Written by Haley Adams
In 1958 Fritz Heider set out to study these triadic interactions and developed the Structural Balance Theory (Hummon & Doreian, 2003). This theory asserts that there must be balanced interactions within the group, and when this balance is disturbed, tension is created within the group, motivating an alteration within the social arrangement to recreate balance. For example, if Kim, Jessica, and Brenda are friends and have mutually positive attitudes towards each other, they begin in a balanced state (see Figure 1). However, one day, Kim becomes upset with Jessica because Jessica started dating the guy who Kim liked. This situation causes tension within the group because although Kim now has a negative attitude towards Jessica and vice versa, Brenda still has positive attitudes towards both of them (see Figure 2). Heider’s (1958) theory leaves Kim with multiple options that are demonstrated in Figure 3.1 and 3.2; she can either change her opinion about Brenda, or she can attempt to change how Jessica feels about her and how she feels about Jessica (Hummon & Doreian, 2003). Both options will recreate balance by either returning the triad to its original state or by excluding one of the triad members.
Solid black lines indicate positive attitudes and interactions.
Solid red lines indicate negative attitudes and interactions.
How can the triad reestablish a balance?
Hummon and Doreian assert that an individual in Kim’s position can only recognize Brenda’s positive connection with Jessica, rather than change it, because Kim is only in control of her own connections (Hummon & Doreian, 2003). This assertion is only true to an extent in regards to real-world applications and situations. Technically, Kim can only control her own connections; however, she can attempt to influence Brenda’s connection with Jessica and cause Brenda's positive feelinsg about Jessica to turn negative in order to dispel the tension in the triad and recreate balance by excluding Jessica from the group (see Figure 3.3). Male relationships tend to be more physical in regards to conflict resolution; whereas, female friendships tend to be “more fractious and unstable” (Besag, 2006). To reestablish the balance in regard to Heider’s (1958) theory, girls tend to use more covert means and relational aggression, such as gossip, to alter another individual's loyalties.
Ultimately, relationships are complicated, and whenever there is an attitude shift within the group, tension occurs between its members. This tension results in another attitude shift having to occur in order to alleviate this tension. Males and females tend to react in different manners in order to achieve balance. Group members need to be aware that their attitudes and actions can extend outside of their relationships and interactions and that other relationships will be affected.
Heider, F. (1958). The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations. John Wiley & Sons.
Hummon, N. P., & Doreian, P. (2003). Some dynamics of social balance processes: bringing Heider back into balance theory. Social Networks, 25(1), 17-49.
Besag, V. (2006). Understanding girls' friendships, fights and feuds: A practical approach to girls' bullying. McGraw-Hill Education (UK).
Dr. H. Colleen Sinclair
Social Psychologist, Relationships Researcher,
Ms. Chelsea Ellithorpe
Lab Manager of the Social Relations Collaborative and Blog Editor