Balance Theory

What Exactly Is Balance Theory?

In the 1940s, Fritz Heider formulated the balance theory (Heider 1946), and examines the changing relationship between two individuals (P and O) and an attitude object (X). In a state of balance, P and O have similar attitudes Opens in new window towards each other, and both have similar attitudes towards the attitude object X.

For example, P and O might be two friends, they like each other and they both like music by Nasir Jones. Implicitly, this is a balanced state. However, if one of the friends then changes her mind about Nasir Jones, she now dislikes him, and this brings in an imbalance into the attitude system, and produces demands for change.

As a result, either the two friends might fall out, or they might try to change the other person’s attitude towards Nasir Jones. The one, who now dislikes him, tries to persuade her friend that he is not so great after all, or the one who still likes him, attempts to restore her friend’s previous favorable attitude.

Balance theory may be summarized as “a person feels uncomfortable if he disagrees on a topic with someone he likes.” This situation is called imbalanced and induces a person to change his affections or opinions.

Balance theory predicts that human beings will strive for balanced situations. This theory was later extended to affect relations between three or more people: “a person feels uncomfortable if he dislikes his friend’s friends or if he likes his friend’s enemies.” Group structures are hypothesized to display a tendency towards balance.

Balance theory has been tested in a large number of psychological and sociological research projects and found to be fairly accurate (cf. Taylor 1970 for an overview). Small groups, for example children in an educational setting, often display tendencies towards balance. The theory has also been applied to social relations that are not affect relations in settings that do not study the classic social psychological small group, for instance, in political science and history.