Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Social balance theory at a barbeque

Something made me happy, and I didn’t understand why—at least until I remembered balance theory.

A friend and I are part of a group, and this group held a barbeque. Now, I didn’t want to go because I thought it would be kind of boring. My friend, however, not only went but he also organized it, and for some reason this bothered me. The next week I spoke with him about the event, and not only did he not have fun, but it turns out that he helped organize it out of obligation. When I heard this I was happy for the rest of the afternoon.

Why in the world would my friend not having fun make me happy? I don’t normally feed off of other people's misery. I didn’t have to go to the barbeque, so why should I care?

I suppose that I could be devolving into a petty, mean-spirited sociologist, but a more optimistic explanation comes from what social psychologists term balance theory. The best way to illustrate balance theory is with social situations with three elements: You (Person 1), somebody else (Person 2), and some object.

Balance is good, and it happens when Person 1 likes Person 2, and they both like some object. We can chart this out this way:See all the good feelings? This provides balance because not only does Person 1 like Person 2, but they also agree with them about the object.

Another balanced situation would be if Person 1 did not like either Person 2 or the object, but person 2 liked the object. Here Person 1’s low esteem of Person 2 is validated by their disagreement about the object. (There are several other balanced situations… can you figure them out? They all have only one positive relationship.)

Balanced situations tend to stay rather stable because there is no overt reason to change them.

In contrast, imbalance can be bad, and it often occurs in situations where there is tension in the feelings involved. For example, say Person 1 likes Person 2 but does not like an object. Person 2, however, does like the object. This causes tension for person 1 because their good feelings toward Person 2 don’t match their disagreement about the object. Here’s how we can chart this imbalance:
Do you see the problem? The imbalanced described here creates instability. Because of this, imbalanced situations usually don’t last too long; their tension motivates the people involved to balance the situation.

In the above imbalanced situation, balance could be achieved in several ways: Person 1 could decide to like the object or they could dislike Person 2 or Person 2 could dislike the object. Any one of these changes would work equally well, and usually the easiest change is made. There are three relationships described in this situation, and whichever one is weakest will probably be the one changed.

This is what happened in my situation. I (Person 1) liked my friend (Person 2) and not the barbeque (object), but he seemed to like the barbeque. This imbalance was bothering me, and I had several choices in how to create balance. I could decide that the barbeque was a fun thing after all or that I didn’t really like my friend. I could also try to persuade my friend to dislike the barbeque.

None of these were particularly good options, so I was stuck. That is why I was happy when I found out that he actually did not enjoy the barbeque and was involved only out of obligation. This created a balanced situation :
Whew, that was a close one!

The reason that sociologists like balance theory isn’t just because it helps us to understand our friends and barbeques. It also provides an interesting idea about how we form our attitudes.

Usually people think that their attitudes toward somebody or something are their own. You feel a certain way because that’s who you are—an individualistic, psychological explanation. Certainly people have their own preferences, but in addition our attitudes and opinions are shaped by what others around us think and our desire not to be in conflict with those we like (or to be in conflict with those we don’t like).

Think about some of your attitudes. What are some of the things you like—bands? Restaurants? Styles of clothes? Sports teams? You may be proud of what you like, even use it to define yourself—wearing logos or joining different Facebook groups. Examine these attitudes and see how they fit with your friends’ (or enemies’) attitudes. I’ll bet you pretty much agree with your friends and disagree—or want to disagree—with people you don’t like.

It turns out that some of these things may simply reflect your desire to have cognitive balance. Your attitudes may reflect the attitudes of others as much as they reflect you.


Ray Fowler said...

Interesting. So would this explain why I feel pleasure when I discover that someone I like enjoys the same music as I do, and why I feel disappointment when someone I like does not enjoy the same music?

But for some reason the disconnect for me is not as strong the other way around. For example, it doesn't bother me if someone I like enjoys music I don't like. Or if someone I don't like enjoys the same music.

Knumb said...

I think you just graphed out why misery loves company.

Brad Wright said...

Ray, interesting that the pattern of imbalance makes a difference. I wonder if that's consistent across actors and subjects.

John, I think you're right...