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Balance Theory in Psychology: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:00 Definition of Balance Theory
  • 0:45 The Pox Triangle
  • 2:07 Balanced States
  • 3:33 Unbalanced States
  • 5:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lisa Roundy

Lisa has taught at all levels from kindergarten to college and has a master's degree in human relations.

This lesson will use examples to examine Fritz Heider's Balance Theory. You will learn how Balance Theory views our psychological comfort level based on different relationship dynamics.

Definition of Balance Theory

Your two best friends, Jenny and Gina, are fighting. This makes you feel uncomfortable. You feel like you are caught in the middle and have to choose between two things that you care about.

Sounds like you are in the middle of a situation with psychological inequality. Fritz Heider was a social psychologist who developed a theory about situations involving psychological inequality. He called his idea balance theory. His idea was that we want to maintain psychological stability, and we form relationships that balance our likes and dislikes. In our example, you like both Jenny and Gina, which makes the dislike they are feeling for each other difficult for you to deal with.

The POX Triangle

Fritz Heider developed the P-O-X triangle to examine relationships. Each corner of the triangle represents a different element: P, O, or X. P is the person, which is you in our example. O is the other, let's say this is Jenny. That leaves Gina as the X, or the third element in the triangle.

P-O-X Triangle
P-O-X Triangle

In this triangular relationship, two types of relationship dynamics are taking place. First, are unit relationships, or how much the different elements of the triangle belong together. The more similarities that exist between each element the more likely psychological balance will occur. We may think of people as belonging together if they belong to the same family, attend the same school, or have some other common bond. The second types of relationships are sentiment relationships, or how we feel about something. Heider categorizes all feelings in one of two areas: liking or disliking.

In most situations, if a positive unit relationship exists, a positive sentiment relationship will exist as well. Likewise, negative unit relationships and negative sentiment relationships tend to go together. We will assume this to be the case looking at examples of balance and unbalance as we continue the lesson.

Balanced States

Before your two best friends started fighting, you were all really good friends. You and Jenny had a positive relationship. You and Gina had a positive relationship. Jenny and Gina also had a positive relationship. Three positive relationships result in a balanced state, or a situation that is psychologically comfortable.

Let's think of the positive and negative relationships in the triangle as a math equation. When you add three positives, the result will also be positive.

Balanced P-O-X triangle with three positive relationships.
P-O-X Triangle

We also have a balanced state when there are two negative relationships with one positive relationship. One example would be you having a positive relationship with Jenny and a negative relationship with Gina. If Jenny also has a negative relationship with Gina, psychological balance occurs because the relationships in the triangle do not conflict with one another.

Again, think of the positives and negatives in the triangle as a math equation. When you add two negatives they become a positive. If you add this positive to another positive, the result is positive. Using this idea, we can see that you could also have a negative relationship with Jenny and a positive relationship with Gina and achieve balance as long as a negative relationship exists between Jenny and Gina to balance out the equation.

Balanced P-O-X triangle with two negative relationships and one positive relationship.
P-O-X Triangle

These are the type of situations we want to have and what we are trying to accomplish. When we are comfortable in a balanced state, we have no distress, and there is no need for us to seek a change in our relationships.

Unbalanced States

Remember our original example where your friends are fighting? A positive relationship exists between you and Jenny. In other words, you each like each other. A positive relationship also exists between you and Gina. However, the relationship between Jenny and Gina is negative, they do not like each other. Two positive relationships with one negative relationship results in an unbalanced state, or a situation that causes psychological discomfort.

We want to avoid unbalanced states such as these. We do this by attempting to change our attitudes or beliefs about one of the relationships in the triangle in order to create a balanced state. Maybe you convince yourself that Jenny and Gina actually like each other, and they just don't want to admit it right now. Another option would be to take a side in the argument between Jenny and Gina.

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