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Interpersonal Communication: Social Exchange Theory


Human beings are social and rely on interpersonal communication to share information, ideas, secrets, and goals in life. Different models have emerged that try to describe how such interactions take place. Social exchange theory is one of them and it explains or predicts the right time when someone who be willing to share confidential information with a colleague, partner, or friend. According to this framework, human relationships and friendships tend to grow, expand, dissolve, or deteriorate as a result of the unfolding process of social exchange (Nunkoo, 2016). Issues of cost and reward remain critical throughout the process since individuals consider their potential gains or losses from the interactions. The foundational ideas of this theory emerged in 1959 following the successful development and presentation of the interdependence framework by Thibaut and Kelley (Suhermin et al., 2019). Using similar ideas, Homans, Blau, and Emerson expanded the interdependence model to present the social exchange concept.

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The general aim of this theory is to describe how humans share ideas or secrets within the realm of established relations. In terms of scope, it mainly focuses on relations at the interpersonal level only (Nazir et al., 2018). The primary assumption as originally theorized includes that human beings are social creatures, they will develop relationships that can either grow or deteriorate depending on the emerging circumstances and will disclose information and share it when the benefits appear to outweigh the costs. The theory is also applicable in marriages to describe how they can fail to develop depending on the anticipated rewards.

Analysis and Application of Social Exchange Theory

Over the years, researchers have tried to analyze different human interactions using social exchange theory in an attempt to understand how individuals communicate with each other when conditions or factors change. The first area to consider is that of dating and friendships that have the potential to result in marriage. Nazir et al. (2018) observed that people who were in a friendship that could result in a matrimonial union had higher expectations from their colleagues. The majority of the people in such interactions would try to paint a positive image to ensure that their partners’ demands are met. This approach emerged as a major threat to the success of many relationships because of the lies associated with them.

During dating, many people would develop ambitious or idealistic expectations from one another throughout the dating period. However, the situation could change completely after marriage since marital satisfaction appeared to reduce significantly (Lantagne & Furman, 2017). This outcome was possible since the majority of the individuals realized with great shock that some of their expectations would not be met. After the wedding and the anticipated honeymoon period, many couples revealed that their happiness levels declined significantly (Lantagne & Furman, 2017). With various expectations and requirements being unfulfilled by the other persons, many individuals became depressed and unwilling to pursue the engagement. This observation remains consistent with the attributes described in the social exchange theory.

The second area that has successfully benefited from the implementation or utilization of social exchange theory is that of normal relationships or friendships between people of the same or opposite gender. In a study by Langlais and Schwanz (2017), it occurred that the level of closeness was a critical determinant of the behaviors that such individuals shared. When the behaviors, hobbies, and goals appeared intertwined, it became possible for more people to establish new friendships and start pursuing their common goals. Such individuals would find it possible to engage in self-disclosure after beginning to treat each other (Langlais & Schwanz, 2017). Analysts can describe or examine such a practice effectively using the social exchange framework. When the nature of the friendship is expanded or developed, the individuals would be willing to exchange additional resources, ideas, and even secrets.

For persons of the opposite sex, the development of interpersonal relationships would be influenced by their values and experiences, personalities, cultural factors, and the existing conditions. Campbell et al. (2018) revealed that advanced friendships would encourage people to start sharing various resources, including information, personal belongings, support, and money. For persons in romantic relationships, the established level of trust coincided with the attributes of cost and rewards associated with the selected theory (Nunkoo, 2016). Some people would engage in sexual intercourse and even agree to marry each other. For individuals of the same gender, the friendship would develop to an extent that they would share their secrets after realizing that such a process would result in more rewards than losses. On the other hand, people would disengage or start limiting the information and resources that used to be shared before after the level of trust declined. Some of the possible causes of such a trend could include dishonesty or failure to help one another during a time of critical need (Nunkoo, 2016). This kind of collapse still echoes the attributes or assumptions outlined in the social exchange theory.

The third area that different analysts have examined using this theory is that of communication among human beings. Dunbar (2015) observed that people had the power to establish unique interpersonal relationships and interactions that could make it easier for them to pursue their aims and eventually emerge successful in life. In different types of friendships, the concept of communication appeared to take different shapes depending on numerous factors. For example, a close relationship was associated with prolonged conservations between every two people. Such individuals could engage one another, share close details about their personal experiences and challenges, and even collaborate to find solutions to some of their common challenges. In marriage, the nature of communication was observed to vary significantly from one couple to another. This happened to be the case since partners who trusted one another would communicate effectively and address their challenges (Dunbar, 2015). Similarly, a negative trend in communication would emerge when the partners harbored feelings of distrust or unworthiness in their respective marriages. With this kind of knowledge, different psychologists and motivational speakers could be in a position to meet their patients’ needs and make it easier for them to achieve their personal goals.

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The final area selected for this analysis using the social exchange theory is that of casual relationships within the community setting. Langlais and Schwanz (2017) observed that social interactions within a society would depend on the desire to pursue common security and improve the economic outcomes of the people. Using the selected model, Suhermin et al. (2019) realized that individuals who were not close would only be ready to exchange minimal information with one another. The existing desires or needs influenced the way such people interacted with each other and focused on the best ways to maintain positive relationships (Dunbar, 2015). This analysis reveals that exchanges would take place between two people depending on the nature of the established relationships and the anticipated gains or rewards. By monitoring the nature of such behaviors and provision of certain information types, bystanders or researchers could successfully guess the nature or level of the established interactions.

While these presentations try to describe social exchange theory as a powerful model for understanding human communication and social exchange, very little has been known about how such processes occur when people are interacting via social media platforms. Since these networks have become an integral part of the modern global community, human beings are successfully establishing virtual friendships that might not be extensively described or understood using social exchange theory (Nazir et al., 2018). This gap explains why scholars need to complete new studies to present high-quality information or explanation.


The above discussion has identified social exchange theory as a relevant and practical model for understanding human relationships. Individuals will identify specific friends or partners to share certain information or exchange resources depending on the established level of trust or intimacy. The theory is also appropriate for analyzing how various human relationships tend to develop, stabilize, or deteriorate. The only outstanding question is how this framework could describe the interactions and friendships emerging from social media networks. Future scholars can focus on the gap identified in the above section and undertake new studies to understand how social exchanges take place via the Internet or social media platforms. This kind of knowledge will guide more people to be prepared for potential challenges and barriers that might emerge when trying to establish or take online friendships to the next level.


Campbell, K., Nelson, J., Parker, M. L., & Johnston, S. (2018). Interpersonal chemistry in friendships and romantic relationships. Interpersona, 12(1), 34-50.

Dunbar, N. E. (2015). A review of theoretical approaches to interpersonal power. Review of Communication, 15(1), 1-18.

Langlais, M., & Schwanz, S. (2017). Religiosity and relationship quality of dating relationships: Examining relationship religiosity as a mediator. Religions, 8, 187-198.

Lantagne, A., & Furman, W. (2017). Romantic relationship development: The interplay between age and relationship length. Development Psychology, 53(9), 1738-1749.

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Nazir, S., Qun, W., Hui, L., & Shafi, A. (2018). Influence of social exchange relationships on affective commitment and innovative behavior: Role of perceived organizational support. Web. Sustainability, 10(), 4418-4437.

Nunkoo, R. (2016). Toward a more comprehensive use of social exchange theory to study residents’ attitudes to tourism. Procedia Economics and Finance, 39, 588-596.

Suhermin, Subardjo, A., & Harjanti, W. (2019). The impact of social exchange theory implementation over organizational attitude and behavior. International Journal of Scientific and Research Publications, 9(7), 435-445.

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