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Overview Of Equity Theory

As noted above, equity theory is a theory about fairness. Its application to close relationships has been primarily advanced by Elaine Hatfield (previously known as Elaine Walster) and her colleagues in the book Equity: Theory and Research (Walster, Walster, and Berscheid 1978). The book outlines four interlocking propositions of equity theory and discusses the application of equity theory to different types of relationships, including intimate ones. The propositions are:

Proposition 1: Individuals will try to maximize their outcomes (where outcomes equal rewards minus costs).

Proposition 2a: Groups can maximize collective reward by evolving accepted systems for equitably apportioning resources among members. Thus, groups will evolve such systems of equity, and will attempt to induce members to accept and adhere to these systems.

Proposition 2b: Groups will generally reward members who treat others equitably, and generally punish (increase the costs for) members who treat others inequitably.

Proposition 3: When individuals find themselves participating in inequitable relationships, they become distressed. The more inequitable the relationship, the more distressed the individuals feel.

Proposition 4: Individuals who discover they are in an inequitable relationship attempt to eliminate their distress by restoring equity. The greater the inequity that exists, the more distress they feel, and the harder they try to restore equity.

As noted in Proposition 1, equity theory rests on the assumption that people are self-interested and will try to maximize their personal gains. This proposition has sometimes been questioned by researchers who believe that the nature of close relationships differs from other types of relationships. They argue that close relationships should not be based on individual calculations of costs and rewards and a self-interested focus on maintaining relationships solely for the personal profit they may provide. Instead, they argue that relationships should be based on a mutual concern for each others' welfare or needs (Clark and Chrisman 1994; Clark and Mills 1979).

Three primary ways of dealing with challenges to this assumption exist. One is to consider that individuals may vary in "exchange orientation" or the importance they give to monitoring equity in their relationships (Murstein, Cerreto, and Mac-Donald 1977). For example, some individuals may be high in exchange orientation, constantly keeping track of how much they and their partners put into or get out of a relationship. Other individuals may be low in exchange orientation, not paying attention to inputs, outputs, costs, and rewards of their relationships at all.

Measuring exchange orientation may be a way of measuring self-interest in relationships. Research by Susan Sprecher (1998) has supported this notion. Her findings suggest that different motivations for "keeping score" of costs and benefits in a relationship have different effects on relationship quality. People who keep track of inputs and outputs to make sure they are not underbenefited by the relationship seem to be less satisfied by their relationship whereas people who keep track of inputs and outputs to make sure they are not over-benefited by the relationship seem to be more satisfied by it.

A second way to account for differences in philosophies regarding self-interest in relationships is to include relational-level outcomes such as mutuality, sharing, and respect as types of benefits that individuals can receive from relationships. Relational partners may see themselves as a unit, with both of them maximally benefiting from the relationship. In this type of relationship, where identities of the individual partners have merged, what benefits one partner will also benefit the other. Relational-level outcomes have not regularly been considered in equity research, although similar concepts arise during discussions of entitlement processes (Desmarais and Lerner 1994) and fairness rules (Clark and Chrisman 1994) in close relationships.

Finally, equity in a relationship may be seen as its own reward. This idea is suggested by Proposition 2 that attempts to account for the development of rules, or norms, that limit self-interest behavior. If individuals were to continually strive for the most resources, anarchy and violence would dominate society as each member tried to gain more. However, Proposition 2 asserts that societies, groups, and couples will develop rules that foster fairness to each member in order to prevent such a condition. People who follow the rules of fairness will be rewarded, and people who do not will be punished. Thus, behaving equitably becomes a means to maximize one's outcomes, and fairness, more so than self-interest, becomes the norm.

Understanding the concept of fairness is essential to understanding equity theory. Elaine Hatfield (Walster) and her colleagues (Walster, Walster, and Berscheid 1978) argue that fairness rules are culturally bound, indicating that generally one of three rules of fairness can apply: proportionality, equality, or need. Rules based upon proportionality mean that individuals receive "equal relative gains from the relationship" (p. 10, emphasis in original). In other words, each person should get out of the relationship gains that are in proportion to what they have put into the relationship. The equality rule, on the other hand, means that regardless of how much each person has put into the relationship, they should each reap equal rewards. Finally, the need-based rule indicates that need should be the determining factor in what partners get from a relationship, regardless of their individual contributions to it (Deutsch 1985).

Understanding fairness rules is very important to students, scholars, and practitioners interested in equity theory because distinct bodies of research have developed based on the different fairness rules. Moreover, considerable scholarly debate centers around which fairness rule is best applied to close relationships. Finally, the term equity has become synonymous with the use of the proportionality rule (e.g., Clark and Chrisman 1994), and theorists seem to fall into two categories: proportionality researchers who are identified as equity theorists and equality researchers who are identified as social (or distributive) justice researchers. Work from researchers who examine other fairness rules, such as the need-based rule, can be found in both bodies of work. Because equity theory as outlined in the four principles above is primarily concerned with perceived fairness in relationships, the term equity as used here will apply to fairness. Proportionality and equality will be used to refer to research and findings based on their respective rules. However, one should note that in the majority of the literature, the term equity is synonymous with the term proportionality, and equity and equality are the two terms that one will find most fruitful when searching databases and libraries for information.

Equity theorist have realized the importance of fairness rules and have debated their application to the study of close relationships. Although Elaine Hatfield (Walster) and her colleagues (1978) propose proportionality as the appropriate fairness rule, Margaret Clark and K. Chrisman (1994) note "we could not find work clearly documenting that people actually do tend to follow an equity [proportionality] norm more often than other possible norms in their intimate relationships" (p. 67). After reviewing relevant research regarding all three fairness rules, they argue that the need-based fairness rule is the most appropriate for intimate relationships. They also suggest that certain factors, such as the stage of development of the relationship, may affect the application of fairness rules. The idea that people may invoke different rules under different circumstances has also been supported by other theorists. For example, Linda Keil and Charles McClintock (1983) review literature that indicates situational factors may interact with agerelated cognitive and social process to make certain fairness rules salient. Serge Desmarais and Melvin Lerner (1994) propose that situational and contextual cues, such as strong feelings of "weness" in a relationship determine which fairness rules are appropriate, and Morton Deutsch (1975) contends that people choose the fairness rule they believe will be most effective for them in reaching their particular relational goals.

One situational variable that has received much attention in examining fairness in close relationships is power. Hatfield (Walster) and her colleagues (1978) address the role of power in equity theory by postulating that due to their self-interested nature, people will try to persuade others that their contributions are more valuable than the others' contributions. Those who successfully accomplish this will receive more benefits, will be able to persuade others that they are entitled to more benefits, and will develop ideologies that reinforce their right to receive more benefits. Over time, people will see this lopsided allocation of benefits as normal and acceptable. However, as Hatfield (Walster) and her colleagues note, a marked shift in social power would enable underbenefited individuals to feel entitled to more and encourage them to begin efforts to change the allocation of benefits. It is interesting to note that parallels can be drawn between this scenario, gender relations in the United States over the past few decades, and research regarding marital relationships.

Researchers across disciplines have noted changes in marital relationships over the past few decades. This is not surprising because marital relationships across time and cultures differ with the social circumstances in which they exist. Among other factors, the feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s has influenced changes in the labor market, with more and more women entering the workforce. Research on intimate relationships has shown that higher income for one partner can be associated with increased relational power (Blumstein and Schwartz 1983), and researchers often cite the increased numbers of women in the workforce as having affected changes in women's power, in sex-role expectations, and in marital ideals (VanYperen and Buunk 1994). One particular change is that marital partners are striving for more equality in the distribution of domestic, economic, and emotional contributions to their relationships (Scanzoni and Scanzoni 1988).

Even with changes in social and relational power between men and women, many researchers suggest that judgements of fairness in heterosexual relationships should not be based on the proportionality rule but should be based on the equality rule. Reasons for this assertion come in two forms. First, it is argued that because we live in a social system that values men's contributions more than women's, proportionality-based evaluations of contributions to a relationship can never be fair; for even though men and women may contribute equally to a relationship, men's contributions will be valued more that would, therefore, entitle them to more (Steil 1997). Research examining the perceived value of different relational contributions has been sparse, and mixed results have been found. For example, Janice Steil and Karen Weltman (1991) found support for gender-based valuing of careers when their research showed that women's careers are often not perceived as important as men's. However, Pamela Regan and Susan Sprecher (1995) found that men and women valued their own and their partner's contributions similarly on sixteen of twenty-two characteristics such as having a prestigious and important career, being easy to get along with, being passionate, and taking care of inside chores.

The second reason for equality-based rules of fairness is rooted in research related to equity theory Proposition 3 that focuses on the outcomes of inequitable relationships by asserting that individuals in inequitable relationships will become distressed. Researchers exploring the area of equitable outcomes in marital relationships often measure outcomes through reports or observations of behaviors rather than perceptions. This is because individuals' perceptions of their relationships can become skewed through gender-biased valuing of relational inputs, because an incongruence often exists between perception of one's behavior and the actual behavior itself, and because people in low-power positions often feel entitled to less that leads them to perceive an unfair situation as fair. Given this caveat, people do still report perceived inequity in their relationships, and it has been associated with negative outcomes, including less sexual intimacy, less sexual satisfaction, less commitment to the relationship, decreased happiness and satisfaction with the relationship, and relationship breakup (Sprecher 1995).

In 1972, Jesse Bernard published her book The Future of Marriage and argued that the outcome of marriage is unequal for men and women in terms of psychological well-being or distress. Well-being differences have been reported between married men and women in many studies, with women reporting more instances of psychosomatic illnesses, such as depression, distress, and headaches (Gove, Hughes, and Style 1983), even when they report satisfaction within their marriages (Steil and Turetsky 1987). According to Proposition 3, the presence of distress in a relationship can indicate the presence of inequity.

On the flip side of the coin, inequality is costly to men as well, although in different ways. Men become alienated from their families and do not participate in the domestic sphere or with their children. They have a reduced capacity for intimacy (Kaufman 1994). Furthermore, wives often resent their husbands' absence from the family (Schwartz 1994) and children become unhappy with their fathers' lack of emotional and physical participation in their lives (Kaufman 1994; Schwartz 1994; Silberstein 1992). Disconnection from the family often results in relational boredom and increases the potential for divorce (Schwartz 1994).

Support for the equality rule of fairness comes from researchers interested in close relationships and equality. Pepper Schwartz (1994; Blumstein and Schwartz 1983) and other researchers have found qualitative differences between couples who are able to create equality in their relationships and couples who are not or who come close but do not quite make it (Blaisure and Allen 1995; Hochschild and Machung 1989; Knudson-Martin and Mahoney 1998). Their findings show that equality is the essential ingredient for prevention of these negative outcomes. When marital equality is present, men are relieved of the pressures associated with the provider role and they have more intimate, more meaningful, and more satisfying relationships with their families (Steil 1997). Higher levels of marital satisfaction are related to equality in shared decision making and shared task control (Gray-Little and Burks 1983), and higher levels of wives' well-being have been associated with men's participation in housework (Steil 1997). Furthermore, husbands do not suffer from shouldering domestic duties. In fact, in marital relationships where economic and domestic responsibilities are shared equally, both husbands and children benefit from increased family time (Schwartz 1994); male empathy, understanding, and attentiveness (Coltrane 1996); more intimate and stable parent-child bonds; and more intimate and stable marital bonds (Schwartz 1994).

Given all the costs of relationship inequality, it is not surprising that Proposition 4 states people involved in inequitable relationships will try to restore equity. Hatfield (Walster) and her colleagues (1978) provide two ways that a person can restore equity to a relationship: by restoring actual equity or by restoring psychological equity (the perception that equity actually exists when it does not). As noted earlier, researchers who use behavior to measure relational equity instead of perceptions may do so because they believe partners in an inequitable relationship do not see the inequity. This assumption is congruent with the concept of restoring psychological equity.

Research examining equity-restoring behaviors is scant but supportive of the proposition. In a study asking participants to imagine they were in an inequitable relationship, Sprecher (1992) found that participants expected that they would engage in equity-restoring behaviors, including increasing their partner's rewards, asking their partners to contribute more to the relationship, or changing their perceptions of the relationship so that it seemed fair. She also found that women were more likely to expect to engage in equity-restoring activities than men. Women in inequitable relationships have also reported engaging in or wanting to engage in extramarital sexual behavior. Engaging in sex outside of one's marriage may be a way of restoring perceived inequity (Sprecher 1995).

Proposition 4 of equity theory can provide an interesting framework for examining negative family behavior, such as extramarital relationships. Although it may be unpleasant to think about, the restoration of equity can help explain parent-child abuse. In this framework, abuse may be perceived as a way to restore equity to an inequitable parent-child relationship. Parents who feel exploited by their children may attempt to restore equity by retaliating against their children with verbal or physical abuse or by psychologically or physically abandoning their children (Walster, Walster, and Berscheid 1978). Furthermore, research regarding family violence has examined and supported a relationship between domestic violence and inequitable gender perceptions (Bryant 2001). Finally, the equitable or inequitable division of inheritance property may be another way for families to reestablish equity among its members (Stum 1999).

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily Theory & Types of FamiliesEquity - The Scope Of Equity Theory And Close Relationships, Overview Of Equity Theory, Conclusion