Evolutionary Explanations for Partner Preferences
Darwin proposed that species do not just evolve through natural selection but also “sexual selection".
Sexual selection is the view that competition for mates between individuals of the same sex affects the evolution of certain traits.
He proposed that any physical traits that enhances reproductive success will gradually be passed down and enhanced over evolutionary time. Darwin proposed that animals therefore possess features that make them attractive to members of the opposite sex and to allow them to compete better with members of the same sex.
To understand how evolution shapes partner preferences between genders we need to understand the different evolutionary pressures between the two genders and this is where Anisogamy is a factor.
Anisogamy refers to the differences between male and females sex cells (also known as gametes). Males produce millions of sperms as they cannot be sure of paternity and can in theory reproduce with very little cost to their reproductive fitness, mating with millions of women if they had access to them.
Women on the other hand are certain of paternity and produce very limited eggs in their lifetime (about 300), many of which will not be used. When they do mate they are left vulnerable during pregnancy and for many years following raising the child which requires a great deal of investment from the female. These differences leads to different mating strategies between the genders which are intra-sexual selection and inter-sexual selection.
Intersexual selection occurs between women who then go on to select men who show the best indicators of providing good genes for offspring, the ability to protect her and her child, provide status and resources. Producing eggs and child rearing comes at a higher cost for women than men and therefore they need to focus on quality over quantity. This therefore leaves the men competing with one another for the opportunity to mate with a female who determines the features that are passed on to the offspring through intra-sexual selection.
One of the things women will be looking for is signs of a genetically fit partner as this would allow their child the strongest chance of receiving similar genes. Traits such as height, intelligence, strength as well as resources (to name a few) are all therefore deemed attractive and sought in mate preferences this way by females.
Men therefore compete through intra-sexual selection which involves them competing with other males to be selected by females. Any traits or characteristics they are able to display that confer an advantage that women are seeking will aid them in competing for mates. Therefore they will seek to display health, genetic fitness through size and resources through wealth. Zahavi also proposed the “handicap principle” in support of sexual selection stating if any indicator is too costly to produce and is still displayed, then it must be a sign of strong genes and health. In men, strong jawlines, wide backs and height are all indicators of a strong immune system as high levels of testosterone is required to produce such which can be damaging towards the immune system. The fact that it can be displayed by potential mates is a signal of good genetic fitness to females.
Males on the other hand would be most attracted to females who display signs of fertility which is an indication of reproductive value. Men therefore place greater importance on physical attractiveness, youth, their health and appearance when selecting a mate.
Evaluating Sexual Selection Theory
- Buss (1989) conducted a cross-cultural study over 37 cultures with over 10’000 people on mate preference. Males reported to prefer younger physically attractive females while females sought physically strong and athletic males with an emphasis on resources. Both are therefore engaging in behaviour that increases reproductive success supporting sexual selection theory. The main issue with this research however is that questionnaires were used which can be easily misunderstood across cultures. Also self-reports may be inaccurate and translation problems could have easily occurred through the use of third party translators invalidating the findings. In addition such a study may suffer from the problem of validity as they show mate preferences but not what actually happens in real life.
- Cultural traditions may also be just as important as evolutionary forces. Bernstein (2015) argued that gender differences in mate preferences may be a result of women having been denied economic and political power which might account for their need to rely on security and resources rather than anything to do with evolutionary pressures which undermines this theory. Sharma et al (1999) conducted an analysis of 37 cultures demonstrating that women who were from cultures where opportunities were limited placed higher value on resources. This suggests that although evolutionary forces may be at work in mate selection, we can not rule out social or economic factors in mate preference either which undermines evolutionary explanations as a holistic explanation. This also shows clear alpha bias as evolutionary theories attempt to exaggerate differences between genders when research like this highlights that any differences are may in part be due to social and cultural factors.
- Research support for inter-sexual selection comes from Clark and Hatfield (1989). This study demonstrated how female “choosiness” was a reality of heterosexual relationships. Male and female students were sent out across a university campus and told to approach students individually offering to mate. Not a single female agreed to the males requests however 75% of males agreed to the females request to sleep with them. This supports the evolutionary explanation as it demonstrates how females are choosier than males when it comes to selecting sexual partners and that both are engaging in different strategies to ensure reproductive success.
- The female preference for high-status men may not be universal according to Buller (2005). Most studies into female mate preferences have been carried out on undergraduate university students. This would represent a biased sample as such women expect to achieve high educational status and so have high expectations of income levels and partners. This may either be explained as per evolutionary explanations or that they seek men with similar interests, education and prospects as their own. Buller concluded that evidence for universal female mating preference for high-status men is weak or non-existent undermining evolutionary explanations.
- Dunbar et al conducted a study looking at 4 american newspapers with over 900 personal ads reviewing mate preference. Women offered youth and physical attraction while men offered financial status and resources. Each sought what the other wanted supporting sexual selection theory. The criticism here was this study was based only on americans which would mean it suffers from cultural bias. In addition kindness and intelligence was rated higher in importance from both sexes which doesn't fully fit in with sexual selection theory either.
- Singh (1993) found men preferred waist to hip ratios of 0.7 across cultures. This is typical of the hourglass figure and a sign of fertility which would support sexual selection theory as this demonstrates to males she has the qualities required to rear children (and therefore this becomes attractive for them).
- The theory is beneficial in that it helps us better understand human behaviour as some things may be biologically programmed due to “nature” rather then “nurture” and this sheds some light on mate preference. A big criticism of the theory is that it is not scientific and based almost completely on post-hoc evidence. Sexual selection theory cannot be proven or disproven either way and Popper argued that unscientific theories are purely speculative.
- Such theories also show gender bias as they assume men are more likely to cheat on their partners and points to genetic programming as the cause. This is not possible for men without “willing” females nor do all men cheat either despite this being their most ideal strategy. The theory cannot also explain why some women actually then cheat on their partners as this goes against their ideal mating strategy involving securing a single mate who can provide support and security over the long-term. “Cuckoldy” is provided as a possible reason for this but again this is post-hoc and difficult to prove/disprove.
- Evolutionary theories such as this can be argued to be reductionist as they simply put down mate choice due to our genetic makeup and biological urges. In truth partner choice is much more complex involving cultural and social elements which are not fully considered and this theory portrays us as driven purely by nature which is clearly not true.
- The theory is also deterministic as it suggests human sexual preferences are genetically programmed and we are at their mercy. The theory does not take into account our ability of conscious thought which gives us free will to make choices for ourselves. Even in Buss et al’s study across cultures “kindness” and “intelligence” was ranked higher than physical attraction.
- Sexual selection theory cannot also explain homosexuality and why this exists. No children are produced and such behaviour goes against the theory. This raises serious ethical issues as people may use sexual selection theory to highlight the “abnormality” of homosexuality and create prejudice through homophobia. The theory cannot explain why some couples choose not to have children either as the theory assumes all relationships are motivated by the desire to reproduce however people get into relationships for many reasons beyond this too.
- Arranged marriages have also existed for centuries yet such behaviour goes against the theory as no selection between mates is taking place (or very little). This also shows how cultural factors also play a role in human reproduction which undermines evolutionary explanations.
Factors Affecting Attraction In Romantic Relationships
The A-level psychology specification states you need to know the following explanations for factors affecting attraction in romantic relationships:
- Physical attractiveness
- Filter theory
Physical attractiveness refers to how appealing we find someone and one explanation based on a evolutionary theory by Shackleford and Larsen (1997) suggests we find symmetrical faces more attractive.
The theory behind this is that symmetry is a signal for genetic fitness as it is difficult to produce and thus can be used by both genders to determine the genetic quality of a possible mate. Physical attraction is also an immediate and accessible way for potential partners to rate one another as opposed to getting to learn about someones attitudes or values. Although rated important by both genders research suggests men find physical appearance more important than women when selecting partners.
One evolutionary explanation in line with sexual selection theory suggests this is because appearance in women is a key sign of fertility for men and therefore they are likely to focus on finding partners who appear physically more pleasing. This could be based on optimum hip-to-waist ratios, youth and appearance of good health (long hair, big childlike eyes, good skin) as this shows they are fertile.
For women they focus on physical qualities such as strong jawlines, strength, wide backs as this shows good genes which can be passed on to their children. Research by Eastwick (2011) also suggests that attraction is more important for men than women who placed less emphasis on this for long-term mate choices. McNulty (2008) found evidence demonstrating that the initial attraction that brought people together continued to be an important feature of their relationship for several proceeding years after demonstrating it as a key factor in relationship formation.
Individuals seen as attractive are also seen to possess more desirable personality traits such as being trustworthy, optimistic and sociable. This is referred to as the halo effect, where a favourable impression is formed of someone based on one characteristic which in this case is physical attractiveness. Dion et al found that physically attractive people were consistently rated as kind, strong and sociable compared to unattractive people suggesting physical attraction can disproportionately influence peoples judgement towards them favourably.
The matching hypothesis (Walster 1969) is another explanation for physical attraction. This theory proposes that people who were similar in levels of attraction, intelligence and social standing were more inclined to form relationships with each other. This theory proposes that people pair themselves with others based on their own sense of value and they look for partners with similar qualities. Therefore the more socially desirable a person is in terms of physical attraction, social standing and intelligence etc, the more desirable they would expect their potential partner to be. This model also proposes that people who are matched well based on this theory also tend to have happier relationships compared to couples that are mismatched based on such social desirability. Those looking for a partner are influenced by what they want and what they think they can actually get. Walster et al called this notion “realistic choices” because individuals are influenced by the chances of having their feelings reciprocated back.
Evaluating Physical Attractiveness
- Research support for the halo effect comes from Palmer and Peterson (2012). They found that physically attractive people were rated as more knowledgeable and competent than unattractive people and this halo effect persisted even when participants knew these “knowledgeable” people had no particular expertise. This raises implications particularly when applied to politics as it endangers democracy if politicians are deemed suitable based on their physical attractiveness.
- However there are individual differences too and not all people place as much importance to physical appearance. Towhey (1979) asked male and female participants in a study to rate how much they liked an individual based on photographs and some biographical information. Participants also completed the MACHO scale questionnaire which is designed to measure sexist attitudes and behaviours. Results found that those rated highly on the questionnaire were more greatly influenced by physical attraction while lower scorers were less influenced. This shows that physical attractiveness can be moderated by other factors and so challenges the idea that it is always a prime consideration in relationship formation for everyone. This study also raises real world applications as challenging sexist attitudes and behaviours could also be seen as key to influencing mate choice in societies where finding a partner is difficult, for example in Japan where relationships are reportedly more difficult to form.
- There is some research support for the matching hypothesis theory. Walster (1969) paired students up for an upcoming dance telling them they had been paired dependent on their ideal partner when in truth it was assigned randomly. Students met up before the dance and those who had been paired with partners of similar levels of attraction to themselves reported to like their partner more than those paired at dissimilar levels of physical attraction supporting the matching hypothesis theory. A weakness here however is the subjective nature of how attraction is rated as this is likely to be based on western ideals of what someone attractive looks like. Therefore this study could be argued to be culturally biased and the results invalid because of the subjective nature of deciding which two people are “similar in attraction”.
- Research by Cunningham et al (1955) did however demonstrate that features of physical attraction were consistent across cultures supporting the idea of physical attraction. Female features such as large eyes, prominent cheekbones, small nose and high eyebrows were rated as attractive by white, Hispanic and Asian males. Kim et al (1997) also found that Korean and American students judged physical attractive people to be more trustworthy, caring, mature and friendly demonstrating that the stereotype for attraction is evident across collectivist and individualistic cultures suggesting it is universal and a valid element of relationship formation.
- Hatfield et al (2009) offer “complex matching” as an explanation for why research often fails to find evidence for the matching hypothesis theory between couples. People form relationships by offering many desirable characteristics and physical attraction is simply one of these. Someone who is not deemed physically attractive can therefore compensate for this with other desirable qualities such as personality, kindness, status or wealth to name a few. Through this people are able to attract partners more attractive than themselves through compensatory assets and this can explain how an older man may be able to pair up with a younger attractive woman (and vice versa). This would suggest the matching hypothesis explanation is oversimplified and incomplete as other factors involved can be better explained through “complex matching” which offers a more holistic explanation. This can better explain cultures where arranged marriages take place as senior members of the family are usually the judges of who is compatible to be married between families. They are likely to take into account other factors beyond just physical attraction which would undermine the matching hypothesis theory but be inline with Hatfield’s complex matching theory. This would therefore allow us to explain cultural differences and it may be that the matching hypothesis theory and notion of physical attraction is more a western ideal that is not always followed universally.
- If physical attraction was more important in males as evolutionary theories claim then research should show that males with physically attractive partners were more happier. Meltzer (2014) found evidence to support this with wives who were rated objectively to be more attractive also having husbands who also rated themselves to be more satisfied in the relationship for at least the first four years of marriage. For women however, physical attraction of their husband was not related to their marital satisfaction either initially or over time demonstrating beta bias in the matching hypothesis theory. This is because differences in partner selection are evident yet downplayed by Walsters theory which assumes people are looking to match up based on similar values one of which is physical appearance.
Self-disclosure is believed to affect attraction in romantic relationships and refers to the extent a person reveals personal information about themselves including their intimate thoughts, feelings and experiences to another person. Altman and Taylor proposed social penetration theory (1973) to explain how relationships develop through self-disclosure. Greater disclosure between individuals leads to a greater sense of intimacy and the development of romantic feelings as people tend to prefer those that disclose intimate details compared to those that do not. Self-disclosure happens generally when sufficient trust has been built and this concept states we tend to reveal intimate details to people we like to allow them to learn about our inner self. Within romantic relationships this involves the reciprocal exchange of information between intimate partners with one partner displaying trust by revealing intimate details about themselves and this leads to the other partner then doing the same. Over time as this exchange occurs romantic partners then “penetrate” into each others lives to gain a greater understanding of one another.
Altman and Taylor believed self-disclosure to have two elements which was breadth and depth. As both of these increase, partners become more committed to one another. Altman and Taylor refer to this process having many layers with us disclosing lots of information about ourselves at the start but this being mostly superficial and low risk information that we would normally reveal to to those around our social circle. The breadth of topics we discuss is narrow at this point as many topics are “off-limits” in the early stages of a relationship. Revealing too much at this point could threaten the relationship as the other person feels put off before the relationship has any chance to establish itself. Moderate levels of self-disclosure in the early stages are seen as most effective with Derlaga et al (1979) suggesting the listener should know them better without the information being too personal.
As the relationship develops self-disclosure becomes deeper progressing through the many layers to reveal our inner true selves allowing individuals to talk about a wider range of topics of greater meaning to each. At this point people are able to reveal intimate high-risk information, memories and experiences as well as secrets and strongly held beliefs. Reis and Shaver (1988) believed reciprocity in self-disclosure was key for the relationship to increase in breadth and depth. Once an individual discloses something personal, it can be rewarding as the partner responds with understanding and empathy. This creates a balance in self- disclosure which increases feelings of intimacy and depth within the relationship.
- Research support for self-disclosure comes from Sprecher and Hendrick (2004). Predictions about self-disclosure by social penetration theory have been supported with researchers finding strong correlations between several measures of satisfaction and self-disclosure within heterosexual relationships. Men and women who used self-disclosure reported to believe their partners did the same and rated themselves as more satisfied and committed to their relationships. Research by Laurenceau (2005) has found the reverse is also true with less intimate couples self-disclosing less often also. This research support for self-disclosure suggests it is important and has validity.
- However the theory may have limited validity to only heterosexual couples or western society as it has not been derived from same sex relationships or across cultures. The prediction that self-disclosure leads to a more satisfying and intimate relationship is not always true across all cultures as it depends on the type of self-disclosure being shared. Tang et al (2013) found sexual self- disclosure was more open in western cultures (USA) within relationships than it was in collectivist cultures such as China. Cultural norms shape patterns of self-disclosure and more intimate disclosures leading to more satisfied relationships may only be limited to western relationships because of this. For example Nakanishi (1986) found Japanese women preferred a lower level of conversation than Japanese men which is the opposite of self-disclosure patterns in western society. Therefore this suggests that the importance of self-disclosure as an aspect of attraction is moderated by the influence of culture.
- This makes theories into self-disclosure such as social penetration theory biased and more suited for western cultures. Although self-disclosure appears an important element within relationships according to correlational data, we cannot say for certain that this is the reason for relationship satisfaction or formation as we cannot establish cause and effect with correlational data. For example it may simply be that more committed relationships (for other reasons) results in more self-disclosure anyway and it is difficult to establish this as the cause. Measuring self-disclosure and how it contributes to attraction in real life is difficult as within test conditions the findings lack ecological validity.
- Self-disclosure research does provide us with real-world applications as it can help improve relationships through better communication. If self-disclosure can improve intimacy then partners who are less skilled at communication can be taught to open up and share more about themselves. This can help improve relationships as part of counseling or couples therapy to save relationships to increase satisfaction and commitment.
- Self-disclosure is also supported by Collin and Miller (1994) who conducted a meta-analysis of research studies. Results found that people who gave intimate self-disclosure are seen as more attractive than those who give less intimate self-disclosures and self-disclosure occurs more often towards people the discloser is attracted towards. This supports the importance of self- disclosure as a factor that affects attraction within relationships.
- One criticism of self-disclosure research is it rarely distinguishes between friendships, companionship or romantic relationships making it difficult to assess the role self-disclosure has on romantic relationships. When research has focused on romantic relationships it has not distinguished between the many different types that exist such as relationships high in passion, intimacy or commitment. It may be that self-disclosure may make people more attractive to people looking for relationships that are high in intimacy as not everyone seeks this from a relationship.
- It is also unlikely that self-disclosure is the single reason for people being deemed more attractive. Self-disclosure is likely to interact with other factors such as the level of physical attraction, similarity and interests or attitudes meaning this explanation is just one of many possible factors and doesn’t offer a holistic explanation for attraction in relationships. Personality is also a factor for both individuals involved when it comes to self-disclosure.
Filter theory was created by Kerckhoff and Davis (196) and explains relationship formation as occurring through different factors that limit the range of available choices through a series of filters that narrow down our available options for potential partners. There are 3 levels of filters which include social demography, similarity and attitudes and complementarity. Each of these filters assume greater or less importance at various stages of a relationship.
Social demography focuses on individuals we are realistically likely to be able to meet and have the possibility of having something in common with them. This limits peoples options to those they are in proximity to which makes them more accessible. Factors that influence this can be social class, level of education, ethnicity, religion, who we work with or are able to encounter frequently enough that we can build meaningful interactions with them as social circumstances can limit us meeting people that are too dissimilar to our lifestyle. This form of filtering is known as “homogamy” as it means you are likely to form relationships with people who are socially and culturally similar. Such individuals will appear more attractive as communication becomes easier due to these similarities and this helps the development of the relationship.
Social demography narrows down prospective partners leaving those who have social and cultural characteristics which are in common with our own. Kerckhoff and Davis believed similarity of attitudes was then the next filter which was important in developing a romantic relationship but this was only for couples who had been together less than 18 months. Donn Byrne (1997) referred to this as the law of attraction and frequent interaction exposes one another to their values, beliefs and attitudes and those who have similar to our own are likely to be deemed more attractive.
The third filter in filter theory is referred to as complementarity and concerns the ability of romantic partners to meet one another’s needs with the focus on emotional needs. This could be through one partner having traits the other lacks or looks for in a relationship and this helps make the relationship “deeper”. Kerckhoff and Davis suggest complementarity was more important in long-term relationships as opposites attract and because it made two individuals feel complete or “whole” together.
Evaluating Filter Theory
- Filter theory has research support from various studies. Festinger et al (1950) found that people who lived the closest to stairways in an apartment block also had the most contact with other residents and formed the most friendships with other residents which supports the idea of social demographic variables. This was further supported by Clark (1952) who found 50% of the citizens of Columbus Ohio were married to partners who initially lived within walking distance to each others homes.
Peter Winch (1958) found evidence to support that similarity of attitudes, personality and interests was typical of the early stages of a relationship. Complementarity was also supported between partners who had been married for several years again supporting filter theory.
- However George Levinger (1974) failed to replicate the original findings for which filter theory was based on which undermines this explanation of attraction. There was no evidence that either similarity of attitudes, values or complementarity of needs influenced the permanence of relationships. Levinger proposed that social value changes particularly in courtship patterns may be the reason of this suggesting culture may be a stronger mediating factor than the 3 filters proposed.
- The popularity of online dating means the theory lacks temporal validity and was more a “child of its time” rather than a universal explanation that can be applied across cultures and time. Online dating has reduced the importance of social demographic variables as it has become easier than ever to communicate, talk and even meet partners through dating websites and applications. This has opened up the possibility for people to date one another when normally social demographic variables (culture, race, social class) may have prevented the two from ever meeting previously. This could be argued to invalidate filter theory as social norms and circumstances have now changed within the dating scene.
- Another issue is how filter theory may apply with homosexual couples as this theory has been based completely on heterosexual couples from individualistic western cultures. Therefore this theory lacks validity when applying it to same-sex couples as it may only account for attraction in heterosexual relationships. Also the theory can be argued to be culturally biased as it focuses on the patterns of attraction for western relationships. In other countries arranged marriages are still commonly used and none of the 3 filters can be confidently said to be at work in this. This therefore means the theory may only be limited to western cultures from which it was based on and is not a universal explanation.
- A further criticism of the theory is the fact that when research has looked at similarity between partners it has done so using correlational research. The theory proposes that people who are similar in their attitudes, personality and values are attracted to one another but this can be argued to be wrong as you cannot establish cause and effect from these two variables. For example Andersons (2003) longitudinal study found that cohabiting partners became more similar in their emotional responses over time and they referred to this as emotional convergence. Rusbult (2001) discovered an “attitude alignment” affect in longterm relationships where partners bring their attitudes inline with one another which again suggests that similarity of attitudes is an effect of the relationship rather than a cause which undermines filter theory.
- Duck (1973) proposed the real value of the filtering process was it allowed people to make predictions about their future interactions and to avoid investing time and effort into a relationship that wouldn’t work. Interactions with one another through self-disclosure, disagreements or questioning can help each person learn about one another to understand a persons real feelings about topics. Based on these exchanges partners can then decide whether it will work or to end the relationship before they become too committed. The filtering process therefore plays the role of stopping people making the wrong choice and then having to live with the consequences afterwards.
Theories of Romantic Relationships
The A-level Psychology Specification states you need to know the following for theories of romantic relationships:
- Social exchange theory
- Equity theory
- Rusbult's investment model of commitment
- Duck's phase model of relationship breakdown
Social Exchange Theory
Social exchange theory views romantic relationship behaviour as a series of exchanges based on rewards, costs and profit. Each person attempts to maximise their rewards while minimising their costs. The exchange element occurs when individuals receive rewards and thus feel obliged to reciprocate. Rewards are seen as pleasurable and beneficial, which may include company, security, intimacy or sex. Costs can be anything that occurs that is viewed as a loss to the individual due to being in the relationship e.g. effort, financial investment or time. This can also be problems, arguments, abuse, and loss of other relationship opportunities faced by the individual due to maintaining the current relationship. The costs subtracted from rewards equals in a perceived profit or loss. This theory proposes relationships are maintained with further commitment as long as the individual perceives a profit occurring.
Social exchange theory proposes individuals also use a comparison level to determine the value of exchanges. This comparison level is based on previous experiences of relationships, the person’s expectations of the relationship and a comparison of possible alternative relationships that may be available. This comparison may also look at the benefits of not being in a relationship compared to the current one and the profits of that (e.g. less arguments, more time with friends, freedom etc) If a person judges the current relationship as offering poor value based on this comparison level they may be motivated to end it or continue to maintain it provided the profits exceed this comparison level. Someone who has a history of unpleasant or unsatisfying relationships may themselves have a very low comparison level and may therefore be perfectly happy to maintain a poor relationship. On the other hand people who have previously had satisfying relationships (and a high comparison level) would have a high expectation for the quality of their relationships and exit any relationships that did not meet this high expectation. If alternative relationship potential exists, social exchange theory proposes the person may weigh up the costs of ending the current relationship if a new relationship is anticipated as providing greater profit. Therefore a person will be committed to their current relationship provided the overall benefits and costs are perceived as being greater than what they may achieve in an alternative relationship.
Therefore social exchange theory proposes that a relationship is maintained if both partners outcomes or perceived profits are above their comparison level and possible alternatives.
Social Exchange Theory Evaluation
- One major criticism of social exchange theory is the fact that it portrays relationships purely on a profit and loss basis which many researchers reject as lacking face validity. Another criticism is how costs and benefits are determined as what one person deems a cost, another may see this as a profit and vice versa. Also the dynamic nature of relationships means what was once seen as a benefit at one point may eventually be seen as a cost at a later point as partners redefine what they see as rewarding or costly. This makes it difficult to classify all events in such simple terms as “benefits” or “costs” and challenges the view that all relationships operate in this way.
- There is research support for the influence of a comparison level for alternatives however. Sprecher (2001) conducted a longitudinal study of 101 couples who were dating within the US at a university. Results found that the exchange variable most highly associated with relationship commitment was the partners comparison level for alternatives. Sprecher’s study showed how the presence of alternatives was consistently and negatively correlated with both commitment and relationship satisfaction for both males and females. In relationships where the possibility for alternatives was high, relationship satisfaction and commitment tended to be low. This supports social exchange theory as Sprecher argued that those who lack alternatives are likely to remain committed to the relationship (and satisfied) as the theory predicts. However the research findings could be biased in a number of ways firstly through a lack of population validity. The sample was based on young students who at this age are at a point where they are frequently socialising and inclined to base their relationship satisfaction on the possibility of alternatives more so than other age ranges. This may not be representative of older age ranges or samples beyond the university lifestyle and for this reason the findings may not generalise to the wider population which means the comparison level for alternatives lacks universality.
- Research support for social exchange theory comes from Hatfield (1979) who looked at people who felt they were over- benefitting or under-benefitting in their relationships. Those under-benefitting reported to feel angry and deprived while those over-benefitting felt guilty and uncomfortable. This supports SET as regardless of them under-benefitting or over-benefitting, neither wished to maintain a relationship if it was unequal.
- One strength of social exchange theory is it can even explain why romantic relationships are maintained when they are abusive with high apparent costs. Rusbult & Martz (1995) found that women who were physically abused by their partners and living in a women's refuge were likely to return to their abusive partners as they lacked better alternatives often due to poor education levels, no job prospects and little access to money. Social exchange theory can explain this as even in abusive relationships, the profits of remaining exceeded the costs. This also presents us with practical real-world applications as support can then be tailored by charities for abuse victims to improve their education and employment prospects to address this need allowing women to leave abusive relationships.
- Mills & Clark found there was an overall lack of consistent support for Social exchange theory and there were two types of couples. The communal couple saw each partner give out of concern for the other and the exchange couple where each kept a mental record of “point scoring”. This shows there are different types of relationships and that social exchange theory may lack external validity applying to some but not all relationships. Another issue is the inappropriate assumptions that are underlying social exchange theory. The theory proposes that partners return rewards for rewards and costs for costs and assumes these reciprocal exchanges are monitored. It is likely that if people felt such a thing was being monitored within a promising relationship, they would question the motives of their partner or undermine their faith in the relationship itself leading to possible breakdown. Due to this many researchers believe social exchange theory is based on faulty assumptions on how relationships are maintained and cannot therefore generalise to most romantic relationships. Mills and Clark also stated it was not possible to quantify emotional investment which played a huge role in relationship maintenance. Such theories are unable to quantify or explain how “love” fits in although this is widely accepted as a huge factor in maintaining relationships.
- Social exchange theory is culturally biased as it has been based on the dynamics of primarily western couples and then generalised to all other relationships. This theory for romantic relationships could be argued to be typical of a western individualistic culture that focuses on the needs of the individuals hence the primary focus being on profits for each person within the romantic relationship. However in collectivist cultures social exchange theory may not necessarily apply, for example where arranged marriages still take place. In such cultures the focus would be on the bringing together of families and communities and not down to purely the selfish desires of each individual and for this reason this theory lacks universality and generalisation.
Equity theory is an economic theory of romantic relationships which similar to social exchange theory, sees rewards and costs as important but places a greater emphasis on the need for equity and fairness within the relationship. Walster (1978) proposed what mattered most with equity (fairness) is that both partners level of profit (rewards minus costs) is roughly the same as one another.
This theory proposes under-benefiting or over-benefiting can both cause inequity within the relationship leading to dissatisfaction or possible dissolution. Those under-benefitting may feel anger, hostility and resentment while the over-benefitting partner may feel guilt, discomfort and shame. Thus satisfaction for both is determined by a perceived fairness by both partners relative to what they put into the relationship. The greater the perceived inequity the greater the dissatisfaction and distress. Recognising inequity also provides a chance for the relationship to be saved by making adjustments to re-establish equity. This is provided the “loser” feels there is a chance of restoring fairness and is motivated to attempt to save the relationship. This can be done by changing the amount put into the relationship (input), changing the amount taken out from the relationship (output) or changing their perception of inputs and outputs (perceived equity) so the relationship feels more equitable even if nothing actually changes.
Equity does not necessarily mean equality and both people can put in different amounts within the relationship and it can still be deemed equitable. If someone puts in little they may get little while those who put in more may get more in return. Equity theory is therefore dependent on input/output ratios. People may still compare the relationship to their comparison level for other relationships to determine whether it is worth them continuing to invest or start a new relationship.
Equity Theory Evaluation
- Equity theory is supported by research into real life romantic relationships which provide greater research support and evidence when compared to social exchange theory. Mary Utne (1984) surveyed 118 recently married couples aged 16-45 measuring equity through the use of self-report scales. Researchers found that the couples who perceived the relationship as equitable were also more satisfied than couples people who saw themselves as over-benefitting or under-benefitting within their own relationships. This research supports the case that equity is important within relationships increasing its validity as an explanation of romantic relationships.
- There are criticisms to the theory however such as it being biased towards heterosexual relationships and only focusing on the dynamics of this. The theory may not be able to fully account for same-sex relationships which limits its validity as a universal explanation. Also the age ranges for which equity theory is based tends to be narrow and it may not fully account for the younger age groups or more senior relationships again limiting its external validity to the wider population. For these reasons it could be argued that the theory is not a holistic explanation for the dynamics of how all romantic relationships operate which limits its universality as an explanation.
- Another issue is the theory could be argued to be culturally biased as it tends to ignore the cultural differences of how other cultures operate when it comes to romantic relationships. Equity theory is based on the values and customs of western society which is an individualistic culture and attempting to explain all relationships this way, including cultures that are collectivist may not work and this is a form of beta bias as it is attempting to minimise or ignore differences. This is supported by Aumer-Ryan et al (2007) research which challenges the notion that equity is universal feature of all romantic relationships in all cultures. Researchers compared collectivist and individualistic cultures finding individualistic cultures were more likely to see their relationships as satisfying when they deemed their relationship as equitable. Partners from collectivist cultures however were most satisfied when they felt they were over-benefitting and this was true across both genders. This suggests equity theory is cannot be applied universally as this notion of equity and fairness is not universal. Therefore the theory is limited in its validity as it cannot account for cultural differences that exist. Moghaddam (1983) also found US students preferred equity while European students preferred equality which suggests the theory only reflects the values of US society further undermining its universality across cultures.
Equity theory, like social exchange theory, still portrays people as selfish as it portrays people as maintaining relationships only for their own selfish needs and this lacks face validity. This is because many people if questioned would disagree with maintaining their relationship just for themselves. Many people invest heavily into the relationship so their partners can benefit and take little out because they find selfless acts more rewarding by seeing their partners happy and equity theory isn’t able to fully explain this. Also the theory does not account for the role of “love” and how this fits in as it simply portrays romantic relationships maintained on the basis of a profit or loss scale using equity as the currency which we know is oversimplified. For example equity theory cannot explain why abusive relationships are maintained despite the huge cost to the sufferer who may remain with an abusive partner indefinitely or refuse to leave them. There are clearly more complex processes at work which the theory cannot explain or address which limits its universality further as it is not a holistic explanation for all types of relationships.
Kelly and Thibaut’s (1978) interdependence theory may be a better fit for this reason. This explanation suggests not all social interactions share a desire for equity and fair exchange as romantic relationships are varied and complex. Partners motives and desires can clash at times as well as coincide which can produce a range of responses such as aggression to altruism, competition, capitulation (giving in) to cooperation or even intransigence (digging your heels in).
Mills and Clark (1982) also argued that relationships are difficult to quantify especially in terms of measuring equity. They argued within romantic relationships, much of the input and output is emotional and therefore difficult to measure or quantify and trying to do this diminishes our notion of what love is within a relationship. Therefore equity theory may not be an appropriate explanation for relationships as it actually devalues our primary notion of what love is within it into simple exchanges for personal gratification.
Individual differences also exist which equity theory cannot fully account for as it assumes everyone is concerned with achieving fairness. Huseman et al (1987) suggests that some people are less sensitive to equity than others describing some partners as “benevolents” who are prepared to contribute more to the relationship than they get out. Others are described as “entitleds” who believe they deserve to be over benefitting and accept this without any guilt. This shows equity is not a global feature of all romantic relationships nor is it a universal law of social interaction. This would also fit inline with sexual selection theory which is an evolutionary theory to explain mate selection. Evolutionary theories propose that females look for greater investment from partners (males) when choosing to remain with them and this suggests there may be a difference in input/output ratios which equity theory may not be able to explain. Also research by Machung et al (1989) suggests there are gender differences too as equity seems more important to females than males which again undermines the theories notion that equity is important equally to both genders. Therefore this explanation could be argued to be gender biased as it portrays equity being equally important to men as it is women which this research contradicts.
Rusbult's Investment Model of Commitment
One theory of romantic relationships is Rusbult’s investment model which sees commitment to a relationship being dependent on 3 factors which are satisfaction level, comparison with alternatives and investment size.
Satisfaction refers to the positive emotions and benefits of being in the relationship versus the negative aspects of being in the relationship. A person’s satisfaction is influenced by the extent to which the other person fulfils their most important needs e.g. domestic needs, companionship or sexual needs. If the positives outweigh the negatives then they are likely to be satisfied. Quality of alternatives (or comparison with alternatives) refers to the extent to which an individual’s needs might be better met outside of the current relationship either single or in another relationship. If the person perceives more attractive alternatives in another relationship or without the current one, they may be motivated to end it. If alternatives are not present or there is a lack of better options, they may maintain the current relationship.
Rusbult also proposed investment size contributed to a stable committed relationship. This is a measure of all the resources associated with the relationship that a person would lose if the relationship were to end. Rusbult proposed two types of investment existed which is intrinsic investments and extrinsic investments.
Intrinsic investments are resources put directly into the relationship and can be tangible such as money and possessions. They can also be resources that are difficult to quantify such as energy, emotion and self-disclosures.
Extrinsic investments are resources which did not previously feature in the relationship but are now closely part of it. This could include tangible possessions bought together, children or mutual friends shared between them. Memories shared can also be part of this.
Commitment is high in romantic relationships where partners are happy with their relationships and see little gain and high levels of cost from leaving the relationship. Commitment is low when satisfaction levels and investment in the relationships are also low with quality of alternative options high. In short, when people are happy with their relationships they feel more attached to it because of their heavy investments and lack of better alternatives.
Evaluating Rusbult's Investment Model of Commitment
- Rusbults investment model has research support particularly for the importance of commitment as an indicator for relationship stability. A meta-analysis by Le et al (2010) analysed data from up to 38’000 participants in 137 studies over a 33 year period. Results were in line with Rusbults investment model predictions with commitment or a lack of this being a strong predictor for relationship breakup. Satisfaction, quality of alternatives and investments were also modest predictors of whether a person would stay in the relationship or break up which supports the investment model.
- A criticism of the investment model is the problem researchers have in measuring key variables that contribute to commitment in romantic relationships such as satisfaction levels, investment size and quality of alternatives. Rusbult created the “investment model scale” to tackle this issue and although it has been shown to be high in reliability, it is based primarily on self-reports. The problem with self-reports is people may wish to present themselves in a positive light which would bias results and undermine the validity of findings. Due to the subjective nature of how these key variables are measured another issue is exactly how valid the results and theory actually is as the key variables are difficult to objectively measure.
- Another methodological issue is most of the research findings supporting the investment model have been based on correlational research. Although strong correlations have been found between important variables predicted by the theory (satisfaction, quality of alternatives and investments in relation to commitment), there is no evidence of causation. We can only see a relationship between these variables but not establish cause and effect as it may well be that high levels of commitment lead to greater investment and satisfaction, not vice versa. This is a limitation for the explanation as we cannot conclusively say whether the key factors outlined are actually a cause rather than an effect for maintaining relationships.
- A strength of investment theory is its ability to explain abusive relationships and present real-world applications to help tackle this. The theory can explain why abused partners remain in relationships as they may lack alternatives or have too much invested with the partner (intrinsic and extrinsic investments) which they would lose. This would make dissolution difficult and Rusbult and Martz (1995) found lack of alternatives and high investments were an indication of whether abused women chose to return to their partner.
Agnew et al (2008) expanded the investment model further to include investment in the future as another form of investment to be considered as part of the theory. They proposed the notion of investment should also include future plans partners may have regarding the relationship which they would lose if it were to end e.g. having children, buying a home together etc. Researchers argued some relationships therefore persist not only for the current investments but to see future investments realised. This supports Rusbults theory as it highlights the importance of investment in the maintenance of romantic relationships.
The investment model for romantic relationships could also be argued to be culturally biased. The theory is based on studying western society which may place a greater emphasis on individual satisfaction levels, investments and the quality of alternatives. Collectivist cultures (or other cultures in general) may not place such emphasis on these variables and therefore the theory may be culturally biased as it may not explain how relationships work in other countries or cultures.
Duck's Phase Theory of Relationship Breakdown
Ducks phase model of relationship breakdown see’s relationship breakdown as a process of stages rather than a one-off event. There are four distinct phases with each one marked by one or both partners reaching a threshold where their perception of the relationship changes, usually for the worse, allowing each to progress through the different stages. Relationship breakdown begins when a partner realises they are unhappy within the current relationship. This may be because the relationship is deemed inequitable or the relationship results in a greater loss. The lack of stimulation may also contribute to partners feeling the relationship is not progressing or developing. A lack of maintenance or circumstances where partners are not spending enough time together due to work commitments may also lead to strain.
The first phase is the intra-psychic phase where the focus is on the cognitive processes within the individual. The individual may not say anything about their dissatisfaction but feel resentful and unhappy and have thoughts around whether they would be better off without the relationship. Their unhappiness may also be expressed indirectly through social withdrawal. The threshold for this stage is usually characterised by thoughts such as “I can’t stand this anymore” indicating a need for change.
The second phase is the dyadic phase and sees the unhappy partner discuss their dissatisfaction. A series of discussions take place where partners may discuss their lack of inequity, resentment and imbalanced roles. Feelings of anger and guilt may also be aired at this point between both and two possible outcomes may come from this phase. Provided the discussions can be constructive, this can lead to reconciliation with a desire to repair the relationship or if this fails the threshold for the next phase is reached. This threshold may be characterised by thoughts such as “I would be better off without this relationship”.
The social phase sees the breakup made public within their social circles. Each partner will seek support, forge alliances and negotiations will take place over assets. Mutual friends may be expected to pick a side and gossip may be traded with some being judgmental placing blame on one partner. Some may provide previously withheld secrets to hasten the end of the relationship or help repair the relationship between them. The threshold here would be thoughts such as “this is now inevitable” as often once others become aware this is the point of no return.
The grave-dressing phase sees a post view of the relationship breakdown being established by both. This will cover why the breakdown occurred with each person having their own account that presents themselves favourably often at the expense of the other. The rebuilding of self-esteem for future relationships occurs here to show trust and loyalty, two important qualities which are under question after breakdown. People may try to retain social credit by blaming circumstances, the other partner, people or anything except themselves. They may also create a story that sits comfortably with themselves such as traits they found initially endearing about the partner not reinterpreted as a characteristic that contributed to the relationship breakdown. The threshold here would be the individual concluding “its time to start a new life”.
Duck's Phase Model of Relationship Breakdown Evaluation
- One strength of the theory is it has face validity as the process of breakdown occurring through phases is something most people can relate to through their own experiences. Hatfields study (1984) supports Duck’s breakdown model as this study found individuals reported to feel dissatisfaction and resentment and feelings of under-benefitting which lead to social withdrawal. This supports the notion of an intrapsychic phase as the model proposes.
- However gender differences exist and this theory could be argued to suffer from gender bias, particularly beta bias as it attempts to play down gender differences assuming the process is experienced similarly by men and women. Argyle (1988) found women cited a lack of emotional support as the reason for breakdown while men cited an absence of fun. Kassin (1996) found further support for gender differences with women citing unhappiness and incompatibility while men blamed a lack of sex. Women also wanted to remain friends while men preferred clean breaks. This suggests gender differences exist that the model is unable to explain.
Another criticism of Ducks breakdown explanation is Individual differences also exist and a possible additional phase that is unaccounted for. Akert (1992) found that the person who instigated the break-up tended to suffer fewer negative consequences than the non-instigator. This suggests individual differences in the effects of the dissolution but also the fact that another stage may exist where the instigator may already have calculated the breakup costing them less overall at some point which falls outside of Duck’s explanation.
Another criticism is the model for breakdown is not universal as it does not apply to every case of relationship breakdown nor does the phases always occur in the same order. The model does not apply to homosexual relationships or heterosexual relationships where there are no children.
Duck’s model of breakdown does present us with real-world applications particularly as it has implications for interventions to save relationships. The model identifies opportunities for different repair strategies at different points. For example during the intrapsychic stage where people brood over the negatives of their partner and the relationship, they can be encouraged to focus instead on the positives. During the Dyadic stage communication is key and ensuring this is constructive and solution focused rather than blame orientated can help avoid hitting the next threshold where breakdown is more difficult to avoid as it becomes social. Therefore such insights into the break-up process as applications particularly in relationship counselling.
A criticism of Duck’s model is it does not fully explain how breakdowns occur offering a description rather than an explanation which undermines this explanation. Research into breakdown like this also raises ethical issues as it focuses on sensitive areas which raises the issue of vulnerability in participants who may have to relive the experiences of breakdown causing further stress. Privacy and confidentiality are also invaded as researchers question them to find out why the relationship broke down and this presents a major issue particularly when domestic abuse is a factor.
Duck’s model is also based heavily on western society and therefore suffers from cultural bias. In some cultures arranged marriages tend to be more permanent and involve families in crisis, which these models cannot fully explain. Therefore the model can be argued to be ethnocentric and lacking external validity to wider generalisation across different cultures.
The model does not account for love and how that may play a mitigating role in relationship breakdown yet it is universally accepted as a key component within relationships. In addition the theory cannot fully explain abusive relationships where an abused partner may not initiate the stages of dissolution but instead walk away completely.
Virtual Relationships in Social Media
The AQA A-level specification states you need to know the following for virtual relationships in social media:
- Self-disclosure in virtual relationships
- Absence of gating in virtual relationships
Self-disclosure In Virtual Relationships
Self-disclosure involves revealing personal information about oneself to another individual.
Jourard (1971) proposed the concept of broadcasting self-disclosure to explain the difference between disclosing information to a romantic partner and sharing personal information to members of the public.
When people shared information about themselves in public, Jourard believed people presented an edited version of themselves. Through the use of social media people may exercise different levels of self-disclosure depending on whether the information they are sharing is public or private. People are more inclined to share sensitive information in private to selected individuals as they have more control over this group however when self-disclosing information more publicly, they may be more selective over the information they share. An alternative view suggests self-disclosure occurs more in virtual relationships because of the psychological effects of anonymity which reduces people’s fear of disproval on what others think about their inner thoughts and feelings. Rubin (1975) proposed we are more likely to disclose personal information to people we don’t know or may never see again as confidentiality becomes less of an issue when they do not have any links to the persons social circle.
Two theories for how self-disclosure works in computer-mediated communication (CMC) is reduced cues theory and the hyperpersonal model. Reduced cue theory (Sproull and Kiesler 1986) argues that computer-mediated communication relationships are less effective than face to face relationships as they lack many of the cues we normally depend on during interaction. These include non-verbal cues (physical appearance) or cues that help determine a person’s emotional state (facial expressions or tone). This leads to de-individuation as it reduces a person’s sense of individual identity encouraging disinhibition from relating to other people. Virtual relationships may therefore be characterised by more aggressive and blunt communication between people. On the other hand this may also lead to a reluctance to self-disclose towards people who behave this way reducing the chances of initiating a relationship with people.
The hyperpersonal model (Walther 1996) argued online relationships can be more personal and involve greater self-disclosure than face to face relationships. Through computer-mediated communication, self-disclosure can happen more quickly with relationships becoming intense and intimate but also end more quickly as there is a lack of trust established. According the hyperpersonal model, a key feature of self-disclosure in virtual relationships is the sender has more time to manipulate their online image than they would in a face to face situation and Walter referred to this as “selective self- presentation”. People can manipulate self-disclosure to promote intimacy in computer-mediated communication relationships by always presenting themselves in a positive and idealised way that may not be representative of who they really are also.
Evaluating Self-disclosure In Virtual Relationships
- Research suggests culture is also a mediating factor for how virtual self-disclosure affects the relationship. Yum & Hara (2005) found American participants reported that greater disclosure in virtual relationships was associated with more trust while Korean participants reported this led to less trust. Self-disclosure was not a factor for Japanese participants. This presents an issue of cultural bias as we assume self-disclosure is viewed similarly with the same effects across cultures and this is clearly not true as demonstrated by this research. This would limit our generalisations to possibly only western cultures.
- Tamir and Mitchell (2012) found evidence to suggest a biological basis for the motivation to self-disclose via social media. Increased MRI activity was apparent in the nucleus accumbens and the ventral tegmental area, two brain regions associated with reward. These areas were strongly activated when the subjects were talking about themselves, and less so when they were referring to someone else. Tamir and Mitchell also found that the subjects experienced a greater sensation of pleasure when they shared their thoughts with either a friend or family member and less pleasure when they were told to keep their thoughts private. These findings suggest there is a human tendency to share personal information with others due to the rewarding nature of self-disclosure.
The hyperpersonal model predicts people are likely to be either “hyper-honest” or “hyper-dishonest” in their self- disclosure. Whitty et al (2009) found evidence to support this when examining online discussions. People also tended to ask questions which were direct and intimate which was very different to FTF discussions where the focus would be on small talk. These findings support the assertion that the way we self-disclose in CMC interactions are designed to present ourselves in an exaggeratedly positive light which aids relationship formation.
The fact that people who lack social skills are attracted to virtual relationships suggests practical real world applications as a form of therapy. Using virtual relationships as a therapy, such individuals can learn social skills which can be useful in the formation of real world relationships. This therapy could even be used to help people with social phobias or fears.
Absence of Gating in Virtual Relationships
Gating refers to any obstacle to the formation of a relationship.
In face to face interaction, there are many gates to the formation of a relationship such as physical attraction, social anxiety and even communication skills to name a few.
Mckenna et al (1999) argued a huge advantage of computer-mediated communication is the absence of gating which allows relationships to develop and self-disclosure become more frequent and deeper which wouldn’t necessarily occur in face to face interactions. As relationships progress, physical beauty may be less damaging to the relationship as it would have been in the real world with face to face interactions. This enables people who are less attractive or socially inept to be able to express their true self, building closer more meaningful relationships than they would be able to in face to face relationships.
The absence of gating also allows individuals to create online identities that would not be possible in the real world or face to face which comes with benefits as well as costs. For example, Zhao et al (2008) found that online social networks empowered 'gated' individuals to present the identities they hoped to establish but were unable to do so in face-to-face situations. The reduction of gating obstacles in the virtual environment also enabled people to bend the truth and project a more socially desirable version of themselves rather than their real self.
Yurchisin et al (2005) interviewed 11 online daters and found they gave both their real and better selves in dating profiles as a way of attracting potential partners. Some even admitted to stealing other daters ideas or copy other peoples images in an effort to make themselves more popular. Yurchisin did, however, find that for the most part, online identities were still close to the persons true identity, possibly due to wanting to avoid the unpleasant surprise should they meet in person.
Evaluating Absence of Gating in Virtual Relationships
- McKenna et al (2000) found support for the absence of gating when computer mediated communication was used by lonely or socially anxious people. Results found they were better able to express their “true selves” compared to face to face interaction and of the romantic relationships that formed, 70% were still together after two years. This was higher than the survival rate of offline relationships highlighting how computer mediated communication and virtual relationships can be just as stable if not more so.
- Virtual relationships can be problematic however as people may only display their ideal self rather than their true self to partners. Therefore the intimacy created can lead to an idealisation of a virtual partner which they cannot live up to in reality. This may also be problematic and create unhealthy relationships as it distorts people’s perception of their partners true characteristics ignoring unhealthy habits they may have that can be destructive of both people (cheating, domestic abuse).
- The absence of gating in virtual relationships means that there is a much wider potential group of people to form relationships with as virtual relationships will often form based on common interests and attitudes. This has some advantages over dominant features of face to face relationships, such as focusing on the level of attraction.
- Research into the absence of gating has not really considered how variables such as age or level of physical attractiveness are probably more of gating factors for one sex over the other. If evolutionary theories of partner preference are correct, there would still be a difference with males placing greater value on physical attractiveness over females in their mate selection, even virtually.
For Relationships, the AQA A-level specification states you need to know the following for Parasocial Relationships:
- Attachment Theory Explanation for parasocial relationships
- The Absorption Addiction Model
What are Parasocial Relationships?
Parasocial relationships are one-sided relationships where one person may expend considerable emotional energy and time towards the other. Parasocial relationships typically develop with celebrities or people in the public domain who are unaware this individual exists.
There are two explanations for why parasocial relationships form:
An Attachment Theory Explanation
The attachment theory explanation for parasocial relationships is based on attachment theory.
People form different types of attachments with caregivers during infancy which affect their relationships in later life. People with insecure-resistant attachment types are seen as most likely to form parasocial relationships as they have a need for close emotional relationships without the risk of rejection. Through parasocial relationships, such a person can feel a close intimate bond with a celebrity without this fear of rejection as the celebrity is unaware of this relationship.
People with secure attachments have no need for this and are seen as less likely to develop parasocial relationships as they have been raised with many face-to-face relationships in a loving way.
Those who are insecure-avoidant have issues of trust and therefore less likely to engage in behaviours that create intimacy in both real-life relationships and parasocial relationships.
Parasocial relationships may function in a similar way to 'real' relationships as they exhibit, to some degree, the three fundamental properties of adult attachment as identified by Weiss (1991):
- Proximity seeking: A key element of attachment theory is proximity seeking behaviour as individuals attempt to reduce the distance between themselves and their attachment figure. Fans exhibit many elements of this as part of their parasocial relationships, for example, research has shown they like to stay informed and updated about their favourite celebrities. This includes collecting trivia about them, re-arranging schedules to see them on TV or concert as well as make attempts to contact them via fan mail or in person (Leets et al, 1995).
- Secure base: The presence of the attachment figure provides a sense of security and 'safe haven' for individuals that allows them to explore the world. With parasocial relationships, individuals do not have to fear rejection which allows them to form relationships with others in a safe way. A good example of this is one fans behaviour towards Michael Jackson where she reported the parasocial relationship provided a secure base once she was abandoned by her father (Stever, 2009)
- Protest at disruption: Another marker for attachment is evidence of distress following separation or loss of the attachment figure. This has been evident in the axing of popular celebrities such as Jeremy Clarkson and Top Gear. Fans began a petition with many lamenting the loss and others stating they felt like they "wanted to cry".
Evaluating Attachment Theory Explanations
- The attachment theory explanation has research support from Cohen’s study (2004). A sample of 381 adults completed questionnaires about their attachment style and how they would react if their favourite TV characters and were taken off the air. The research found that those expecting their characters to be removed anticipated negative emotions such as anger, sadness and loneliness and these reactions were related to the intensity of their parasocial relationship with their favourite TV character and their own attachment style. Those with anxious-ambivalent attachment styles anticipated the most negative responses which lends support to attachment styles being a key influencer to the development and intensity of parasocial relationships. As attachment theory predicts individuals look for attachment figures as a safe base and this can be seen as feature of many parasocial relationships with media celebrities. Stever (2009) cited examples of individuals who reported to experience loss of a loved one however find comfort in parasocial relationships with pop stars because they felt they spoke to them through their lyrics. Stever (2013) proposed this should be recognised as an additional form of attachment style (parasocial attachment) in addition to Ainsworth’s own work. Parasocial attachments are often formed in adolescents to media personalities to allow for the safe exploration of romantic feelings with a partner who places no demands with no fear of rejection.
- There are problems with the attachment theory explanation for parasocial relationships. McCutcheon (2006) measured the attachment types and celebrity related attitudes in 299 participants finding those with insecure attachment types were no more likely to form parasocial relationships than those with secure attachments. This finding fails to support a central prediction of attachment theory which undermines its validity as an explanation.
- The fact that parasocial relationships appear to be universal across all cultures in some form suggests there may also have an evolutionary basis for their existence. Other research studies have linked levels of education to be a factor as low levels of education have been linked with high levels of fandom towards celebrities. McCutcheon (2004) argued intelligence was a factor for this as more highly intelligent people were better able to see the inadequacies of worshipping media personalities hence they were less likely to do so.
- There are also gender differences in parasocial relationships which are not fully understood. For example with male pop- groups/celebrities (Justin Bieber) the majority of fans tend to be young females however males tend to have an interest in male figures such as sports stars (footballers).The absorption-addiction model may better explain male interests in parasocial relationships as they seek to “absorb” status from male figures where as the attachment theory explanation may be better suited for females who find emotional comfort.
The Absorption Addiction Model
McCutcheon (2002) proposed the absorption-addiction model to explain the 3 levels of parasocial relationships that can develop.
Most people are aware their admiration for a celebrity is due to their entertainment and skill value only. Some people however who are dissatisfied with their own lives, lack real relationships or are lonely may develop more intense parasocial relationships with celebrities to compensate for this void.
Someone who experiences low levels of achievement may become intensely interested in someone who is very successful in the hope of “absorbing” their success. The motivational forces driving this absorption may eventually become addictive, leading the person to resort to more extreme behaviours in order to sustain satisfaction with the parasocial relationship they have developed with the celebrity.
In some cases this can lead to this interest becoming extreme and even criminal in behaviour fuelled by delusional thinking. Another reason for developing a parasocial relationship is because the fan does not run the risk of rejection like in real relationships.
Using the Celebrity Attitude Scale (CAS), Giles and Maltby (2006) identified three levels as follows:
Entertainment-social: Fans are attracted to their favourite celebrity and watch them, read about them and learn about them for the purpose of entertainment and gossip purposes because they find them interesting.
Intense-personal: Individuals feel a connection with the celebrity e.g. they may feel they are soul mates with them.
Borderline-pathological: This level is characterised by uncontrollable behaviours and obsessive fantasies that are completely divorced from reality and may prevent them living a normal life.
Absorption Addiction Model Evaluation
- Research support for the absorption-addiction model comes from Maltby’s study (2005) that investigated the link between celebrity worship and body image in males and females aged 14-16 years old. Females that reported an intense- personal parasocial relationship with female celebrities whose bodies they admired also reported to have a poor body image about themselves. Researchers believed this could be a precursor for the development of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa.
- Other research by Maltby (2003) found links between the entertainment-social category of celebrity worship with extraverted personality traits and the intense-personal category with neurotic traits. The borderline- pathological category was also linked with a psychotic personality type. These studies provide research support for the absorption-addiction model as they confirm a prediction of a correlation between the level (type and intensity) of celebrity worship and poor psychological functioning.
- Research into parasocial relationships are also plagued with methodological issues. Most studies rely on self-reports and questionnaires to collect data which are subject to a number of potential bias which can affect the findings. For example participants may respond to very personal questions dishonestly as they may either think this is what researchers want to hear or because it presents themselves in a desirable way (social desirability bias). Another issue is most studies are correlational and any strong correlations found between celebrity worship and body image cannot conclusively be said to be caused by one or the other. People already engaging in intense parasocial relationships may then develop poor body image as they strive to be like their desired celebrity (rather than poor body image causing parasocial relationships). We cannot conclusively establish cause or effect or rule out confounding variables such as pre-existing mental health conditions that may be influencing the findings. This raises questions about the validity of the absorption-addiction model as its validity as an explanation is based on such research using these methodological setups.
- Another criticism of the absorption-addiction model is it has been criticised as being a better description of parasocial relationships rather than an explanation. It is able to describe the characteristics of people most absorbed and addicted to celebrities however it is unable to explain how such characteristics develop unlike the attachment theory explanation which undermines its validity as a holistic explanation.
- Research into parasocial relationships presents us with practical applications for the real-world. For example it can help us better understand stalking behaviour and develop effective therapies to address this such as CBT or psychotherapies. This can help reduce obsessive tendencies allowing them to lead more productive lives as well as increase safety for potential victims.