3.1 Social Interaction in Early Childhood: Do you know the social exchange theory in relation to children’s relationships & factors that prompt a relationship?

Chapter 3


3.1 Illustrate the social exchange theory in relation to children’s relationships


We are now going to focus on theories associated with social interaction. We are basically trying to understand how people start relating with each other and the aspects that build or break a relationship. We are also going to focus on participants’ behaviours as they relate with others. We will basically focus on three theories namely; Social Exchange, Social Systems and the Dramaturgical approach.



The major proponents of this theory are Thibaut & Kelly (1959). According to them, the continuity or disruption of social interaction depends on social reinforcements that are primarily the responses of each participant. The theory proposes that social behavior is the result of an exchange process. The purpose of this social exchange is to maximize benefits and minimize costs. According to this theory, people weigh the potential benefits and risks of social relationships. When the costs outweigh the rewards, people will terminate or abandon that relationship.


At the initiation period, participants disclose some of their personality facets. During this process, each participant carefully observes how the other reacts to the facets and also evaluate the recurring features of the others’ personality. For example, person Y talks to person X, the latter responds and the response becomes a stimulus or a hindrance for person Y’s continued response.


Social interaction will only continue if the initial try outs are mutually agreeable or if they promise to be. Social interaction continues when the participants are friendly to each other or when they express similar opinions. In social interaction, people seek to receive some social rewards. Consequently, if one participant is too demanding or increases anxiety of the other, the two cannot continue interacting. As people interact, a burgeoning relationship is normally extinguished when the social costs outweigh the social rewards. This means that as individuals interact, their relationship   depends on social costs. In view of this theory, association between two intimate individuals brings more reciprocal rewards than costs.


During childhood, social interaction among peers is demonstrated in play. For example, child A invites child B to play dodge ball. Child B wanted to play skipping rope but agrees to play the dodge ball for the sake of the child A. Child B later invites child A to play skipping rope. If child A accepts, then the social costs are balanced. If child A insists that they play dodge ball, child B feels cheated and the social costs outweigh the rewards. According to this theory, interaction between the two children is not likely to continue.


Observe at least four children at play with others for a week and keep a record each child’s initiation of a game, noting the continuity or discontinuity of interactions. From your observations critique or support the social exchange theory.


3.2 Describe the theory of social systems


I am sure you have focused on many systems in subjects like Biology. For example, the digestive system, where various organs play interdependent roles. In the same way, there are social systems in which the participants’ activities depend on each other.


One of the main proponents of is theory is Theodore Newcomb. The theory focuses on the captivating events that occur in the process of interaction. According to the theory , social interaction makes people linked in a coherent social system. The activities of people who interact become so interdependent that actions of the participants prompt reaction or even readjustment from the other. From this perspective, patterns of participants’ interaction are expected to develop systematically, and to become relatively consistent and orderly.


In the systems theory perspective, participants in interaction are not only concerned about their role but also have to be aware of the way the other person is likely to respond. This means that in social interaction there is double learning. In other words, each participant has to learn the role of the other.  This helps each of the participant to know how to react should a similar situation occur in future. In this view one may conclude that double learning, helps some losing children learn to be independent and in general learn how to behave like the other person.


In this theory there are two aspects namely similarities and dissimilarities.

i) Similarities

Theodore Newcomb argues that participants in social relationship are comforted to know that their views are shared by others. This makes them feel socially correct. In continued interaction there must therefore be some form of mutual adjustments, as the participants learn the roles of each other. When the participants’ orientations are similar, the social paths are brought together psychologically as a system. Similarities thus encourage interaction.


Some social psychologists argue that people have personal needs to seek for others with similar outlooks and this leads to comfortable and satisfying relationships. Davis (1955) found that people have a need for similarity with others they like and value. This need is developed in childhood through experience in imitating and identifying with parents or any other significant person. In children’s social interaction, a child may develop a liking for a play activity that was initially a friend’s choice. Or children may become consistent in their interaction due to valued similar interests in a certain activity.


ii) Dissimilarities

Although people like those who are similar to them, those with low self-esteem are likely to be attracted to those who are not similar to them. This could be attributed to the fact that such people feel inadequate and feel that those who are like them have got nothing to offer. Individuals in this category are therefore likely to avoid those who are similar to them. For example if a child plays hide and seek due to feelings of inadequacy in a game such as jump rope there could be a tendency of valuing the one who plays jump rope.


Maslow and Izard maintained that independent and self actualizing people could be fascinated rather than threatened by dissimilarities of their friends. Other proponents of this theory argue that mature and productive relationships are based on complementarily of values, needs and personal standards of the participants. They claim that there is a sense of personal significance and value that develops in relationships whereby people demonstrate what they can do as independent individuals. From these views, participants in social interaction express their uniqueness instead of duplicating other people’s roles.


Observe sets of friends among 4-5 year olds. Record cases of similarities and dissimilarities. Make speculations about their relationships in the light of the theory of social systems




Davis,S. & Palladino, J.(2005). Psychology. USA: Pearson Education, Inc.

Kate, Robinson  & Pullan, (2003). Early years care and Education. UK: Heinemann

Lambert, W. W. & Lambert E. W. (1973). Social Psychology. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall,       inc., Englewood Cliffs, N. J.

Santrock W. J., (1992). Life -span Development. USA: Wm. C. Brown.


Testing Exercise 3

  1. Briefly describe the theory of social exchange
  2. Citing a relevant example for each, distinguish between social costs and social rewards
  3. Explain the idea of a system in social interaction
  4. Give an illustration of similarities in Social Systems Theory
  5. Describe three aspects that may make dissimilar individuals get involved in consistent social interaction.
  6. Citing relevant examples, discuss the dramaturgical approach in social interaction.


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