Petty & Cacioppo, 1984b). Thus, we can see that source
credibility – like emotion – can operate in each of the roles for persuasion variables identi-
fied by the ELM. Indeed, there are many variables that have been shown to operate in these
multiple roles.

Consequences of Elaboration: Attitude Strength

Aside from impacting the manner in which individuals will be persuaded, elaboration also
yields a number of downstream consequences. Specifically, attitudes developed (or changed)
via a high amount of message- or issue-relevant thinking are especially stable over time,
resistant to counter-persuasion, likely to bias information processing in a pro-attitudinal

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106 Benjamin C. Wagner and Richard E. Petty

direction, and likely to lead to attitude-consistent behavior (Petty, Haugtvedt, & Smith,
1995). Taken collectively, these long-term outcomes are considered to be features of attitude
strength (Petty & Krosnick, 1995).

It makes a fair amount of sense, from a practical standpoint, that attitudes based on a
great deal of elaboration are stronger than attitudes based on less issue-relevant thinking.
For one, people who have thought a great deal about a particular subject will naturally have
a more well-developed and internally consistent knowledge structure surrounding the atti-
tude object than will individuals who have not thought much about the subject. As such,
any novel information will exert less influence on the overall mental representation in the
former case than in the latter. Additionally, thinking a lot about an issue can render one’s
attitude on that issue more accessible (Smith, Haugtvedt, & Petty, 1994). For instance, if a
person thinks a great deal about Diet Coke, his or her attitude toward Diet Coke is likely to
be chronically accessible and, in turn, is especially likely to guide information processing
and behavior with respect to Diet Coke (Cacioppo, Petty, Kao, & Rodriguez, 1986; Fazio &
Williams, 1986). Finally, people are likely to feel especially certain in attitudes that are based
on extensive amounts of issue-relevant thinking (Petty et al., 1995). Over time, because
people assess their level of thinking to determine certainty, perceived thinking becomes a
heuristic that can affect attitude certainty in the absence of any real thinking (Barden &
Petty, 2008). And, of course, when people are highly confident in their attitudes, the atti-
tudes become more persistent over time, resistant to attack, and likely to impact behavior
(Gross, Holtz, & Miller, 1995). Thus, we can see how elaboration impacts attitude strength:
by making attitudinal representations more internally consistent, well developed, and acces-
sible, and by making individuals more confident in their attitudes.

Criticism of the ELM

Perhaps the most thoroughgoing critique of the ELM is implicit in the relatively recent uni-
model of persuasion (Kruglanski & Thompson, 1999). Although the unimodel adopts the
ELM’s elaboration continuum and its postulate that extent of thinking is related to attitude
strength, it rejects the idea that different psychological processes operate along the contin-
uum. Instead, the unimodel states that there is only one process of persuasion that operates
to various degrees along the continuum. According to the unimodel, persuasion always
results from the recipient’s analysis of the evidence provided, whether the person is thinking
a lot or very little. Furthermore, Kruglanski and Thompson object to certain data presented
in support of the ELM. For example, they argue that the conclusion that people who are not
thinking very much rely on simple cue processes more than individuals who are thinking
more carefully has not been supported by the empirical literature. Specifically, these authors
argue that peripheral cues have usually been presented in ways that make them particularly
easy to process (e.g., attractive source, very short statements at the beginning of messages),
making low-motivation and low-ability perceivers especially likely to use these cues as evi-
dence in forming or modifying their attitudes. Relatedly, Kruglanski and Thompson argued
that message arguments are generally presented in long form (e.g., dense paragraphs of
information, minutes-long verbal presentations), meaning that this information is only

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The Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion 107

likely to impact attitudes if recipients are motivated and able to process it extensively. That
is, there is a confound between the information serving as simple “cues” and the informa-
tion serving as “arguments.” One type of evidence (i.e., cues) requires less thought than the
other (i.e., arguments), providing support for different amounts of thinking being involved
in persuasion but not for fundamentally different processes of persuasion.

In responding to the critique offered by Kruglanski and Thompson (1999), Petty, Wheeler
and Bizer (1999) raised a number of theoretical and methodological points. Most impor-
tantly, they noted that although some studies have used manipulations of cues and argu-
ments that vary in complexity, other studies have not. For example, they point to a study in
which three or nine weak counterattitudinal arguments were presented to participants (for
the original study, see Petty & Cacioppo, 1984a). Given that the weak arguments elicited
predominantly unfavorable thoughts, participants who were thinking carefully (i.e., high
elaboration) had more unfavorable attitudes after reading nine rather than three weak argu-
ments. Participants under low elaboration who were exposed to the exact same messages
evinced a very different pattern: they were more favorable to the proposal when presented
with nine arguments than when they were presented with three. In this study, the three-
versus-nine-arguments manipulation served as both the cue manipulation and the argu-
ment manipulation so that there could be no differences in length or complexity between
the two manipulations. Yet participants under high- and low-elaboration conditions applied
different psychological operations to this information. In particular, participants in the
low-elaboration conditions appeared to simply count the number of message arguments
and to conclude that a greater number of arguments was better (i.e., more persuasive) than
a smaller number. However, those in the high-relevance condition did not simply count the
arguments but instead evaluated them for merit. These different processes led to different
persuasion outcomes. Clearly, amount of thinking differed across the high- and low-
elaboration groups in this study. But the quantitative difference in elaboration is not the
only difference that mattered. Rather, participants used the information presented to them
in a qualitatively different manner as a function of elaboration. This qualitative distinction
between different processing styles, Petty and colleagues (1999) argued, is both theoretically
and practically important and should not, as Kruglanski and Thompson (1999) recom-
mended, be left out of social psychological theories of persuasion. (For other criticisms of
the ELM and responses to these criticisms, see Petty, Rucker, Bizer, & Cacioppo, 2004.)

Applications of the ELM

Many pressing social and political problems involve, at base, maladaptive attitudes, beliefs,
and behaviors. For instance, consider the problem of sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
such as HIV. Although awareness of the risks associated with unprotected sexual activity
is undoubtedly widespread, many sexually active adults nonetheless fail to take adequate
precautions against becoming infected or spreading infection to others (e.g., using latex
condoms; Anderson, Wilson, Doll, Jones, & Barker, 1999). One way to encourage people to
engage in safer sex practices is to change their attitudes toward such practices. In an applica-
tion of the persuasion literature in general – and of the ELM in particular – Petty, Gleicher,

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108 Benjamin C. Wagner and Richard E. Petty

and Jarvis (1993) noted that attitude change based on extensive thought (i.e., central route)
is more likely to produce attitude-consistent behavior than is attitude change based on less
thought (see also Petty & Krosnick, 1995). Thus, it is important not only to change people’s
attitudes toward condom use but also to encourage such change to take place in a thought-
ful manner.

One way to achieve this goal is to make a message about the risk of contracting HIV seem
particularly relevant to the intended audience, thereby increasing motivation to process the
message. This can be done in a relatively simple manner by directly mentioning message
recipients (e.g., saying “you can get HIV” rather than “people can get HIV”; Burnkrant &
Unnava, 1989). Alternatively, one might develop a two-pronged message, aiming first to
change message recipients’ perceptions of their personal level of risk and second to encour-
age condom usage as a method for reducing this risk. If such a tack is taken, however, it is
important that message recipients not become overly afraid or anxious about HIV and other
STIs, as these extreme emotions may lead individuals to avoid thinking about the message
(Janis, 1967; see also Albarracín et al., 2005). A second way to increase processing of mes-
sages encouraging safer sex practices is for these messages to be presented by highly credible
sources. A recent meta-analysis of the efficacy of HIV-prevention interventions indicated
that interventions delivered by expert sources were especially effective in yielding desired
behavioral changes (Albarracín, Durantini, & Earl, 2006). This finding may reflect the ten-
dency of message recipients to process messages delivered by highly credible sources more
carefully than messages delivered by less credible sources (Heesacker et al., 1983). A third
way that careful processing of information related to HIV prevention might be encouraged
involves the use of rhetorical questions (Petty, Cacioppo, & Heesacker, 1981). That is, people
may be especially likely to elaborate upon persuasive information if it is followed by a brief,
rhetorical question (e.g., “Don’t you think it’s a good idea to use condoms to prevent HIV?”)
instead of a similar statement (e.g., “It’s a good idea to use condoms to prevent HIV”).

Finally, people may be especially likely to process information regarding HIV prevention
if that information is tailored to specific aspects of their personality or self-concept, such as
gender (McCulloch, Albarracín, & Durantini, 2008) or need for cognition (Bakker, 1999).
Of course, other variables could also impact motivation (or ability) to process messages
relating to HIV prevention, and the examples provided here are simply illustrations. Also
important, any strategy aimed at increasing recipients’ message processing will only yield
attitude change in the desired direction if the arguments contained in the message are strong.
Thus, it is not enough simply to encourage message recipients to think carefully about HIV-
prevention strategies. The quality of the arguments that are presented is also critical, and
should definitely be considered by those who are developing messages in this domain.

The ELM has been applied in a variety of other domains as well, including psychological
therapy (Cacioppo, Claiborn, Petty, & Heesacker, 1991), school psychology (Petty, Heesacker,
& Hughes, 1997), mass media effects (Petty, Priester, & Briñol, 2002), health-promotion
strategies (Petty, Barden, & Wheeler, 2009), drug-abuse prevention (Baker, Petty, & Gleicher,
1991), and consumer behavior and marketing (Rucker & Petty, 2006), among others.
Although a thorough treatment of each of these applications is beyond the scope of this
chapter, they bear mentioning, as does the general approach they represent. Specifically,
each application examines – as did the approach to HIV prevention outlined above – how
attitude change can lead to desired behavioral changes, pointing out that attitudes formed

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The Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion 109

or changed via extensive message- or issue-relevant thinking are especially likely to lead to
attitude-consistent behaviors (see also Petty & Krosnick, 1995). Thus, it is important, par-
ticularly from a public health perspective, to develop methods that encourage individuals
to think carefully about messages aimed at modifying problem behaviors. Otherwise, the
attitudinal or behavioral changes realized by specific interventions will likely diminish or
dissipate as time progresses.

New Directions: Automatic and Deliberative Attitude Measures

One interesting research development in the twenty-first century concerns the distinction
between automatic and deliberative attitude measures (for reviews, see Fazio & Olson, 2003;
Petty, Fazio, & Briñol, 2009). Specifically, response latency measures, such as the implicit
association test (IAT; Greenwald, McGhee, & Schwartz, 1998) and the evaluative priming
procedure (Fazio, Jackson, Dunton, & Williams, 1995), have been developed in recent years,
in part to try to circumvent limitations associated with more traditional survey measures
(Schwarz, 1999). These procedures, termed implicit or automatic measures, attempt to meas-
ure the first evaluative reaction that automatically comes to mind when a person is exposed
to an attitude object. These measures have been contrasted with more traditional attitude
measures, which generally involve Likert-type or semantic differential scales, where people
report how much they like something (explicit or deliberative measures). Although some
controversy exists regarding the interpretation of each type of measure (e.g., Gawronski &
Bodenhausen, 2006; Wilson, Lindsey, & Schooler, 2000), many researchers agree that auto-
matic measures tap the strength of associations – stored in memory – between attitude
objects and evaluations. However, recent research has indicated that the evaluations that are
automatically activated upon presentation of an attitude object may not, at least in some
cases, be consciously endorsed by the individual holding such evaluations (Petty et al.,
2006). For instance, consider a case in which a former smoker is presented with a package
of his favorite brand of cigarettes. In all likelihood, such a person will automatically activate
a favorable evaluation when presented with the cigarettes, given his history of positive expe-
riences with them. However, this person would probably not endorse this automatically
activated attitude as his “true” attitude toward cigarettes, given that he has stopped smoking
them and knows that they contribute to a variety of health problems, including lung cancer
and heart disease. Thus, while an automatic measure of attitudes toward cigarettes would
likely show that this individual is quite favorable toward cigarettes, a more deliberative
measure would show that he does not like them very much. Which is the “true” attitude?
And how would each type of measure be affected by persuasion attempts?

According to the meta-cognitive model (MCM) of attitude structure (Petty, Briñol, &
DeMarree, 2007), people can store many kinds of information in memory about an attitude
object. This information can include not only object evaluations but, also, beliefs about
attitude objects and validity information regarding the attitude–object association. So, for
instance, a former smoker could associate cigarettes with favorability, but this cigarette–
favorability association could be “tagged,” in memory, as invalid or false. Given that this
validity tag is less accessible than the object–evaluation association itself, automatic measure-
ment techniques are relatively unlikely to reflect the invalidation of the cigarette–favorable

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110 Benjamin C. Wagner and Richard E. Petty

link. That is, because automatic measures generally involve quick and non-thoughtful
responses to stimulus pairings, information that is directly related to an attitude object is
most likely to be activated and applied in responding to such measures (Petty & Briñol,
2006). Deliberate measures, by contrast, generally afford the respondent the opportunity to
consider whether he or she consciously endorses the attitude–evaluation associations that
are stored in memory and, thus, these measures can be impacted by validity tags.

One of the implications of the MCM for persuasion – particularly with respect to the two
routes to persuasion identified by the ELM – involves the potential for peripheral cues to
exert differential impact on automatic and deliberate attitude measures. For instance, con-
sider the situation in which a sports celebrity endorses a particular brand of underwear.
With repeated pairings, the (positively valued) celebrity will become associated with the
underwear brand, likely leading advertisement recipients to develop favorable attitudes
toward the underwear brand, particularly if they are not thinking carefully about the adver-
tisement. If they are thinking about the advertisement, however, recipients will likely reason
that sports celebrities do not possess any special expertise with respect to underwear and,
accordingly, will attempt to remove the impact of the celebrity on their evaluations of the
underwear brand (e.g., Petty, Wegener, & White, 1998; see Wegener & Petty, 1997, for a
review of correction processes). Even among high-thought recipients, however, this
discounting (or invalidation) process is likely to be observed only on deliberative measures.
Automatic measures, by contrast, are likely to reflect only the relationship between the
underwear brand and the (liked) celebrity.

In fact, there are several examples in the empirical literature demonstrating such a pattern
of results, albeit with different attitude objects and peripheral cue manipulations (e.g., Rydell
& McConnell, 2006; Rydell, McConnell, Mackie, & Strain, 2006). For instance, in one study
(Gawronski & LeBel, 2008) an evaluative conditioning procedure was used to create associa-
tions between a continent (Europe or Asia) and an evaluation (positive or negative). Then,
participants were given an automatic (i.e., IAT) and deliberative (i.e., scale response) measure
of attitudes toward Europe and Asia. As expected, the automatic measure reflected the effect
of the evaluative conditioning procedure, such that continents associated with positivity were
evaluated more favorably than continents associated with negativity. However, deliberative
measures showed a different pattern. Specifically, when participants were asked to consider
their knowledge about the continents and then to fill out a survey measure of attitudes toward
the continents, the classical conditioning procedure had no effect on participants’ responses.
However, when participants were asked to consider their feelings about the continents before
filling out the survey measure, the classical conditioning did impact deliberate responses. In
other words, when participants were given the opportunity to carefully think about their
attitudinal responses, they considered not only their automatic associations but also the
validity of these associations (i.e., whether these associations seemed, based on instructions
regarding feelings versus thoughts, to be an appropriate basis for their attitudes). By contrast,
when participants were asked to respond quickly and non-thoughtfully (i.e., IAT), their
automatic associations were the primary determinant of their attitude responses.

In another study, McConnell, Rydell, Strain, and Mackie (2008) provided participants
with favorable or unfavorable behavioral information about a target person. Additionally,
they provided group membership cues about this person (e.g., he or she was or was not

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The Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion 111

overweight). Then, participants completed automatic (i.e., IAT) and deliberative (i.e., rating
scale) measures of attitudes toward the target. Whereas deliberative measures were impacted
only by the behavioral information provided about the target, automatic measures were
influenced by the target’s group membership (e.g., weight), particularly when the behavio-
ral information was somewhat ambiguous. Thus, we can see that group membership cues
impacted automatic evaluations more strongly than they affected deliberative evaluations,
consistent with the MCM. As researchers continue to explore the differential impact of
peripheral cues on automatic versus deliberative attitudes measures, we anticipate that such
patterns of results will continue to be reported.


As we have seen, the ELM has allowed attitudes researchers to understand and predict the
multiple ways in which attitudes can be formed and changed by different variables (e.g.,
moods, source expertise), depending on the likelihood of thinking (i.e., serving as cues or
arguments, affecting the amount or direction of thinking, or influencing confidence in
thoughts). Many motivational and ability factors impact elaboration likelihood, which in
turn determines whether peripheral or central route processes will be primarily responsible
for attitude change. Moreover, amount of elaboration influences the strength of attitudes
that are developed or changed in the persuasion context, with greater elaboration being
associated with more persistent, resistant, and behaviorally impactful attitudes. The ELM
has been applied to the study of a number of important social phenomena, including the
encouragement of safer-sex practices among individuals who are at risk for contracting
HIV and other STIs. Finally, recent research shows that peripheral cues are more likely to
impact automatic attitude measures than deliberative attitude measures, demonstrating the
ELM’s utility in understanding the distinction between the two types of measures as well as
the interpretation of attitude estimates derived via the two classes of procedures.


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Part II

Social Comparison

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Social comparisons – comparisons between the self and others – are a fundamental
psychological mechanism influencing people’s judgments, experiences, and behavior. People
constantly engage in social comparisons. Whenever they are confronted with information
about how others are, what others can and cannot do, or what others have achieved and have
failed to achieve, they relate this information to themselves (Dunning & Hayes, 1996).
Likewise, whenever they want to know how they themselves are or what they themselves can
and cannot do, they do so by comparing their own characteristics, fortunes, and weaknesses
to those of others (Festinger, 1954). Social comparisons are even engaged with others who
are unlikely to yield relevant information concerning the self (Gilbert, Giesler, & Morris,
1995), or who – phenomenologically – are not even there, because they were perceived out-
side of conscious awareness (Mussweiler, Rüter, & Epstude, 2004a; Stapel & Blanton, 2004).

Because comparisons with others are such a fundamental, ubiquitous, and robust human
proclivity, it may not be surprising that for over fifty years social comparison has been a highly
studied topic in social psychological research. This research was guided by three central ques-
tions: Why do people engage in social comparisons? To whom do they compare themselves?
How do social comparisons influence the self? Before presenting research attempting to answer
these three questions, we want to acknowledge briefly the theory of social comparison proc-
esses by Festinger (1954) as one major point of departure for the field.

Festinger’s Social Comparison Theory

Festinger’s social comparison theory is a successor of his theory of informal social commu-
nication (1950). As a student of Kurt Lewin, who in his field theory (1951) theorized about
forces of the environment (including the situation and other people) on the individual,


Social Comparison: Motives,
Standards, and Mechanisms

Katja Corcoran, Jan Crusius,
and Thomas Mussweiler

Theories in Social Psychology, First Edition. Edited by Derek Chadee.
© 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published 2011 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

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120 Katja Corcoran, Jan Crusius, and Thomas Mussweiler

Festinger set out to answer questions such as why do people talk, to whom do they talk, and
what is the result of their talking (Wheeler, 1970). He hypothesized that communication
primarily serves to reach agreement in the group and that this pressure toward uniformity
of opinion is based on two reasons: first, the need for group locomotion makes it necessary
that all of the group members hold similar opinions and, second, there exists a need to agree
on a social reality, because this would validate the accuracy of one’s individual opinions and
preferences (Festinger, 1950). Thus, in his theory of informal social communication,
Festinger stressed the importance of others in the formation of one’s opinions. In the theory
of social comparison processes, he added the realm of abilities and emphasized how indi-
viduals use others to fulfill their own need to gain knowledge about themselves.

Festinger (1954) based his theory on nine hypotheses (Table 5.1) and specified it with
eight corollaries and eight deviations. Even though the theory emerged out of Festinger’s
interest in the development of opinions and some of the hypotheses (Hypotheses IV and V)
specify expected differences between the influence on opinions versus abilities, most of
the research that is based on this theory has concentrated on comparisons of abilities (e.g.,
Wheeler, 1966), emotions (e.g., Wrightsman, 1960), or personality traits (e.g., Hackmiller,
1966), and very little on comparisons of opinions. This shift might have occurred
because Festinger himself did not linger for long with his theory of social comparison proc-
esses but quickly moved on to formulate the theory of cognitive dissonance (1957).

Table 5.1 Hypotheses of the theory of social comparison processes.

No. Hypothesis

I There exists, in the human organism, a drive to evaluate his opinions and his abilities.

II To the extent that objective, nonsocial means are not available, people evaluate their opinions and abilities by

comparison respectively with the opinions and abilities of others.

III The tendency to compare oneself with some other specific person decreases as the difference between his

opinion or ability and one’s own increases.

IV There is a unidirectional drive upward in the case of abilities which is largely absent in opinions.

V There are nonsocial restraints which make it difficult or even impossible to change one’s ability. These nonsocial

restraints are largely absent for opinions.

VI The cessation of comparison with others is accompanied by hostility or derogation to the extent that continued

comparison with those persons implies unpleasant consequences.

VII Any factors which increase the importance of some particular group as a comparison group for some particular

opinion or ability will increase the pressure toward uniformity concerning that ability or opinion within that


VIII If persons who are very divergent from one’s own opinion or ability are perceived as different from oneself on

attributes consistent with the divergence, the tendency to narrow the range of comparability becomes stronger.

IX When there is a range of opinion or ability in a group, the relative strength of the three manifestations of

pressures toward uniformity will be different for those who are close to the mode of the group than those who

are distant from the mode. Specifically, those close to the mode of the group will have stronger tendencies to

change the positions of others, relatively weaker tendencies to narrow the range of comparison, and much

weaker tendencies to change their position compared to those who are distant from the mode of the group.

From “A theory of social comparison processes,” by L. Festinger, 1954, Human Relations, 7, 117–140.

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Social Comparison 121

Notwithstanding, his theory inspired the research on social comparison and already his
hypotheses offer some answers to the three central questions that guided this research.

Hypotheses I and II speak to why people engage in social comparisons. Festinger points
out that “the holding of incorrect opinions and/or inaccurate appraisals of one’s abilities
can be punishing or even fatal in many situations” (Festinger, 1954, p. 117). Thus, the need
to know the self combined with the impossibility to determine opinions or abilities by
reference to the physical world in many situations motivates people to compare themselves
to other people.

Hypotheses III, IV, and VIII summarize Festinger’s understanding of with whom people
will compare. In essence, he postulates that people will seek out similar others for compari-
sons, or, in the case of abilities, others who are slightly better. He argues that comparisons
with people whose opinion or ability are too divergent does not provide much useful infor-
mation for assessing the accuracy of one own opinion or ability – mostly because the result
of such a comparison is known beforehand.

Finally, Hypotheses V, VI, VII, and IX point out some consequences of social compari-
sons to the self. Comparisons might cause a change in one’s opinion or ability, and most
likely this change goes in the direction of uniformity (i.e., assimilation). The amount of
change greatly depends on the importance, relevance, and attraction to the comparison
group, and the inability to reach uniformity is perceived as unpleasant.

In the following we will turn to each of these questions individually and thereby outline
how Festinger’s initial ideas were, over the decades, expanded or sometimes questioned.

Why Do People Engage in Social Comparisons?

The classic answer to why people compare themselves to others is based on motivational con-
siderations. In Festinger’s (1954) original theory of social comparisons, he stresses the desire
of people to know themselves. As outlined above, Festinger postulates that people have a basic
need to maintain a stable and accurate self-view. Therefore they seek informative feedback
about their characteristics and abilities. From Festinger’s point of view, people mainly rely on
objective standards for such evaluations. However, objective standards are not always available,
or comparisons with them are hard to achieve. In this case, people may fall back on social
comparisons with others. Later research questions this preference for objective standards.
Instead, people appear to compare with others even if objective standards are present (Klein,
1997). In any case, one of the main motives for social comparisons seems to be the need for
accurate self-evaluations (for an overview, see Taylor, Wayment & Carrillo, 1996).

However, sometimes people do not seek accurate feedback about themselves, but try to
create and maintain a positive self-image. To this end, people might also purposefully
engage in comparisons with others. Especially downward comparisons – comparison with
others one outperforms – can serve this goal (Wills, 1981). Even failures might suddenly
appear to be successes in comparisons with other who performed even worse than oneself.

A third need eventually fulfilled by social comparison is the need to self-improve (Taylor &
Lobel, 1989). To gain information and hints on how to advance, people seek comparisons
particularly with upward standards – others who are better than themselves.

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122 Katja Corcoran, Jan Crusius, and Thomas Mussweiler

Thus, social comparisons are typically portrayed as strategic processes, which are executed
to satisfy certain motives or goals (Taylor et al., 1996). Specifically, social comparison
is mostly understood as a process which is engaged to fulfill fundamental needs such as
self-evaluation, self-enhancement, and self-improvement (Kruglanski & Mayseless, 1990;
Suls, Martin, & Wheeler, 2002; Wood & Taylor, 1991). However, not all social comparisons
appear to be such a deliberate and strategic process. Quite the contrary, they are often con-
ducted spontaneously and without intention (e.g., Mussweiler et al., 2004a). In this case,
they might not be strategic means to fulfill a certain goal. The existence of such spontane-
ous comparisons suggests that there have to be additional reasons why people compare
with others.

One of these additional reasons arises from logical and conversational considerations.
Information about characteristics, abilities, and performances often concerns attributes and
dimensions that are defined in a relative manner. To say somebody is athletic, intelligent, or
attractive implies that this person is more athletic, more intelligent, and more attractive than
others (Huttenlocher & Higgins, 1971). Therefore it is necessary to compare the target with
relevant standards to interpret incoming information correctly and to communicate outgo-
ing information successfully. If, for example, one hears the simple statement “Tom is tall,”
one would estimate his body height differently if Tom were a toddler rather than a basketball
player. In absolute numbers, the tall toddler is most likely much smaller than the tall athlete.
Research in social psychology has repeatedly demonstrated that people usually consider
their communication partners’ norms and standards while processing or exchanging social
information (Schwarz, 1994; Schwarz, Bless, Bohner, Harlacher, & Kellenbenz, 1991).

A rather new answer to the question of why people engage in social comparisons is offered
by a social cognitive perspective on social comparison. Here, the basic social cognition prin-
ciple of cognitive efficiency is applied to the realm of social comparison research. People as
cognitive misers (Taylor, 1981) have to be efficient in the use of their scarce cognitive
resources, and efficiency in comparison processes may well be the reason why comparisons
are so frequently engaged in the first place.

Mussweiler and Epstude (2009) have suggested that comparisons in general are so ubiq-
uitous because they allow us to process information in a more efficient manner than more
absolute modes of information processing. This may be the case, because comparisons in
general, as well as social comparisons in specific, limit the range of information that has to
be considered to evaluate or judge a given object. Assume, for example, that you were to
evaluate your athletic abilities. To do so in an absolute manner, i.e., with little use of com-
parisons, you would have to consider all the different aspects of athletic ability and retrieve
all the information you have available about these aspects. In principle, you would have to
consider all the information that may say something about your athletic abilities, such as
your success on the soccer field, the weights you lift in the gym, your performance in sports
during high school, whether you are out of breath running to catch a bus, etc. Clearly, con-
sidering all this information has the potential to become an endless task. In marked con-
trast, evaluating your athletic abilities in a comparative manner, for example by comparing
yourself with your best friend Tom, seems considerably easier. Instead of considering all the
information that has some implication concerning your athletic abilities, you would merely
have to consider the particular information that is relevant for the comparison with Tom.

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Social Comparison 123

If Tom does not play soccer at all, for example, your abilities as a soccer player have no rel-
evance for the comparison and thus do not have to be considered.

To demonstrate the efficiency advantage of comparative information processing in gen-
eral, Mussweiler and Epstude (2009) primed participants to process information in either a
more comparative or a more absolute manner. To do so, participants were given a pair of
pictures and were asked either to compare or to describe them before they received the critical
judgment task. Participants who compared the two pictures were likely to rely more heavily
on comparisons in the subsequent critical judgment task than participants who described the
two pictures. In this critical judgment task, participants were asked to judge a fictitious city
on several dimensions (e.g., number of inhabitants, number of students). The results indicate
that comparative processing is indeed more efficient. Participants who were induced to make
these judgments in a more comparative manner were faster in making the critical judgments
and had more resources available for the processing of a secondary task (e.g. Macrae, Milne,
& Bodenhausen, 1994). This indicates that comparative information processing does indeed
hold valuable efficiency advantages. Furthermore, in another study, Mussweiler and Epstude
(2009) found evidence that this efficiency advantage partially emerged because participants
rely on less information while judging in a comparative manner.

In much the same way, social comparison is also likely to involve a focus on a small subset
of all the information that is potentially relevant for a given self-evaluation. Thus, social
comparison may be an efficient way of self-evaluation, because the less information people
have to consider, the faster they come to a conclusion, as demonstrated, for example, in
research on the use of categorical thinking (Macrae & Bodenhausen, 2000) and heuristics
(Tversky & Kahneman, 1974). Determining who we are, what we can and cannot do may
require less processing capacity if we do so in comparison to others. That might also be a
reason why comparisons with others play such a central role in our mental lives.

Taken together, several reasons appear to exist why people compare themselves to others.
On the one hand, people might want to fulfill certain goals or satisfy certain needs such as
self-evaluation, self-enhancement, and self-improvement via social comparisons (Festinger,
1954; Taylor & Lobel, 1989; Taylor et al., 1996; Wills, 1981). On the other hand, social com-
parisons or the reference to comparison standards might be necessary to communicate
successfully with others (Huttenlocher & Higgins, 1997; Schwarz, 1994). Finally, social
comparisons might be an efficient cognitive tool to gain self-knowledge without binding to
many cognitive resources (Mussweiler & Epstude, 2009).

To Whom Do People Compare Themselves?

There are an infinite number of potential comparison standards for each social compari-
son. To evaluate your athletic abilities, for example, you could compare yourself to your
spouse, your brother, your little daughter, the basketball player Michel Jordan, the Pope, or
any other real or imagined person you know personally or through the media. People face
such a great selection of potential standards that the question is whom to select.

The classical answer to this question again emphasizes motivational aspects. Based on
his assumption that social comparisons were primarily conducted to gain accurate

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124 Katja Corcoran, Jan Crusius, and Thomas Mussweiler

self-knowledge, Festinger (1954) hypothesized that people select comparison standards
that are similar to themselves on the critical dimension. The selection of a similar other is
important, because only comparisons with similar standards provide diagnostic informa-
tion for the self-evaluation (Festinger, 1954). If people compared themselves with dis-
similar others, the result of this comparison would remain ambiguous. For example, if
you are detected to be more athletic than a very unathletic person such a result says little
about your athletic ability. Thus, a comparison with a dissimilar standard offers little
helpful information for an accurate self-evaluation.

Later research on the similarity hypothesis indicates that it is not so much similarity on
the critical dimension (Wheeler, 1966), but rather similarity on related attributes, that is
decisive for the diagnosticity of comparison information (Goethals & Darley, 1977). Related
attributes are closely associated with the critical dimension and partially determine the
performance on the critical dimension. Therefore, diagnostic standards have to be similar
on such attributes, because otherwise performance differences may be attributed to the dif-
ferences on the related attributes rather than to differences in the ability on the critical
dimension. If you, for example, compare yourself to a much older person and outperform
this person in an athletic competition, this does not necessarily speak for your excellent
athletic ability, because the age difference readily explains the performance difference.
However, if your competitor is the same age as yourself, your victory clearly indicates your
superior athletic ability. Much empirical evidence supports the hypothesis that similarity
on the critical dimension (Gruder, 1971; Wheeler, 1966) as well as on related attributes
(Miller, 1982, 1984; Suls, Gaes, & Gastorf, 1979; Suls, Gastorf, & Lawhon, 1978; Wheeler,
Koestner, & Driver, 1982; Zanna, Goethals, & Hill, 1975) is an important factor in the stand-
ard selection process. Thus, the need for accurate self-evaluation leads predominantly to
the selection of similar standards.

Self-enhancement – the need to maintain a positive self-view – on the other hand might
lead to the selection of inferior standards. Wills (1981) postulates in his theory of down-
ward comparisons that people seek such standards to boost their self-view with a favorable
comparison. Not only social comparisons with other people, but also temporal compari-
sons with oneself in the past could serve such a purpose (Hanko, Crusius, & Mussweiler,
2010; Wilson & Ross, 2000). Because downward comparisons have the potential to protect
or enhance one’s self-view, people with a threatened self-view will be especially prone to
engage in them (Wills, 1981). For example, women whose self had been threatened by
recent breast cancer compared themselves primarily with other patients whose condition
was more critical (Wood, Taylor, & Lichtman, 1985).

The need to self-improve, finally, is most likely fulfilled by comparisons with upward
standards. Upward comparisons can motivate people and can provide information on
how to make progress (Bandura, 1986, 1997). People who are slightly better than oneself,
especially, are selected as comparison standard for this purpose. Those upward standards
could serve as models and might, for example, improve performance through increased
perceived self-efficacy (e.g., Lirgg & Feltz, 1991; Maddux, 1995). However, only if the self
is perceived as mutable (Stapel & Koomen, 2000) and the standard as attainable
(Lockwood & Kunda, 1997) are people motivated by such comparisons. Interestingly,
even unattainable or threatening upward comparisons might motivate and improve

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Social Comparison 125

performance, but only if the performance emerges in a different domain than the
comparison (Johnson & Stapel, 2007a, 2007b).

Even though people might seek social comparisons with superior others to improve,
upward comparisons could also be threatening to the self. In the same way in which down-
ward comparisons might maintain or enhance one’s positive self-view, upward comparisons
might question this image (Tesser, 1988). To reduce the negative effect of comparisons with
superior others, people could react defensively. People might, for example, undermine or
dispute the relevance of the standard (Mussweiler, Gabriel & Bodenhausen, 2000; Stapel &
Johnson, 2007; Stapel & Schwinghammer, 2004) or derogate the superior standard (Parks-
Stamm, Heilman, & Hearns, 2008).

Thus, to be able to satisfy varying motives, social comparisons have to be carefully crafted.
Lateral comparisons serve self-evaluation, downward comparisons serve self-enhancement,
and upward comparisons serve self-improvement. Even though many other factors can in
addition influence the standard selection process (Taylor et al., 1996), these preferences
could be understood as a simplified rule. Since different standards are required for self-
enhancement, self-evaluation, or self-improvement, comparers can only guarantee that the
comparison will lead to the desired outcome by strategically selecting an appropriate com-
parison standard (Kruglanski & Mayseless, 1990; Suls et al., 2002; Wood & Taylor, 1991).
However, trying to select the most suitable standard will bring with it a high price.

Take as an example a standard selection process based on similarity on the critical dimen-
sion itself (Festinger, 1954) or on attributes that are related to this dimension (Goethals &
Darley, 1977) (for a discussion of the limitations of both notions, see Miller & Prentice,
1996). This normative perspective on standard selection is supported by considerable
empirical evidence (e.g., Gruder, 1971; Suls et al., 1978; Wheeler, 1966; Zanna et al., 1975).
At the same time, however, the efficiency of these arduous processes and thus their practi-
cability is typically not taken into account. Finding a standard which is similar on the criti-
cal dimension or on related attributes is an elaborate process in which different dimensions,
different potential standards, and different criteria have to be considered (Festinger, 1954;
Gorthals & Darley, 1977; Wood & Taylor, 1991). Often, there seem to be too many choices
and too little time. In principle, people may satisfy their different motives via arduous
standard selection processes, but often they may lack the extensive processing capacities
these processes require. Therefore, the pressure to be efficient is another factor influencing
the choice of comparison standard (Mussweiler & Rüter, 2003).

One of the main tools applied to simplify complex decisions and consequently to make
them more efficient is the application of routines (e.g., Aarts & Dijksterhuis, 2000; Betsch,
Haberstroh, Glöckner, Haar, & Fiedler, 2001; Verplanken, Aarts, van Knippenberg, & van
Knippenberg, 1994; for an overview, see Verplanken & Aarts, 1999). Applying the concepts
of routines to social comparison may provide a more efficient alternative to such a strategic
standard selection process. Instead of engaging in the arduous and often impossible task of
finding the most diagnostic standard, one may simply compare with those standards that
one routinely uses for comparison. The development of such a routine would then depend
on the frequency of prior use of the routine standard. The more often a particular standard
has been used, the more strongly it would be associated with the self-evaluation task and
the more likely one would be to engage in further comparisons with this standard. In this

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126 Katja Corcoran, Jan Crusius, and Thomas Mussweiler

respect, routine standards enable people to skip a standard selection process altogether and
still engage in comparative self-evaluation.

To investigate the use of routine standards in social comparison, Mussweiler and Rüter
(2003) conducted a series of studies demonstrating a preference either for naturally occur-
ring routine standards (e.g., the best friend) or for experimentally created routine standards
(based on frequent previous comparisons) during self-evaluations. In one study they
showed that subsequent to a series of self-evaluative judgments (compared to a series of
evaluations of another person), participants were faster at recognizing the name of their
best friend (i.e., the routine standard) than the name of an ex-friend (i.e., the control stand-
ard) in a lexical decision task. Because these response latencies indicate the accessibility of
the people identified with the names, these data confirmed the hypothesis that people acti-
vate their best friends as a natural routine standard during self-evaluations. In another
study they also found evidence that the routine standard is indeed preferred to a strategi-
cally more suitable standard. In this case, participants evaluated themselves on a dimension
on which they perceived their best friend as very dissimilar to themselves (which indicates
the standard’s low diagnosticity for self-evaluation). However, participants were still faster
in judging their dissimilar best friend than in judging their similar acquaintance on the
dimension on which they had previously evaluated themselves. This suggests that partici-
pants had activated information about the best friend’s standing on the judgmental dimen-
sion during self-evaluation. Thus, people seem to use the routine standard even though this
person is not an adequate standard from a strategic point of view. These findings indicate
that our participants skipped the elaborate standard selection process altogether and instead
fell back on a standard with which they were used to comparing themselves (Mussweiler &
Rüter, 2003; Rüter & Mussweiler, 2005).

Skipping an elaborate standard selection process, however, is just one efficiency advan-
tage of routine standards – the advantages may go even further. Given that a routine stand-
ard is created by repeatedly comparing with the same standard, this comparison is also
highly practiced. Thus, the comparison process itself may profit from the use of routine
standards and become more efficient. In another series of studies Corcoran and Mussweiler
(2009) showed that comparisons between the self and a routine standard (e.g., the best
friend) are conducted faster than comparisons between the self and other standards (e.g.,
ex-friends). Furthermore, this result could be replicated for routine standards established in
the experiment by repeated comparisons with the self. The mere practice of repeatedly
comparing a person with the self facilitates further comparisons with the same standard
even if the control standard has been used equally often in previous comparisons (but not
with the self ) and the subsequent comparisons take place on new, unrelated dimensions.
Thus, practice effects (see also Smith, 1989; Smith, Branscombe, & Bormann, 1988; and
Smith & Lerner, 1986, for practice effects in social judgments in general) may be the second
base for the efficiency of routine standards during self-evaluations.

Using routine standards in order to be efficient, however, might also come with a certain
risk, especially if the routine standard is an upward standard on the comparison dimension.
Tesser (1988) argues in his self-evaluation maintenance model that an upward comparison
is most threatening when the superior other is “psychologically close.” Because only people
with whom one frequently compares oneself become routine standards, such standards are
typically close to oneself, like one’s best friend. Research on social comparisons within

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romantic relationships, however, demonstrates that people who feel very close to their part-
ners are positively affected by such upward comparisons through a process of relation-
ship affirmation (Lockwood, Dolderman, Sadler, & Gerchak, 2004; Pinkus, Lockwood,
Schimmack, & Fournier, 2008).

Taken together, several factors influence the selection of comparison standards. On the
one hand, the same motives that might explain why people engage in social comparison
also explain which standard people select. To gain accurate self-knowledge, people use simi-
lar others as comparison standards, because only people who are similar to themselves pro-
vide diagnostic information for the self-evaluation. If people rather strive to self-enhance,
they do not want accurate information about themselves but rather want to maintain a
positive self-image. To do so, they look out for inferior others, because in light of such
downward comparisons the self appears to be positive. Finally, if the comparison serves the
goal to self-improve, superior others seem to be the perfect standards, because upward
comparisons might be motivating and helpful to improve. However, goals, motives, and
need are not the only reasons why people compare and are not the only factors influencing
the standard selection process. Another important principle is the need to be efficient with
one’s cognitive resources. Social comparison is an efficient way to self-evaluate, and this
efficiency advantage could easily be wasted by an arduous standard selection process.
However, people can circumvent such a demanding process by relying on routine standards
during self-evaluations. Instead of selecting the most suitable standard, they simply com-
pare themselves to the person they usually compare themselves to.

How Do Social Comparisons Influence the Self ?

Social comparison shapes self-evaluations in multiple and variable ways (for reviews see
Blanton, 2001; Collins, 1996; Mussweiler, 2003a, 2003b; Mussweiler & Strack, 2000a; Taylor
et al., 1996; Wood, 1989). Self-perception, affective reactions, motivation, and behavior are
all shaped by comparisons with others. Participants, for example, evaluate their athletic
ability to be lower after a comparison with the basketball player Michel Jordan than after a
comparison with the Pope (Mussweiler, Rüter, & Epstude, 2004b). After comparing their
performance with a superior standard, participants feel worse than after comparing it with
an inferior standard (Gilbert et al., 1995). However, in another study they were more moti-
vated and showed a better performance after an upward than after a downward comparison
(Seta, 1982). The research on social comparison provides much evidence and empirical
support for the numerous consequences of social comparisons on the self. Therefore it
seems to be undisputable that social comparison has a great influence on the self.

Dispute, however, exists about the direction of this influence. In the original social com-
parison theory, Festinger (1954) predicted a pressure toward uniformity, which would result
in assimilation (e.g., Lockwood & Kunda, 1997; Mussweiler & Strack, 2000b; Pelham &
Wachsmuth, 1995). In this case, people evaluate themselves to be better after a comparison
with a high than a low standard (Mussweiler et al., 2004b). But sometimes, social com-
parison leads to a contrast effect. In this case, people evaluate themselves to be worse
after a comparison with a high, superior standard than a low, inferior standard (e.g., Morse &
Gergen, 1970).

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128 Katja Corcoran, Jan Crusius, and Thomas Mussweiler

One important factor that influences whether people assimilate to or contrast away from
comparison standards seems to be how they construe their self before engaging in social
comparison. For example, Stapel and Koomen (2001) demonstrated that inducing a per-
sonal self-construal by priming participants with the pronouns “I” and “me” led to contrast
to a successful or unsuccessful comparison standard. Inducing a social self-construal by
priming participants with the pronouns “we” and “us” fostered assimilation. Further find-
ings point to motivational causes of these effects. Comparisons after activated self- construals
followed a self-enhancing pattern: a downward standard led to particularly strong positive
self-evaluations (contrast) when personal self-construals had been activated. An upward
standard led to particularly strong positive self-evaluations (assimilation) when social self-
construals had been activated. Parallel findings have been obtained by comparing partici-
pants with primed or chronically high-independent versus interdependent selves (Gardner,
Gabriel, & Hochschild, 2002; Kemmelmeier & Oyserman, 2001).

Another way in which self-construal affects assimilation and contrast in social compari-
son is highlighted by findings of Lockwood and Kunda (1997): participants who saw intel-
ligence as a malleable trait assimilated to a highly intelligent comparison standard. Blanton
(2001) follows up on this result in his three-selves model of social comparison. He suggests
that in addition to personal and social selves the possible self also affects social comparison
outcomes. The possible self is not constrained by the current characteristics of a person
because it entails everything that he or she might become at some point. Hence, traits of the
comparison standard can be included in the self, resulting in assimilation. To test this rea-
soning, Blanton and Stapel (2008, Studies 1 a, b) induced a possible-self mindset by asking
participants to write an essay on the topic “Who can I become?” Consistent with the three-
selves model, these participants assimilated their self-evaluations to a very intelligent or
very unintelligent comparison standard.

In sum, there are convergent findings that chronic or situationally induced self-construals
are an important predictor of the direction of social comparisons. Furthermore, effects of
personal and social self-construals have been related to the self-enhancement motive.

However, whether social comparison results in assimilation or contrast depends on a host
of additional moderators that are not necessarily tied to motivational processes such as, for
example, the extremity of the standard (Herr, 1986; Herr, Sherman, & Fazio, 1983; Mussweiler
et al., 2004b), the ambiguity of the self-knowledge (e.g., Herr et al., 1983; Stapel, Koomen, &
van der Plight, 1997), whether the standard belongs to the ingroup or an outgroup (e.g.,
Blanton, Crocker, & Miller, 2000; Mussweiler & Bodenhausen, 2002; Mussweiler et al., 2000),
hether one cooperates or competes with the standard (Stapel & Koomen, 2005), the psycho-
logical closeness between the self and the standard (Lockwood & Kunda, 1997; Pelham &
Wachsmuth, 1995; Tesser, Miller, & Moore, 1988), etc. Contrast is more likely if the standard
is an extreme standard, if the standard belongs to an outgroup, or if the self-knowledge holds
clear implications for the upcoming self-evaluation. On the other hand, social comparison
may result in assimilation if the standard is a moderate standard, if the standard belongs to
the same category as the self, or if the self-knowledge is ambiguous concerning the dimension
on which the self-evaluation occurs (Mussweiler, 2003a).

In the perspective of the Selective Accessibility Model (Figure 5.1; Mussweiler, 2003a),
these converse consequences of social comparison can be explained by the change of

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Social Comparison 129

accessible self-knowledge. Like any judgment, post-comparison self-evaluations are based
on the implications of the judgment-relevant knowledge that is accessible at the time the
judgment is made (for an overview, see Higgins, 1996). Social comparisons may therefore
affect self-evaluations because they influence what knowledge is rendered accessible and is
consequently used as a basis for the evaluation. Thus, understanding what knowledge is
sought and activated during the comparison and is consequently rendered accessible is cru-
cial to understand their self-evaluative consequences.

To carry out a social comparison, people have to obtain specific judgment-relevant infor-
mation about the self and the standard, which allows them to evaluate both persons relative
to one another. To decide whether oneself or one’s best friend is more athletic, for example,
one has to activate knowledge about the athletic abilities of both people. This specific
knowledge is best obtained by an active search for judgment-relevant information through
a processes of hypothesis testing (Trope & Liberman, 1996). Such hypothesis-testing proc-
esses are often selective in that they focus on one single hypothesis which is then evaluated
against a specific criterion (Sanbonmatsu, Posavac, Kardes, & Mantel, 1998; see also
Klayman & Ha, 1987; Trope & Liberman, 1996). Rather than engaging in an exhaustive
comparative test of all plausible hypotheses, judges follow the efficiency principle and limit
themselves to the test of a single focal hypothesis. Therefore, the critical question is which
concrete hypothesis will be tested during the comparison. In principle, two hypotheses can
be distinguished. People can either test the possibility that the self is similar to the standard
or they can test the possibility that the self is dissimilar from the standard. When comparing
one’s athletic abilities to those of one’s best friend, for example, one may either assume
either that both are about equally athletic or that one is clearly more athletic.

Figure 5.1 The selective accessibility mechanism.
From “Comparison processes in social judgment: Mechanisms and consequences,” by T. Mussweiler, Psychological

Review, 110, 472–489.

Similarity testing

Dissimilarity testing

test hypothesis
target = standard

selective accessibility
of standard-consistent

target knowledge

test hypothesis
target = standard

selective accessibility
of standard-inconsistent

target knowledge

initial assessment
of target-standard






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130 Katja Corcoran, Jan Crusius, and Thomas Mussweiler

To know how social comparison might influence the self, one therefore first has to
determine which of these hypotheses is tested during the comparison. The choice of the
hypothesis depends on the overall perceived similarity of the self and the standard. As the
first step in the selective accessibility mechanism, judges engage in a quick initial assessment
of the self and the standard (Smith, Shoben, & Rips, 1974) in which they briefly consider a
small number of features (e.g., category membership, salient characteristics) to decide
whether both are generally similar or dissimilar. The outcome of this initial screening is a
broad assessment of perceived similarity. If, for example, one’s best friend belongs to a cat-
egory that clearly sets him apart with respect to athletic abilities (e.g., he is a professional
athlete), then the initial assessment of similarity is likely to indicate that self and standard
are generally dissimilar with respect to the critical dimension. However, in the absence of
such clear indications of dissimilarity this assessment is likely to indicate that self and
standard are generally similar. Although such a broad assessment is by itself too general to
be used as the basis for self-evaluation, it is sufficient to determine the specific nature of the
hypothesis that is then tested in more detail. If this assessment indicates that the self is gen-
erally similar to the standard, judges will engage in a process of similarity testing and test
the hypothesis that the self is similar to the standard. If the initial assessment indicates that
the self is dissimilar from the standard, however, judges will engage in a process of dissimi-
larity testing and test the hypothesis that the self is dissimilar from the standard.

Because the critical initial assessment of self–standard similarity is conceptualized as a
quick screening, features that are salient, easy to process, and have immediate implications for
target-standard similarity are especially influential during this stage of the comparison proc-
ess. Two features which fulfill these criteria are category membership and standard extremity.
Similarity testing, for example, is more likely to be engaged for standards that belong to
the same category as the standard (Mussweiler & Bodenhausen, 2002) and whose standing
on the judgmental dimension is moderate rather than extreme (Mussweiler et al., 2004b).
Furthermore, the motivational underpinnings of the comparison situation may influence the
outcome of this initial assessment. If judges are, for example, motivated to maintain a positive
self-image when confronted with a low standard they may focus more on the ways in which
they are different from this standard and consequently engage in dissimilarity testing.

Once a hypothesis is selected, it is often tested by focusing on hypothesis-consistent
evidence (Klayman & Ha, 1987; Snyder & Swann, 1978; Trope & Bassok, 1982; Trope &
Liberman, 1996). Applied to the case of social comparison, this suggests that judges selec-
tively generate information that is consistent with the focal hypothesis of either similarity or
dissimilarity. Judges who engage in similarity testing when comparing their athletic abilities
to those of their best friend may thus focus on those aspects of their self- knowledge which
indicate that they are both similarly athletic. By the same token, if judges test the hypothesis
that the self is dissimilar from the standard, they do so by selectively searching for standard-
inconsistent self-knowledge – evidence indicating that the self is different from the standard.
The selectivity in the acquisition of judgment-relevant self-knowledge has therefore clear
consequences for the accessibility of self-knowledge. The mechanism of similarity testing
selectively increases the accessibility of standard-consistent self- knowledge, whereas dissimi-
larity testing selectively increases the accessibility of standard-inconsistent self-knowledge.
Because judges use the self-knowledge that became accessible during the comparison as a

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Social Comparison 131

basis for self-evaluations, their subsequent judgment will reflect the implications of this
knowledge. The consequence of basing self-evaluations on the implications of standard-
consistent knowledge is thus assimilation. Basing target evaluations on the implications of
standard-inconsistent knowledge, however, results typically in contrast.

Empirical evidence supports the hypothesis that the direction of comparison conse-
quences is determined by the judges’ informational focus on similarities versus differences
(Mussweiler, 2001). Here, participants are procedurally primed to focus either on similari-
ties or on differences. To this end, participants worked prior to the social comparison task
on an unrelated task in which they compared sketches of two scenes. Roughly half the par-
ticipants were asked to list all the similarities between the two scenes they could find. The
other half were asked to list all the differences they could find. In both cases, the respective
informational focus on similarities or differences should become proceduralized (Smith,
1994) and carry over to the subsequent comparison. Subsequent to the procedural priming
task, participants compared themselves with a social standard which was either high or low
on the critical dimension of adjustment to college. They then evaluated their own adjust-
ment to college. Consistent with a selective accessibility perspective on comparison conse-
quences, subsequent self-evaluations critically depended on whether participants were
induced to focus on similarities or differences. Participants who were primed to focus on
similarities and to thus engage in similarity testing assimilated self-evaluations toward the
standard and evaluated their own adjustment to college to be better after a comparison with
a high rather than a low standard. Participants who were primed to focus on differences and
to thus engage in dissimilarity testing, on the other hand, contrasted self-evaluations away
from the standard. They evaluated their own adjustment to college to be worse after a com-
parison with a high rather than a low standard.

In addition, there is evidence that assimilative and contrastive social comparison conse-
quences are often accompanied by traces of the two alternative selective accessibility mech-
anisms of similarity and dissimilarity testing (Mussweiler et al., 2004b). In one study,
participants compared themselves with either moderate or extreme comparison standards
of athletic ability before evaluating their own athletic ability. For example, participants were
either asked to compare themselves with the moderately low standard Bill Clinton or with
the extremely low standard Pope John Paul. Consistent with evidence in the social judg-
ment literature (Herr, 1986), participants assimilated their self-evaluations to the moderate
standards and contrasted them away from the extreme standards. Subsequently, partici-
pants were asked to compare two pictures and to indicate how similar they were. If assimila-
tive comparison consequences are indeed produced by an informational focus on similarities
and contrastive consequences result from a focus on dissimilarities, then these respective
foci should carry over to this picture-comparison task. The results indicate that participants
who assimilated self-evaluations toward the moderate standards indeed focused on simi-
larities between the two pictures and rated them to be more similar than participants who
contrasted self-evaluations away from extreme standards. This finding suggests that the
alternative informational foci on similarities versus dissimilarities do indeed underlie
assimilative and contrastive comparison consequences.

The selective accessibility model suggests that these varying social comparison conse-
quences are produced by differences in the accessibility of self-knowledge. Whereas similarity

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132 Katja Corcoran, Jan Crusius, and Thomas Mussweiler

testing increases the accessibility of self-knowledge indicating that self and standard are
similar on the critical dimension, dissimilarity testing selectively increases the accessibility of
self-knowledge that indicates that self and standard are dissimilar on the critical dimension.
This hypothesis was also tested directly. In these studies (Mussweiler & Bodenhausen, 2002),
participants compared themselves with intracategorical versus extracategorcial standards,
which typically leads to either similarity testing and assimilation or dissimilarity testing and
contrast. Social comparison with an ingroup standard, on the one hand, should involve
similarity testing so that standard-consistent self-knowledge is rendered accessible.
Comparisons with an outgroup standard, on the other hand, should involve dissimilarity
testing so that standard-inconsistent self-knowledge is rendered accessible. Subsequent to the
comparison, participants worked on a special type of lexical decision task (Dijksterhuis et al.,
1998) that assessed the accessibility of standard-consistent versus standard-inconsistent self-
knowledge. The results indicate that standard-consistent self-knowledge is more accessible
after a spontaneous comparison with an ingroup member than after a comparison with
an outgroup member. Thus, under conditions that promote similarity testing, the accessibil-
ity of standard-consistent target knowledge is increased. Under conditions that promote
dissimilarity testing, however, standard-inconsistent knowledge becomes more accessible.

Changes in the accessibility of self-knowledge may thus be the critical mechanism that
drives the effects social comparisons have on the self. If a social comparison involves a focus
on the ways in which self and standard are similar, then the accessibility of standard-
consistent self-knowledge is increased so that self-evaluations are assimilated toward the
standard. If a social comparison involves a focus on the ways in which self and standard are
different, then the accessibility of standard-inconsistent knowledge is increased so that self-
evaluations are contrasted away from the standard.

Applications of Social Comparison Theory

In light of the fact that social comparisons are an integral part of our psychological func-
tioning and daily lives, it is not surprising that many researchers have used social compari-
son theory to explain phenomena in applied contexts. The diverse topics include, for
example, the importance of comparisons with others in the development of the academic
self-concept and academic performance (e.g., Marsh & Hau, 2003; Marsh & Parker, 1984),
pay-level satisfaction (e.g., Harris, Anseel, & Lievens 2008; Williams, McDaniel, & Nguyen,
2006), decision making in organizations (Bandura & Jourden, 1991), virtual work environ-
ments (Conner, 2003), romantic relationships and marital functioning (e.g., Buunk,
VanYperen, Taylor, & Collins, 1991; Lockwood et al., 2004), gossip (Wert & Salovey, 2004),
the use of deception in consumer behavior (Argo, White, & Dahl, 2006), the role of com-
parative processes in sports judgments (Damisch, Mussweiler, & Plessner, 2006), and many
more. Particular theoretical and empirical interest has been devoted to the role of social
comparisons in health psychology as well as to the impact of idealized media images on
self-evaluation, which we will briefly discuss below.

When faced with a serious health problem, people find themselves in a situation that
meets all the criteria outlined by Festinger (1954) that should increase the need for social

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Social Comparison 133

comparisons: health is of utmost importance, the future is unclear, and there are no objec-
tive standards of how to cope. In line with this view, a growing body of evidence has docu-
mented the frequency and the importance of social comparisons at the onset and the course
of diseases and other health threats (for comprehensive reviews see Buunk & Gibbons,
1997; Tennen, McKee, & Affleck, 2000).

Besides providing valuable information to patients, social comparisons might also fulfill
the need for self-enhancement (see above). Much of the research has focused on the ques-
tion of whether comparisons with others who are worse off can make people feel better. For
example, in the now classic study by Taylor, Wood, and Lichtman (1983), the vast majority
of a sample of breast cancer patients reported that they spontaneously compared down-
ward to other cancer victims in order to cope. Independent of the severity of their condi-
tion, these women assumed that there were others who were worse off. Downward
comparisons and their contributions to subjective well-being have been reported with
regard to many other grave health issues such as chronic pain, eating disorders, depression,
infertility, AIDS, and heart disease (Buunk & Gibbons, 1997).

However, the complementary conclusion, that patients will avoid comparisons to upward
standards, because others who are better off endanger one’s self-esteem, is not warranted.
In contrast, in a number of studies patients even seem to show a preference for upward compari-
sons. For example, in the study of Mollemann, Pruyn, and van Knippenberg (1986) cancer
patients strongly preferred to interact with other cancer patients who were similar to them-
selves or slightly better off. According to Taylor and Lobel (1989) this reflects the aforementioned
motive to self-improve by affiliating with others who can serve as a role model and give hope.
Several studies have supported this assertion. For example, Stanton, Danoff-Burg, Cameron,
Snider, and Kirk (1999) asked cancer patients to listen to audiotaped interviews with other
cancer patients with good or poor health status. Patients expressed greater interest in emotional
and informational support from well-adjusted targets, but rated their own coping and prognosis
better in response to poorly adjusted targets. Irrespective of the target, all participants reported
that listening to the interview made them feel better about their own condition, thus supporting
the view that both downward and upward comparisons can be beneficial to patients.

Another topic that has been analyzed from a social comparison perspective concerns the
effects of idealized media images on the perceiver’s self-evaluation. People portrayed in the
modern mass media, such as actors or models in advertisement campaigns, are mostly
highly attractive and thus often present extreme comparison standards in terms of their
physical features. Most researchers have assumed that in comparison to these “perfect”
bodies, perceivers should be less satisfied with their own appearance, which might in the
long term even contribute to psychological problems such as eating disorders (Polivy &
Herman, 2002). In line with this view, a number of studies have shown that exposure to
such idealized media images can have detrimental effects on self-evaluation; however, other
studies also found beneficial effects (for a meta-analysis, see Groesz, Levine, & Murnen,
2002), suggesting that the relationship is more complicated than initially thought. Recent
research has begun to delineate the conditions which result in assimilation or contrast after
comparisons with highly attractive media portrayals.

For example, the results of Trampe, Stapel, and Siero (2007) suggest that exposure to thin
female body shapes is not equally detrimental to all women. In their studies, women who

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134 Katja Corcoran, Jan Crusius, and Thomas Mussweiler

were already dissatisfied with their bodies were especially vulnerable to adverse effects of
comparisons with professional models. This effect might be based in the specific compari-
son tendencies of these women. Trampe et al. (2007) found that the more women were
unhappy with their bodies, the more they reported that they compared their own body with
those of other women. Furthermore, they seemed to differentiate less between potential
comparison standards. While body-satisfied women did not show comparison effects in
response to attractive models, but only to equally attractive non-models, body-dissatisfied
women showed comparison effects regardless of whether the standards were models or not,
and even in response to inanimate objects such as thin vases.

Adopting the Selective Accessibility Model (Mussweiler, 2003b), Häfner (2004) predicted
that even very subtle differences in the presentation of advertisements can have strikingly
different effects on self-evaluation, leading to both contrast and assimilation to highly attrac-
tive standards. To manipulate the direction of the initial similarity assessment, he presented
advertisement models with different headlines. As expected, headlines pointing to similari-
ties (e.g., “same body – same feeling”) led to self-evaluative assimilation, whereas headlines
pointing to differences (e.g. “feel the difference”) resulted in self-evaluative contrast.

In a similar vein, Smeesters and Mandel (2006) showed that characteristics of media
images can moderate their effect by affecting the kind of self-knowledge that becomes acces-
sible during social comparison. As evidenced by lexical decision tasks, the presentation of
extremely thin models rendered self-knowledge about heaviness more accessible and, cor-
respondingly, led to more negative self-views. Conversely, the presentation of moderately
thin models rendered self-knowledge about thinness more accessible and led to more posi-
tive self-views. Interestingly, in addition to these findings, other data of Smeesters and Mandel
(2006) point to a methodological reason why assimilation to media images has been docu-
mented so rarely: the pattern of the effects on self-evaluation critically depended on the
response format of the measures. Differential effects of moderate and extreme standards
were only found on self-evaluation measures using an open response format. On rating
scales, both types of standards seemed to have led to contrast, probably because the models
were used as reference points when answering the scales (Mussweiler & Strack, 2000b). Thus,
while participants actually were happier with their own physical appearance after having
seen a moderately thin model, this effect was concealed on the rating scales, because items
like “I am slim” changed their meaning in the context of the presented models.

Taken together, these findings indicate that characteristics of perceivers, comparison
standards, and subtle situational differences all affect the impact of idealized media images
on self-evaluation in a way predicted by social comparison theories.


Social comparison is a remarkably ubiquitous process which influences how people think
about themselves, how they feel, what they are motivated to do, and how they behave. Social
comparison consequences thus span all core arenas of human psychological functioning.
This striking ubiquity is matched by a similarly striking complexity and multi-facetedness
of the core comparison process itself. Not only do social comparisons influence cognition,

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Social Comparison 135

affect, motivation, and behavior, they are also shaped by cognitive, affective, and motiva-
tional factors. To date, these different influences on social comparison processes have been
mostly studied in relative isolation. In fact, the history of social comparison research is a
history of consecutively switching foci (Buunk & Mussweiler, 2001; Suls & Wheeler, 2000),
starting with a strong focus on motivational influences and a relative neglect of cognitive
underpinnings and ending with a strong focus on cognitive underpinnings and a relative
neglect of motivational influences. It seems clear that, particularly for a process that is as
ubiquitous as social comparison, a more encompassing perspective that integrates cogni-
tive, motivational, and affective influences is needed.


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Relative deprivation is a construct used to explain paradoxes (Walker & Smith, 2002) – for
example, how people’s subjective comparisons influence their outlooks when they are
confronted with situations of inequity. Stouffer and colleagues (Stouffer, Suchman,
DeVinney, Star, & Williams, 1949) coined the term “relative deprivation” to explain unusual
relations between military rank and satisfaction among troops in the American army dur-
ing World War II. In particular, Stouffer et al. found that the military police were, in general,
more satisfied than other men with their rate of advancement even though their promo-
tions were slower than were promotions in other units. Clearly, objective and subjective
reality do not always coincide.

According to relative deprivation (RD) theory, deprivation is experienced relative to a
shared standard, as opposed to being determined by some absolute measure of deprivation
(Crosby, 1976). For instance, if you take people of modest means out of a town in which
they were on equal footing with the other residents and place them in an affluent area in
which they have relatively little material wealth compared to their neighbors, they are likely
to feel deprived in relation to their new neighbors. This is most famously illustrated by
Marx: “A house may be large or small; as long as the surrounding houses are equally small
it satisfies all social demands for a dwelling. But let a palace arise beside the little house, and
it shrinks from a little house to a hut” (quoted in Useem, 1975, p. 53).

The concept of RD has been applied to many phenomena (Walker, 2009). Pettigrew
(1964) applied RD theory to the study of urban violence. Caplan (1970) invoked RD to
explain why affluent people are likely to be the leaders of social protest movements.
It also has been used to clarify why personal happiness sometimes rises during eco-
nomic downturns (Brickman & Campbell, 1971), and why people try to match the
consumption of others who are economically more prosperous (Cook, Crosby, &
Hennigan, 1977). Often, the concept of RD has been used to explain why those who


Relative Deprivation: Understanding
the Dynamics of Discontent

Jenny Carrillo, Alexandra F. Corning,
Tara C. Dennehy, and Faye J. Crosby

Theories in Social Psychology, First Edition. Edited by Derek Chadee.
© 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published 2011 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

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Relative Deprivation 141

are not well off seem quiescent; and the concept has also been invoked in situations
in which people are dissatisfied or angry with their lots in life when, by objective stand-
ards, they are not as poorly off as many others.

Early Conceptualizations of RD and Cognate Theories

Several theories from the social sciences relate to the theory of RD. Many of these theories
are interrelated, having been built upon one another in their attempts to explain human
behavior in regard to inequity. Below we discuss a number of theories that emerged within
the same timeframe as the theory of RD.

Frustration–aggression theory

Frustration–aggression theory (Berkowitz, 1972; Dollard, Doob, Miller, Mowrer, & Sears,
1939) posits that there is a positive association between anger and an individual’s desire for,
thoughts on the feasibility of attaining, and difficulty in attaining a desired object. Dollard
and colleagues’ original model stated simply that frustration always results in aggression
(Dollard et al., 1939). However, subsequent empirical studies revealed that the relationship
between frustration and aggression was much more complex (e.g., Berkowitz, 1962, 1968a;
Milgram, 1974). Berkowitz (1968b, 1972) revised the theory to incorporate the finding that
aggression is most likely to occur when people have a strong expectation that they will get
something they desire but that expectation then is violated. If a person believes she will be
paid for work, for example, she is more likely to become aggressive upon being denied pay-
ment than is an individual who believed he or she was volunteering. Unlike RD theory
(which we detail below), frustration–aggression theory does not invoke the concepts of social
comparison, deservingness, or self-blame as preconditions for frustration or dissatisfaction.

Justice theory

Justice theory, developed by Lerner (1975; Lerner & Miller, 1978), states that people need to
believe that the world is a just place. To support this need, people employ a variety of cognitive
and behavioral strategies to convince themselves that the world is fair (e.g., Ryan, 1971). Lerner’s
theory stands in sharp contrast to some versions of equity theories that depict people as moti-
vated by material self-interest (Homans, 1976; Walster, Walster, & Berscheid, 1978). Justice
theory resembles RD theory in its interest in how people make mental adjustments to their
subjective realities. Like RD theory, justice theory concerns itself with people’s assessments of
deservingness or entitlements. Justice theory differs from RD theory in that the latter posits that
judgments about justice and deservingness are always comparative while the former does not.

Theory of hedonic relativism

The premise of hedonic relativism is that low expectations breed satisfaction (Brickman,
1975). Essential in this is the idea that happiness is relative – a person’s happiness depends
on his or her experiences and expectations, as well as on comparisons between others’

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142 Jenny Carrillo, Alexandra F. Corning, Tara C. Dennehy, and Faye J. Crosby

situations and his or her own. A study by Brickman, Coates, and Janoff-Bulman (1978)
contrasting the happiness of lottery winners, controls, and paraplegic people has often
been cited as evidence supporting the theory of hedonic relativism. The study found that
the lottery winners expressed the least positive affect in day-to-day life, while the paraplegic
individuals were no different than the controls.

Davies’s J-curve theory of revolution

Davies (1962) studied racial riots and concluded that anger is most likely to occur in
individuals lacking X if they both want and previously had X. For reasons that will be
evident when we discuss Gurr’s theory later, Davies’s theory is considered by some politi-
cal scientists to be similar to Gurr’s (1970) model of progressive deprivation, in which
people’s expectations rise simultaneously with a drop in their ability to obtain what they
desire. Unlike Gurr, however, Davies (1962) did not address feasibility or comparison
with others.

Social comparison theories

Although the act of social comparison has been performed throughout human history
(Buunk & Gibbons, 2000), it was not until Leon Festinger (1954) coined the concept of
“social comparison” that comparisons moved from being a behavior to a theory. Social
comparison theory is a broad explanatory theory of human behavior out of which special-
ized theories have arisen to explain different facets of comparative behavior. Of particular
interest to RD are two theories that fall under the aegis of social comparison: distributive
justice theory and equity theory.

Theory of distributive justice. Distributive justice developed out of Stouffer et al.’s (1949)
concept of RD as an explanatory model for individual outlook when confronted with situ-
ations of inequity. As expressed by Homans (1961), distributive injustice can be illustrated
as a proportion wherein an inequality of investments and rewards between party A and
party B will cause both parties to feel that the exchange is unfair. Homans’s model is pre-
sented in the top row of Table 6.1; in the model, the person who proportionally profits less
from his or her investment will experience RD. What is important about this model is that
it introduces the concept of comparison: people do not feel deprived merely because their
expectations were not met, but because they feel that relative to a comparison other they are
experiencing injustice.

Homans (1961) makes the point that it is important for the “comparison other” to be of
roughly equivalent status as the self. Status can be interpreted as a form of investment
whereby high status is seen as a big investment and low status as a small investment.
Homans’s model can be expanded to include multiple interconnected dyads, as in the case
of an employer and multiple employees. In order to be perceived as fair, the employer must
strike a balance between the ratios of all employees. Homans’s (1961) model predicts that
when people lose in a proportional inequality, they will experience dissatisfaction or anger;
when they benefit, they will experience guilt.

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Relative Deprivation 143

As shown in Table 6.1, Sayles (1958) set up a similar model to Homans. Sayles wished to
explain the reactions of factory workers to their wages. If workers see the proportion
between their group’s wages and another group’s wages as balanced, they conclude that
their wages are fair. If an inequality occurs, they conclude that their wages are unjust. Sayles’s
model is simpler than Homans’s, as it does not compute costs or risks, but it is similar in
that justice is computed as a ratio between investment and reward.

Another social comparison theorist, Patchen (1961), also created a proportion to explain
wage comparisons made by workers. According to Patchen, when an inequality occurs, cog-
nitive dissonance is experienced. Patchen proposed that dissonance may actually provoke
people to seek achievements, rather than simply seeking consonance, as Festinger (1957)

Equity theory. Several theorists have developed elaborate models of equity (e.g., Walster
et al., 1978). Classical equity theory was proposed by John Stacy Adams in his 1965 paper
“Inequity in social exchange.” Adams was particularly interested in the antecedents and
consequences of felt injustice, which he considered to be more relevant to the experience of
dissatisfaction than RD. Adams believed that RD was not directly responsible for dissatis-
faction, but rather the experience of felt injustice created a state in which RD occurred, and
resulted in negative affect.

Adams’s version of equity theory was built upon work by Festinger (1957), Homans
(1961), Patchen (1961), and others. Central to the theory is the idea that social exchange can
be judged by the participants to be fair or unfair. According to Adams, people evaluate their
relative situations by comparison with a referent other. A person will feel angry or deprived
if he or she feels that his or her input–output ratio (Table 6.1) is greater than that of the
referent other. If his or her ratio is less, they will experience guilt. This is often termed the
“exchange formulation of equity theory” (Crosby, 1982).

Adams (1965) defined inputs to be the same as Homans’s (1961) investments (e.g., train-
ing, skill, social status, education, etc.). An input is contingent upon its recognition by the
person that it is relevant to the exchange. When one of the parties in the exchange does not
agree on the relevance or value of the input, feelings of inequity may result from the
exchange. Inputs are often inter-correlated, with factors such as age being associated with

Table 6.1 Equity ratios proposed by social comparison theorists.

Homans (1961)
Person’s investments

Other’s investments

Person’s rewards Other’s rewards

Sayles (1958)
Our group’s importance

Our earnings

Other group’s importance Their earnings

Patchen (1961)
My pay My position on dimensions related to pay

Referent person’s or group’s pay

Referent person’s or group’s position on

the dimensions

Adams (1965)
Person’s input

Other’s input

Person’s output Other’s output

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144 Jenny Carrillo, Alexandra F. Corning, Tara C. Dennehy, and Faye J. Crosby

seniority. The other side of Adams’s proportion is outcomes, which can be positive or nega-
tive. Positive outcomes are similar to rewards (cf. Homans, 1961), whereas negative out-
comes can be conditions such as stressful or dangerous work environments, boredom, or
low job security. Outcomes, like inputs, tend also to be inter-correlated.

Adams asserted that people have preexisting expectations of the relationship between
inputs and outcomes. When the relationship is unequal, this incites feelings of injustice in
the exchange. Preexisting expectations come about as a result of referents or comparison
others. People compare their own ratio of inputs and outcomes with the ratio of a similar
referent other. This comparison “Other” can be someone with whom the person is in an
exchange relationship, or it can be that person’s memory of him- or herself in another situ-
ation. The Person–Other relationship can also apply when the comparison is between
groups (Adams, 1965).

In classic equity theory, the “Person” will experience distress when he or she is over-
rewarded, not just when under-rewarded. Adams’s assertion that people seek proportional-
ity rather than simply grabbing all rewards for themselves has been supported by Jaques’s
(1961) study of British workers. Jaques found that while workers desired fair wages, they
were as uncomfortable when their compensation was too high as when it was too low.
Equity theory proposes that, assuming similar views of the world, if Person experiences
inequity, so will Other, but Other’s inequity will be the converse of Person’s – if Person is
unjustly rewarded, then Other will be unjustly deprived (Adams, 1965), and vice versa.

Adams wanted to determine the cognitive and behavioral consequences that follow a judg-
ment of unfairness. According to Adams’s theory, inequity causes tension and people always
seek to reduce or remove tension. People’s motivation to reduce tensions will be proportional
to the strength of the tension. There are two direct ways in which tension can be reduced: (a)
people change their inputs, or (b) people change their outcomes. Laboratory experiments
conducted by Adams and colleagues found evidence for people changing their inputs in the
face of inequity (Adams, 1963; Adams & Jacobsen, 1964; Adams & Rosenbaum, 1962). Similar
support was found for the alteration of outputs by Thibaut (1950) and Homans (1953).

Adams (1965) listed four other ways in which people may indirectly reduce the tension
resulting from inequity:

1. Person will reduce tension by way of cognitive alterations to his or her inputs and out-
comes. Although his or her skills and behaviors will not change, he or she will assign
different values to their existing inputs and outcomes. Experiments by Weick (1964)
supported this premise.

2. Person will leave the exchange. Patchen (1959) suggested that this method of tension
relief may be related to absenteeism in the workplace.

3. Person will attempt to change Other’s ratio. Adams (1965) suggested that this would be
uncommon and only resorted to in conditions of extreme inequity.

4. Person will change his or her comparison other. This would generally be a last resort, as
people form strong attachments to their referents.

Given the vast importance of equity theory for social psychologists in the 1960s, 1970s,
and early 1980s, it is inevitable that the theory has come in for some criticism. One criticism

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Relative Deprivation 145

is that equity does not adequately distinguish between perceptions of fairness and feelings
of satisfaction (Jacobson & Koch, 1977). Another is that it does not account for situations
in which people react to inequity without reference to self (where they see that someone is
unfairly rewarded, even though they are not impacted; Crosby, 1982). Problems with com-
parisons in equity theory have led certain theorists (Anderson, Berger, Zelditch, & Cohen,
1969; Berger, Zelditch, Anderson, & Cohen, 1972) to propose that people do not compare
themselves with a specific other, but rather with a generalized referent other – an average
equivalent person. Crosby (1982) suggests that this “average person” may be drawn from
composite impressions of the situations of many individuals.

Morton Deutsch (1975) has criticized equity theory for failing to recognize that propor-
tionality is not the only basis for determinations of fairness. According to Deutsch, equity
applies in impersonal or business situations, but does not apply in cases of family interac-
tions or interactions among friends. Prentice and Crosby (1987) found strong empirical
support for Deutsch’s assertions. Another critique of traditional equity theory is that it is
circular. An equity researcher may assert that someone is dissatisfied because he finds him-
self under-compensated relative to a comparison person, but without specifying a priori
whom the person will select as a comparison person, the explanation is tautological, lacking
any substance. Similar is the criticism that equity theory attempts to be a general theory
explaining human behavior, but it does not encompass the observed complexity of decision
making (Crosby, 1982).

Models of RD

Several major theorists influenced the development of RD as a theory. Although Stouffer et
al. (1949) put forward a concept, it was not until more than a decade later that any theorist
published a coherent model, explaining the antecedents, correlates, and/or consequences of
feelings of deprivation. Four distinct models were put forward between 1959 and 1975.

Davis (1959)

Davis (1959) was the first researcher to create a formal model of RD. Davis systematically
developed a theory of how social comparisons can lead to RD, which he supported with
observational data from The American Soldier (Stouffer et al., 1949). Davis believed that
there were three antecedents to the experience of RD:

1. Awareness that a similar other possesses X
2. Desire of X
3. Feeling deserving of X

Per Davis’s (1959) model, each of these conditions must occur in order for a person to
experience the feeling of deprivation.

Davis (1959) hypothesized that there were four possible psychological consequences
of unequal comparisons between a person, or “ego” and a referent other, or “alter.” He

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146 Jenny Carrillo, Alexandra F. Corning, Tara C. Dennehy, and Faye J. Crosby

differentiated between ingroup comparisons, in which people compare against a similar ref-
erent, and outgroup comparisons, in which the referent is of different status or rank. According
to Davis’s theory, when people compare themselves with an ingroup referent, they will experi-
ence RD if they have less than the referent. If he or she has more, the person will feel relatively
gratified. A person judging that an outgroup referent has more will feel relatively subordinate;
if the outgroup referent is considered to be deprived, the person will feel relatively superior
(Davis, 1959). Davis hypothesized that when the deprivation status of the person and referent
are discrepant, this would result in the awareness either of “fairness” (1959; p. 283) for ingroup
comparisons, or “social distance” (p. 284) for outgroup comparisons.

Runciman (1966)

Runciman (1966) developed his theory of RD in an attempt to explain why people who are
disadvantaged endorse a system that oppresses them. In his model, Runciman (1966) delin-
eated the difference between egoistic (or personal) and fraternal (or collective) deprivation.
In egoistic deprivation, individuals feel deprived on their own behalf; in fraternal depriva-
tion, individuals feel that their group is relatively deprived in comparison to another group.
The individuals’ likelihood of experiencing one type of deprivation over the other depends
on their group involvement. If they identify strongly with their class or peer group, they are
more likely to feel deprived on the part of their group; if they have aspirations that would
move them beyond their group, they are more likely to be susceptible to egoistic depriva-
tion. Runciman agreed with Davis’s (1959) RD model, but added a fourth component –
feasibility. Runciman felt that RD was dependent on people’s hopes being disappointed;
people do not feel deprived when a desired outcome seems imminent (Runciman, 1966).

Gurr (1970)

Gurr (1968a, 1968b, 1968c, 1969, 1970) was interested in looking at RD and social violence.
He proposed that RD arises out of the discrepancy between peoples’ “value expectations” and
their “value capabilities.” Value expectations refer to those desired objects (and opportunities)
to which people feel entitled. Value capabilities refer to what people think they can achieve.

Gurr’s model is different than those of other theorists, as it is dynamic. Gurr identified
three possible patterns of RD: (1) decremental deprivation; (2) aspirational deprivation;
and (3) progressive deprivation. In decremental deprivation, people’s value expectations
remain the same, but their value capabilities decrease. An example of this would be a person
losing his or her job or taking a large pay cut, but still expecting to maintain the standard of
living to which the family had become accustomed. The next pattern of RD is aspiration
deprivation, wherein the people’s value capabilities remain the same, but their expectations
rise. This can be illustrated by de Tocqueville’s famous observation: “Evils which are patiently
endured when they seem inevitable become intolerable when once the idea of escape
from them is suggested” (quoted in Davies, 1962, p. 6). Finally, in progressive deprivation,
a person’s value expectations rise while, simultaneously, his or her value capabilities fall.

On the role of feasibility in RD, Gurr (1970) obviously disagreed with Runciman (1966).
Runciman’s model maintained that people would experience deprivation when they believe

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Relative Deprivation 147

that attainment of the desired is feasible (although not inevitable; Runciman, 1966). Gurr
believed that it was the opposite – people experience RD when they believe that the desired is
impossible. Early research (e.g., Coch & French, 1948) found mixed support for Gurr’s approach,
but Crosby’s (1982) study of working women validated Gurr’s position on feasibility.

Williams (1975)

Williams’s (1975) theory of RD is simpler than the theories of Runciman (1966) and Gurr
(1970). Williams believed that RD will arise when a discrepant comparison is made between
what one wants and what one has. Interestingly, this theory perfectly fits Aberle’s (1962)
definition of RD. While comparison with a better-off other is a precondition in Williams’s
model, in that such a comparison can influence what one wants, comparison to a better-off
other is not, in itself, sufficient to cause RD (Crosby, 1982). Williams was more interested in
the consequences of collective deprivation than in antecedents or individual RD.

Crosby’s Model

One theorist sought to synthesize earlier work. Crosby (1976) performed a comprehensive
literature review and developed a model of RD based on the findings from past studies.
Crosby’s model built most closely on Runciman (1966), but added a fifth precondition to
felt deprivation: like Patchen (1961), Crosby believed that allocation of blame is pertinent
to the experience of deprivation – if people blame themselves for their own failures, then
they are unlikely to feel deprived, angry, or dissatisfied (except with themselves). Crosby’s
model states that five preconditions must be fulfilled in order for a person to experience
RD. Specifically, a person must:

1. See that other possesses X
2. Want X
3. Feel that one deserves X
4. Think it feasible to obtain X
5. Lack a sense of responsibility for failure to possess X.

If the second precondition is not met, then a person feels “righteous indignation” rather than
deprivation; if the third precondition is not met, then the feeling is one of disappointment
rather than deprivation; if the fourth precondition is not filled, the resulting state would be
one of “dissatisfaction or jealousy”; and if the fifth precondition goes unsatisfied, then “envy
or dissatisfaction with himself ” results (Crosby, 1976, p. 91; Crosby & Gonzalez-Intal, 1982).

Crosby’s 1982 test

Crosby sought to put her 1976 theory to an empirical test. She undertook a large study of
employed men, employed women, and housewives to document the dynamics of feelings
of dissatisfaction or deprivation. At the basis of the work was the paradox of the contented

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148 Jenny Carrillo, Alexandra F. Corning, Tara C. Dennehy, and Faye J. Crosby

female worker. Despite the fact that women were earning much less than men, research of
the time showed that women expressed just as much satisfaction in their jobs as men (e.g.,
Burke & Weir, 1976; Deaux, 1979; Glenn, Taylor, & Weaver, 1977). Indeed, women showed
very little subjective awareness of objective deprivation (DeLamater & Fidell, 1971; Kresge,
1970; Epstein, 1971; Widom & Burke, 1978; Young, MacKenzie, & Sherif, 1980). Crosby
saw the construct of RD as clearly relevant to the situation of women, and at the same time
she designed a study in which she assessed all the putative preconditions of felt depriva-
tion as well as deprivation itself in three different populations (employed women,
employed men, housewives), concerning both one’s own situation and the situation of
working women.

Newton, Massachusetts was chosen as the site of the study. At that time, Massachusetts
mandated that each town compile “Street Lists” that tracked variables such as voters’ occu-
pations, ages, and addresses. The decision was made to focus on suburban areas, as they
would be more likely to have a mix of single and married people, unlike cities, in which
families are rarer, and rural areas, where there are fewer single people. Newton was chosen
because preliminary investigations showed it to have very accurate records.

Participants were employed men, employed women, and housewives selected through a
process of stratified random sampling of the Street Lists. The researchers decided to limit
the age range to ages 25 through 40 in order to be able to match participants to others in a
similar stage of life. Occupations were classed using the NORC rating system into high-,
middle-, and low-prestige groups. Middle-prestige workers were eliminated from the sam-
ple so as to ensure a clear distinction between low-prestige and high-prestige workers.
Housewives were classified on the basis of their husbands’ occupations.

Appointments were made with 405 respondents via telephone. Participants were then
interviewed in their homes by professional interviewers, for approximately one hour each.
Interviewers gathered data about participants’ home, work, and family situations. Women
and men were matched by the prestige level of their jobs.

To her surprise, Crosby found that women’s salaries were significantly lower than those
of their male peers. As job prestige was controlled for, this finding contradicted the argu-
ment that the gender gap in salaries was due to women being employed predominantly in
lower-prestige jobs (cf. Etzioni, 1969). Nor could the difference in salaries be explained in
terms of any background factors such as education or commitment to working or to the
job, for the women in the sample were as well educated as the men, and as committed to
their jobs and their careers as the men.

But while the finding that employed women’s subjective and objective realities were mis-
matched clearly was consistent with the concept of RD, strict tests of the various models
proved disappointing. In order to validate any of the models of RD, it was necessary to show
that feelings of resentment or dissatisfaction were highest when the specified preconditions
were met, and it was desirable, furthermore, to do so among all three samples (employed
women, housewives, employed men) concerning their feelings about their home situations
and about the situations of working women, and among both employed women and men
concerning their jobs. The data provided no support for the models of Patchen (1961),
Runciman (1966), and Crosby (1976) and only partial support for the models proposed by
Davis (1959), Adams (1965), Gurr (1970), Berkowitz (1972), and Williams (1975).

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Relative Deprivation 149

In a secondary analysis of the Newton data, Crosby, Muehrer, and Loewenstein (1986)
distinguished between models and concepts. They concluded that while the complexities of
human emotion have prevented any one model of RD from being confirmed in a strictly
scientific fashion, the construct of RD as originally proposed by Stouffer et al. (1949) is
indeed very helpful in reminding us that felt deprivations are not simply a matter of objec-
tive reality. Simply by knowing a person’s material circumstances, one cannot predict
whether the person will or will not feel resentments, deprivations, or dissatisfactions. An
additional benefit of the concept, according to Crosby et al. (1986), is that it leads research-
ers to see that, contrary to commonsense notions, people often feel more deprived about the
situation of their membership group than they do about their own personal situations.

Subsequent Developments

Although Crosby’s attempts to validate one or more models of RD or cognate theories
ended after the analyses and reanalyses of the Newton data, work on RD by many scholars,
including Crosby, has continued.

Invocation of the concept

As has been the case since Stouffer et al. (1949) first coined the term, social scientists con-
tinue to invoke the concept of RD as a way to make sense of seeming anomalies in human
behavior. Fan and Stark (2007), for example, have argued that immigrants often distance
themselves from their adopted cultures as a way of warding off feelings of deprivation that
would otherwise occur as they compared their situations to those of more affluent others.
In accounts that employ the concept of RD, plausible assumptions are made about the
causes, correlates, and consequences of people making comparisons between themselves
and others.

Similarly, the concept of RD continues to help political scientists construct accounts of
social and political structures and movements. Franz (2007) has undertaken a comparative
study of Muslim youths in Europe and proposes that RD may explain the allure of Islamic
extremism and terrorist involvement: as increasingly educated young people realize that
their group membership limits them to a subordinate role in society, they are more likely to
seek redress through radical means. Franz also implicates RD in the riots that occurred in
French ethnic-minority ghettos in 2005.

Parker (2007) has examined contemporary examples of repressive policies that have
resulted in an increase in terrorist acts. He suggests that measures taken by states to stamp
out politically motivated violence and terror may actually encourage terrorism. To give
coherence to his account, Parker draws on Gurr’s (1970) theory of political violence, stating
that an increase in repression will give rise to greater RD and motivate violent action.

The concept of RD has also appealed to economists who study migration patterns.
Sometimes inferring the existence of feelings from archival data such as landownership,
some behavioral economists have linked the concept to the movement of people between
areas of greater and lesser affluence (Quinn, 2006; VanWey, 2005). Quinn (2006) has noted

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150 Jenny Carrillo, Alexandra F. Corning, Tara C. Dennehy, and Faye J. Crosby

the bidirectional nature of the relationship between some variables. While feelings of dep-
rivation may contribute to the likelihood of migration from Mexico to the United States,
many immigrants also experience increased feelings of resentment once they encounter
American affluence.

Lack of Correspondence between Objective and Subjective Statuses

Inherent in the original formulation of RD was the observation that people’s subjective
statuses sometimes bear little direct relation with what appears to be true to third-party
observers. Several scholars have continued to demonstrate the lack of correspondence
between what we might call objective reality and subjective reality when it comes to assess-
ments of how well off one is (Sgourev, 2006). Holtz and Nihiser (2008) looked at how
individuals assessed themselves and comparison others and concluded that people often
make assessments of their relative advantage or disadvantage that are completely without
basis in fact. D’Ambrosio and Frick (2007) found that people’s ratings of well-being were
less well predicted by their actual income than by their feelings of deprivation. Similarly,
Halleröd (2006) found that economically disadvantaged people tend to adjust their expec-
tations: rather than saying that they cannot afford certain items, they decide that they do
not want the items. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, advantaged white
Australians have been found to oppose government actions intended to make restitution to
Aboriginal Australians because they, the whites, perceive themselves to be relatively disad-
vantaged by this restitution (Leach, Iyer, & Pedersen, 2007).

Antecedents, correlates, and consequences of felt deprivations

Like the earlier scholars who attempted to construct models of deprivation, rather than
simply to use the construct of RD, some contemporary scholars have moved beyond simply
observing the lack of correspondence between objective and subjective reality in order to
investigate what can be conceptualized as the antecedents of feelings of deprivation. Why is
it, they ask, that some people, but not others, feel themselves to be disadvantaged? What
factors lead to a feeling of subjective deprivation?

Tropp and Wright (1999) examined perceptions of group and personal deprivation among
both Latino and African American university students in California. Participants were asked
to make a number of comparisons. Group deprivation was assessed by way of comparisons
between the participants’ ingroup and whites and the participants’ ingroup and “other
minorities” (p. 712). Personal deprivation was assessed by asking participants to compare
themselves with their ingroup, other minorities, and whites. For each comparison made,
participants rated their perceived status and feelings about their status relative to a referent
as described above. Responses were scaled from 1 (worse off or very angry) to 9 (better off or
very satisfied). Scores above the median were viewed as reflecting a perceived sense of RD.

Tropp and Wright found that participants who strongly identified with their minority
group experienced greater levels of both personal and group deprivation than did others.
Referent choice was also significant: both Latinos and African Americans in the study

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Relative Deprivation 151

reported higher-level group deprivation in comparison with white referents than in com-
parison with other minorities. When asked to compare their group to other minorities,
African American participants experienced greater group deprivation than Latino partici-
pants. In terms of self–other comparisons, participants from both groups expressed feelings
of deprivation, but Latino participants expressed greater levels of personal RD compared to
white referents than did African American participants.

Zagefka and Brown (2005) conducted two parallel studies investigating the preferences
of ethnic minorities in choosing referents. The samples were taken from immigrant and
majority groups in the United Kingdom and Germany. The U.K. study utilized only immi-
grants and focused on participants of Asian ethnicity; the German study consisted of
Turkish and Aussiedler minorities contrasted with German majorities. In their studies, per-
sonal deprivation was assessed using the same techniques as in Tropp and Wright’s (1999)
study. Group deprivation was measured by asking participants to rank the status of their
group relative to the majority group of their country.

Zagefka and Brown (2005) found that ethnic-minority individuals prefer to make ingroup
and temporal (prior self ) comparisons rather than outgroup comparisons. They also found
that feelings of deprivation varied based on a person’s choice of referent. Ethnic-minority
individuals experienced greater feelings of deprivation when making comparisons with
the majority outgroup than when making ingroup or temporal (prior self ) comparisons.
When integrating Zagefka and Brown’s work into the corpus of work on RD, it bears remem-
bering that comparisons between one’s ingroup and an outgroup may be rare. Smith and
Leach (2004) documented people’s tendency to think in terms of individuals rather than in
terms of groups. When university students reported their most recent social comparison
after they received a random signal, over 60% of the reported comparisons were to another
person and fewer than 10% were comparisons in which they thought of themselves as a
group representative in comparison to an outgroup (Smith & Leach, 2004).

While some scholars have looked at the factors that might be conceptualized as anteced-
ent to feelings of deprivation, others have focused on the associations between feelings of
deprivation and factors that might be best conceptualized as correlates or consequences.
Dambrun, Taylor, McDonald, Crush, and Méot (2006) explored the relationship between
RD, relative gratification, and prejudice toward immigrants in South Africa. A stratified
random sample of 1,600 participants who were characteristic of national demographics
were drawn from census data and interviewed. RD and gratification were measured by ask-
ing participants to rate themselves both economically and overall in comparison with oth-
ers (both ingroup and outgroup). Dambrun et al. (2006) found that prejudice against
outgroups was correlated not only with RD, but with feelings of relative gratification as
well. Discrepant comparison, be it favorable or unfavorable, was linked with negative atti-
tudes toward outgroups.

In a set of clever studies, Callan, Ellard, Shead, and Hodgins (2008) demonstrated an asso-
ciation between feelings of personal deprivation and gambling. One of the studies was a
survey in which students completed inventories indexing their gambling urges and problem-
gambling severity and also a measure of feelings of resentment when they compared their
outcomes to others. The more deprived the students felt, the stronger their urges to gamble
and the more problematic their gambling. Not content with cross-sectional data, Callan et al.

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152 Jenny Carrillo, Alexandra F. Corning, Tara C. Dennehy, and Faye J. Crosby

(2008) also conducted an experiment in which they induced feelings of deprivation in some
of the participants and then provided an opportunity to gamble away the payment received
for participation. Participants who were deprived were more likely than others to gamble.

Several recent studies have linked RD with health outcomes (Eibner & Evans, 2005;
Siahpush et al., 2006; Tougas, Rinfret, Beaton, & de la Sablonnière, 2005; Wilkinson &
Pickett, 2007). Feelings of deprivation have been associated with higher rates of smoking
(Siahpush et al., 2006), harmful health behaviors, self-reported limitations (Eibner & Evans,
2005), teenage pregnancies, mental illness, emotion regulation (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2007),
obesity, and mortality (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2007).

In terms of mental health, RD has also been found to be negatively correlated with life
satisfaction (Zagefka & Brown, 2005) and self-esteem (Tougas et al., 2005; Zagefka & Brown,
2005). Tougas et al.’s (2005) study of female police officers found that feelings of RD led the
women to discount assessments of their work and to distance themselves from their jobs,
which was accompanied by a decline in self-esteem.

Health on a societal level can also be impacted by the broad experience of group depriva-
tion. Huschka and Mau’s (2006) study of anomie in South Africa found that seemingly
race-based group anomie was due to social inequities that were linked to race, such as
education level and economic status.

Some scholars have looked at both the presumed antecedents and the presumed conse-
quences of felt deprivation. Integrating cognitive appraisal models of emotion with RD
theory, Smith, Cronin & Kessler (2008) looked at the feelings of university faculty members
at a mid-size state university. Faculty members reported their specific emotional reactions
to group inequities in faculty pay and benefits. Faculty members who reacted to the collec-
tive disadvantage with anger supported collective protest. Faculty members who reacted to
the collective disadvantage with sadness reported less organizational loyalty. As proposed
by cognitive appraisal models of emotion, different emotional reactions elicited different
adaptive strategies. Group-based anger increased support for collective protest (a form of
attack) whereas group-based sadness decreased organizational loyalty (a form of with-
drawal). These relationships remained reliable even after controlling for gender, union
membership, ethnicity, and personal RD.

Testing the Personal–Group Discrepancy

One really important distinction that has run throughout much of the research on RD is
the differentiation between personal or egoistical deprivation, on the one hand, and group
or fraternal deprivation, on the other. People feel personally deprived when they feel that
they are receiving less than deserved individually. Group deprivations are felt on behalf of
one’s group. When a person feels both personal deprivation and group deprivation, he or
she is said to experience double deprivation. Runciman (1966) is the theorist who most
emphasized the distinction between personal deprivations, which he called “egoistical dep-
rivations,” and group deprivations, which he called “fraternal deprivations.”

The personal–group distinction was central to the empirical work of Crosby. While
attempting to test competing models of RD, Crosby (1982) stumbled across an unexpected

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Relative Deprivation 153

finding. Objective data showed that the employed women in her study were paid only 80%
of exactly comparable men (and thus were the victims of sex discrimination), and the data
also showed little awareness among the employed women of their personal disadvantage. At
the same time that they experienced very little personal deprivation, the women showed
high levels of group deprivation – feeling that women in general were surely the victims of
sex discrimination.

Dozens of studies have shown that among many groups, individuals often deny that they
personally suffer from the inequities and discriminations that affect the groups to which
they belong (see Crosby & Bearman, 2006, for a review). Various explanations have been
offered to account for the discrepancy between deprivations felt on behalf of oneself and
deprivations felt on behalf of the group (Crosby & Bearman, 2006). For example, some
researchers suggested that people overestimate the extent of group deprivation rather than
underestimating the extent of their own deprivation, but the Newton study conducted by
Crosby showed unequivocal evidence of underestimation of one’s own deprivations.

The distinction between personal and group deprivation has also been at the heart of
several studies of collective action. Foster and Matheson’s (1995) study of female college
students found that collective action is more likely when women experience an interaction
between personal (egoistic) and group (collective) RD than when they experience either
state singly. They termed this interaction “double deprivation.” Availability of resources also
plays a role: women are more likely to take action when resources exist to facilitate the proc-
ess (Foster & Matheson, 1995).

Although double deprivation was the central predictor of collective action in the study
by Foster and Matheson, other studies found slightly different results. Beaton, Tougas and
Laplante’s (2007) study of women in clerical occupations found that women who self-
identified as having masculine traits were most likely to support gender-equity programs;
this was also true of women who expressed feelings of personal deprivation. Beaton et al.
(2007) suggested that this may be due to women identifying with masculine traits making
comparisons with an outgroup (men), which resulted in greater levels of RD and the desire
for redress, hence participation in equity programs (collective deprivation was not meas-
ured). Meanwhile, de la Rey and Raju’s (1996) study of South Africans of Indian descent
found that feelings of group deprivation (e.g., anger, anxiety as relative to other groups)
predicted protest orientation (personal deprivation was not studied).

One possible reason for the apparent difference between personal and group deprivation
is that researchers have employed imprecise or inadequate measures of either personal dep-
rivation, group deprivation, or both. Perhaps it appears that individuals deny their per-
sonal deprivation simply because of measurement error. As our review makes clear, different
researchers have employed a variety of different measures, some of which may be less
robust than others. The contradictory findings concerning the relationships among per-
sonal deprivation, collective deprivation, double deprivation, and collective action, fur-
thermore, might be the result of differing and sometimes inadequate measures of personal
and group RD. A definitive test of the personal–group distinction requires that both per-
sonal and group deprivation be precisely and well measured among a given sample.
Excellent measures might also throw light on the relationship between felt deprivation and
collective action.

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154 Jenny Carrillo, Alexandra F. Corning, Tara C. Dennehy, and Faye J. Crosby

Corning’s measure of deprivation

Alexandra Corning has developed and published a scale of felt personal deprivation that is
psychometrically robust and that allows researchers to test propositions with greater preci-
sion than was possible before. Using a construct-based approach to test construction,
Corning (2000) developed the Perception of Social Inequality Scale–Women’s Form
(PSIS–W), a measure of RD that assesses women’s perceptions of personal social inequity.
Perceived social inequality is defined as the perception by an individual of particular events
as disproportionately negatively affecting oneself as a woman in comparison to men across
a variety of domains.

In developing the measure, Corning couched perceived social inequality in RD theory
using the set of preconditions that offered the greatest parsimony, which is Davis’s (1959)
set. Davis (1959) was the first to provide a formal statement of RD theory and the first to
offer preconditions to perceptions of RD. In her review of the existing literature, Corning
concluded that Davis’s preconditions appeared to explain the most variance with the least
amount of complexity. Davis’s preconditions are that the person (a) should want some
desired good, X, (b) compare oneself to a group that has X, and (c) feel entitled to (i.e.,
deserving of ) X. Also implied in Davis’s model was a fourth precondition made explicit by
some other theorists: (d) the person should not have X.

It follows logically that a complete measure of deprivation concerning any specific point
should include four parts: (a) degree of wanting, (b) degree of comparison, (c) degree of
entitlement, and (d) degree of having or lacking. An example of an item from Corning’s
scale is:

To what extent …
(a) do you want encouragement to pursue a position of power in society?
(b) are men encouraged to pursue positions of power in society?
(c) do you deserve to be encouraged to pursue a position of power in society?
(d) have you been encouraged to pursue a position of power in society?

Participants respond to each sub-item using a six-point continuum ranging from 1
(not at all) to 6 (very much). A score for each item on the scale is derived using the formula
(a + b + c)/ d. Corning has created this formula using the following rules: (a) the conceptual
postulates of the theory had to be accurately represented, (b) the mathematics of the equa-
tion for combining the sub-items to form items had to properly reflect the relationships
among the preconditions, and (c) the resultant equation had to be as parsimonious
as possible.

Corning has surveyed the empirical literature that documents the types of discrimina-
tion women experience, and has identified six domains. They are: (a) disproportionate
encounters with harassment and concern with assault, (b) differential standards of physical
attractiveness, (c) differential availability of academic role models, (d) relative lack of career
encouragement, (e) employment compensation based on factors unrelated to competence,
and (f ) differential struggle with multiple roles. Altogether, Corning’s PSIS–W contains 26
items, with a possible maximum score of 468.

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Relative Deprivation 155

The psychometric tests of the PSIS–W reveal its sound properties (see Corning, 2000, for
details). An examination of these properties (Table 6.2), including, for example, its relations
with other measures, helps elucidate its relation to various psychological constructs.

Expanding upon Corning’s measure

To address the critique that the apparent difference between personal and group depriva-
tion is best attributed to measurement error, Corning, Carrillo, and Crosby (2002) created
a group, or collective, version of the PSIS–W. Exactly parallel in structure to the PSIS–W,
the Perception of Social Inequality Scale–Women’s Form/Collective RD (PSIS–W/CRD)
allowed for a measure of collective RD. In contrast to the items of the PSIS–W which refer
specifically to women’s feelings regarding their own personal situations, the items of the
PSIS–W/CRD concern the situation of women in general. Each item of the PSIS–W/CRD
was created to match an item on the PSIS–W, but with the preface to the question pertain-
ing to the average woman (relative to men) rather than the self.

Noting the similarity in structure to the PSIS–W, an example from the PSIS–W/CRD is:

To what extent …
(a) does the average woman want encouragement to pursue a position of power in

(b) is the average man encouraged to pursue positions of power in society?

Table 6.2 Psychometric properties of perceived social inequality (RD), based on the PSIS-W.

Construct validity analyses

(Pearson rs shown in parentheses)


group-difference validity

Test–retest reliability

Alienation and aloneness Career Over 1 month, r = 0.88****

Over 4 months, r = 0.88****Generalized feelings of alienation (0.20*** ) Women majoring in

traditionally female fields

(e.g., education) reported

significantly greater

perceptions of social

inequality than did women

majoring in traditionally

male fields (e.g., engineering)

(p < 0.05)

Feelings of powerlessness (0.17**)

Feelings of social isolation (0.23***)


Belief that the world is fair and just (−0.28***)


Maintaining liberal attitudes toward women (0.16**)

Denial that sexism persists (−0.41**)

Personal experience of sexism (−0.34**)


Experiences of harassment in academia (0.25**)

Experiences of sexual victimization (0.28**)


General feelings of stress (0.19*)

Experience of everyday tedious hassles (0.40***)

Note. * p < 0.05, ** p < 0.01, *** p < 0.001, **** p < 0.0001.

For more detailed information on the method and measures used, see “Assessing perceived social inequity: A relative deprivation

framework,” by A. F. Corning, 2000, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 463–477.

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156 Jenny Carrillo, Alexandra F. Corning, Tara C. Dennehy, and Faye J. Crosby

(c) should the average woman be encouraged to pursue a position of power in society?
(d) has the average woman been encouraged to pursue a position of power in society?

In the PSIS–W/CRD, as in the PSIS–W, participants respond to each sub-item using a six-
point continuum ranging from 1 (not at all) to 6 (very much) for each of the 26 items over
the different domains (e.g., sexual harassment, multiple roles). A score for each item on the
scale is derived using the formula (a + b + c)/ d, and the highest possible score is 468. Higher
scores indicate greater perceptions of social inequality.

Corning et al. (2002) administered both the PSIS–W and the PSIS–W/CRD to 135 under-
graduate women attending a West-Coast university, all of whom were enrolled in a psychol-
ogy course for which they received course credit for their participation in psychological
research. Corning et al.’s major finding was that participants expressed significantly more
group or collective deprivation than personal deprivation. The mean score on the PSIS–W
was 149.04, with a standard deviation of 43.31, while the mean score on the PSIS–W/CRD
was 195.31, with a standard deviation of 56.74. The difference was reliable (t = −12.15,
p < 0.000), even though the two measures were highly inter-correlated (r = 0.71). Clearly,
the oft-repeated finding that people experience more group deprivation than personal dep-
rivation has not been due to measurement error.

While the finding of a reliable difference between personal and group deprivation was
clear-cut, other findings in the study by Corning et al. (2002) were less dramatic. Using
previously published scales, Corning et al. (2002) also assessed participants’ feelings of
stress and their activism. They expected to find a strong relationship between personal dep-
rivation and stress, and also between group deprivation and activism. In fact, collective
deprivation showed a slightly higher association with one measure of stress than personal
deprivation, while personal deprivation showed a slightly higher association than collective
deprivation on another measure of stress. The associations between group deprivation and
two measures of collective action were, as predicted, stronger than the associations between
personal deprivation and the same two measures of collective action.

Conclusion: Looking Back and Looking Ahead

Throughout the social sciences, the concept of RD has proven to be both popular and use-
ful. Since the term was first used during World War II, it has appeared in numerous studies.
Sometimes the researchers have invoked the idea of deprivation as a useful heuristic to help
explain puzzling findings. At other times researchers have actually measured feelings of
deprivation and some of the elements thought to produce such feelings.

Several models of RD have been developed. In a model, researchers attempt to specify the
conditions that produce feelings of deprivation, the correlates of felt deprivation, or the
consequences of felt deprivation. Testing of models shows the importance of contexts. It
seems impossible to specify a set of preconditions for feelings of deprivation, dissatisfac-
tion, anger, or injustice that hold true across all contexts and populations. It also seems
impossible to specify correlates and consequences of felt deprivation that occur in all

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Relative Deprivation 157

One observation that has withstood many empirical tests is the observation that what
people feel on behalf of themselves differs from what they feel on behalf of their member-
ship group. It is surprising but true that feelings of group deprivation are more common
and more severe than feelings of personal deprivation. Similarly, the antecedents, correlates,
and consequences of personal deprivation tend to differ from the antecedents, correlates, and
consequences of group deprivation.

Several lines of research seem promising for the future. Future researchers might contrast
situations in which deprivations are relative and situations in which they are not. Does the
loss of a child, for example, involve comparisons in the same way that occurs in cases of
material disadvantage? Similarly, future researchers might look at the dynamics of compari-
son processes. When do those with less feel that they have been unjustly treated and when
do they feel that they are simply inadequate? What, in other words, regulates feelings of self-
blame? Additionally, researchers might highlight cultural differences. Do the differences
between personal and group deprivation hold up in societies that are more communally
oriented than in the highly individualist societies of North America? How do culturally
based feelings of fatalism affect the dynamics of felt deprivations? Finally, researchers might
ask: how do the dynamics of RD change over the life cycle? Do feelings of deservingness and
of wanting change throughout childhood, young adulthood, middle adulthood, and late
adulthood? Are there developmental junctures where individuals are most susceptible to
feelings of deprivation on behalf of themselves or their group?


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Part III

Social Reinforcement

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An Introduction to Equity Theory

Most interpersonal relationships are built around trust, mutual respect, and genuine con-
cern for the other person. Generally, people do not enter a relationship with fairness issues
at the forefront of their minds. However, many people of all different backgrounds are
familiar with the “golden rule” – treat others as you would like to be treated. Many people
believe that if everyone subscribed to this rule, fairness would prevail, leading to perfectly
satisfying relationships.

Whereas these ideas may be very intuitively appealing, they create some potential prob-
lems when people in relationships – whether it is a business relationship, a friendship, or a
romance – experience difficulties. Difficulties may involve one person getting his or her way
more often or experiencing hurt feelings. In reality, sometimes people feel they put more
into a relationship than they get out of it.

It takes effort to build, maintain, and repair relationships, regardless of the type of rela-
tionship. Many people, both researchers and laypersons, are interested in what makes for
satisfying relationships as well as what factors keep people together or drive them apart.
A number of theories have been developed to help explain how people evaluate their rela-
tionships. One of them is equity theory.

The Development of Equity Theory

Equity theory is a theory that stems from economic principles. In fact, when John Stacy
Adams first introduced the theory in 1963, he intended it to serve as an explanation for the
fairness of exchanges between employers and their employees. Whereas researchers initially


Evaluating Fairness: Critical
Assessment of Equity Theory

Denise M. Polk

Theories in Social Psychology, First Edition. Edited by Derek Chadee.
© 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published 2011 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

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164 Denise M. Polk

used this theory to explain employee–employer relationships, over the years, the theory has
been expanded to explain various other types of relationships. Walster, Walster, and Berscheid
(1978) continued to refine and to adapt the theory to help people understand how people
evaluate their interactions in other kinds of relationships, such as casual interpersonal rela-
tionships and intimate relationships. This type of research includes the harm–doer–victim
relationship (Walster, Berscheid, & Walster, 1973), helping relationships (Hatfield & Sprecher,
1983), collegial relationships (Buunk, Doosje, Jans, & Hopstaken, 1993), friendships (Buunk
& Prins, 1998; Messman, Canary, & Hause, 2000), marital relationships (Cate, Lloyd, & Long,
1988), and homosexual relationships (Shechory & Ziv, 2007).

A Description of Equity Theory

Justice theories developed by researchers such as Homans (1961, 1974), Adams (1963,
1965), and Blau (1964) serve as the basis for equity theory. The principle of distributive
justice is at the core of equity, and it suggests that rewards should be distributed according
to who provides the most inputs (Deutsch, 1985). Hatfield (formerly Walster) and her col-
leagues extended the ideas presented in these earlier justice theories and refined them over
time (e.g., Hatfield & Traupmann, 1981; Hatfield, Utne, & Traupmann, 1979; Walster,
Walster, & Berscheid, 1978). Today equity theory is widely used to help people understand
the way people develop, maintain, and dissolve interpersonal relationships.

Equity theory falls into a subcategory of theories often called exchange theories. These
theories tend to view interactions between people as exchanges of goods and resources.
Attractiveness, intelligence, love, understanding, encouragement, earning money, and tak-
ing care of domestic responsibilities are just a few of the many goods and resources that
people exchange. These goods and resources can be defined as the ability, possession, or
attribute that enables one person to reward or to punish another person (Scanzoni, 1979). The
value of the resources that both people bring to the relationship is subjective and depends
on the needs or desires of both parties. Essentially, “each person ‘pays’ a certain price in
resources (or contributions) brought to the relationship, in order to acquire certain goods
(or outcomes) in the form of needs met (Beckman-Brindley & Tavormina, 1978)” (Steil,
1994, p. 237). Thus, according to equity theory, each partner is entitled to rewards and costs
in a relationship proportionally to the contributions each partner has made as well as the costs
each partner has incurred (Adams, 1963). All this must be relative to the costs and rewards
contributed and experienced by one’s partner.

Social exchange elements of relationships include two categories of theoretical vari-
ables (Sprecher, 2001b). The first set of variables involves distributive justice norms,
among which equity theory is of particular importance. These variables include inputs
and outcomes for both partners. People determine fairness in their relationships by
comparing input–outcome ratios. The equity formula, outlined over the next several
pages, specifies that fair relationships occur when the input–outcome ratio is identical
for the two relational partners. If not, one person is overbenefited and the other person
is underbenefited. Imbalances in rewards and costs will cause people to attempt to
equalize the reward–cost ratio. This is different from the equality principle, which

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Evaluating Fairness: Critical Assessment of Equity Theory 165

suggests that regardless of contributions or costs, both partners should share costs and
benefits equally (Deutsch, 1975, 1985; Sampson, 1975).

Thibaut and Kelley (1959) outlined the second set of variables that fall under exchange
theories in their interdependence theory. These variables also have been used in Rusbult’s
(1980) investment model (Sprecher, 2001b). This second set includes additional variables
of comparison level, which is one’s general expectations about what one deserves, and com-
parison level of alternatives, which is expectations of rewards one could obtain from other
sources. It also includes investments, defined as what a person gives to a relationship that
cannot be retrieved if the relationship ends. Both equity theory and the investment model
have been used as frameworks for predicting relational outcomes such as satisfaction, com-
mitment, and stability. When viewing relational satisfaction via the investment model, the
major prediction is that satisfaction increases when a person achieves more rewards and
lower costs when accounting for the person’s comparison level. It is easy to see the similari-
ties in exchange theories such as equity and interdependence theory/the investment model,
but each theory maintains distinct ideas about how relationships operate and about what
people ultimately regard as satisfying.

Equity is important because it affects many aspects of the relationship. Ultimately, peo-
ple’s perceptions about equity and the amount of partner reciprocity involved frame peo-
ple’s feelings, decisions, and actions toward their relational partners (Adams, 1965; Sprecher
& Schwartz, 1994). For example, a wife who perceives inequity within her marriage might
feel used or taken advantage of by her spouse. This might affect how she treats him at home
and what she is willing to put into the relationship in the future. Perceptions of equity
in relationships are associated with positive relational outcomes such as contentment,
satisfaction, and commitment. Perceptions of inequity in relationships are associated with
negative relational outcomes such as distress and dissatisfaction.

Major Theoretical Concepts within the Theory

To understand equity theory, one must first understand some of the central concepts. These
concepts include inputs and outcomes as well as rewards and costs. Inputs can be consid-
ered an investment. People invest things in their relationships such as time, money, or
secrets. For example, Rajiv and Andy are best friends. Rajiv just found out he failed his
chemistry exam. If Andy helps Rajiv by providing support for his friend, this is an example
of an input. Outcomes are what people receive in exchange for their inputs. Examples of
outcomes could be companionship, status, or a sense of accomplishment. If Andy’s offer
strengthens Andy’s friendship with Rajiv, this result is an example of an outcome for Andy.
Rajiv could also experience the outcome of stress relief.

Similarly, people seek to gain rewards and to avoid costs. Rewards are things which are
pleasurable and satisfying. Getting a hug or support from a loved one can be considered a
reward. For Andy, a stronger friendship with Rajiv can be considered a reward. In addition,
Rajiv also receives the reward of support. People also try to minimize their costs. Costs are
things that are detrimental or dissatisfying, such as feeling obligated to take a loved one to
the airport instead of sleeping late. It is possible that Rajiv might rather go out to the bar

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166 Denise M. Polk

with his fraternity brothers, so Andy’s offer could be costly to him if he feels he must

When each partner’s inputs are relatively equal to their own outcomes, equity has been
achieved. However, two other outcomes may occur. On the one hand, one party often feels
his or her inputs exceed the outcomes (Walster, Walster, & Berscheid, 1978). This is called
underbenefiting. If Andy perceives that the only time Rajiv wants to hang out with him is
when Rajiv needs something and that Andy is tired of hearing Rajiv’s complaints, he may feel
underbenefited. On the other hand, when outcomes exceed inputs, overbenefiting has taken
place. Rajiv might feel guilty that Andy is always there to console him and that Rajiv is not as
good a friend to Andy as Andy is to him, in which case Rajiv is experiencing overbenefiting.

Equity theory can be illustrated as a mathematical formula (Walster , Walster, & Berscheid,

( )
( )

( )
( )

− −
=A A B B

kA kB




● A and B represent the two different people in the relationship
● I and O represent perceptions of inputs and outcomes
● | | is the mathematical symbol for taking the absolute value
● k is either +1 or −1, depending on the sign of the outcomes minus inputs for A and B

The numbers on the left side of the equation represent one person in a relationship (A), and
the numbers on the right represent the other person (B). Each person assesses perceptions
of his or her outcomes and inputs in relation to perceptions of the partner’s outcomes and
inputs. In the end, for equity to be achieved, the result should involve a relative balance in
outcomes for both parties.

An additional consideration that should be noted in this formula surrounds norms of
reciprocity. Norms of reciprocity enjoin people to return favors done to them by others
(Gouldner, 1960). Perceiving reciprocity is an integral part of equity and has been found
to be accompanied by a greater sense of well-being and also better health (Buunk et al.,
1993; Buunk & Mutsaers, 1999; Buunk & Prins, 1998). Other studies have demonstrated
that the perception of nonreciprocal relationships with close others may be associated
with depression and other negative outcomes (Buunk & Schaufeli, 1999; Walster, Walster, &
Berscheid, 1978).

The four propositions of equity

Equity theory has four major propositions (Adams, 1963; Walster, Walster, & Berscheid,
1978). At the heart of the theory, however, an inherent difference lies between how people
behave as individuals and how they behave in relationships. Consistent with other social
exchange theoretical approaches, equity theory posits that people seek to maximize their
rewards and to reduce their costs. Therefore, the first proposition states that when consider-
ing the individual, people are driven to maximize their outcomes to the extent that outcomes
equal rewards minus costs. Hedonism involves the principle that people will avoid pain and

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Evaluating Fairness: Critical Assessment of Equity Theory 167

seek pleasure. In addition, people want to obtain the most rewards by putting in the least
amount of effort. If Andy’s goal is to strengthen his friendship with Rajiv, and he can accom-
plish this goal by taking Rajiv out for pizza, he will be more motivated to follow through on
this action than he would be to pay for a tutor for his friend. It costs considerably more
money to pay for ongoing tutoring services than for a pizza, and it is costly to Andy both in
his wallet and in the effort he would have to exert to find and arrange for tutoring services.

This premise changes, however, when moving from the individual to a couple or a group.
Therefore, the second proposition involves two parts for the development of the norms of
equity: (a) collective rewards and costs must be considered; no longer can the individual look out
solely for him/herself and (b) groups try to induce equity by rewarding members who treat one
another equitably and by punishing members who treat others inequitably. Drawing from inter-
dependence theory, Thibaut and Kelley (1959) explained that when two people interact, each
person has the potential of affecting the other’s reward–cost ratio, which also means certain
possibilities exist for them exercising power over each other. To understand the first part of
this premise, then, think of a married couple. Marriage is an institution in which two people
are joined together symbolically as one. Therefore, when two people marry, spouses ought to
consider the needs and welfare of each other and not just look after their own rewards and
costs. Even seemingly small decisions can impact the other person. It makes sense that, in
some ways, a husband’s happiness and well-being hinges on his wife’s happiness and well-
being, and vice versa. Therefore, it also makes sense that it is imperative to consider the things
that will contribute to or that will reduce a spouse’s happiness and well-being.

To understand the second part of this proposition, it is important to think of larger soci-
ety. In any group situation, people tend to monitor the contributions of group members.
Think of a graded group project for a class. People often complain about group work
because one person does not contribute the same amount as the rest of the group members.
This puts a strain on other group members as well as on the relationships between group
members. The person who is not pulling his or her weight often will be punished by the
other group members by treating that person with some hostility or by approaching the
professor to take some action. In general, this second proposition acknowledges the idea
that people would like to think of only themselves, but because society requires people
to work together, these checks and balances of behavior are in place to make sure no one
person is too advantaged or too disadvantaged.

The third proposition develops from proposition two, where norms of equity have been
established. It states that people become distressed when they perceive inequity in their rela-
tionships such that greater inequity leads to greater distress. Again, the notion of distributive
justice underlies this proposition – that rewards should be distributed according to who
provides the most inputs (Deutsch, 1985). People tend to know when they are getting “the
short end of the stick.” Feelings of being taken advantage of are unpleasant, and the more it
seems like someone has been used, the more unpleasant she or he tends to feel. On the other
side of the coin, however, most people have had the distinct experience of getting more than
their fair share, and this experience also arouses unpleasant feelings. If a teacher ever played
favoritism, and you were at the receiving end of it, but your best friend was not, then you
are aware of the unpleasant feelings it creates. Most of the time, people might experience
some guilt in a situation where they have been advantaged in one way or another.

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168 Denise M. Polk

Thibaut and Kelley (1959) attempted to explain the consequences of unequal rewards
and costs to the dyad and to the individual in terms of power. In general, if people are
socialized in ways that teach them that partners’ input–outcome ratios should be even,
then a person who experiences greater rewards should experience cognitive dissonance.
According to cognitive dissonance theory, cognitions (pieces of knowledge) that contra-
dict one another create an unpleasant feeling in individuals. In turn, they are motivated to
reduce this unpleasant state (Festinger, 1957). Thus, knowing that the input–outcome
ratio should be equal but that one person is receiving more rewards should create this
unpleasant arousal state.

However, according to Thibaut and Kelley (1959), the above scenario does not always
play out. The greater the power the members have over one another, the greater the
tendency to engage in cyclical patterns of rewarding or costly behavior (Thibaut &
Kelley). Andy rewards Rajiv in order to get Rajiv to produce behavior that Andy finds
rewarding, which then becomes reciprocal. This tends to foster a highly satisfactory and
stable relationship (Thibaut & Kelley). However, Thibaut and Kelley also claimed that
power is useful to the extent that the bearer of power enables him/her to gain more
favorable reward–cost positions. Thus, the person with high power will be able to enjoy
the best reward–cost ratios available more frequently than the person with low power.
By their definitions, the person with higher power is the person with more to offer (or
to threaten to withdraw), which allows this person the ability to induce the lower-power
person to perform the behaviors desired by the higher-power person (rather than vice
versa). Danger lies, however, in the possibility of overusing power. A person who
attempts to control too much can reduce the other person’s ability to achieve rewards to
the extent that the controller ends up losing control over the other person (Thibaut &
Kelley). In general, then, power at maximum levels must be used considerately and

As a result of the distress that inequity creates, people will attempt to eliminate the distress
by restoring equity, which is the fourth and final proposition (Walster, Walster, & Berscheid,
1978). People who perceive inequity in the realm of underbenefitedness might engage in
behaviors ranging from trying to convince themselves that the inequity is not as bad as it
seems, to giving a relational partner the silent treatment in ending a relationship. People
who perceive inequity in the realm of overbenefitedness might engage in behaviors such as
making a grand gesture like buying flowers, or by helping out more in the future.

Measurement considerations of equity

It is essential to understand that equity involves perceptions. In general, people tend to
subscribe to the norm of reciprocity – a belief that helping others will increase the likeli-
hood that they will help us in the future (Gouldner, 1960). This norm highlights an inher-
ent human desire to cooperate and to behave kindly. However, according to equity theory,
exchanges may not always appear balanced. One way that people can figure out whether the
input–outcome ratios within their relationship are equitable is by making comparisons
with other people’s relationships. Social comparison theory states that people have a drive
to evaluate themselves, and they do that by comparing themselves to other people (Festinger,

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Evaluating Fairness: Critical Assessment of Equity Theory 169

1954). It involves the idea that people are driven to look to outside images in order to
evaluate their own situations, opinions, and abilities. People make comparisons among
themselves, others, and their idealized images. Then, they use the information they obtained
to form their own perceptions of their relationships.

The premise that perceptions of justice vary widely from person to person (Reichle,
1996) is fundamental to understanding equity theory. Kelley and Thibaut (1978) also
acknowledged that asking or measuring perceptions of relational rewards and costs is
more useful than observing actual behaviors, because outsiders might view equity differ-
ently from the actual relational partners. For example, if both spouses perceive equity,
the couple may achieve both stability and satisfaction, but if a team of researchers
assesses that couple’s inputs and outcomes differently, the researchers might disagree
with each other and with the couple about whether the marriage is equitable (Hatfield
et al., 1979). Therefore, no outsider can claim that if one person has produced five inputs
and the other partner has produced four inputs, then the relationship is inequitable.
Only those two people actually in the relationship can gauge their own perception of

As a result, no magic formula exists for creating and maintaining equity. Whereas people
can use a mathematical formula to calculate equity, they (not the formula) must determine
their own inputs and outcomes as well as how much those inputs and outcomes are worth.
However, the variable in the formula in many instances may be difficult to measure.
Relational partners must determine equity for themselves. A relational partner may still
perceive equity even if his/her investment is greater than the partner’s investment and/or
that role division is not actually equal. According to Rabin and Shapira-Berman (1998), so
long as the person feels rewarded in proportion to the degree of his/her contributions to the
relationship, equity has been achieved (even if outsiders view it as unfair). For some cou-
ples, this might mean enacting traditional gender roles. In this type of arrangement, it is
possible that the man works 40 hours a week and earns all the family income and the woman
works 55 hours a week running the household and nurturing their children. However, as
long as they perceive a relative balance between their input–outcome ratios, the relationship
is equitable.

Equity does not necessarily mean that investments of time or energy are split 50/50. That
could be objectively measured by an outsider. What makes the measurement of equity
tricky is that an outsider can only find out whether equity exists in any given couple by ask-
ing them to share their own perceptions – to assess how much they put into and get out of
the relationship.

Another key consideration of the evaluation of equity is its relationship with equality. As
mentioned before, the equality principle suggests that regardless of contributions or costs,
partners should share costs and benefits equally. Some researchers have contended that
equity and equality are interchangeable terms. Sprecher and Schwartz (1994) claimed that
enough overlap exists between equity and equality in close relationships; however, they
acknowledged that some researchers continue to argue distinctions between the two.
Sprecher and Schwartz see the difference as more of a theoretical one and argue that research
findings such as those of Cate, Lloyd, Henton, and Larson (1982) and Michaels, Edwards,
and Acock (1984) suggest a high degree of overlap between equity and equality.

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170 Denise M. Polk

A fair number of other researchers, however, treat equality and
equity as two very different concepts (e.g., Steil, 1994). While reading
the following quotation, look at Figures 7.1–7.3.

If partners make unequal contributions but receive the same outcomes,

the relationship is equal but not equitable. Conversely, if partners make

unequal contributions and receive different outcomes based on the ratio

of contributions and outcomes for each, relative to the other, then the

relationship is equitable but not equal. However, if two partners make

equal numbers of equally valued positive and negative contributions,

and each receives equal positive and negative outcomes, then, according

to the equity theorists, the relationship is both equal and equitable.

(Steil, 1994, p. 237)

This quotation highlights Steil’s belief that equity and equality are dis-
tinct concepts.

Because equity is subjective, researchers have focused on partners’
own views of equity. Most often, these data have been collected through
self-report instruments. Because equity involves perceptions, it most
frequently is measured through scale items. Typically, researchers opera-
tionalize equity by using a single-item measure. The most widely used
measure of equity is Hatfield’s Global Equity Measure. This measure asks
participants to respond to a single item – “When you consider your and

your partner’s contributions to your marriage, and you compare these to the outcomes of each,
how would you judge your relationship from the perspective of give and take?” Participants can
choose one of seven Likert-type responses:

−3 = I am getting a much better deal than my partner
−2 = I am getting a somewhat better deal
−1 = I am getting a slightly better deal
0 = We are getting an equally good or bad deal
1 = My partner is getting a slightly better deal
2 = My partner is getting a somewhat better deal
3 =My partner is getting a much better deal

Equity tends to differ from other social exchange variables because it is curvilinear –
meaning that the midpoint represents equity whereas low and high scores represent the two
forms of inequity – underbenefitedness and overbenefitedness, respectively. This differs
from most other Likert-type responses, where low scores would represent inequity and high
scores would represent equity.

In the left graphic in Figure 7.4, an observer can only learn that people who perceive low
equity report lower satisfaction as compared with people who report high equity and also
report higher satisfaction. Also in Figure 7.4, however, an observer can see from the graphic
on the right that two types of inequity exist – underbenefitedness and overbenefitedness. In
this figure, people who report underbenefitedness report low satisfaction and people who



C = Contributions O = Outcomes


Figure 7.1 Equal but not equitable.



C = Contributions O = Outcomes

Figure 7.2 Equitable but not equal.



C = Contributions O = Outcomes

Figure 7.3 Equal and equitable.

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Evaluating Fairness: Critical Assessment of Equity Theory 171

report overbenefitedness also report low satisfaction. High satisfaction is related to equity.
Being able to separate inequity into overbenefitedness and underbenefitedness allows
researchers to discover whether the relationship of overbenefitedness and underbenefited-
ness and another variable is different or whether all inequity is the same.

Prior to developing this single-item global measure of equity, Hatfield et al. (1979) also
developed the Global Measures of Participants’ Inputs, Outcomes, and Equity/Inequity, in
which participants assess their own contributions and outcomes as well as their partner’s con-
tributions and outcomes on a scale ranging from extremely negative to extremely positive.
The responses to these four items are input into an equity formula to determine in/equity.

Other researchers have used other global scales to measure equity. For example, some
researchers have taken statements based on Adams’s (1963, 1965) original works on equity
theory (e.g. Hatfield, Traupmann, & O’Brien, 1990; Shechory & Ziv, 2007). The responses
reflect the assessment of the ratio of participants’ levels of investments and rewards to their
partners’ levels. Because this type of survey instrument involves multiple items, the items
are summed and scored so that higher scores reflect more equity in the relationship.

Some researchers have employed alternative measures of equity as well as the traditional
self-report instruments. The major difference involves whether people report equity using
global measures or domain-specific measures of equity. Detailed or domain-specific meas-
ures of equity ask participants to focus on specific areas of the relationship and to describe
their own and their partners’ relative contributions. Again, Hatfield and her colleagues cre-
ated the Traupmann–Utne–Hatfield Equity Scale (1979), in which participants assess the
four relational areas of personal concerns, emotional concerns, day-to-day concerns, and
opportunities gained or lost. Foa and Foa (1974) also developed a detailed instrument in
which people rate equity in the areas of love, status, money, material goods, and services.

One important consideration in measuring equity is whether equity is equally valuable
in all relational areas. For example, for some people, having an equitable distribution of
household labor is far more important than having an equitable distribution of possessions.
VanYperen and Buunk (1990) gathered detailed equity data based on 24 exchange dimen-
sions. Their study differed from previous studies because they weighted each dimension to

Satisfaction Satisfaction



Figure 7.4 A linear relationship versus a curvilinear relationship.

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172 Denise M. Polk

reflect its relative importance. In order to achieve this weighted score, participants assessed
the degree to which self or partner contributed more on each item, but they also rated the
value of each contribution to the relationship overall.

Whereas both global and detailed instruments measure perceptions of equitable behav-
ior, differences do exist. In fact, some researchers, such as Lujanksy and Mikula (1983),
argued that global and detailed instruments actually measure different things. For example,
Sprecher (2001a, 2001b) compared equity measures using a sample of romantic partners in
a longitudinal study. The various equity measures did produce some different findings;
however, a far greater number of similarities surfaced. More specifically, Sprecher found
positive associations between two global measures of equity and a domain-specific measure
of equity. In general, little consensus exists about which measurement of equity is more
valid (Desmarais & Lerner, 1989).

When assessing equity, people must assess equity over the long term. The reason this
point is so important is that it is nearly impossible to maintain equity most of the time. For
example, the division of household labor is one area where researchers often test equity
theory. One of the reasons this area is so popular is that as people tend to move away from
traditional gender roles within relationships, they must find other ways to distribute domes-
tic responsibilities. Previously, people simply accepted that these responsibilities were the
domain of women. Now, given the number of women working in the paid labor force, cou-
ples often attempt to negotiate domestic chores. Couples can try many different ways to
establish equity. For example, couples may share tasks 50/50 (“I’ll wash the dishes half the
time, and you wash them the other half ”). This type of equity would also overlap with
equality since tasks are split evenly. Couples also may select tasks (“I’ll cook if you do the
dishes”). Couples can negotiate equity in a number of different ways, and they may com-
bine many of these methods. It is important to remember that the end result may not
always look equitable to an outsider, but if the parties involved perceive it as equitable, then
the exchange has distributive justice. For example, perhaps one partner really hates to clean
the toilet. In actuality, cleaning the toilet may be a task that only takes 10 minutes once a
week. However, if that person hates it so much, s/he may offer to do the grocery shopping,
which may take an hour each week, if the spouse agrees to clean the toilet. If they both per-
ceive that exchange to be equitable, then within the relationship, the exchange of grocery
shopping for cleaning the toilet is an equitable exchange.

Unfortunately, life does not always fit into neat compartments. People’s jobs may require
more time and energy on certain weeks than during other times. Therefore, the agreements
that couples establish cannot always be followed. When this happens, one person usually
picks up the slack, and this translates into this person being underbenefited. This person
has more inputs than outcomes. It is critical, then, that couples track the costs and benefits
in the long term rather than the short term. Focusing on the short term leads to keeping
score (“I’ve cooked and done the dishes every night this week”), which often results in con-
flict (Nichols & Schwartz, 1998). In close relationships, it is critical that these periods of
inequity will even out over the long term, making the relationship equitable in the long run.
Brockner, Chen, Mannix, Leung, and Skarlicki (2000) found that when trust is high, people
may be willing to accept a less-than-desirable outcome in the short term because they
believe it could lead to long-term rewards.

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Evaluating Fairness: Critical Assessment of Equity Theory 173

Restoring equity

What can people do when they perceive inequity? Certainly, at certain times in relation-
ships, people may begin to perceive inequity. According to researchers, people may discover
inequity via one of two ways. Walster, Walster, and Berscheid’s (1978) version of equity
theory suggests that relational partners make relational comparisons. People make relational
comparisons when they compare their partner’s input–outcome ratio with their own input–
outcome ratio. Other researchers suggest that people also make referential comparisons
(VanYperen & Buunk, 1994). These comparisons involve looking at other people in similar
roles or relationships and making comparisons between oneself and others’ situations. This
idea relates back to the theory mentioned earlier called social comparison theory.

Sometimes people enter into a relationship perceiving equity, but later on one party
begins to perceive s/he is underbenefited when s/he starts making relational or referential
comparisons. Adams (1965) was one of the first scholars to outline the ways people respond
to inequity in order to restore distributive justice. Walster, Walster, and Berscheid (1978)
also extended and developed these strategies further to align with relationships beyond
employer–employee relationships. The restoration of equity can occur through attempts to
restore actual equity or by attempts to restore psychological equity.

Actual equity can be restored via four methods. For example, a homemaker may enter
marriage with a perception that the relationship of a homemaker to a breadwinner is equi-
table. Over time, however, let’s say the homemaker takes on some part-time work. The
homemaker now perceives inequity – perhaps because the homemaker has taken on the
additional role of part-time worker but has not reduced any responsibilities in the home-
maker realm. The homemaker can restore actual equity by decreasing his or her inputs.
Decreasing or reducing inputs involves putting less effort into the relationships (minimiz-
ing costs). One example would be that the homemaker stops picking up the breadwinner’s
dirty clothes off the floor. The second way to restore actual equity is by raising his or her
outcomes. Increasing outcomes would be doing something that is rewarding for the indi-
vidual. For instance, the homemaker can begin to practice yoga, which gives him/her pleas-
ure. The tricky part about raising personal outcomes is to do so without feeling guilty.
If the homemaker goes to yoga, but ends up feeling guilty during the entire session about
having slacked in the household responsibilities, it defeats the idea of increasing

Although the basic definitions are the same, the other two ways of restoring actual equity
focus on the partner’s inputs and outcomes rather than personal inputs and outcomes.
Thus, the third strategy for restoring actual equity is raising the partner’s inputs (give the
responsibility of cleaning up dirty clothes to the breadwinner). The fourth actual equity
restoration strategy is decreasing the partner’s outcomes (punishing the breadwinner by
giving them the silent treatment).

As opposed to actual equity restoration, people also may engage in what Adams (1965)
called psychological distortion or what Walster, Walster, and Berscheid (1978) and Sprecher
and Schwartz (1994) called psychological equity restoration. These two terms refer to the
same idea, which is distorting reality as a method to perceive equity. Similar to restoring
actual equity, people have four ways to accomplish this goal. Going back to the example of

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174 Denise M. Polk

the homemaker, s/he can restore psychological equity by attempting to convince him/her-
self that the relationship is equitable. Just as people may perceive inequity by making refer-
ential comparisons, they also can attempt to restore it by making other referential
comparisons. Social comparison occurs when people literally compare their situations
with other people in similar situations. In the case of the homemaker, s/he might go out to
lunch with some friends. While out, the friends would talk about the extent to which their
spouses participate in housework. After that interaction, the homemaker might realign
beliefs about the breadwinner and begin to think that the breadwinner actually does a lot
more around the house than other people’s breadwinner spouses, and the homemaker
might begin to feel their arrangement is rather equitable. This would be the first form of
psychological equity restoration, called exaggerating the inputs of the spouse. Another way
to achieve psychological equity restoration would be that after making the social compari-
son, the homemaker also can minimize personal inputs by telling him/herself that keeping
the house isn’t that time-consuming a responsibility anyway. The third psychological
equity restoration technique the homemaker can use is to exaggerate personal outcomes.
One way to accomplish this might be to tell oneself that running a household gives great
personal satisfaction and that doing it well benefits the family, which is what matters most.
Finally, the homemaker can minimize the partner’s outcomes (in this case the breadwin-
ner). For example, the homemaker could downplay the spouse’s outcomes within the rela-
tionship by thinking the breadwinner really does not have as much leisure time as the
homemaker initially thought.

If the homemaker makes multiple attempts to restore equity through a number of the
options above but still perceives underbenefitedness, the homemaker may choose yet
another equity restoration technique. This technique is called to leave the field, and
this means exactly that: the homemaker may decide to separate or to divorce the

Canary and Stafford (1992) argued that in long-term relationships, it is more feasible
that people will change their behavior than the other options. In other words, people will
attempt to restore actual equity by reducing their own inputs or increasing their personal
outcomes over any of the other methods of equity restoration. Canary and Stafford sug-
gested that people find it difficult to preserve cognitive distortion over lengths of time and
that leaving the field is a more dramatic move than many people wish to take. For exam-
ple, it is much more complicated to leave a spouse if children are involved. Sprecher (1992)
supported the idea that people tend to choose the equity restoration technique that incurs
the fewest costs. In addition, changing partner behaviors to get them to increase their
inputs often involves high levels of persuasion and negotiation. This tactic typically is
more helpful if couples can negotiate equitable responsibilities before they begin to enact
them for any time (such as prior to marriage or cohabitation). This is because if the
homemaker is underbenefited, it makes sense that the breadwinner is overbenefited. The
breadwinner may believe that their arrangement is equitable; after all, they agreed to it
initially as equitable. Therefore, if we go back to the first proposition of equity theory –
that people will try to maximize their self-interest – the breadwinner may not be alto-
gether motivated to take on additional duties if s/he still sees personal inputs and outcomes
as equitable.

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Evaluating Fairness: Critical Assessment of Equity Theory 175

The Application of Equity Theory

Some researchers have been interested in learning the extent to which certain variables
predict whether some people are more predisposed to behave equitably. Other researchers
are interested in the extent to which the achievement of equity is more important to some
individuals than to others. Still other researchers have been interested in the emotional
states that perceptions of (in)equity elicit.


Many personality variables can be used to predict relational equity. Sprecher and Schwartz
(1994) included assertiveness (the degree to which people are willing to stand up for and to
defend their rights) and self-esteem (confidence and satisfaction with oneself). These types
of variables can influence areas such as how a person treats a relational partner, as well as how a
person allows him/herself to be treated. It also may influence a person’s threshold for perceiving
inequitable behaviors. Relational identity (RI) is another possible predictor of equity. Relational
identity is a schema, or mental model, that people develop which involves the degree of awareness
and the importance placed on relationships (Acitelli 1997, 2002). Polk (2008) tested the relation-
ship between RI and equity and found a significant relationship between the two. People with
high relational identities perceived less equity than did people with low relational identities.

Relationship type and relationship length

Even the type or length of the relationship also may affect perceived equity. For example,
parents of young children may perceive their relational equity differently once their family
is in a later family life cycle, such as empty nesters (Schafer & Keith, 1981). Another type of
relationship to which researchers have applied equity theory is with remarriage. Furstenberg
and Spanier (1987) found that people emphasized the role of give and take in their second
marriage. Thus Ganong and Coleman (1994) suggested a heightened recognition of this
need to balance rewards and costs in a second marriage. Buunk and Mutsaers (1999) found
that individuals’ retrospective perceptions led them to conclude their current marriage as
more equitable and satisfying than their first marriage (even prior to any indication the first
marriage would end in divorce). More specifically, significantly more women than men
reported greater positive change toward equity in the second marriage as compared with
the first marriage. It is also very important that Buunk and Mutsaers found no significant
relationships to suggest that certain types of people end up in inequitable marriages, nor
that they were biased to perceive inequity in both marriages – suggesting that it was the
nature of the second marriage and not some other variable influencing the results.


Some researchers have been interested in what happens when people believe they can maxi-
mize outcomes by violating laws of equity. Even if this person behaves inequitably, the
propositions of equity theory would suggest the person would experience guilt or feel badly

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176 Denise M. Polk

about doing so. Ultimately, according to the propositions of equity, some punishment also
must be incurred for attempting to take too much or, similarly, for accepting too little. Early
research focused on the emotional states associated with equity and with inequity.

The original findings surrounding equity in intimate relationships are that people
reported the most distress when they reported being underbenefited, people who reported
experiencing equity reported the least distress, and people who reported overbenefitedness
also reported an intermediate amount of distress (Hatfield et al., 1979). Theoretically, anger
is the primary emotion associated with underbenefited individuals whereas guilt is the
primary emotion associated with overbenefited individuals. Furthermore, the distress
resulting from inequity strains the relationship and is related to lowered satisfaction and
commitment (Sabatelli & Cecil-Pigo, 1985; Sprecher, 1988, 2001b).

Whereas Walster, Walster, and Berscheid (1978) contended simply that inequity (whether
overbenefitedness or underbenefitedness) creates distress, later research findings suggested
that the degree of distress or even the presence of distress differs for overbenefitedness ver-
sus underbenefitedness. Thus, they cannot be considered equal emotional states. For exam-
ple, Sprecher (2001b) tested for the specific negative emotional states that inequity induces.
She found that underbenefiting but not overbenefiting is significantly associated with dis-
tress for both men and women. In addition, the greater the level of underbenefitedness, the
greater the distress reported.

Other emotions than anger have been found to be associated with underbenefitedness as
well. People experience depression and frustration (Sprecher, 1986, 1992, 2001b) and
resentment (Sprecher, 2001b) as the result of perceiving underbenefitedness. Dainton
(2003) tested the relationship between equity and relational uncertainty. She found that
equity and overbenefitedness bore no significant relationship with uncertainty, but under-
benefitedness was positively associated with it. According to Dainton, these underbenefited
individuals may feel less sure about the definition, mutuality, or future of their relationship.
Presumably, this creates distress, which does echo other research findings about the nature
of underbenefitedness and distress (e.g., Sprecher, 1986). In fact, Dainton and Gross (2007)
claimed that overbenefitedness actually tends to be viewed pretty favorably (rather than
people being consumed with guilt), although underbenefitedness consistently is negative,
supporting previous research with similar findings (Sprecher, 2001b).


Some researchers believe that gender may play a significant role in understanding equity
(Michaels et al., 1984; Stafford & Canary, 2006). In general, women are more likely than
men to be underbenefited, and men are more likely than women to be overbenefited
(Davidson, 1984; Vanfossen, 1981); this perception can lead to increased relational dissatis-
faction. The overarching argument behind the role of gender is that women are more sensi-
tive about and aware of relational issues. For example, Eagly (1987) asserted that women
and men specialize in different spheres of behavior, including women specializing in the
development and maintenance of relationships. In addition, VanYperen and Buunk (1994)
suggested that women are more likely to identify and to confront relational issues, in con-
trast with men, who are more likely to avoid relational issues. Fincham and Linfield (1997)

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Evaluating Fairness: Critical Assessment of Equity Theory 177

found that wives but not husbands significantly attributed positive and negative aspects of
marital quality to marital events. Similarly, Sprecher (2001a) found women’s assessments of
equity to be associated with relational stability, but the same finding did not apply to men.

Distribution of domestic duties

Equity has been studied a great deal with regard to the distribution of household labor,
including housework, yard work, and childcare. Despite the changes of women’s entrance
into the labor market, many heterosexual couples still internalize traditional notions of
gender roles. Frequently this leads to women taking full responsibility for household tasks
(Dunne, 2000; Greenstein, 2000; Zimmerman, Haddock, Ziemba, & Rust, 2001). If they do
not take full responsibility, much evidence exists that women spend a significantly greater
amount of time devoted to these tasks than do men (Coltrane, 2000; Sayer, 2005). This find-
ing is true even when women work the same number of paid labor hours as men (Ferree,
1991), although according to Sayer, the gap is decreasing. Thus the division of household
labor is a topic where partners may perceive inequity.

The interchangeability of roles in close romantic relationships can make issues of fair-
ness and justice more, rather than less, problematic (Sprecher & Schwartz, 1994). To test
this idea, researchers have begun to devote more attention to homosexual couples and
their division of household labor. Because the biological sex of the couple is the same, it
cannot affect the decisions about the distribution of tasks. As a result, some researchers
claim that same-sex relationships have greater potential for equity with regard to role
division and the distribution of household labor (e.g., Shechory & Ziv, 2007). Some
limited research supports the idea that same-sex couples report a more equitable division
of household responsibilities than heterosexual couples (e.g., Chan, Brooks, Raboy, &
Patterson, 1998).

Shechory and Ziv (2007) conducted a study that compared equity between heterosexual,
gay, and lesbian couples. They found no significant differences between lesbian partners’
perceptions of equity; however, they did find significant differences in heterosexual and gay
couples. More specifically, they found that heterosexual men considered their marriage to
be more equitable than did heterosexual women. Men reported the ratio of the degree of
their relationship investment and their relationship benefit to be more similar to their
spouse’s investment–benefit ratio. Women, however, reported their marriages to be less
equitable. In addition, for gay male couples, one partner often reported less equity. For
lesbian couples, equity was related both to role division and to gender-role attitudes. In
lesbian couples, equity is positively associated with greater levels of egalitarianism in the
relationship and with more liberal gender-role attitudes.

Shechory and Ziv (2007) concluded that men (regardless of sexual orientation) tend to
view their relationship as less equitable when they must perform “women’s work” and sug-
gested that even though performing household tasks is supposed to be associated with love
and devotion to one’s family, the performance of these tasks is devalued. In addition, men
tend to expect to benefit more than they invest in a relationship. Thus, even though hetero-
sexual women tend to have more egalitarian attitudes, it is the man’s attitudes that bring
equitable behavior (Pyke & Coltrane, 1996).

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178 Denise M. Polk

Relational quality

Equitable relationships are more satisfying than inequitable ones (Canary & Stafford, 1992).
Concerns about lack of fairness can lead to lowered satisfaction. “The concept of equity
gained increased importance following research that demonstrated a positive relationship
between equity and the quality of the marriage and the spouses’ feeling of satisfaction with
their life together (Rabin & Shapira-Berman, 1998; Ward, 1993)” (Shechory & Ziv, 2007,
p. 631). For example, Wilke, Ferree, and Ratcliff (1998) tested the relationship between
marital satisfaction and the division of both paid and domestic work. They found that what
is fair is different for husbands and wives and that conventional distribution of paid and
domestic work offers benefits and costs to both spouses. More equitable division of paid
work is related to greater satisfaction for men, but more equitable distribution of domestic
work is related to women’s increased satisfaction. Aida and Falbo (1991) found that mar-
ried people who viewed themselves as equal partners reported more satisfaction with their
relationship than those who viewed themselves an unequal partners. Dainton (2003) found
that both underbenefitedness and overbenefitedness significantly predicted low relational
satisfaction. This finding supports the original contention that inequity is dissatisfying, but
it differs from other studies, which have suggested that only underbenefitedness is dissatis-
fying. For example, Sprecher (2001a, 2001b) found that underbenefiting inequity was a
unique predictor of relationship quality.

In addition, perceptions of relational equity impact relational outcomes in other ways. For
instance, equity specifically in family roles had a positive association with marital adjustment
(Rachlin, 1987). Perry-Jenkins and Folk (1994) found that concerns about inequity were
associated with increased relational conflict (presumably dissatisfying). Arditti and Allen
(1993) even reported evidence to support the idea that men’s dissatisfaction with the out-
come of their own divorces was related to perceptions of inequity. The sources of the inequity
stemmed both from the ex-wife and from the legal system regarding issues like child custody
and child support. It is important to note that, just as many researchers note differences
between the terms equity and equality, other researchers suggest that outcomes such as mari-
tal satisfaction, marital adjustment, and marital happiness overlap in some ways but that
they too are distinct constructs (for a discussion of these differences see Fowers, 1990).

In general, researchers have not garnered solid support for the idea that equity at a given
point in a relationship contributes to changes in relational quality over time, particularly
relational stability (Sprecher, 2001b). VanYperen and Buunk (1990), however, found that
the more relational equity that wives perceived in their initial data gathering, the higher
they reported their satisfaction a year later. In addition, Grote and Clark (2001) looked at
people transitioning to parenthood and found that an inequitable division of household
labor affected satisfaction negatively and also factored in an increase in conflict for wives.
Finally, Buunk and Mutsaers (1999) reported about a sample involving remarriage that
“those men who perceived equity were happier in their former and current marriage than
those who perceived inequity, and the more advantaged one felt, the happier one had been
in one’s former marriage and the happier one was in one’s present marriage” (p. 130). This
aligns with support from earlier research, which suggests that women more frequently feel
underbenefited in marriage whereas more men feel overbenefited (e.g., Rabin, 1996).

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Evaluating Fairness: Critical Assessment of Equity Theory 179

Relational behaviors

Much of the extant equity research in close relationships has focused on how it affects peo-
ple’s emotional states such as distress, commitment, marital adjustment, and relationship
satisfaction. Perhaps equally important, however, is whether (or to what degree) equity
affects relational behaviors. The propositions of equity theory help advance the idea that
since distress occurs in the presence of inequity, then inequity is likely to affect the enact-
ment of specific positive and negative behaviors that are salient to the close relationship. In
addition, because people are motivated to restore equity when they perceive inequitable
situations, they may engage in certain behaviors or avoid them. Some of the major behav-
iors that have been studied are outlined below.

The first major behavior is relational maintenance. Relational maintenance can be defined
as the behaviors people enact to preserve desired relational states (Canary & Stafford, 1992;
Dindia & Canary, 1993). Maintenance behaviors are resources; they constitute inputs for
one partner and outcomes for the other (Canary & Stafford, 1992). As a result, they may be
used or withheld to restore equity (Canary & Stafford, 2001). People tend to put forth more
effort to maintain their relationships when they perceive equity rather than inequity
(Canary & Stafford, 1992; Dainton, 2003). In fact, Canary and Stafford (2001) claimed that
people withhold energy to maintain their relationship when they perceive that the partner
does not deserve the effort, such as in an inequitable relationship. In addition, people who
perceive equitable treatment engage in and more readily perceive their partner’s main-
tenance strategies than do people who feel overbenefited or underbenefited (Canary &
Dainton, 2006).

Because equitably treated people report greater satisfaction than inequitably treated peo-
ple, they are more likely to expend the energy required to maintain their relationships
(Messman et al., 2000). Conversely, assessments of inequity adversely affect people’s rela-
tional maintenance efforts and perceptions of partner maintenance behaviors. Canary and
Stafford (1992) found that for both men and women, definitions of equity were signifi-
cantly associated with perceptions of partner maintenance; however, they found that equity
affected self-reported maintenance behaviors for women only. Dainton (2003) found that
equity was associated positively with integrative conflict management (using strategies like
apologizing) and positivity (being cheerful).

As suggested by Hatfield et al. (1979), people who perceive underbenefitedness may be
motivated to demand equity. Dainton (2003) found some support for this idea. She found
that inequity was linked positively with the relational maintenance behavior of openness
(discussing relational feelings directly). She suggested that people may use openness as an
equity restoration behavior. Thus people would increase their openness when they perceive
inequity because they would discuss directly the feelings that the inequity provokes in them.
Dainton also suggested that the use of relationship uncertainty (based on uncertainty
reduction theory) may work in combination with equity to affect relational maintenance

Different types of relationships may affect the association between equity and relational
maintenance behaviors. People have different motives for maintaining intimate romantic
relationships than they do for maintaining same-sex friendships, opposite-sex friendships,

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180 Denise M. Polk

and other relationships. Whereas the above studies have focused on romantic relationships,
Monsour, Harris, Kurzweil, and Beard (1994) found that maintaining opposite-sex friend-
ships involves equity and liking. Messman et al. (2000) found that platonic friends who
perceived equitable friendship used more relational maintenance strategies, with overben-
efited people reporting the second most strategies and underbenefited friends reporting the
least maintenance. In addition, Vogl-Baur, Kalbfleisch, and Beatty (1999) found that under-
benefited parents of adolescents reported lower maintenance activities of positivity, social
networks (participating in shared activities with mutual friends), and sharing tasks (chores).
In addition, adolescent overbenefitedness and maintenance activities were positively

In addition to relational maintenance behaviors, sexual behaviors have been associated
with relational equity. People who experience distress as a result of inequity have different
sexual behaviors than people in equitable relationships. Walster, Walster, and Traupmann
(1978) found that among college students in dating relationships, those who reported
equity also reported going further sexually than those participants who reported inequita-
ble relationships. Those individuals who perceived equity and who also reported having
sexual intercourse were more likely than students in inequitable sexually active relation-
ships to report that the decision was mutual and/or that the decision was the result of being
in love. Both dating and married couples also reported differences in their sexual satisfac-
tion based on their reports of equity (Hatfield, Greenberger, Traupmann, & Lambert, 1982;
Traupmann, Hatfield, & Wexler, 1983).

Sexual behaviors and requests (or the lack of them) is something that people can initiate
or enact as an effort to restore equity. Three major areas have been studied in the realm of
equity and sexual behavior. First, Blumstein and Schwartz (1983) found a relationship
between power and the denial of sex such that more powerful partners refused sex most
often in their relationships. Sexual refusal may not be an available mode to restore equity
unless a partner has enough power to do so. Second, Sprecher and Schwartz (1994) con-
tended that either relational partner may use the initiation of sex to restore equity because
it is an act of supplication. Third, people may seek sexual relationships from a secondary
source (extramarital sex or sex outside a romantic relationship) as a way to restore equity
within the primary relationship. Underbenefited individuals can be more likely to report
having an extramarital affair (Walster, Walster, & Traupmann 1978). Prins, Buunk, and
VanYperen (1993) found that both actual extramarital behavior and even the desire to
engage in an extramarital affair were related to inequity for women but not for men.
Recently, Dainton and Gross (2007) described that some people rationalized their extra-
marital sexual relationships as necessary to stay in their primary relationships (e.g., “I cheat
to maintain my relationship with my spouse”).


Whereas some researchers have studied the predictive value of equity, other researchers
have been interested in how equity interacts with other variables. Some people are more
likely to become distressed at the presence of inequity than do others, and certain variables
might impact those types of differences. For example, exchange orientation is the tendency

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Evaluating Fairness: Critical Assessment of Equity Theory 181

to evaluate behavior with regard to beliefs of the nature or expectation of reciprocity
(Murstein, Cerreto, & MacDonald, 1977). Some people place higher value on the exchange
orientation, and these individuals expend more energy tracking how much they put into
and get out of their relationship as compared with their partner. Conversely, people with a
low exchange orientation do not pay much attention to the input–outcome, cost–reward
ratios in their relationship.

Sprecher (1992) expanded exchange orientation because she believed that the equity
principles of over- and underbenefitedness would play a factor on outcomes like relational
satisfaction. This expanded conceptualization included those individuals with an under-
benefiting exchange orientation (those who are more concerned about getting enough out
of the relationship) versus individuals with an overbenefiting exchange orientation (those
who are more concerned with not getting too much out of the relationship). Sprecher
(1998) found that individuals with a high exchange orientation who are motivated to track
the exchanges in an effort to make sure they are not underbenefited tend to be less satisfied
with the relationship than people with a high exchange orientation (whose motivation is to
make sure they are not overbenefited and who tend to report higher levels of relational

Communal orientation – the desire to give and receive benefit in response to concern for
another person – also moderates the relationship between equity and satisfaction. Equity is
not significantly linked with satisfaction for people with a low communal orientation, but
it was for those with a high communal orientation (VanYperen & Buunk, 1991).

Initial, existing, and dissolving relationships

Equity theory is used most often to study existing relationships, although it can be used
to examine relationship initiation or the selection of an intimate partner. Typically, when
this topic is of interest, researchers apply a simpler version of equity theory (Sprecher &
Schwartz, 1994). In such cases, the matching hypothesis is used. The matching hypothesis
refers to the idea that people choose or seek relationships with other people who are similar
to them with regard to socially desirable characteristics – like physical attractiveness
(Berscheid, Dion, Walster, & Walster, 1971).

Equity also can factor into the dissolution of relationships. Although research has sug-
gested that measuring perceptions of relational equity at one point in a relationship is not a
good predictor of whether the couple will break up months or years later, it may be an impor-
tant variable during the actual process of relational dissolution (Sprecher & Schwartz, 1994).
Sprecher and Schwartz suggested that indirect evidence supports the idea that once people
begin to contemplate a breakup, they may begin to perceive inequities they previously did
not notice. For example, Hatfield, Utne, & Traupmann (1979) suggested that temporal issues
affected perceptions of equity post-breakup. “In this case, rather than inequity breeding
instability, instability seems to breed a perception of inequity” (Hatfield et al., 1979, p. 130).

When people actually confront a relational partner about breaking up, equity also may
play a role. Equity may affect the strategies people choose to initiate or to negotiate the
breakup. Undergraduate students who had been underbenefited in a previous relationship
were more likely than equitable and overbenefited participants to say they used one

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182 Denise M. Polk

particular kind of disengagement strategy (justification or explaining their desire for the
breakup) over four other types of disengagement strategies. Furthermore, Baxter (1984)
found that some people used cost-escalation strategies to try to initiate the breakup. These
strategies involve indirect behaviors to communicate the desire to break up and might
include things such as being in a constant bad mood when interacting with a relational
partner. Sprecher and Schwartz (1994) suggested that people may choose these strategies
because any discussion of the relationship’s future is likely to include equity issues, and
some people may choose to treat the partner unfairly so that the partner has to do the “dirty
work” of breaking up.

In addition, relational equity may affect the decision to remain platonic friends after a
breakup as well. Metts, Cupach, and Bejlovec (1989) found that a major predictor of the
decision not to remain friends after breaking up was the perception of being underbenefited
(or having been taken advantage of ). Further into the breakup process, people may talk
about the relational inequity with others to create a socially acceptable narrative for the dis-
solution (Sprecher & Schwartz, 1994). Finally, people will try to remember the relationship
in certain ways after the actual breakup occurs to help the person move on. In post-breakup
accounts of undergraduates, 12% of the participants reported inequity as a reason they
broke up, with a larger proportion of women citing inequity than men (Baxter, 1986).

A Critique of Equity Theory

Mathematical models of human interaction, particularly those relationships which are con-
sidered intimate in nature, are foreign and unappealing to some people. Some people find the
notion of characterizing interpersonal relationships in terms of economic principles not
applicable. Walster, Walster, and Berscheid (1978) suggested that whereas, prior to their book,
equity researchers accepted that casual relationships endure only when the relationship is
profitable to both participants, they argued equity researchers mostly denied the premises of
equity in intimate relationships such as those between close friends, those between lovers, and
parent–child relationships. In particular, they argued that other equity theorists tend to wish
to call romantic and marital relationships special to the extent that “true” love transcends
exchange despite evidence that equity theory applies. Some scholars continue to believe that
the very nature of close relationships, particularly marriage, differs from other types of inter-
personal relationships. These scholars argue that individuals should not calculate their per-
sonal rewards and costs, nor should they focus on participating in relationships for their own
personal profit (Clark & Chrisman, 1994; Clark & Mills, 1979). Thinking of relationships,
particularly people’s intimate relationships, through the use of terminology like “commodi-
ties,” “transactions,” and “investments” runs contrary to what people like to think about
friendship and love. At the very least, people tend to believe that the joy of giving and the
desire to receive is central to these types of relationships. Thus, these skeptics of equity theory
suggest that relationships should be based on mutual concern for one another’s needs.

It is also possible that relational equity is its own reward. People who follow rules of fair-
ness will be rewarded, whereas people who do not will be punished. The rewards come in
terms of strong relationships, and the punishments come in terms of damaged or dissolved

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Evaluating Fairness: Critical Assessment of Equity Theory 183

relationships. Think of a marriage. Coontz (2005) outlined the history of marriage and
claimed that until the late eighteenth century, marriages occurred mostly for economic and
political reasons, until this gave way to the idea that love should be central to marriage. In
theory, “marriage should be based on intense, profound love and a couple should maintain
that ardor” (Coontz, 2005, p. 15), rather than marriage based on love tied to expectations
for what that other person needs to do to “earn” that love.

These are ideas fundamental to Buddhism or other non-Western cultural worldviews.
The concept of karuna suggests that people become totally one with others and manifest
unconditional love (Maguire, 2001). Unconditionality begins with the individual, and the
principle behind it is about loving and accepting oneself exactly as is, even if one wishes to
do better. Furthermore, unconditionality involves extending this idea to others – loving and
accepting other people for who they are, even if one or both partners wishes for better
(Bayda, 2003). Unconditionality at first glance runs counter to Western views of romantic
love (Maguire). Because this concept runs counter to monitoring exchanges, people who
adopt these views likely would be critical of viewing relationships in terms of economic
principles. Instead, the overarching focus in relationships with others is behaving in ways
that honor oneself and at the same time honor the relational partner.

Even those people who appreciate a mathematical model of relationships might at least
raise questions about equity theory’s basic assumptions. The theory reduces relational
processes into very finely calculated segments. Furthermore, it presumes that all people
have been conditioned through socialization to subscribe to the tenets outlined in the
theo ry. This does not necessarily mean that they behave in ways contrary to the rules of
equity; it just means that they use different guidelines and principles by which to live. It is
possible that some people reject and may even actively work on living lives that do not
revolve around calculating rewards and costs.

Other critics of equity theory have contended that people may not perceive relational
inequity or that they may not feel negatively about a relational partner until the relation-
ship itself has become dissatisfying. Duck (1982) suggested that people do not evaluate
equity and their intimate social exchanges seriously until the breakup process has already
begun to occur. This is very different from Nichols and Schwarz (1998), who argued that
sometimes couples endanger their relationship by focusing on the short-term cost–reward
ratio instead of focusing on long-term ratios.

Perhaps not all individuals are equally sensitive to equity. Huseman, Hatfield, and Miles
(1987) outlined different ways individuals distribute outcomes among receivers, and they
concluded that different norms govern the allocation of rewards. This conclusion suggests
that exceptions exist to the norm of equity. To address this issue, they have developed and
tested an Equity Sensitivity Construct, which places people in one of three categories: (a)
benevolents, who prefer their outcome–input ratio to be less than the outcome–input ratio
of their relational partner, (b) equity sensitives, who subscribe to traditional outcome–input
ratios for equity, and (c) entitleds, who prefer their outcome–input ratio to exceed their
partner’s ratios. The results of several studies suggest that these preferences do exist and
contribute to different perceptions of the importance of equity (Miles, Hatfield, & Huseman,
1989, 1994). More recently, Shore and Strauss (2008) compared another similar measure –
the Equity Preference Questionnaire (EPS; Sauley & Bedeian, 2000) – which also measures

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184 Denise M. Polk

equity sensitivity. They also found evidence to suggest individual differences about equity,
but they claimed the EPS to be a more valid measurement tool. The results of this newer
body of literature suggest that whereas equity theory may have at one time been accepted as
a universal law of human behavior and social interaction, the possibility that a one-size-fits-
all mentality about its propositions may not apply.

Ragsdale (1996) criticized equity theory by suggesting that interdependence theory is
more apt when testing relational maintenance behaviors. Rusbult, Drigotas, and Verette’s
(1994) investment model also falls into the set of exchange theories, but it begins with
interdependence theory (Kelley, 1979; Thibaut & Kelley, 1959). The central premise of
interdependence theory is that people report stable and satisfying relationships when
the partner compares favorably to his or her ideal as well as to alternatives. Rusbult et al.
(1994) added a third consideration of investments (e.g., time, effort, etc.), and it is this
combination of factors that predicts commitment. In fact, based on the results of a diary
study, Ragsdale asserted that neither equity theory nor relational satisfaction is related to
relational maintenance. Ragsdale also contested Canary and Stafford’s (1992) methodol-
ogy and how it affected the results. Later, Ragsdale continued his critique of equity’s
relationship with relational maintenance. His main argument revolved around the point
that if maintenance behaviors vary according to group differences, then researchers can-
not use a single measure of relational maintenance (Ragsdale & Brandau-Brown, 2004).
Stafford and Canary (2006) responded by arguing that they agree with some of Ragsdale
and Brandau-Brown’s argument but that they conducted studies to account for at least
some differences of various groups. Finally, Ragsdale (1996) claimed that the Marital
Comparison Level Index (MCLI; Sabatelli, 1984) is conceptually flawed for measuring
equity. The MCLI is a way to measure the degree to which respondents feel that rela-
tional outcomes compare with their expectations. Again, Stafford and Canary (2006)
responded by claiming Ragsdale’s critique is based on a misinterpretation of how they
used the measure.

Some researchers have argued that isolating equity from other exchange variables dis-
torts the contribution of equity on variables such as satisfaction. These researchers cite one
of the weaknesses of the original studies of equity as involving the omission of other
exchange variables. Most of the early equity studies tested only equity’s effect on a depend-
ent variable such as distress or satisfaction. Some of these researchers compared equity with
rewards or equality’s effect on relational outcomes. For example, Desmarais and Lerner
(1989) found that equity was less important than rewards as a predictor of relational qual-
ity. Cate et al. (1982) developed studies to measure the relative value of equity on the satis-
faction of dating couples, and their study included other exchange variables such as equality
and reward level as well. Because of a significant overlap between equity and equality, they
concluded that reward level is a better predictor of satisfaction. Still other researchers tested
the relative contribution of equity with variables such as investment and alternatives on
commitment. Sprecher (1988, 2001b) found that comparison level for alternatives and not
equity most strongly predicted commitment, but she also found that equity did explain a
unique amount of variance regarding commitment. Therefore, some critics claim that stud-
ies should integrate these variables rather than isolate them from one another because they
belong to one exchange theory versus another.

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Evaluating Fairness: Critical Assessment of Equity Theory 185

Finally, equity theory generally ignores people’s natural resilience, competitiveness, self-
lessness and selfishness, and the ethical dilemmas they may encounter when making deci-
sions about behavior. Equity theory assumes that people act in a rational, calculated way
involving an expected payoff. However, people do not always act rationally. Many people
will not be as calculating as the theory may suggest. Respecting oneself and living to one’s
own values may be reward enough. This concept generally is considered altruism, which
does not sit in concert with the assumptions of this “rational, economic-person” model.

Further Development of Equity Theory

Sprecher and Schwartz (1994) provided a criticism of equity which provides future direc-
tions for developing and refining equity theory. They claimed that the experience of
(in)equity follows three basic steps that include perception, emotional reaction, and equity-
restoring behavior. They also argued that a cognitive appraisal is missing from this process –
that people want to understand the situational factors well enough to explain the inequity.
Sprecher and Schwartz suggested that more studies should address whether people expected
the (in)equity to occur as part of the cognitive appraisal process. They proposed the possi-
bility that inequity might only be distressful and that equity might only elicit happiness
when they are unexpected behaviors. This idea is similar to a step in the process of expect-
ancy violation theory (Burgoon & Hale, 1988), in which people must interpret a behavior
that goes against the norm (for that person or a societal norm) and then evaluate that
behavior. It also relates back to the construct of equity sensitivity (Huseman et al., 1987;
Shore & Strauss, 2008). So far, the literature on equity sensitivity has been tested only in
organizational contexts. Based on Sprecher’s contentions about exchange orientation, it
seems that equity sensitivity is worth investigating in other interpersonal contexts, includ-
ing friendship and marriage.

Some researchers are beginning to pay more attention to how culture might affect the
importance and perception of equity – Aumer-Ryan, Hatfield, and Frey (2007), for exam-
ple. In both Hawai’i and Jamaica participants considered equity to be of critical importance
in romantic relationships. However, men and women in Hawai’i reported more equitable
and more satisfying relationships than did people in Jamaica. In addition, cultural differ-
ences surfaced regarding how people reacted to inequities. The Hawai’i sample reported
more relational satisfaction when the relationship was equitable, but the Jamaican sample
reported the most relational satisfaction when they were overbenefited. Aumer-Ryan et al.
attributed these differences to the individualistic (emphasis placed on the individual) ver-
sus collectivistic (emphasis placed on the group) cultural values in these two countries.
More studies testing whether equity is important to assessing the relationship in other cul-
tures and the extent to which it affects these relationships should continue.

In addition to cultural values associated with one’s national culture, family culture also
might be investigated to determine how people develop their exchange orientation, the
importance of equity, how perceptions of equity develop, and to what extent they remain
stable over time. Just as Sprecher (1998) proposed that people develop different exchange
orientation, Stafford and Canary (2006) acknowledged such differences may affect the

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186 Denise M. Polk

contribution of equity to other outcomes. Although exchange (in theory) is universal, not
much is known about how exchange orientation develops and how it relates specifically to
perceptions and expectations for equity. Exchange factors may have weaker effects in socie-
ties where tradition and norms exert greater influence on how marital behaviors are enacted
(Stafford & Canary).

Finally, other orientations should be tested more comprehensively to help understand
equity better. Wilcox and Nock (2006) tested the companionate theory of marriage (that
egalitarianism leads to higher relationship quality) with two other models: (a) the institu-
tional model of marriage, which suggests women experience more marital happiness if they
are committed to it, if they belong to institutions that support it (e.g., church), and if they
share such sources with their husbands, and (b) the equity model. They found little support
for the companionate theory and instead found that men’s marital emotional work, gender
equity, and commitment to marriage were three very important factors in predicting mari-
tal happiness. This type of research involving comparing paradigms about fundamental
differences in appraising and conceptualizing marriage needs to continue. It helps syn-
thesize and refine aspects of models that may overlap in some areas rather than testing
competing theories in isolation of one another.

As outlined above, equity theory provides a way to understand several aspects about
interpersonal relationships. It can help explain the initiation, maintenance, and dissolution
of relationships. More specifically, it can be used to explain the behaviors that predict the
extent to which people think equity is important or perceive its existence. It also can be used
to show how it interacts with other variables or alone to affect relationship outcomes such
as satisfaction, commitment, and adjustment. The presence or absence of equity and its
relationship with power can help explain many other behaviors that occur within the rela-
tionship, such as the distribution of tasks, influence attempts, sexual behavior, and other
relationship behaviors. Given people’s general interest in having successful interpersonal
relationships, it is a useful framework for people to use to learn how to treat their relational
partners and how to gauge how their partners treat them. As long as people strive to achieve
that proverbial “golden rule” and do not get caught up in keeping constant score of the
input–outcome ratio, equity theory continues to help people strengthen their interpersonal

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Samuel and Hillary have just decided to move in together after dating for five years. While
they are highly committed to their relationship and each sees this move as a step toward
marriage, the move has run into a few stumbling blocks. The most difficult has been the
division of household chores, such as cooking, daily cleaning, and yard work. While they
agree on most chores, cooking and laundry are still areas of contention, since they require
a significant amount of time and energy and both partners work full-time.

Yolanda has been offered a new job with a rival firm that promises more money and
increased opportunity for advancement. However, Yolanda is committed to her current firm
and would like to stay if possible, and her old firm is also interested in retaining a valuable
and experienced employee. Yolanda and her old firm entered into negotiations with both
conflicting and corresponding interests, but in the end they are able to reach an agreement.

The preceding examples can be understood using the tenets of interdependence theory
originally proposed and developed by John Thibaut and Harold Kelley. A situation can be
defined as interdependent if two or more interacting actors have influence over the outcomes
of one another. The actors in an interdependent situation can be individuals, companies, or
even countries (Kelley & Thibaut, 1978; Thibaut & Kelley, 1959). For example, interdepend-
ence theory has been used to understand close relationships and workplace behavior, as
well as behavior in other relationships.

Interdependence theory employs the game theoretic tool of outcome matrices in order to
understand an actor’s available behavior choices and outcomes. The given matrix represents
the choices and outcomes that are available to the actors in a specific situation (Thibaut &
Kelley, 1959). For example, Samuel and Hillary have a number of choices in their specific situ-
ation: they could each choose to contribute toward completing the chores, Hillary could do all
chores, Samuel could do all chores, or neither of them could do the chores (Figure 8.1).

Kelley and Thibaut (1978), however, did not believe that actors make choices based solely on
the given matrix but through a transformation process in which the choices and preferences are


Interdependence in Social Interaction

Ann C. Rumble

Theories in Social Psychology, First Edition. Edited by Derek Chadee.
© 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published 2011 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

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192 Ann C. Rumble

adjusted based on alternative criteria (e.g., social norms, individual motives, etc.). Through this
transformational process, the effective matrix develops. The effective matrix takes into account
choices based on each actor’s preferences, for example, one choice that is available to Hillary
and Samuel is that neither of them does the chores, but since this is an unacceptable choice for
each of them, it is not present in the effective matrix (Figure 8.2) (Kelley & Thibaut).

Interdependence theory proposes to model many everyday interactions in order to
understand how individuals make choices and how both personal and social factors influ-
ence these choices and situations (Kelley & Thibaut, 1978; Thibaut & Kelley, 1959). In this
chapter, we will explore a number of important concepts related to interdependence theory.
First, we will examine how Thibaut and Kelley and others have developed basic tenets of
interdependence theory. In addition, we will explore the basic concepts and processes pro-
posed by interdependence theory, including an in-depth exploration of the transformation
from given to effective matrices. Following this description of interdependence theory, we
will focus on specific areas of research that have been influenced by the theory. Finally, we
will look at the criticisms and future directions of interdependence theory.

Development and Description of Interdependence Theory

John Thibaut and Harold Kelley met as graduate students at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology, where they were working with the Center for Group Dynamics headed by Kurt
Lewin, the father of social psychology. Kurt Lewin’s ideas had an impact on Thibaut and


Does chores Does not do chores


Each partner does 50% of

Hillary does all the chores


Does not
do chores

Samuel does all the chores No one does the chores

Figure 8.1 Given matrix for Samuel and Hillary.

Figure 8.2 Effective matrix for Samuel and Hillary.


Does chores Does not do chores


Each partner does 50% of

Hillary does all the chores


Does not
do chores Samuel does all the chores

Hire someone to do

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Interdependence in Social Interaction 193

Kelley’s work on interdependence theory, including the concept of interdependence and
derivation of the Lewin equation (Lewin, 1936). Lewin postulated that human behavior is
the result of the interaction between an individual and his/her characteristics and the social
context (B = f(Person, Environment) ). This basic assertion has guided social psychological
research for at least 60 years, and continues to inspire not just interdependence theorists,
but all social psychologists. Kelley and Thibaut, in Interpersonal Relations (1978), state that
the development of interdependence theory grew in part from Lewin’s early writing about
group dynamics. Lewin, in establishing group dynamics research, emphasized the intercon-
nected nature of group members and how changes that affect one part of a group influence
the whole.

The social psychology of groups (1959)

Thibaut and Kelley’s The Social Psychology of Groups, published in 1959, proposed core
ideas crucial to the understanding of interdependence theory, including the outcome matri-
ces, comparison levels, alternatives, dependence, and power. Given the importance of each of
these core ideas, we will spend some time exploring each one of them.

Outcome matrices. As mentioned earlier, Thibaut and Kelley (1959) utilized a classic
game theoretic tool, the outcome matrix, in order to understand human behavior in a
variety of situations. The outcome matrix, as used in economics and mathematics, repre-
sents the choices available to an individual in a given situation and the outcomes that
would be achieved by making each choice in that social situation. Most game theorists
using outcome matrices at that time (i.e., Nash, 1950; von Neumann & Morgenstern,
1944), postulated that outcomes were fixed and that an individual would make a decision
within a choice–outcome matrix to solely maximize his/her own outcomes. It was assumed
that no factors other than maximization of own outcome (or rational choice) would
guide human choice behavior. As social psychologists who had been exposed to Lewin’s
ideas about the interaction between the social context and the person, Thibaut and Kelley
used the outcome matrices as a tool to understand human behavior in a fundamentally
different manner. The outcome matrices proposed by Thibaut and Kelley incorporated
Lewin’s equation, specifically that elements of personality, and the social context, trans-
form choices in the given outcome matrix into the behavioral choices that each actor will
act on. Thus the outcome matrix became a dynamic tool in which to explore human

Thibaut and Kelley’s (1959) outcome matrices represented all of the potential behavioral
choices of two interacting individuals and the rewards and costs associated with each behav-
ioral choice combination. They assume the outcome matrix represents a transformed matrix
(i.e., the effective matrix) but do not discuss how this transformation occurs. They assume the
costs and rewards listed for each behavior combination for any given relationship are the result
of changes that occur based on factors both internal and external to the dyadic relationship.
They also proposed that costs and rewards were not purely material outcomes (i.e., money)
but could be more intangible, such as the reward of satisfaction or the cost of mental effort.

Internal factors that influence the costs and rewards present in the outcome matrix can
include an individual’s needs and values, along with abilities and personality characteristics

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194 Ann C. Rumble

(Thibaut & Kelley, 1959). For example, Yolanda, from our previous example, is committed
to her current company but would like more recognition for the work she does, or she may
choose to leave her current position for a job at another company that will pay more money.
But if her current company provides the recognition Yolanda desires (i.e., uses skills and
tools at its disposal), her job satisfaction will increase and she is more likely to stay at her
current company (Figure 8.3). While Yolanda’s rational choice in the situation may be to
accept the other company’s offer of more money, Thibaut and Kelley (1959) understood
that rewards and costs are not just objective but include the subjective experience of the
individual as well.

Comparison level. Part of that subjective experience is an individual’s assessment of the
outcomes received through a particular interaction. Thibaut and Kelley (1959) postulated
that each individual has an expectation about the level of outcome he/she deserves in a
given situation. The expectation of a particular level of outcomes, or comparison level, arises
through both personal experience and observing others in similar situations. For example,
if Yolanda’s friends who have similar positions have a supportive work environment with
on-site fitness and childcare centers, Yolanda will probably incorporate this into her own
expectations for her company, thus increasing her comparison level. In addition to propos-
ing a comparison level for expected outcomes for a particular relationship, Thibaut and
Kelley (1959) also developed the idea of a comparison level for alternatives. The comparison
level for alternatives (CL

) is the lowest set of outcomes an individual will accept in lieu of

alternative relationships. So for Yolanda, she will have developed a CL

for her current job
and available alternative positions, and if her expectations for rewards in her current job
drop below CL

she will probably seek employment elsewhere. Both CL and CL


dynamic and will adjust based on an individual’s expectations of outcomes, and can be used
to understand why people may stay at jobs they dislike or where they are not treated well by
their employer. For example, if Yolanda was underpaid and did not have the benefits avail-
able to her that others might have, she would still stay in her position if she did not believe
she had a chance for better employment (reducing her CL

). She may also stay if she was

unaware of the benefits available at other companies, thus reducing her CL. Despite the
dynamic nature of CL and CL

, once outcomes dropped below CL

, interdependence the-

ory predicts that an individual will leave that relationship (Figure 8.4). If outcomes are
below CL but above CL

, there is a chance the individual will leave the relationship but it is

Figure 8.3 Outcome matrix with personal needs taken into account.

Current company

Provides recognition Does not provide

Stays with

Yolanda’s job satisfaction
increases and company retains
valuable employee

Company retains valuable
employee but Yolanda
feels less satisfaction



Company does not retain
employee and Yolanda feels
more satisfaction

Neither Yolanda nor
company gain anything

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Interdependence in Social Interaction 195

just as likely the person will stay (Thibaut & Kelley, 1959). An
individual is most likely to stay in a relationship if the outcomes
received are above CL (see Figure 8.5 for a model of interde-
pendence theory as presented in The Social Psychology of

Dependence and power. As outcomes exceed an individual’s
CL, satisfaction with, and attraction to, dependence will
increase. One individual’s dependence on a relationship is
related to the other individual’s power in an interdependent
situation (Thibaut & Kelley, 1959). If we examined the relation-
ship between Samuel and Hillary, Samuel’s life has improved
greatly during his relationship with Hillary. He finds he is hap-
pier and more satisfied with his life, and Hillary provides him
with social support. Because of this increase in outcomes, which
has exceeded his CL, Samuel is now dependent on Hillary to
maintain his quality of life. This dependence means that Hillary

has the power to influence Samuel’s behavior during their interactions, since he is depend-
ent upon her for his outcomes.

One way in which Hillary can influence Samuel is through partner control (also called
fate control). Partner control means that Hillary can affect Samuel’s outcomes regardless of
what Samuel does during the interaction (Thibaut & Kelley, 1959). For example, if Samuel
cannot cook he will be completely dependent on Hillary for meals. No matter if Samuel cuts
the grass or does the dishes, he is completely dependent on Hillary for dinner (Figure 8.6).
If Hillary has partner control, she will seek to provide Samuel with what he desires but at a
low cost to herself.

In addition to partner control, Hillary can use joint control (also called behavioral con-
trol). By using joint control, Hillary can use her control of Samuel’s outcomes to change his
behavior (Thibaut & Kelley, 1959). If she prefers Samuel to do the dishes on a daily basis she
can cook a homemade dinner for him when he does the dishes, and microwave a frozen
store dinner for him when he does not do the dishes. Since Samuel would like to eat a
homemade dinner each night, he will then choose to do the dishes. Hillary will also have to
monitor and respond to Samuel’s behavior in order to maintain behavior control.

Situations, however, are interdependent, and rarely does one individual have either com-
plete partner or joint control over the other individual. Most instances are characterized by
mutual partner control (MPC) and mutual joint control (MJC) (Thibaut & Kelley, 1959). In
MJC, both individuals can influence the other’s outcomes, and potentially move toward a
mutually satisfying outcome. If we reexamine Hillary and Samuel’s situation understanding
MJC and how each of them influences the eventual outcomes of a given situation, we can
see that the most satisfying outcome for the couple is for Hillary to cook dinner and Samuel
to do the dishes (Figure 8.7). Hillary can influence Samuel’s behavior by choosing to make
or not make dinner, and Samuel can influence Hillary by either doing the dishes or not
doing the dishes.

The preceding situation for Hillary and Samuel typifies cooperative interdependence, in
which interacting partners’ outcomes are positively related (Thibaut & Kelley, 1959). But

Figure 8.4 Comparison-
level thermometer.












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196 Ann C. Rumble

there are other situations in which the interacting partners’ outcomes are negatively related,
exemplifying competitive interdependence (Figure 8.8). A situation could occur in which
Hillary does not want to cook one evening after a busy day at work and her preference is to
eat out at a restaurant, but Samuel’s preference is to eat at home, since he also had a busy
day at work. Their preference is to eat together, so Hillary going out alone or Samuel eating
at home alone are not viable options. But if one gets what he or she wants, the other does
not, and vice versa. In these situations norms for behavior are usually developed, so that the
interacting partners in the long run receive maximal outcomes even if in the short term
they do not receive their preferred outcome (Thibaut & Kelley, 1959).

Figure 8.5 The social psychology of groups: interdependence theory.



needs, and






Figure 8.6 Hillary’s partner control.


Cuts the grass Does dishes

dinner Samuel eats Samuel eats

Hillary Does not

Samuel does not eat Samuel does not eat

Figure 8.7 Hillary and Samuel’s mutual behavior control.


Does dishes Does not do dishes


Dishes are done, dinner is

Dishes not done, dinner is

Does not

Dishes are done but no

No dishes are done, no dinner

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Interdependence in Social Interaction 197

Norms. In interdependent relationships that last longer than one encounter, members
must develop guidelines for behavior (Thibaut & Kelley, 1959). These guidelines are par-
ticularly important in competitive or noncorrespondent situations, since the temptation to
act noncooperatively or cause conflict exists. These guidelines, or norms, provide the inter-
acting members with rules for how to behave in a given situation. For example, if we revisit
the situation illustrated by Figure 8.7, Hillary and Samuel could develop a norm in which
on even-numbered days they do what Hillary prefers and on odd-numbered days they do
what Samuel prefers. Norms, while often unspoken internal guides for behavior, are recog-
nizable to the outside observer. The characteristics that define a norm include that an
observer should be able to discern a regular pattern of behavior based on the norm amongst
the interacting individuals (Thibaut & Kelley, 1959). In addition, if a norm is violated, the
interaction partners can use their power to influence the norm violator to change his/her
behavior to match the norm. Finally, the norm violator usually will feel guilt or an obliga-
tion to repair the harm done by violating the norm. Norms are used by interacting partners
and are particularly important in interdependent situations, because they can control
behavior with little or no cost, and they can reduce conflict and uncertainty in interactions
(Thibaut & Kelley, 1959).

Tasks. Most of the situations involving interdependent individuals involve a task of some
variety (e.g., a problem or chore) that, when completed, provides individuals with a given
outcome. Interdependent tasks typically have two defining characteristics, type of task and
pattern of outcomes available (Thibaut & Kelley, 1959). A task can be either disjunctive or
conjunctive. A disjunctive task requires any one or all members of an interdependent group
to choose the needed response. For example, if a couple wants to go out to dinner at an
exclusive restaurant, only one member needs to make the dinner reservation but no harm
is done if both call to make the reservation. As long as there are no costs for acting, this task
is relatively simple for the interdependent group to complete. The other type of task is a
conjunctive task in which each member of the interdependent group must choose the
needed response in order to complete the task. If a couple of friends decide to have a dinner
party, each individual needs to make a unique contribution in order for the party to be a
success. The other dimension of tasks is whether the outcomes in a given situation are cor-
respondent or noncorrespondent (Thibaut & Kelley, 1959). Correspondence implies the
behaviors that produce the highest outcomes for one individual will also produce high
outcomes for the other individual in the situation. Noncorrespondence of outcomes means
that the behaviors that produce the highest outcomes for each person are not the same. For

Figure 8.8 Competitive interdependence.

Eat dinner at home Eat dinner at restaurant

dinner Samuel’s preference

No one’s preference

Eat dinner

No one’s preference Hillary’s preference

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198 Ann C. Rumble

example, if Samuel and Hillary have the choice to have chicken or fish for dinner and they
both prefer chicken over fish so Hillary cooks chicken for dinner, this is a correspondent
situation. However, if Samuel prefers fish and Hillary prefers chicken, this is a noncorre-
spondent situation. In noncorrespondent situations, different behavioral choices are neces-
sary to develop a long-term stable interaction.

Summary. Thibaut and Kelley (1959), in the Social Psychology of Groups, introduced
interdependence theory and a number of key components of the theory. The use of
outcome matrices to understand how human interactions are shaped by both the social
environment and the individuals’ characteristics and preferences was a novel and useful
approach to the problem. In addition, the inclusion of how comparisons to others and
to their own desired outcomes could shape both decision to stay or leave an interaction,
and the sources of power, may shape future outcomes if they do choose to stay. In the
years following the publication of The Social Psychology of Groups, interdependence
theory received some attention from psychologists interested in social value orienta-
tions. Specifically, there was interest in how cooperative or competitive an individual
is during a given interdependent situation, and how that may influence the out-
come matrix. This work in turn influenced Thibaut and Kelley in their iteration of
interdependence theory presented in the book Interpersonal Relations: A Theory of

Interpersonal Relations: A Theory of Interdependence (1978)

Kelley and Thibaut published Interpersonal Relations in 1978, almost 20 years after the pub-
lication of their first book on interdependence theory. During the time between the publi-
cation of the two books, Kelley and Thibaut worked individually on a number of research
problems related to interdependence theory, including Thibaut’s research on justice, fair-
ness, and the use of power (see Thibaut & Gruber, 1969; Friedland, Thibaut, & Walker, 1973,
for examples), and Kelley’s work on attributions (Kelley, 1967, 1973) and mixed-motive
interactions (Kelley & Stahelski, 1970). The influence of this work is evident in the develop-
ment of interdependence theory as presented in Interpersonal Relations.

Kelley and Thibaut (1978) published Interpersonal Relations in order to expand and
refine a number of the concepts and ideas presented in their previous book. One major
extension was to create a distinction between the given and the effective matrix and to
explore the transformation from the given to the effective matrix. They also expanded
the possible avenues of control and power to include actor control (also called reflexive
control) – how an individual’s own actions and preferences influence his/her behavior.
Finally, they considered how attributions and self-presentation help interdependent indi-
viduals navigate the social landscape, including the given and effective matrices and the
transformation that takes place between them (see Figure 8.9 for a diagram of interdepend-
ence according to Interpersonal Relations).

Extension of control. In The Social Psychology of Groups, Thibaut and Kelley (1959) proposed
two forms of control, partner and joint control, each of which has implications for the inter-
dependence of individuals. In fact, it is through the assessment of one another’s actions and
the results of the interaction that we define interdependence. A situation will only be defined

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Interdependence in Social Interaction 199

as interdependent if either partner or joint-control individuals have the power to give
desired outcomes or withdraw desired outcomes from the other individual. Interdependence
requires some reliance on one another for rewards. A situation in which only one member
is dependent on the other for desirable outcomes is not interdependence, but unilateral
dependence, and is likely to be a less stable relationship.

In Interpersonal Relations, Kelley and Thibaut (1978) introduce the concept of actor con-
trol. Actor control refers to how an individual views his/her own behavior in a situation and
the outcomes it produces, and to the extent his/her own behavior can be varied to control
potential outcomes. Actor control is another way in which individual preferences can be
modeled and understood in terms of outcome matrices. Bilateral actor control (BAC) dem-
onstrates the individual preferences for behavior for each member of the interdependent
group (Kelley & Thibaut, 1978). In the example of Yolanda’s negotiation with her company,
she has the choice to take on more tasks or to maintain her current set of tasks, while the
company decides whether or not to increase her salary. Yolanda prefers to maintain her cur-
rent level of tasks with a pay raise, while her company prefers her to increase the number of
tasks at the same salary (Figure 8.10). But she also prefers receiving a raise over not receiv-
ing a raise, regardless of work level, and the company prefers more work to less work,
regardless of cost.

Figure 8.9 Interpersonal relations: interdependence theory.




needs, and values








Figure 8.10 Bilateral actor control.

Current company

Increases salary – C1 Maintains Salary – C2

Takes on
tasks – Y1

Yolanda’s lowest
company’s highest

current set of
tasks – Y2

Yolanda’s highest
company’s lowest

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200 Ann C. Rumble

But interdependent individuals do not and cannot make choices based on their own
preferences. The nature of the interdependent relationship means they must take into
account the other individual. For example, the company may exert partner control, and no
matter what Yolanda does her salary will be maintained. Yolanda can also exert partner
control, by maintaining her workload. Yolanda and the company can also influence one
another’s behavior through joint control, by the company only paying Yolanda more if she
works more, and Yolanda only working more if she is paid more. So by understanding BAC
in conjunction with matrices demonstrating MPC and MJC, a model of an interdependent
situation can be developed, in which we can predict behavior for the situation based on the
combination of behaviors that produce the highest mutual outcomes (Figure 8.11) (Kelley
& Thibaut, 1978). Given this set of outcomes it is most likely the company will give Yolanda
a raise, and Yolanda will increase her workload. In modeling interdependent situations, the
use of outcome matrices and an understanding of the different sources of control can pro-
vide us with a tool to both understand and predict behavior within interdependent situa-
tions, whether it is the given or the effective matrix.

Transformation of given to effective matrix. The transformation process from given to
effective matrix is one of the most important contributions made by Kelley and Thibaut
(1978) in Interpersonal Relations. In their previous work (1959), they made assumptions
about the process and the matrix that individuals acted upon. In Interpersonal Relations,
they specify the difference between given and effective matrices and how one is transformed
into the other.

The given matrix represents the outcomes available to an individual, in light of his/her
own skills and needs, what is provided by the social context, and his/her previous history
with the outcomes present in the matrix. For example, during the annual meeting with
shareholders the company Yolanda works for is given the mandate to increase profits by
whatever means necessary. One option available to the company is to reduce the salaries
and benefits of its workers (Figure 8.12). This option, while attractive at a basic level to the

Figure 8.11 Interdependent situation.

BAC + MPC + Interdependent situation

C1C2 C1C2 C1C2 C1C2

–y,+c +c Highest outcomesY1

Y2 +y,–c –y,–c +y,+c


+y,–c –y,–c Lowest outcomes





Figure 8.12 Given matrix.

Current company

Increase benefits Decrease benefits

Take over as

Most preferred by company

Remain in
same position

Least preferred by


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Interdependence in Social Interaction 201

company, is not likely to be directly acted upon. In its place, the matrix will be transformed
and an effective matrix will be developed.

The process through which the given matrix is transformed into the effective matrix
accounts for contingencies specific both to each individual in the relationship and to the
particular interdependent relationship (Kelley & Thibaut, 1978). Each individual in an
interdependent relationship is reliant upon his/her own cognitive processes, motivations,
and emotion in the situation to transform the given matrix into the effective matrix. Yolanda,
for example, through her knowledge of the company and understanding of the situation
with the shareholders, may be more willing to reduce her outcomes temporarily. Yolanda
has in effect reduced the value of a raise, which constitutes a transformation (Figure 8.13).

Relationship-based considerations may include behaviors that impact the long-term
continuation of the relationship (Kelley & Thibaut, 1978). Highly self-orientated behaviors
may be detrimental to the long-term continuation of a relationship. While self-interest dic-
tates that the company reduce the salaries of its employees, the company is also aware that
a reduction of salaries may lead to valuable employees growing dissatisfied and leaving.

Kelley and Thibaut (1978) also suggest that value orientations are one way in which given
matrices are transformed. Specifically, they distinguish between four different orientations:
maximize own outcomes, maximize other’s outcomes, maximize own and other outcomes,
and minimize difference between own and other outcomes. Each of these orientations sig-
nifies a rule by which an interdependent other may transform the given matrix. For exam-
ple, if Yolanda’s orientation was to maximize own and other’s outcomes, she may be inclined
to work very hard to raise profits for the company and at the same time seek a raise for
herself. If Yolanda was only interested in her own outcome for the situation, she would
bargain for a raise without a work increase; or the reverse, if she wants to maximize the
company’s outcomes, then she will increase her work with no raise. Finally, Yolanda could
work to make sure that there is not a large difference between her own gain and the com-
pany’s gain, she would increase her work in proportion to the raise. Thus, the interdepend-
ent partner establishes a heuristic or rule for how they will transform the given matrix into
the effective matrix.

The transformation process is influenced by both individual- and relationship-level con-
siderations, and represents movement away from the given situation to the effective situa-
tion. Individuals during the transformation process also take into consideration how they
believe the other individual will act, and why they will act in this manner.

Self-presentation and attributions. Kelley and Thibaut, drawing on Kelley’s interest in
attributions, stressed the importance of both self-presentation and attributional processes
in an individual’s understanding of the interdependent situation. In order for an individual

Figure 8.13 Transformation process.


Yolanda Most


Yolanda Least


Transformation process




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202 Ann C. Rumble

to understand any interdependent interaction, an understanding of the other individual is
important. Without this understanding, misunderstandings and mistakes are more likely.
Unfortunately, most of the time in interdependent situations individuals must rely on indi-
rect methods of communicating and discovering intent.

An individual can communicate intent of behavior by using a rule to transform the given
matrix that signals their intentions. If an individual wants to signal concern for the other
person, then he/she will use the maximize other rule to transform the matrix (Kelley &
Thibaut, 1978). So through the use of different rules or a combination of rules to transform
the given matrix, an individual can manage his/her self-presentation during the interaction.

Just as important to self-presentation is the interpretation of intention and behaviors by the
other. Individuals use attributions to understand the behaviors of others, and their underlying
intent. Attribution thus helps an individual make choices for his/her own behavior, based on
the perceived intentions of the other individual (Kelley & Thibaut, 1978). If negative intent is
perceived then the individual may use the maximize own rule. However, if positive intent is
perceived then that individual may use the maximize own and other rule. Thus, both attribu-
tions and self-presentation are key components of any interdependent interaction.

Summary. Kelley and Thibaut (1978) continued to improve and develop interdependence
theory in meaningful ways in Interpersonal Relations. The concept that has had the greatest
influence on a number of fields is the transformational process. The transformation process in
subsequent years has been used to understand close relationships (see “Application,” below),
cooperative choice behavior, and other interdependent situations. In particular, An Atlas of
Interpersonal Situations (Kelley et al., 2003) was written with the intention of providing a tax-
onomy of situations modeled on interdependence theory. The authors examined a number of
situations in which outcomes were correspondent or noncorrespondent, and when partner,
actor, and joint control are variable. The publication of the Atlas represents an innovative way in
which to use the tenets of interdependence theory to model most interdependent situations.

Application of Interdependence Theory

Since Kelley and Thibaut developed interdependence theory, it has been used to understand
a variety of interdependent relationships. The field of social dilemmas is a multidisciplinary
field in which economists, political scientists, and psychologists try to discover what drives
cooperative choice behavior in interdependent situations. Social dilemma researchers use
interdependence theory to understand why people make cooperative or noncooperative
decisions when their self-interest may be in conflict with long-term and relationship-
specific goals. But close relationship researchers have been most prolific in applying inter-
dependence theory to their research questions.

Investment model

The investment model was developed in the 1980s by Rusbult, based on the tenets of inter-
dependence theory, and it has been demonstrated to be predictive in both dating and marital
relationships, and has even been successfully applied to workplace relations. The investment

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Interdependence in Social Interaction 203

model specifies how satisfaction with outcomes influences levels of commitment to the
relationship, which ultimately affects whether or not a person chooses to stay or leave the
relationship (Rusbult, 1983).

Satisfaction and commitment. Rusbult (1980) conceptualizes satisfaction as a product of
high positive outcomes from a relationship, such as happiness, increased social support and
companionship, and low negative outcomes such as sadness, harm, and isolation. Satisfaction
will also increase based on the degree to which an individual’s CL is exceeded. So if Samuel is
able to obtain the positive outcomes he expects from moving in with Hillary, he is more likely
to be satisfied with the decision to move in together and with the relationship in general. As
mentioned earlier, as positive outcomes exceed, CL dependence on a relationship will increase.
The investment model postulates that this translates into increased commitment.

Commitment is the desire for a relationship to continue because of the satisfaction with
the outcomes available within that particular relationship (Rusbult, 1980). In Rusbult’s
investment model (1983), commitment will increase if satisfaction with outcomes is high,
and prospective alternative relationships or being alone are considered less than desirable.
Commitment is also the result of investment in a particular relationship. Investments that
individuals make in their close relationships include the time and energy invested in main-
taining the relationship, and even monetary investment (Rusbult, 1983). Hillary’s commit-
ment to Samuel increases when some of her important needs are satisfied by the relationship,
such as need for companionship and social support. In addition, as alternatives to a rela-
tionship with Samuel, such as a new boyfriend, or living alone, appear unattractive, her
commitment level will increase. And as Hillary invests in her relationship with Samuel, such
as by buying a house together, or expending energy in maintaining the relationship, she will
also increase her commitment level. An individual’s level of commitment and satisfaction
in a given relationship will have an impact on two important interdependent processes:
deciding to stay or leave a relationship, and how to transform the given matrix.

Stay/leave decisions. Drigotas and Rusbult (1992) developed a predictive model of stay or
leave decisions that is based on satisfaction with the fulfillment of personal needs within the
relationship. The dependence model of breakups does provide researchers with a better
understanding of when and why individuals will leave a relationship (Drigotas & Rusbult,
1992). If Hillary’s need for social support is not met in her current relationship with Samuel,
the chances of her deciding to leave the relationship will increase. But Hillary’s chances of
choosing to leave the relationship will increase again if she can fulfill that need in alternative
relationships in a way that will then exceed her CL. If Hillary has multiple needs not satis-
fied in her current relationship, and can be satisfied above CL by being either alone or with
someone else, she will probably leave Samuel.

Accommodation Processes and Sacrifice

In general, relationship partners who are committed to their relationship want good out-
comes both for themselves and for their relationship partner, but this is not always possible
(Rusbult, Verette, Whitney, Slovik, & Lipkus, 1991). Often within close relationships one of
the partners does something that upsets or produces negative outcomes for the other

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204 Ann C. Rumble

partner. When this happens the individual harmed by the behavior has a choice either to
respond in kind or to act in a more generous manner (Rusbult et al., 1991). In terms of
interdependence theory, the given matrix that is available to the harmed partner has been
adversely influenced by his/her partner’s actions, and the partner then has a choice to react
based on self-interested concerns or transform the matrix and take into consideration the
relationship and long-term interests (Kelley & Thibaut, 1978). Research by Rusbult, Johnson,
and Morrow (1986) and Drigotas and Rusbult (1992) has demonstrated that the harmed
individual has a number of behavioral choices, including: Exit, by either leaving the rela-
tionship or acting in a destructive manner toward the partner; Voice, by seeking solutions
through discussions with the other partner, friends, and family; Loyalty, by supporting the
partner and the relationship, enduring reduced outcomes until change occurs; and finally,
Neglect, by ignoring partner or relationship, not engaging in relationship maintenance

If an individual suffers a reduction in outcome at the hands of the relationship partner,
he/she is left with a decision to act in either a positive or negative manner (Rusbult et al.,
1991). The decision will be influenced by a number of individual- and relationship-based
factors, for example, if an individual is more self-centered he/she may be more likely to
react in a negative manner. A person for whom the relationship is very important to his/her
well-being and life satisfaction is more likely to respond in a positive manner to the partner.
Commitment also plays an important role in promoting positive behavior which will, over
the long term, help as opposed to hurt the relationship (Rusbult et al., 1991). So individuals
can either choose to recover from an indiscretion by their partner by transforming the
matrix based on the long-term relationship goals, or act in a destructive manner that serves
their own self-interest.

But occasionally in relationships, two partners face a situation in which no one has done
anything to reduce the outcomes of the other; they just disagree about how to make a par-
ticular decision (Van Lange et al., 1997). Often in these circumstances, the partners’ out-
comes for a situation are noncorrespondent, which can lead to more competitive and
conflictual behaviors. If, however, they wish to continue their relationship and make sure that
mutual interests are maintained in the long term, one partner may need to give up his or her
outcomes for both the good of the other partner and the relationship. Van Lange and col-
leagues (1997) have demonstrated that more committed couples are willing to sacrifice self-
interest for the good of the partner and the relationship in noncorrespondent situations.

Why Individuals Remain in Abusive Relationships

Physical and mental abuse in close relationships is a societal problem which impacts families,
the workplace, and society at large. Often individuals who work with abused women are
frustrated when a woman chooses to return to a clearly unhealthy situation. The statistics
demonstrate that at least half of the women who go to a domestic violence shelter will return
to the abusive relationship, usually for economic and social support reasons (AADV, 2004).
Rusbult and Martz (1995) found, using the tenets of interdependence theory and the invest-
ment model, that women will remain in an abusive relationship as a result of high com-
mitment and investment to the relationship, and perceived inferior alternatives outside of

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Interdependence in Social Interaction 205

the relationship. Even though satisfaction is low amongst abused women who remain in their
relationships, their level of commitment to the relationship is high, due in part to their per-
ceived alternatives. In their survey Rusbult and Martz (1995) found that in general women in
violent relationships who remained in the relationship were likely to perceive their alterna-
tives inferior to their current relationship. Women who stay in abusive relationships are also
more likely to attribute abusive behavior to benign causes, such as, “he didn’t mean to hit me,
he had too much to drink” or “he was only doing what he felt was right.” Finally, women were
more likely to stay if they had a higher investment in the relationship, either monetarily,
shared house or income, or energy, or number of years in the relationship. Understanding
the dynamics between commitment, quality of alternatives outside the abusive relationship,
and investment, may in turn help individuals who work with abused women to help to end
destructive relationships. For example, if a domestic violence shelter is able to work with a
woman to provide adequate housing and financial assistance, a more attractive alternative
could increase the chance of the woman leaving the violent relationship.


Interdependence theory has been successfully applied to a number of fields in psychology,
but none as fruitful as the issues surrounding close relationships. Rusbult and colleagues
(Rusbult 1980, 1983, 1986; Rusbult & Martz, 1995; Van Lange et al., 1997; Wieselquist,
Rusbult, Foster, and Agnew, 1999) demonstrated that Kelley and Thibaut’s conceptual
understanding of interdependent interactions has value in understanding both functional
and dysfunctional close relationships.

Future Directions of Interdependence Theory

Kelley and Thibaut’s theory of interdependence since 1959 has been demonstrated to be valu-
able in understanding a wide variety of interdependent situations. Both Kelley and Thibaut
were very active in promoting and continuing to develop and explore the tenets of interde-
pendence theory beyond the 1959 and 1978 books. Unfortunately, John Thibaut passed away
in 1986, and with him one of social psychology’s most productive collaborations also ended.

Harold Kelley continued to explore issues concerning interdependence, most particu-
larly the function of time and movement through interdependent situations. He went on to
publish two papers on the topic of transition lists, which models this process. Transition
lists were designed to extend outcome matrices to model movement between and within
interactions (see Kelley, 1984, 1997, for a complete description of transition lists). Specifically,
they add to an outcome matrix a consideration of what will occur after individuals have
made their behavioral choices. So following Samuel’s choice to do the dishes on Tuesday
night and Hillary’s decision to not make dinner, how do these decisions shape the outcome
matrices for Wednesday night? Maybe the matrix will be adjusted such that Samuel will not
show any preference for doing the dishes, and a new choice of going out for dinner will
emerge. Unfortunately, Kelley’s work on transition lists, while conceptually appealing, has
been difficult to translate into experimental analysis.

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206 Ann C. Rumble

The last contribution Kelley made to interdependence theory was An Atlas of
Interpersonal Situations, published a few weeks before his death in 2003. Kelley and his co-
authors’ goal for the Atlas was not to expand on interdependence theory but to demonstrate
how many of the core concepts of interdependence theory could be used to understand any
number of different interdependent situations. For example, situations that varied in the
amount of actor, partner, and joint control were mapped onto an interdependent space in
which all interdependent relationships were represented. To date, although the Atlas has been
underused by researchers to understand the variety of interdependent relationships, it is still
likely to have a lasting impact on social psychology, just as The Social Psychology of Groups
and Interpersonal Relations continue to have an impact on a variety of research questions.

Finally, the application of interdependence theory in understanding human behavior in
both social dilemma and close relationships is likely to continue. Social dilemma research-
ers continue to explore the social value orientations (maximize own, etc.) that can guide the
transformation process from given to effective matrix. Van Lange, Bekkers, Schuyt, and Van
Vugt (2007) examined the impact of social value orientations on donations to needy organ-
izations. They found that social value orientations can be helpful in predicting donations to
a variety of charities, specifically that individuals who were more inclined to use the maxi-
mize own and other’s outcomes heuristic donated more money than individuals whose
heuristic was maximize own outcome.

The fruitful and influential research of Caryl Rusbult and colleagues continues to impact
close relationship researchers. For example, a recent paper by Kumashiro, Rusbult, and
Finkel (2008) explored how an equilibrium might exist for relational and personal concerns.
Kumashiro and colleagues propose that individuals are inclined to have a balance between
own preferences being satisfied and relationship preferences being satisfied. This is easier to
achieve when own and relationship-based preferences are in accordance, but, in situations
in which a person must choose, an imbalance can take place. The researchers showed that
when the disequilibrium occurs an individual’s motivation to satisfy the advantaged prefer-
ence would be reduced. If Hillary had made numerous sacrifices to satisfy her desire to
maintain her relationship with Samuel to the neglect of her own needs and desires, she is
more likely to not sacrifice in the future interactions in order to restore the equilibrium.


Thibaut and Kelley’s intellectual legacy, interdependence theory, has influenced a wide variety
of social psychologists since 1959. The use of outcome matrices to model human interactions
remains a particularly valuable tool to social psychologists interested in human interactions.
In addition, being able to include considerations beyond self-interest in understanding why a
person would make a particular behavioral choice has been vital to understanding social
dilemma and close relationship behaviors. It is anticipated that interdependence theory will
continue to influence researchers who are interested in human interactions, at both the
micro-level (close relationships) and macro-level (international negotiations). So, despite the
passing of both Thibaut and Kelley, there are social psychologists who remain actively involved
in exploring and developing the tenets of interdependence theory.

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Interdependence in Social Interaction 207

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Part IV


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Social identity processes are at the heart of social psychological theory and research, and are
known to play a pivotal role in a vast array of individual- level and social phenomena,
including, for example, health and well-being (see, e.g., Branscombe, Schmitt, & Harvey,
1999), educational achievement (e.g., Steele, Spencer, & Aronson, 2002), and collective
action and crowd behavior (see, e.g., van Zomeren, Postmes, & Spears, 2008).

This chapter provides a general overview of social psychological theory on social identity,
including social identity theory (Tajfel, 1978; Tajfel & Turner, 1979) and self- categorization
theory (Turner, Hogg, Oakes, Reicher, & Wetherell, 1987). Prior to these seminal writings of
Tajfel and Turner, theoretical explanations of intergroup relations and intergroup conflict
were dominated by two types of theory. First, so- called “prejudice” accounts proposed that
intergroup conflict arises due to individual- level variations in a prejudiced personality.
Second, realistic group conflict theory (Campbell, 1965; Sherif, 1966) contended that nega-
tive intergroup relations are a consequence of conflicting group goals and a competition
over resources or power (see, e.g., Jackson, 1993, for a review). Compared with these types of
theory, social identity theory and self- categorization theory offered a unique and theoreti-
cally advanced account explaining intergroup relations, and one that remains important to
this day. In fact, these two linked theoretical approaches constitute the most popular social-
psychological approach to intergroup relations (yielding over 2.2 million and 7,910 entries
in Google Scholar, respectively).

Yet instead of focusing solely on a detailed description of these two accounts, this chapter
takes a somewhat more encompassing approach to portraying what is commonly referred
to as the social identity perspective (Abrams & Hogg, in press). We thus also pay particular
attention to defining the concept of social identity, and consider the consequences of social
identity phenomena for intergroup relations, above and beyond the predictions of social
identity theory, taking into consideration the extent to which multiple categorization proc-
esses help explain intergroup relations.


Self-Categorization and Social
Identification: Making Sense of Us
and Them
Katharina Schmid, Miles Hewstone,
and Ananthi Al Ramiah

Theories in Social Psychology, First Edition. Edited by Derek Chadee.
© 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published 2011 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

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212 Katharina Schmid, Miles Hewstone, and Ananthi Al Ramiah

This chapter is organized into four parts, the first two of which conceptually define
self- categorization and social identification, whereas the latter two examine the extent to
which self- categorization and social identification are involved in, and help explain,
intergroup relations. Part one provides a brief definition of self- categorization and
describes the theoretical foundations of self- categorization theory. We describe in detail
what is meant by self- categorization, and how, why, and when individuals make use of
social categories. In part two, we define social identification as a psychological process
associated with group membership and explain that identification is a multidimensional
phenomenon. Part three presents a detailed description of social identity theory, with
reference to the findings that emerged from the minimal group paradigm. We thus
address, with reference to the predictions of social identity theory, the extent to which
self- categorization and social identification are related to intergroup attitudes and
behavior. Finally, part four is devoted to an overview of multiple categorization and its
consequences for intergroup relations, showing how more complex consideration of
others and oneself in terms of multiple group memberships is associated with tolerance
and improved intergroup relations. We end by drawing general conclusions and discuss-
ing the implications of the social identity perspective for shaping understanding of
intergroup relations.

Self- Categorization Theory

Def ining self- categorization

The social identity perspective, encompassing both self- categorization theory (Turner
et al., 1987) and social identity theory (Tajfel, 1978; Tajfel & Turner, 1979), acknowledges
that individuals tend to categorize their social world into discrete social categories.
Naturally, individuals will be members of some of these social categories, and not members
of others, which then may prompt individuals’ definition of self and others as ingroup
(“us”) or outgroup (“they”). Self- categorization may thus be defined as cognitive self-
placing in a collective category. It defines membership in social groups, some of which are
assigned (e.g., gender), others chosen (e.g., profession). What is important, however, is that
category membership needs to be subjectively confirmed by the individual (Deaux, 1996;
Simon & Klandermans, 2001). Unless the individual subjectively self- defines, i.e., self-
categorizes, as part of a collective group, a discussion of either intra- or intergroup proc-
esses becomes irrelevant.

Self- categorization theory rests further on the premise that there is a distinction between
personal and social identity.1 Personal identity relates primarily to one’s unique and per-
sonal sense of self as an individual, with unique traits and characteristics, while social iden-
tity refers to one’s sense of identity as a member of a collective group with characteristics
and commonalities that are shared with other members of the group (Turner, Oakes,
Haslam, & McGarty, 1994). Analogously, one may assume a similar distinction between
interpersonal behavior, such as interaction between friends, and intergroup behavior, such
as interactions between football fans supporting two different teams. It is important to keep

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Self-Categorization and Social Identification 213

in mind, however, that both self- perception and social behavior are thought to vary along a
continuum from purely interpersonal to purely intergroup properties (Tajfel, 1978; Turner,
1982). Self- categorization theory (e.g., Turner et al., 1987) thus argues that the self can be
conceived on a number of levels of inclusiveness (e.g., me as an individual; me as a group
member; me as a human being). The level at which the self is defined determines how one
relates to others, including members of the same group. In so doing, the theory addresses
self- as well as other- stereotyping, and ingroup- and outgroup- stereotyping, and empha-
sizes that individuals ascribe to themselves characteristics associated with their ingroup. In
principle, self- categorization thus develops the earlier social identity perspective which we
attend to at a later point in this chapter.

When and why do people self- categorize?

What determines self- categorization? According to self- categorization theory, whether an
individual categorizes in terms of a collective category is contingent upon the salience of
the given category (Turner, 1999; Turner et al., 1987).2 Salience is conceptualized as the
degree to which a person self- defines as a member of a social category (Oakes, 1987), and
the extent to which group members perceive similarities between themselves and other
members of their own group, and dissimilarities from members of other groups (Turner,
1999). Moreover, self- categorization is intrinsically linked to the extent to which a particu-
lar social category becomes psychologically activated (Veenstra & Haslam, 2000).
Psychological activation of a category depends largely on the degree to which a particular
social category becomes cognitively accessible to an individual, and on the individual’s
perceptions of the “fit” of the category (Oakes, 1987). Accessibility depends on the indi-
vidual’s immediate social context (situational accessibility), as well as the extent to which
an individual habitually makes use of a particular social identity across a range of situa-
tions (chronic accessibility) (Oakes, 1987). For example, a female student’s gender cate-
gory may become psychologically activated if she finds herself in a room full of male
students (high situational accessibility), yet in a room full of female students it may not
(low situational accessibility). An example of chronic accessibility would be if the same
student’s gender identity is psychologically activated relatively frequently (e.g., because
she is part of a women’s rights group which makes her much more aware of, and think
more frequently about, her gender identity).

Psychological activation of a social category is also dependent on perceptions of fit,
whereby a distinction is made between comparative fit and normative fit. Comparative fit
rests upon the principle of meta- contrast and concerns the perceived differences between
ingroup and outgroup. For self- categorization in terms of a particular category to occur,
the individual must perceive greater similarity between self and own- group members than
between self and outgroup members, in a given social context (the so- called “meta- contrast
ratio”). In other words, the smaller the perceived differences between group members
within a group and the greater the perceived differences between one’s own group and a
comparative outgroup, the greater the likelihood that an individual will categorize in
terms of one’s own group, the ingroup (Turner et al., 1994). Normative fit concerns the
extent to which these perceived differences correspond to expected and normative

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214 Katharina Schmid, Miles Hewstone, and Ananthi Al Ramiah

differences in meaning (Haslam, Oakes, Reynolds, & Turner, 1999; Oakes, Turner, &
Haslam, 1991; Veenstra & Haslam, 2000). Specifically, one’s own group (the ingroup) and
the comparative other group (the outgroup) must be perceived in terms of one’s norma-
tive and stereotypical beliefs about the differences between them (Oakes, 1987). For exam-
ple, imagine a hypothetical situation in which a group of male and female students are
asked to join either the university’s soccer team or its field hockey team. Imagine then also
that all males opt for the former, while all females choose the latter. In this hypothetical
situation, the two comparative groups show high ingroup, yet low intergroup similarity
(comparative fit), and also conform to the expected norm in terms of their attitudes and
behavior (normative fit).

Psychological activation of social categories sets in motion a process of depersonalization,
as a consequence of which individuals may perceive themselves as interchangeable repre-
sentatives of their group (Turner et al., 1994). The individual cognitively aligns with the
ingroup prototype, and a shift from personal to group- based perceptions and behavior
occurs, causing them to internalize the group into their psyche and to incorporate the group
into the self (Smith & Henry, 1996). It is this that explains how individuals may actually
come to think and act in terms of their group identity (e.g., Haslam, Oakes, Turner, &
McGarty, 1996; Haslam, Turner, Oakes, McGarty, & Reynolds, 1998), often even to the
exclusion of their personal identity. Moreover, social psychological accounts of social iden-
tity emphasize that individuals can derive meaning from their social group memberships,
i.e., that they are able to identify with the social groups they belong to. Categorization may
thus be thought of as a precondition for social identification.

Social Identification

Def ining social identification

Social identification varies from individual to individual, and from situation to situation,
reflecting the extent to which group membership is incorporated into individuals’ self-
concept (e.g., Branscombe & Wann, 1994; Waddell & Cairns, 1986). In its simplest defini-
tion, social identification denotes that a given individual perceives his or her group, and his
or her membership thereof, in some form or other as meaningful, desired, and important.
Social identification is, in essence, a summary term that is commonly invoked to refer to a
complex, multifaceted set of processes underlying group membership (Deaux, 1996).
Moreover, any definition of social identification immediately becomes overshadowed by its
conceptualization as a multidimensional phenomenon. For example, Henri Tajfel, in his
writings which led to the formulation of social identity theory (Tajfel, 1978; Tajfel & Turner,
1979, 1986), defined social identity as “that part of an individual’s self- concept which derives
from his knowledge of his membership in a social group (or groups) together with the value
and emotional significance attached to that group membership” (Tajfel, 1981, p. 255).

This early definition implies that social identification consists of a cognitive element
(self- categorization), as well as an evaluative component (the degree to which a person
evaluates a group in positive or negative terms), and an affective component (the extent to

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Self-Categorization and Social Identification 215

which a person feels emotionally tied to a group) (see also Ellemers, Kortekaas, & Ouwerkerk,
1999; Jackson, 2002; Phinney, 1990). More recent definitions of social identity include addi-
tional dimensions (e.g., Cameron, 2004; Deaux, 1996; Jackson & Smith, 1999; Sellers,
Rowley, Chavous, Shelton, & Smith, 1997). For example, Leach et al. (2009) empirically
confirmed a hierarchically ordered two- dimensional model of social identification, including
the dimensions self- definition (subdivided into individual self- stereotyping and ingroup
homogeneity) and self- investment (subdivided into solidarity, satisfaction, and centrality).
The most comprehensive definition and conceptual overview of the multidimensionality of
social identification to date, however, can be found in the work of Ashmore and colleagues,
who formulated a comprehensive framework for conceptualizing social identification
(Ashmore, Deaux, & McLaughlin- Volpe, 2004).

Dimensions of social identification

Ashmore et al. (2004) carried out an extensive review of the existing literature on social
identification, and concluded that social identification consists of as many as seven differ-
ent, theoretically distinguishable components: (1) self- categorization, (2) evaluation,
(3) importance, (4) attachment and interdependence, (5) social embeddedness, (6) behavioral
involvement, and (7) content and meaning. We consider each component in turn.

According to the Ashmore et al. (2004) framework, self- categorization is a component of
social identification that defines not only the cognitive self- placing into a social category,
but also includes cognitive sub- elements, such as the extent to which individuals perceive
themselves as prototypical of and similar to other members of their group (i.e., individuals
are inclined to stereotype themselves in terms of the ingroup stereotype and not just to
stereotype outgroup others). The self- categorization component also includes the degree of
certainty with which individuals self- categorize as part of a given group.

The evaluative component, similar to Tajfel’s (1981) definition, refers to the extent to
which an individual evaluates a given social identity in positive or negative terms, i.e., it
defines the positive or negative attitude held about the identity in question. In line with
Luhtanen and Crocker (1992), evaluation can be subdivided into private regard (evaluative
ratings held by one personally) and public regard (one’s perception of others’ evaluative
ratings of one’s identity). In contrast to evaluation, importance defines the degree to which
a given social identity is perceived as important to one’s self- concept. According to Ashmore
et al. (2004), it is this dimension of identification that researchers typically mean when
using the term “strength of identification.” Importance can also be subdivided, into explicit
and implicit importance. Explicit importance relates simply to the subjectively self-
appraised importance of a given social identity to one’s self- concept. Implicit importance,
however, is based on the assumption that individuals’ identities are hierarchically
structured in order of importance to their sense of self (see also, e.g., Stryker, 2000).
Individuals need not, however, necessarily be consciously aware of the implicit importance
of their identities.

A further element in the Ashmore et al. (2004) framework is attachment and interde-
pendence, which pertains to the sense of emotional involvement and the perceived sense
of oneness with a group. It defines the extent to which individuals perceive members of

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216 Katharina Schmid, Miles Hewstone, and Ananthi Al Ramiah

the group to receive similar treatment in society (interdependence/mutual fate), the
extent to which they are emotionally tied to the group (attachment/affective commit-
ment), and the extent to which individuals perceive overlap between their sense of self
and the group (interconnection of self and others). Social embeddedness, then, concerns
the extent to which individuals’ social identities are implicated in their everyday lives
and social relationships, while behavioral involvement defines the extent to which indi-
viduals’ behavior and actions are functionally dependent on their social identity. The
final component of identification in Ashmore and colleagues’ framework is that of con-
tent and meaning. This dimension refers to the extent to which the (stereo- )typical
characteristics of a social group are seen as reflecting individual traits (self- attributed
characteristics), but also includes ideological beliefs surrounding the groups’ experi-
ence and role in society, as well as each individual’s internalized story of the group and
one’s membership thereof (narrative).

Importantly, Ashmore et al. (2004) have argued that although there may be considerable
co- variation between these different dimensions, they need not always converge or even
correlate highly for each given category and each given individual. For example, a given
social category, although evaluated positively, need not be a very important one, yet a dif-
ferent category that is equally positively evaluated may, in fact, be very important to the
individual. Different dimensions of identification underlying a given social category may
also co- vary highly for some individuals, but not for others. Social identification is thus a
highly complex phenomenon. We acknowledge this complexity explicitly here, but because
empirical support for all seven components is not yet available, and to maintain simplicity,
we liberally make use of the summary term “social identification” throughout the remainder
of this chapter.

Social Identity Theory

Ingroup bias and the “minimal group paradigm”

The extent to which self- categorization and social identification processes are involved in
intergroup processes has long been of interest to social psychologists. This interest received
a major stimulus following a compelling series of experimental studies by Tajfel and col-
leagues that made use of the so- called “minimal group paradigm” (Tajfel, Flament, Billig, &
Bundy, 1971). The minimal group paradigm consists of a set of experimental procedures,
typically involving arbitrarily categorized groups, to achieve a situation that gives rise to
intergroup differentiation. In the earliest and most commonly invoked of these experimental
manipulations, Tajfel et al. (1971) categorized participants into artificial groups, based on
participants’ preference for abstract paintings by Klee or Kandinsky, and asked them to
allocate money between their arbitrarily categorized fellow ingroup and outgroup members.
A consistent finding that emerged from these studies was that, despite their new member-
ship in the arbitrary groups, individuals consistently tended to favor members from their
own group over the outgroup in their reward allocations, a phenomenon referred to as
“ingroup bias” that remains the focus of attention for much social psychological research

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Self-Categorization and Social Identification 217

(Brewer, 1979; Brown, 1995). Bias in this paradigm has, in fact, been shown on a myriad of
different measures, including, for example, better recall of more unfavorable outgroup than
ingroup behaviors (Howard & Rothbart, 1980).

But does this mean that social identity processes inevitably hold negative consequences
for intergroup relations? That individuals tend to favor ingroup over outgroup members
is a well- established phenomenon that has been replicated in both experimental and nat-
urally occurring settings (see Hewstone, Rubin, & Willis, 2002, for a review), yet the
extent to which such ingroup bias is dependent on social identification remains unclear.
Some have argued that identification and ingroup bias should be positively related
(Hinkle & Brown, 1990; Turner & Reynolds, 2001), assuming that identification drives
outgroup attitudes, rather than vice versa (Jetten, Spears, & Manstead, 1997; see Duckitt &
Mphuthing, 1998, for evidence of the reverse causal direction, at least for disadvantaged
and subordinate group members). Experimental data show that manipulations of identi-
fication can increase bias (Branscombe & Wann, 1994; Perreault & Bourhis, 1999), yet
correlational data suggest only a weak and unstable association (Hinkle & Brown, 1990;
Mullen, Brown, & Smith, 1992).

Whether or not social identification predicts ingroup favoritism, one needs to be clear
that this is a relatively mild form of intergroup attitudes and thus may not necessarily reflect
prejudicial attitudes or discriminatory behavior. In fact, much social psychological research
has typically studied such milder forms of ingroup preference, for example, by means of
evaluation or liking scores, or by assessing the differential allocation of resources or rewards
to ingroup or outgroup members. Moreover, there is no clear evidence to suggest that indi-
viduals tend to favor the ingroup over outgroup members in the presence of aversive stimuli
(Mummendey et al., 1992). For example, ingroup- favoring tendencies are not typically
observed when individuals are asked to rate ingroup and outgroup on negative (as opposed
to positive) rating scales, or when asked to give punishments (as opposed to rewards) to
ingroup and outgroup members (e.g., Mummendey et al., 1992; Mummendey & Otten,
1998; Otten & Mummendey, 2000).

Moreover, Brewer (1999) cautions that ingroup favoritism should not be equated with
outgroup derogation. Indeed, a minimal- groups study by Otten and Moskowitz (2000),
which used an implicit measure of spontaneous trait inference, provided evidence for
implicit ingroup favoritism, but not outgroup derogation. What seems to motivate much
ingroup bias and intergroup discrimination is a preferential treatment of ingroup mem-
bers, and not necessarily hostility toward outgroup members. Thus although self-
categorization is both a necessary and sufficient condition for ingroup favoritism to occur,
it is not sufficient to cause outgroup derogation. Additional conditions and factors need
to be present for self- categorization and group identification to result in negative intergroup
relations (Hewstone et al., 2002). There is, however, evidence to suggest that social identi-
fication moderates the effects of the factors that provoke negative intergroup tensions.
For example, it is known that threat perceptions are positively related with prejudice
and discrimination (Stephan & Stephan, 2000), but that this relationship is stronger for
individuals who identify highly with the threatened group than for those for whom the
threatened group identity is less important (e.g., Bizman & Yinon, 2001; Tausch, Hewstone,
Kenworthy, Cairns, & Christ, 2007).

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218 Katharina Schmid, Miles Hewstone, and Ananthi Al Ramiah

Social identity and intergroup relations

Social identity theory (Tajfel, 1978; Tajfel & Turner, 1979) argues from the general view
that individuals have an inherent need for positive self- esteem, to the proposal that when
individuals self- categorize in terms of a social group, and their social identity is salient,
this need for a positive self- concept translates into a need for a positively valued social
identity (Tajfel & Turner, 1986). The need for a positive self- concept is thus thought to be,
among other things, what makes people identify with social groups. Moreover, a positive
social identity is typically achieved through positive differentiation from other groups and
it is this process that explains, in part, the occurrence of ingroup bias in the minimal
group paradigm.

However, social identity theory holds important implications for an understanding of
intergroup processes beyond those uncovered in artificially created experimental settings.
Specifically, social identity theory argues that individuals tend to engage in social comparison
with other groups, i.e., a comparison between the ingroup (“us”) and relevant outgroups
(“them”). It is thus, in essence, a theory of intergroup relations that aims to explain how
individuals perceive, and act as a consequence of, their membership in social groups.
Specifically, it seeks to elucidate the nature of intergroup relations in real- life settings, i.e.,
in social contexts defined by hierarchies and status differentials between groups. Moreover,
the theory contends that individuals have a need for positive distinctiveness from other
groups, reflecting a need to demonstrate that the ingroup is in some form or other better
than, or at least different from, the outgroup (e.g., Mummendey & Schreiber, 1983).

It is thus assumed that when individuals identify with their ingroup categories and the
perceived functional relations between ingroup and outgroup are salient, they are moti-
vated to either maintain or attain positive distinctiveness. According to Brewer (2000), this
may then lead to intergroup accentuation (differentiation between ingroup members is
minimized, yet differentiation between outgroup members is maximized), ingroup favoritism
(generalization of positive affect to ingroup but not outgroup members), and social
competition (the ingroup thrives only when the outgroup does not).

The role of group status and strategies for achieving positive distinctiveness

In their quest for a positively valued social identity and positive distinctiveness, individuals
are thought to be bound by and take into consideration the nature of group status and
group boundaries. Intergroup attitudes and behavior are thus seen as a function of com-
parative status between ingroup and outgroup (low versus high), the perceived stability and
legitimacy of intergroup relations, and the perceived nature of group boundaries, i.e.,
whether group boundaries are permeable or impermeable (e.g., Ellemers, Wilke, & van
Knippenberg, 1993; see Turner, 1999, for a review). The interaction of these factors is
thought to determine how members of low- and high- status groups either attain and/or
maintain positive distinctiveness. When group boundaries are permeable, individuals of
low- status groups with which they are not highly identified may engage in social mobility
strategies, whereby they leave or disassociate from the ingroup, and may attempt to join the
higher- status outgroup. If the group boundaries between groups are impermeable,

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Self-Categorization and Social Identification 219

however, group members may engage in either social creativity or social competition
strategies in an effort to bolster their social ide