Heider's Balance Theory in Psychology: Definition & Examples

By Olivia Guy-Evans, published June 07, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Balance theory was developed by social psychologist Fritz Heider in 1946. The theory was originally developed to explain patterns of interpersonal relations, but it has also been applied to study attitudes and opinions about many items such as physical objects, ideas, or events.  

Heider explained that a balance must exist between interpersonal relationships, or for something specific between two or more individuals, so that psychological harmony can be achieved.

If two or more people share similar ideas about something, there is not likely to be any tension or complication surrounding this idea in the relationship. 

The key notion with balance theory is that certain structures are balanced, whereas others are imbalanced. Balanced structures are usually preferred over imbalanced ones.

Imbalanced structures are associated with uncomfortable feelings, and this is what leads people to seek to achieve balance.

Heider suggested that ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’ are related to balance and imbalance. Humans search for consistency between their attitudes and relations with others to make the balance neutral.

However, if there is an inconsistency between relations and a perceived imbalance, humans tend to seek modifications to reach a consistency and thus cognitive harmony of the situation again.

In this way, balance theory describes how humans are motivated to change their attitudes. 

How does balance theory work?

Heider explained how balance theory works by developing a model which examines interpersonal relationships.

The reactions of each individual are framed within a triangle that Heider called the P-O-X model.  

P is a person in whom balance or imbalance occurs, O is perceived a person who is in the environment or situation of P, and X is an impersonal entity or other person or object that participates in the unit. Among these three parts, two types of relationships can be found: attitudes of taste or evaluation relationship and the second one of similarity, participation, proximity among others.

Each corner of the triangle represents a different element:

    P = the person to analyse

    O = Other, or the comparison person

    X = the third element for comparison such as a third person, a physical object, and idea, or an event. 

Relation patterns between 3 individuals or objects are often referred to as ‘triadic’ relations.

Through the P-O-X model, it can be possible to deduce the positive and negative relation from what each person perceives with another or with a certain object.

The relations between the individuals or objects on the P-O-X model can be either positive (+) or negative (-) and this is what can determine if a relationship is balanced. 

A triadic relationship is thought to be balanced when it includes either no or an even number of negative relations.

For instance, 3 positive relations are balanced, as well as 2 negative relations with 1 positive relationship. This would be a situation that is psychologically comfortable. 

In contrast, a triad is imbalanced when it includes an odd number of negative relations such as having 1 negative relation and 2 positives. This is a situation which would be psychologically uncomfortable according to balance theory. 

There are thought to be two types of relationship dynamics taking place in a triadic relationship:

  • Unit relationships – this is how much the different elements of the triangle belong together – the more similarities that exist, the more likely the psychological balance will occur. 

  • Sentiment relationships – how one feels about something – categorised as either ‘liking’ or ‘disliking’. 

In most cases, if a positive unit relationship exists, a positive sentiment relationship will also exist. Likewise, a negative unit and negative sentiment relationship also tend to go together. 

Heider (1958) used the following example to explain how balance theory can be applied to relationships:

    ‘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.’

Balance theory does not only examine interpersonal relationships between three individuals. It can explore relationships between individuals and an object, activity, idea, or event. 

For instance, if looking at two individual’s attitudes towards going to the gym:

An example of a balanced relationship would be: George likes Lily. George likes going to the gym. Lily likes going to the gym (P+O, P+X, O+X).

Alternatively, if George likes Lily. George does not like going to the gym and Lily also does not like going to the gym, this would also be balanced (P+O, P-X, O-X). 

An unbalanced relationship would be: George likes Lily. George does not like going to the gym. Lily likes going to the gym (P+O, P-X, O+X).

Due to the psychological discomfort of this unbalanced relationship, George may be more likely to change his attitude towards going to the gym due to his positive relationship with Lily.  

Alternatively, if George does not like Lily, and George likes going to the gym, but Lily also likes going to the gym, this is also unbalanced (P-O, O+X, O+X).

Having the same attitude as someone you dislike can also feel uncomfortable so George may be more likely to change his attitude to make it dissimilar to that of Lily who he dislikes. 

Balance theory supports the view that we are more likely to have similar attitudes and interests to people we like, since it is uncomfortable to have conflicting attitudes to our friends and loved ones.

We are also likely to have dissimilar attitudes to people we do not like. Similarly, we are thought to be more likely to change our attitudes towards someone or something based on a liked or disliked person’s attitude towards that thing. 

What is the difference between balance theory and cognitive dissonance?

Cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort which comes from holding two conflicting attitudes or beliefs.

For instance, taking the case of smoking cigarettes, two conflicting thoughts someone may have can be:

    ‘I enjoy smoking cigarettes.’

    ‘Smoking cigarettes is unhealthy.’ 

Cognitive dissonance theory suggests that people prefer cognitive consonance, where two attitudes, beliefs, or ideas are consistent with one another. While this seems similar to balance theory, they are defined in different ways. 

Balance theory focuses on a triadic relation between the self, another person(s), and a third element.

Unlike cognitive dissonance theory, balance theory emphasises inconsistencies between interpersonal relations, while cognitive dissonance can occur without any interpersonal inconsistencies. 

About the Author

Olivia Guy-Evans obtained her undergraduate degree in Educational Psychology at Edge Hill University in 2015. She then received her master’s degree in Psychology of Education from the University of Bristol in 2019. Olivia has been working as a support worker for adults with learning disabilities in Bristol for the last four years.

Fact Checking
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Cite this Article (APA Style)

Guy-Evans, O. (2022, June 07. Heider's Balance Theory in Psychology: Definition & Examples. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/balance-theory.html

Sources

Heider, F. (1946). Attitudes and cognitive organizationThe Journal of psychology21(1), 107-112.

Heider, F. (1958). The psychology of interpersonal relations Wiley. New York.

Hummon, N. P., & Doreian, P. (2003). Some dynamics of social balance processes: bringing Heider back into balance theorySocial Networks25(1), 17-49.

Tittle, C. R. (2017). Refining control balance theory. In Recent Developments in Criminological Theory (pp. 211-244). Routledge.