Discuss two or more theories of the formation of romantic relationships. (8 marks + 16 marks)

Outline and evaluate at least two theories, such as reward/need satisfaction theory and the idea that similarities cause attraction. You should only focus on the formation of romantic relationships: information on maintenance or breakdown will be irrelevant.

Reward/need satisfaction theory suggests that we become attracted to people who evoke positive feelings as they provide direct reinforcement through operant conditioning. If the presence of an individual leads to a positive outcome, they will be perceived as more attractive. We are thus more likely to repeat these behaviours towards that individual, leading to the formation of a relationship.

We also become attracted to people who are associated with positive events through classical conditioning. People who are associated with these positive events acquire positive value, increasing our attraction to them. For a relationship to commence & succeed, positive feelings should outweigh negative feelings.

Griffitt & Guay provided support for the idea that we like some individuals because they provide direct reinforcement. Participants were evaluated on a creative task by an experimenter & were then asked how much they like the experimenter. The rating was highest when the participant was highly evaluated (i.e. rewarded) by the experimenter, showing that direct reinforcement can lead to attraction.

The same study also supported the role of indirect reinforcement (association with positive events). Participants of the study had to rate an onlooker as well as an experimenter. The onlooker was also more highly rated when the participant had been positively evaluated by the experimenter, as the onlooker was associated with this positive event.

There is also physiological evidence to support the role of rewards in the formation of relationships. Aron et al. found that romantic attraction activates the brain’s reward circuits. This shows that attraction is linked to rewards, demonstrating the role of conditioning in the formation of relationships.

Critics have accused the reward/need satisfaction theory of cultural bias, as it does not account for cultural differences in the formation of relationships. Many cultures, for example, are more focused on the needs of others rather than receiving rewards.

Another view of the formation of relationships is that we are attracted to people with similar personalities to ourselves, and we avoid those whose personalities are dissimilar to ours. The formation of a relationship is more likely to occur between two people with similar personality traits.

This theory also suggests that the formation of a relationship is also more likely if two people have similar attitudes. Dissimilar attitudes often lead to conflict. Research suggests that ‘attitude alignment’ often occurs in relationships, whereby partners modify their attitudes so that they become more similar.

A study by Lehr & Geher supported the importance of attitudinal similarity. A stranger was described to 56 participants; this stranger’s attitudes were either similar or dissimilar to the participants. When asked about likelihood of dating the stranger, a correlation was found between this and attitude similarity. This shows that having similar attitudes increase the chance of a relationship forming.

A possible reason as to why similarity is important is because we assume that people who are similar to us will be more likely to like us, reducing the chance of rejection. It is also important that people share our attitudes and beliefs because it tends to validate them, which is rewarding. This reward, according to the reward/need satisfaction theory, will increase our attraction to them.

Expanding on the theory of similarity, he dissimilarity-repulsion hypothesis suggests that the absence of dissimilarity is more important than the presence of similarity. Research in various cultures has found that we are first attracted to someone because of similarity, but as we discover more dissimilarity we become less attracted to each other.

A criticism of research on similarity is that it has only dealt with similarities of personality and attitudes. This may represent only a narrow view of factors important in relationship formation, with other factors such as similarity of self-concept, economic level & physical condition also being important.

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