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Balance Theory


Explanations > Theories > Balance Theory

Description | Example | So What? | See also | References 



Fritz Heider originated Balance Theory to show how people develop their relationships with other people and with things in their environment.

Balance Theory says that if people see a set of cognitive elements as being a system, then they will have a preference to maintain a balanced state among these elements.

In other words, if we feel we are 'out of balance', then we are motivated to restore a position of balance.

The felt discomfort at imbalance will increase with the strength of the attitude and the overall interest in the matter.


Analytically, Balance Theory can be described as follows:

  • P: the a person to analyse
  • O: A comparison person (O)
  • X: A comparison 'thing', such as a impersonal entity, which could be a physical object, an idea or an event. This may also be a third person.

The goal is now to understand the relationships between each pair (P-O, P-X, O-X), in terms of:

  • L: liking, evaluating and approving, or
  • U: A more general cognitive unit that is formed, such as similarity or belonging.

This can be written in notation to show negative or positive relationship such as PLX (P Likes X) and P~UO (P does not have relationship U, or has negative relationship U, with X). Where just one relationship is being studied, it can also be written P+X and P-O to show positive and negative relationships.

The 'balance' of balance theory considers the consistency of logic between each relationship and the triangle set of pairs can be in balance or out of balance.

There are four sets of relationships that are usually balanced:

  • P+O, P+X, O+X
  • P-O, P-X, O+X
  • P-O, P+X, O-X
  • P+O, P-X, O-X

There are also four typically unbalanced relationships, that are likely to be turned into the above balanced relationships in order to restore balance:

  • P+O, P-X, O+X
  • P+O, P+X, O-X
  • P-O, P+X, O+X
  • P-O, P-X, O-X

Heider (1958) illuminated this thus:

my friend’s friend is my friend
my friend’s enemy is my enemy
my enemy’s friend is my enemy
my enemy’s enemy is my friend

Newcombe (1953) added a third state of 'non-balance' and showed how the model can be used to highlight inconsistency in communication between three people. He talked about the 'strain toward symmetry' where both O and P tend towards the same attitude towards X.


Balanced: P+O, P+X, O+X: Jim likes Jane, Jim likes skiing, Jane likes skiing.

Unbalanced: P+O, P-X, O+X: Jim likes Jane, Jim does not like skiing, Jane likes skiing.

So What?

Using it

Point out to others when they are inconsistent. Or give arguments that are inconsistent and which motivate them to restore cognitive balance.


Be consistent in your own thinking. Question why others ask you to consider inconsistent systems.

See also

Consistency principle, Tension principle


Heider (1946), Heider (1958), Newcomb (1953), Zajonc (1971)



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