Balance Theory

Balance Theory
Om, a Mantra of Persuasion

Have you ever noticed what good taste your good friends display?

They show a fine appreciation, a sophisticated scorecard, a wise perspective on all sorts of people, events, and objects that you also find interesting, useful, or valuable.

And it doesn’t matter what kind of people, events, or objects we’re talking about. If we’re talking “just folks” your good friends can spot the good old boys and girls and separate them out from the phonies and if we’re talking about the “cool crowd” your good friends can tell the difference between the New New Thing and Yesterday’s News.

So, yeah. Your good friends have good taste.

Or perhaps it is that your good friends tend to like the same things you like and dislike the same things you dislike. You two are friends because you are similar to each other and you are similar because there is consistency between the way you see the world and they see the world. There is balance and harmony among and between you, your friends, and the stands you take.


Okay, I’m probably showing my age – of Aquarius – here, but “om” is a mantra used in Zen meditation. You chant the word silently in your head until you achieve inner peace, harmony, and balance. There are other mantras besides “om” but for the life of me I can’t remember them. Aren’t there seven? Or am I mixing in Snow White here?

Back to the meditation.

We like to see ourselves as open, tolerant, diversity-loving folks when all the evidence points to a mind that craves consistency, harmony, and balance. Sure, we’re tolerant up to the point where it looks like change is required, then . . . Om. And when we “Om” it’s not just a chant. We make sure that our evaluations of our friends, their evaluations of us, and the issues and events of our lives line up properly in that desired state of harmony.

Key point: We love cognitive harmony and hate cognitive dissonance. We seek cerebral symmetry and shun dissension. Now, let’s dress up with simple observations. You’ll need a box of SOX.

Pull Up Your SOX

This theory is credited to Fritz Heider another one of the greats in psychology from the 1940s and 1950s. Heider started with simple parts, combined them into a simple pattern, and just thought about it. If you’re brilliant like Professor Heider you think up a theory people are still talking about fifty years later; otherwise, you probably just remember what you forgot to do yesterday. Fritz was brilliant and here’s how he did it.

Start with 3 elements: your Self (S), the Other person (O), and anything else (X) our mysterious friend from algebra; X can be another person, an issue, an object, a thought, something else, anything else, just X.

Now, add two relations: like or dislike.

That’s it. As simple as DNA and the base pairs although in this case persuasion science is a bit more complicated than molecular genetics because instead of looking at base pairs, Heider started with a triangle of Self, Other, and X, and their positive or negative relations.

Here are the possible states of elements and relations.

S likes (+) O.
S dislikes (–) O.
S likes (+) X.
S dislikes(-) X.
O likes(+) X.
O dislikes(-) X.

It’s easier in a triangle. Look.



The triangle model of all these possibilities leads to eight and only eight unique combinations (8 is the magic number because we have 2 possible relations that apply to 3 different elements so we’ve got 2 raised to the 3rd power, which is 2 times 2 times 2 equals 8; easy math, right?). Here’s a visual display.

1. S + O; S + X; O + X
2. S + O; S – X; O – X
3. S – O; S + X; O – X
4. S – O; S – X; O + X
5. S + O; S + X; O – X
6. S + O; S – X; O + X
7. S – O; S – X; O + X
8. S – O; S – X; O – X

Now, where does the harmony and balance come from? How can we look at each of the eight combinations and determine which ones are balanced and which are not? One more application of easy math. Simply multiply the three relation signs, remembering that a negative times a negative is a positive. So consider the eight combinations.

The first example in our eight combinations shows all positive relations. Thus, the math goes

+ times + equals + then times another + which equals a Final Jeopardy answer in the form of a question, “What is a balanced state, Alex?”

The fifth examples shows two positive and one negative relation. That math goes

+ times + equals + then times a – which equals a Final Jeopardy answer, “What is an unbalanced state, Alex?”

If you inspect the eight combination diagram, you’ll discover that the first four form a balanced state while the last four form an unbalanced state. Take a minute and sort this out so you get familiar with the system. There are only eight possible outcomes and they evaluate out into four balanced and four unbalanced states.

Testing The Theory

Nehemiah Jordan provided one of the first experimental tests of Balance Theory in 1953. Jordan gave participants the 8 SOX triangles with examples and had them rate the pleasantness of each. If you peruse the following Table you can see that people’s attitudes varying quite closely to Balance predictions. The SOX triads with the negative sign (3, 6, 7, and 8) have higher scores indicating less pleasantness while the SOX triads with the positive sign (1, 2, 4, and 5) tend to be lower although with interesting nuances.


Perceived Pleasantness Rating Of S-O-X Triads

S-O-X Triad Number

1+ 2+ 3- 4+ 5+ 6- 7- 8-
s-o + + - - - - + +
s-x + - + - + - + -
o-x + - - + - - - +
Mean 26.2 39.5 62.4 55.3 58.4 54.8 57.0 58.2
lower score indicates more pleasant
Table From Petty And Cacioppo, Attitudes And Persuasion


For example, compare the mean scores for Triads 5+ and 6-. Note that they have very similar scores, but 5 is a positive triad and 6 is negative. Realize that people can experience a balanced relation as unpleasant as an unbalanced one. These kind of variations make for interesting persuasion possibilities.

Practical and Fun Testing of SOX

This isn’t as complex or crazy as it sounds. You can demonstrate it yourself the next time you’re with a group of friends. I call it “Goring the OX” and it goes like this.

At your next gathering of friends enter into a conversation with people who like you and whom you like, then begin to talk with them in a friendly, affirming manner, but disagree with the evaluations they make. Never get hot or irate or any soapbox stuff, just dispute with a smile. If they say something is Cool you say it is Square. If they say something is the Old Thing, you say it is the New New Thing.

Of course, while this test provides a compelling demonstration of SOX and the importance of balance, it will eventually get a drink thrown in your face. A small price to pay for practical persuasion science, but isn’t there something that leads to rewards rather than punishments?

Impression Management or Gee, You Think I’m Cool

After wiping the whisky off our faces from our previous field test, let’s get smart. At the next party, move into a circle of conversation with people you don’t know. Pick one stranger as your target. When that Other Guy makes a statement of positive evaluation (“I just love Lady Gaga!”), you make an affirming statement (“Me too! Doncha just love the Egg?”). When that Other Guy makes a statement of negative evaluation (“I just hate Lady Gaga!”), you make an affirming statement (“Me too! Doncha just hate that Egg?”). Keep that up as long as you can. Then walk away to freshen your drink. Now, find your Other Guy and join the conversational circle.


Are you kidding? This is a monster of a practical persuasion play. Here’s the simple version.

1. Make another person like you through your communication toward them.

2. Make a positive recommendation for an X in the immediate context.

3. Get out of the way.

Or this.

1. Discover an X they like.

2. Behave in a likable fashion.

3. Praise X in their presence.

4. Get out of the way.


1. Discover an X they dislike.

2. Behave in a likable fashion.

3. Condemn X in their presence.

4. Get out of the way.

According to SOX, the persuasion gravity of Balance Theory will draw people toward you when you properly execute this tactic.

1. Discover an X that they dislike and also associate with another disliked S.

2. Condemn X and the other S in their presence.

3. Get out of the way.

This is the theoretical basis of infamous “triangulation” tactic employed by former President Bill Clinton.   Clinton would pick an issue and a position on that issue that tended to drive key audiences away from their normal allies and toward Mr. Clinton.  School uniforms to instill discipline in students, for example, is an outstanding example of Triangulation Persuasion.

The idea sounds kind of conservative, but only in a symbolic way; however, if you’re not thinking too carefully, the idea appeals to a conservative.  They move closer to Mr. Clinton and farther away from Republicans.  Triangulation.

Modeling A World with SOX

Imagine this. You want to persuade a large group of connected people to change the way they think, feel, or act on large issues like perception of America or the Global War on Terror. You can identify the people, you can determine whether they are linked to each other and how they feel about each other, and you can measure their stands on a wide variety of Xs. In other words you can create a world of SOX held in a computer database. In cognitive computer science terms this would be a connectionist network of nodes (the SOX), links (who and what is connected to who and what), and affective valence for the link (like or dislike).

With this model, you could identify all the balanced and imbalanced SOX triads that exist in this world. This would allow you to identify groups of people and characterize the nature and quality of their relationships. You could find groups of people who have extremely strongly balanced SOX triads. These would probably be groups of highly loyal and committed people. You could also find groups of people who have varying mixtures of balanced and imbalanced SOX triads. These would be fragile coalitions, perhaps held together on just a few key issues. Finally, you could see what triads isolate, fragment, or fracture people into very small, independent collections.

Such a model provides at least two interesting applications. First, you could use it to just understand that large social world and see how groups form based on liking or disliking for various events and people. This Big Picture view would synthesize all the working knowledge you’ve got in your head (heck, if you’re moving in circles like this you have a pretty good sense of who hangs together and why) and make it systematic, comprehensive, and dynamic. Second, this model would be great for testing hypothetical persuasion interventions. You could pretend that your persuasion managed to change the liking/disliking valence for a couple of key people, then see how that change would work itself through the entire model.

There are many large interpersonal networks that are fairly stable in their membership and thus amenable to this kind of persuasion modeling. The US House and Senate, and the Supreme Court have a relatively small number of people and engage in a fair amount of public behavior that would permit building a SOX Model of them. That would be interesting for scholars and researcher and various practitioners. Consider more practical networks. You could SOX model just your work organization. You could SOX model your industry with all the key players (suppliers, clients, customers, competitors, etc.). Hey, let’s get Dark. SOX model a group you want to disrupt, disable, or destroy.

You could build these SOX models based entirely on your own perception and evaluation. Thus, you would make a list of all the people you want in this model, select the Xs that interest you, then you would define who is linked to whom and you would supply the liking/disliking valence score for all. Then, the hard part: Finding a computer programmer who can build neural networks or connectionist models or production systems in software. But, with persuasion the hard part is almost always that last step.

Now, if this doesn’t make any sense to you or if you can’t see the persuasion implications of this, you’re just not a persuasion guy. Nothing wrong in it.


Here we are with yet another ancient theory developed, tested, and exploited in the 1950s and now largely forgotten except as a ceremonial citation (tipping your hat to the old duffer). To the best of my knowledge we have no evidence about balance theory that is confirmed in neuroscience with an fMRI or even better with a little molecular genetics. So this must be useless, right?

References and Recommended Readings

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

Jordan, N. (1953). Behavioral forces that are a function of attitudes and of cognitive organization. Human Relations, 6, 273-288.

Petty, R., and Cacioppo, J. (1981).  Attitudes and persuasion:  Classic and contemporary approaches.  Dubuque, IA:  William C. Brown.