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Equity theory: the psychology of equity in jobs and relationships


Let’s see what the equity theory of fairness of John Stacey Adams consists of.

Have you ever felt that you contribute more to a relationship than the other person offers you? Or that you work hard to get insufficient results from others?

To understand why this happens and to know what options we have to act, we can resort to Adams’ theory of equity.

This theory stems from social and organizational psychology and can be applied in both fields. In this article we will explain what this theory consists of, we will analyze its postulates or central ideas, we will mention some example and we will also explain its limitations. In addition, at the end of the article, we will briefly summarize what the theory of equity conveys to us.

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Who created equity theory?

John Stacey Adams, a workplace and behavioral psychologist, was the creator of the equity theory. In 1963 Adam developed this theory for his job motivation. Also called job motivation theory.

What is Equity theory: what does it consist of?

Adams’s theory of equity can be found both in the field of social psychology and in the field of organizational psychology. That is, it can be applied in these two fields.

This is based on concepts such as the social comparison and cognitive dissonance of Festinger. The social comparison refers to the fact that we compare ourselves with others to value ourselves; We do not compare ourselves with “anyone”, but with people with “X” characteristics. This allows us to improve in some aspects.

On the other hand, cognitive dissonance refers to a state of discomfort that appears when what we do and what we think or feel does not match; To eliminate this disharmony, we act in one way or another (either by changing our mind or by relativizing things, etc.).

The psychologist John Stacey Adams, who considers himself behavioral (although for others it is cognitive), is the one who proposed the theory of equity (1965), influenced by the previous concepts. He developed it within an organizational context, but we can apply it in other fields and even in everyday life. Let’s see the key points of the theory.

Why is equity theory important?

(3 Key points of the Equity Theory) Equity theory is based on a series of principles or ideas that we will see below:

1. Comparison between contributions

We insist that the theory of equity can be applied both in the workplace and in the social field (of interpersonal relationships). Thus, people distinguish two types of elements when we strive to achieve something, or when we face an exchange relationship (for example in a job or in a love relationship): these two elements are, on the one hand, what we contribute to the relationship, and on the other, what we receive from it.

In this way, we are aware of what we contribute to work or a relationship (time, desire, effort …), and we are also aware of what we receive from that company or that relationship/person (also time, desire, effort, financial compensation, etc.).

Consequently, we analyze it and try to maintain a balance between what we contribute and what we receive; so that cognitive dissonance does not occur, we try to make the balance exist. If the balance does not exist, and we contribute more than we receive (or vice versa), then there is cognitive dissonance, and by extension, a motivation (or tension) in us that makes us consider some change.

Thus, in a way, we make a social comparison. What does my partner give me? What do I contribute? Do I get it on the account? Do we have a balanced relationship? And the same in a job where something is expected of us (certain objectives) in exchange for a salary.

2. Tension or motivating force

As a result of this Equity theory analysis, we obtain a perception of equity or balance, which translates into a reason between what we give and what we receive. If there is no perception of equity, that tension or motivation mentioned appears, which drives us to act, to change things.

3. What can we do about this perception of inequality?

The greater the imbalance or inequality we perceive, the greater the tension we experience. In this situation, we can act in different ways: for example by reducing our efforts in the company or in the relationship, or “demanding” more rewards/contributions to the other party. The objective will be to rebalance the reason.

According to the theory of equity, we can also choose to change our benchmark, comparing ourselves with other people, other relationships, other companies, etc. Or we can choose to leave the relationship when it really “does not compensate us” and the balance always decays to the other side.

Another option we have, and the one we use most frequently, is to maximize what we are receiving from the other person (or company) and minimize what we are providing; It is a kind of “self-deception”, a defense anism that allows us to remain calm without actually changing anything about the situation. In this way, we resist making any behavioral change, in order to preserve our self-esteem.

In a way, it is easier to alter the vision of what others offer us (thinking that it is actually more than what they offer us) than to alter the vision of what we ourselves offer.

Limitations of the theory

However, the theory of equity, although it has been supported in some studies, also presents certain problems or limitations. On the one hand, in reality, little is known about why we choose some referents or others to compare ourselves (social comparison theory).

On the other hand, it is not always easy to “calculate” or determine what contributions we make and what contributions we make in the context of a relationship.

In addition, it is not known exactly how these processes of comparison or contribution calculation change, over time (or why they change).


In summary, Adams’ equity theory says the following: when in an exchange relationship (for example, a relationship of friendship, of a couple or in the context of a company), we perceive that what we contribute is greater than what we receive (or vice versa), a feeling of inequity, of restlessness or tension (cognitive dissonance), appears. This perception is born as a result of balancing the costs and benefits of the relationship.

To get rid of this sense of inequality, we can act in different ways, as we have already explained. We can choose to act directly on the other (on their contributions or results), or we can act by increasing or decreasing our contributions/investments. We also have the option of abandoning the relationship or changing the objects with which we compare.

Equity theory with example

Illustrating the theory of equity in an example, we propose the following:

If for example in a relationship, I have the feeling that it is always me who does things for my partner (accompany her to the sites, leave money, share my time, go to look for the sites, etc.), and that She does not make any effort for me, in the end I will end up perceiving that feeling of inequality or imbalance in the relationship. That is, the result of the cost/benefit balance will be “negative” and will not compensate me.

This will cause me to act, for example, by stopping changing plans to see it, leaving the relationship or valuing other good things in the relationship that allow me to continue with it without having cognitive dissonance.

How to Apply Equity Theory

You will need to additionally take into account the Adams’ Equity Theory elements when striving to enhance a worker’s job satisfaction, motivation stage, and so on., and what will be achieved to promote higher ranges of each.

To do this, consider the employee’s inputs and outputs like follows:

Inputs include:

  • Skill.
  • Ability.
  • Support of colleagues.
  • Effort.
  • Loyalty.
  • Hard work.
  • Adaptability.
  • Flexibility.
  • Trust in superiors.
  • Commitment.
  • Personal sacrifice.
  • Acceptance of others.
  • Determination.
  • Enthusiasm.

Outputs include:

  • Job security.
  • Praise.
  • Financial rewards.
  • Recognition.
  • Sense of achievement.
  • Sense of advancement/growth.
  • Stimulus.
  • Reputation.
  • Responsibility.


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