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Balance Theory is a motivational theory of attitude change, proposed by Fritz Heider. It conceptualizes the cognitive consistency motive as a drive toward psychological balance. The consistency motive is the urge to maintain one's values and beliefs over time. Heider proposed that "sentiment" or liking relationships are balanced if the affect valence in a system multiplies out to a positive result.
For example: a Person (P) who likes an Other (O) person will be balanced by the same valence attitude on behalf of the other. Symbolically, P (+) > O and P < (+) O results in psychological balance.
This can be extended to things (X) as well, thus introducing triadic relationships. If a person P likes object X but dislikes other person O, what does P feel upon learning that O created X? This is symbolized as such:
- P (+) > X
- P (-) > O
- O (+) > X
Balance is achieved when there are three positive links or two negatives with one positive. Two positive links and one negative like the example above creates imbalance.
Multiplying the signs shows that the person will perceive imbalance (a negative multiplicative product) in this relationship, and will be motivated to correct the imbalance somehow. The Person can either:
- Decide that O isn't so bad after all,
- Decide that X isn't as great as originally thought, or
- Conclude that O couldn't really have made X.
Any of these will result in psychological balance, thus resolving the dilemma and satisfying the drive. (Person P could also avoid object X and other person O entirely, lessening the stress created by psychological imbalance.)
To predict the outcome of a situation using Heider's Balance Theory, one must weigh the effects of all the potential results, and the one requiring the least amount of effort will be the likely outcome.
Balance Theory is also useful in examining how celebrity endorsement affects consumers' attitudes toward products. If a person likes a celebrity and perceives (due to the endorsement) that said celebrity likes a product, said person will tend to like the product more, in order to achieve psychological balance.
However, if the person already had a dislike for the product being endorsed by the celebrity, they may begin disliking the celebrity, again to achieve psychological balance.
Heider's balance theory can explain why holding the same negative attitudes of others promotes closeness (see The enemy of my enemy is my friend).
- Heider, Fritz (1958). The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations. John Wiley & Sons.
- John C. Mowen and Stephen W. Brown (1981) ,"On Explaining and Predicting the Effectiveness of Celebrity Endorsers", in Advances in Consumer Research Volume 08, eds. Kent B. Monroe, Advances in Consumer Research Volume 08 : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 437-441.