Social Exchange Theory

Famous May–December Relationships A well-known phenomenon that you hear about in the media and in real life is May–December Relationships, where there is a larger-than-average age difference between two people in a relationship. Often, we see older men in a relationship with much younger women. Social exchange theory helps you understand the dynamics involved.

Social exchange theory suggests that people make relationship decisions by assessing and comparing the costs and rewards; we seek the greatest reward for the lowest cost. Rewards are the positive outcomes that we receive by being in a relationship. Costs are negative outcomes that reflect a loss, such as a loss of time or a loss of freedom. Rewards and costs affect our decisions to escalate, maintain, or terminate a relationship. Think about romantic pairings among contemporary rock stars.

Often, they will find much older and less-attractive male rock stars romantically paired with younger and more physically attractive women. Social exchange theory helps explain why these relationships come into existence. Simplistically stated, the aging rock star contributes fame and money and the younger, more attractive star (usually a woman) contributes youth and beauty.

The relationship is thus based on a kind of exchange. (Rod Stewart and Mick Jagger have provided good examples in the past.) Conduct an Internet search of celebrity couples who fit this description. Identify and select a couple and read about their relationship. Based on your understanding, respond to the following: What do you think are the possible rewards or positive outcomes received by each person by being in the relationship? What do you think might be the possible costs or negative outcomes for each person? How could these rewards and costs affect the coming together of the relationship? 

How could the rewards and costs contribute to the termination of the relationship? How does social exchange theory apply to noncelebrity relationships? Critique at least two of your classmates’ posts on the basis of the following points: How were your classmates able to apply the social exchange theory to the “rock star” relationship? How did your classmates’ analysis help you understand the theory more clearly? Did your classmates apply the theory to a noncelebrity relationship and was that helpful in understanding your own relationship decisions?

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