The reward/ need satisfaction theory (RNS) was devised by Byron & Clore (1970) to explain the formation of romantic relationships, based on the principles of behavioral psychology. According to the theory, people form relationships with those who are most rewarding/ satisfying to be with which happens through conditioning. The elements of Skinner’s operant conditioning proposes that we repeat behaviors with positive outcomes (rewards) and avoid those with negative outcomes (punishments). Relationships positively reinforce by our partner satisfying our needs/rewarding us (through love or attention), but negative reinforcement also plays a part in the likelihood of formation as a relationship avoid us feeling lonely which both result in us seeking further contact with them thus forming a relationship.
The theory also suggests that we may associate a person with positive feelings due to the even in which they meet; this is called classical conditioning. This form of conditioning involves pairing a neutral stimulus with an unconditioned stimulus to create a conditioned response, for example being at a party (NS) and feeling happy (UCR), then meeting a person (UCS) and associating this stimuli (now CS)with the happy feelings to create a CR of happiness whenever in their presence and we want to be with the person that makes us most happy, thus forming a relationship.
An issue raised surrounding the RNS theory is that it fails to consider free will. It suggests that without rewards a relationship will not form however evidence from modern relationships argues otherwise, for example a rewards and satisfaction is given in one night stands, yet no relationship is formed, plus no association can be made through cyber relationships because the couple have not met, yet a relationship still manages to form. This evidence goes against the theory suggesting that other factors such as similarity, opportunity and our own choices play a role in relationship formation thus proposing the theory is deterministic as well as simplistic.
On the contrary, research evidence has supported the RNS, one study conducted by Aron et al (2005). To begin the experiment, participants answered a questionnaire rating how intensely in love they were then they were shown photos of their partner during an MRI scan. It was found that dophamine-rich
areas of the brain (area associated with rewards) had higher activity when shown their partner than when shown an image of their friend. These findings show that we form relationships with those who are rewarding.
High temporal validity is a strength to this study because it was conducted recently. This means the couples used in the experiment have a higher ability to reflect modern day relationships therefore the findings are more generalisable to modern relationships. Along with that the study is strong physical, empirical evidence because of the use of MRI scans. Brain scans produce reliable, physical, solid evidence therefore have scientific proof for the link between relationships and rewards.
The importance of reward level in determining relationship satisfaction was also demonstrated by Carte et al (1982) in which he asked 337 participants to asses their current relationship in terms of reward level and satisfaction and found that reward level was superior to all other factors in determining relationship satisfaction concluding that rewards are a greater factor than any when it comes to relationship formation. However a criticism of these findings is that the reward/need satisfaction theory only explores the receiving of rewards, whereas Hays (1985) found that we gain satisfaction from giving as well as receiving.
Most of the research into RNS theory has been conducted in the US with US participants, making it difficult to generalize to different cultures. The theory, as well as the research, has an ethnocentric bias in the fact that it is based on relationships in western cultures, therefore reflect relationships of western societies, but these are very different to other cultures were people may not get a choice in their partner e.g. arranged marriages. Lott (1994) found that women in other cultures focused more on the needs of others than rewards, suggesting that there are differences in the value of rewards which this theory emphasizes so much about. As a result of this cultural bias, the RNS theory is not a universal explanation of relationship formation.