The defining characteristic of an exchange relationship is that benefits are given with the expectation of receiving a comparable benefit in return or in repayment for a comparable benefit received in the past. When exchange rules are followed appropriately, each relationship member considers the exchange to be fair. Relationships between customers and storeowners often exemplify exchange relationships. For instance, a customer may pay a storeowner three dollars for a package of paper towels. Typically, relationships between employees and employers are also exchange relationships.
Exchange relationships are ubiquitous, which means they are found everywhere. Whereas many involve monetary transactions, as in the examples just given, many others do not. For instance, one set of parents with a child who plays soccer may form a car pool with another set of parents whose child plays soccer. Each set of parents agrees to provide the other’s child transportation to practices in exchange for the other parents doing the same for their child. Another exchange relationship may exist between couple with a beach cottage who each year exchanges a week at that cottage for a week at another couple’s condominium at a ski resort.
Exchange relationships may be short in duration (as when a person purchases something from another at one point in time and never sees the other person again) or very long in duration (as when couples trade time in their respective vacation homes every year for 40 years). Although the motivation to follow exchange rules is typically selfish, it may be unselfish. An example of a selfish motivation is a person desiring dinner because he or she is hungry. That person then purchases the dinner from a restaurant owner. As an illustration of an unselfish motivation for following exchange rules, consider what might happen if one set of parents in the car pool could not drive 3 weeks in a row due to their car being repaired. The other set of parents might cover and even say, “Don’t worry about it” to the couple with the car in the shop. However, the first couple might unselfishly insist on compensating the first set with a gift certificate to a fancy restaurant to honor the exchange agreement.
Exchange relationships are not exploitative relationships. They provide a fair way for people to obtain many goods and services that might not be available to them in close, communal relationships in which benefits are given to support the other’s welfare non-contingently. Occasionally, when interpersonal trust is low, exchange rules are applied within relationships which are, normatively and for most individuals, communal in nature, such as marriages and other family relationships.
- Clark, M. S. (1984). Record keeping in exchange and communal relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 47,549-557.
- Clark, M. S., & Mills, J. (1979). Interpersonal attraction in exchange and communal relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37,12-24.
- Clark, M. S., & Mills, J. (1993). The difference between communal and exchange relationships: What it is and is not. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 19, 684-691.