Social Exchange Theory and Survey Design


‘Social exchange theory’ is a critical component of sociological and social psychological theorising about how relations are created and maintained. Most often associated with the work of the (then) University of Washington sociologists Richard Emerson[1] and Karen Cook[2], social exchange theory states that exchanges constitute the fundamental form of human interaction. More than this, that interaction patterns are shaped by power relationships and the corresponding efforts to achieve balance in exchange relations. In other words, social exchange theory tells us that the  actions of individuals are motivated by the return that these actions are expected to bring (and in fact, usually do bring). The theory argues that people engage in an activity because of the rewards they hope to reap, and that all activities include certain costs and people attempt to keep the costs below the rewards they hope to receive.

Social exchange theory is important in research because, as noted by Don Dillman, interviews (and especially surveys) are a special case of social exchange. Thinking about surveys in terms of social exchange means there are three things researchers can do to maximize survey responses

  1. Minimise the costs of responding;
  2. Maximise the rewards of responding; and
  3. Establish trust that those rewards will be delivered.

In surveying, the largest ‘reward’ is letting people know that they are part of a specially selected sample, that there opinions and responses are valued. People, after all, like to feel valued. But some other ways that surveys ‘reward’ participants are through –

  1. Showing positive regard to the respondent;
  2. Providing verbal appreciation to the respondent; and
  3. Making the questionnaire interesting.

Equally, surveys can reduce the costs of responding by

  1. Making the task appear brief;
  2. Reducing the effort required (through such things as closed ended questions); and
  3. Eliminating any chances of embarrassment

A further technique suggested by social exchange theory is to include a small gift with each questionnaire sent out. This can be in addition to an incentive draw for those that complete the questionnaire but social exchange theory predicts that a small gift with every survey helps seed the exchange researchers are looking for. We also know from other psychological research that small immediate rewards are often preferred over potentially larger long-term rewards[3].



[1] Emerson, Richard (1976) “Social Exchange Theory,” Annual Review of Sociology (1976), 335-362.

[2] Cook, K. (ed.) (1987) Social Exchange Theory. Sage Publications, Newbury Park, Ca.

[3] This ‘paradox’ of people choosing short-term gratification over longer-term rewards is also used to explain the rise of obesity and the lack of savings for old age. See O’Donoghue T and Rabin M (2000) ‘The economics of immediate gratification’ in Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 13(2), 233-250 (2000).



Social Exchange Theory and Survey Design

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