Skip to content

A2 Psychology Aqa Essays About Life

Relationships Revision Notes

by Will Goulder published 2016

Exam Paper Advice

In the exam, you will be asked a range of questions on the topic of relationships, which may include questions about research methods or using mathematical skills based on research into relationships.

As in Paper One and Two, you may be asked a 16-mark question, which could include an item (6 marks for AO1 Description, 4 marks for AO2 Application and 6 marks AO3 Evaluation) or simply to discuss the topic more generally (6 marks AO1 Description and 10 marks AO2 Evaluation). There is no guarantee that a 16-mark question will be asked in this topic though so it is important to have a good understanding of all of the different areas linked to the topic.

There will be 24 marks for relationship questions, so you can expect to spend about 30 minutes on this section, but this is not a strict rule.

The evolutionary explanations for partner preferences

The relationship between sexual selection and human reproductive behavior

Anisogamy AO1

Anisogamy means two sex cells (or gametes) that are different coming together to reproduce. Men have sperm cells, which are able to reproduce quickly with little energy expenditure and once they start being produced they do not usually stop until the man dies.

Female gametes (eggs or ova) are, in contrast, much less plentiful; they are released in a limited time frame (between puberty and menopause) and require much more energy to produce. This difference (anisogamy) means that men and women use different strategies when choosing their partners.

Inter-sexual Selection (AO1)

Females lose more resources than men if they choose a sub-standard partner, so are pickier about who they select. They are more likely to pick a partner who is genetically fit and willing to offer the maximum resources to raise their offspring (a man who will remain by her side as the child grows to protect them both and potentially provide more children).

If they have made a good choice, then their offspring will inherit the positive features of their father and are therefore also more likely to be chosen by women or men in the next generation.

Intra-sexual Selection (AO1)

Whilst females prefer quality over quantity, anisogamy suggests that men’s best evolutionary strategy is to have as many partners as possible.

To succeed, men must compete with other males to present themselves as the most attractive mate, encouraging features such as muscles which indicate to the opposite sex an ability to protect both them and their offspring.


Buss (1989) conducted a survey of over 10,000 adults in 33 countries and found that females reported valuing resource-based characteristics when choosing a male (such as their jobs) whilst men valued good looks and preferred younger partners more than females did.

This was supported by research conducted by Waynforth and Dunbar (1995) who found that women tended to list physical characteristics when seeking a partner in personal ads and men promoted their wealth or resources.

Clark and Hatfield (1989) conducted a now infamous study where male and female psychology students were asked to approach fellow students of Florida State University (of the opposite sex) and ask them for one of three things; to go on a date, to go back to their apartment, or to go to bed with them.

About 50% of both men and women agreed to the date, but whilst 69% of men agreed to visit the apartment and 75% agreed to go to bed with them, only 6% of women agreed to go to the apartment and 0% accepted the more intimate offer.

Factors Affecting Attraction


Self-disclosure in the context of a relationship refers to how much information someone is willing to share. In the initial stages of a relationship, couples often seek to learn as much as they can about their new partner and feel that this sharing of information brings them closer together. But can too much sharing scare your partner away? Is not sharing very much information intriguing or frustrating?

Altman and Taylor (1973) identified breadth and depth as important factors of self-disclosure. At the start of a relationship, self-disclosure is likely to cover a range of topics as you seek to explore the key facts about your new partner “What do you do for work”, “Where did you last go on holiday”, but these topics are relatively superficial.

As the relationship develops, people tend to share more detailed and personal information, such as past traumas and desires for the future. If this sharing happens too soon however, an incompatibility may be found before the other person has reached a suitable level of investment in the relationship. Altman and Taylor referred to this sharing of information as social penetration.

An important aspect of this is the reciprocity of the process, if one person shares more than the other is willing to, there may be a breakdown of trust as one person establishes themselves as more invested than the other.


Aron et al. (1997) found that by providing a list of questions to pairs of people which start with superficial information (Who would be your perfect dinner party guest) and moving over 36 questions to more intimate information (Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find the most disturbing) people grew closer and more intimate as the questions progressed. Aron’s research also included a four-minute stare at the end of the question sequence, which may have also contributed to the increased intimacy.

Sprecher and Hendrick (2004) observed couples on dates and found a close correlation between the amount of satisfaction each person felt and the overall self-disclosure that occurred between the partners.

However, much of the research into self-disclosure is correlational which means that a causal relationship cannot be easily determined; in short it may be that it is the attraction between partners which leads to greater self-disclosure, rather than the sharing of information which leads to greater intimacy.

Physical attractiveness: including the matching hypothesis


Physical attractiveness is viewed by society as one of the most important factors of relationship formation, but is this view supported by research?

Physical appearance can be seen as a range of indicators of underlying characteristics. Women with a favourable waist to hip ratio are seen as attractive because they are perceived to be more fertile (Singh, 2002), people with more symmetrical features are seen to be more genetically fit.

This is because our genes are designed to make us develop symmetrically, but diseases and infections during physical development can cause these small imperfections and asymmetries (Little and Jones, 2003).

The halo effect is a cognitive bias (mental shortcut) which occurs when a person assumes that a person has positive traits in terms of personality and other features because they have a pleasing appearance.

Dion, Berscheid and Walster (1972) asked participants to rate photographs of three strangers for a number of different categories including personality traits such as overall happiness and career success.

When these results were compared to the physical attraction rating of each participant (from a rating of 100 students), the photographs which were rated the most physically attractive were also rated higher on the other positive traits.

The matching hypothesis (Walster et al., 1966) suggests that people realise at a young age that not everybody can form relationships with the most attractive people, so it is important to evaluate their own attractiveness and from this, partners which are the most attainable.

If a person always went for people “out of their league” in terms of physical attractiveness, they may never find a partner which would evolutionarily foolish. This identification of those who have a similar level of attraction, and therefore provide a balance between the level of competition (intra-sexual) and positive traits is referred to as matching.


Modern dating in society is increasingly visual, with the rise of online dating, particularly using apps such as Tinder.

In Dion et al.’s (1972) study, those who were rated to be the most physically attractive were not rated highly on the statement “Would be a good parent” which could be seen to contradict theories about inter and intra-sexual selection.

Landy and Aronson (1969) show how the Halo effect occurs in other contexts. They found that when victims of crime were perceived to be more attractive, defendants in court cases were more likely to be given longer sentences by a simulated jury. When the defendants were unattractive, they were more likely to be sentenced by the jury, which supports the idea that we generalise physical attractiveness as an indicator of other, less visual traits such as trustworthiness.

Feingold (1988) conducted a meta-analysis of 17 studies and found a significant correlation between the perceived attractiveness of actual partners rated by independent participants.


Kerckhoff and Davis (1962) suggested that when selecting partners from a range of those who are potentially available to them (a field of availables), people will use three filters to “narrow down” the choice to those who they have the best chance of a sustainable relationship with. The filter model speaks about three “levels of filters” which are applied to partners.

The first filter proposed when selecting partners was social demography. People are far more likely to have access to people who come from a similar background to themselves. This could relate to geographical proximity, social class, ethnic group or level of education for example.

The second filter that Kerckhoff and Davis suggested was similarity in attitudes. This was supported by their original 1962 longitudinal study of two groups of student couples (those who had been together for more or less than 18 months).

Over seven months, the couples completed questionnaires based on their views and attitudes which were then compared for similarities. Kerckhoff and Davis suggested that similarity of attitudes was the most important factor in the group who had been together for less than 18 months. This is supported by the self-disclosure research described elsewhere in this topic.

The third filter was complementarity which goes a step further than similarity. Rather than having the same traits and attitudes, such as dominance or humour, a partner in who complements their spouse has traits which the other lacks. For example one partner may be good at organisation, whilst the other is poor at organisation but very good at entertaining guests.

Kerchoff and Davis found that this level of filter was the most important for couples who had been together for more than 18 months. This may be the origins of the classic phrase “opposites attract”, though we may add the condition “although not for the first 18 months of the relationship.


This theory may be interpreted as similar to the matching hypothesis but for personality rather than physical traits.

Some stages of this model may now be seen as less relevant, for example as modern society is much more multi-cultural and interconnected (by things such as the internet) than in the 1960s, we may now see social demography as less of a barrier to a relationship. This may lead to the criticism that the theory lacks temporal validity.

This lack of temporal validity is supported by Levinger (1978) who, even only 16 years after the study, pointed out that many studies had failed to replicate Karchkoff and Davis’ original findings, although this may be down to methodological issues with operationalising factor such as the success of a relationship or complementarity of traits.

Again, the investigating the second and third levels of the filter theory look at correlation which cannot easily explain causality. Both Davis and Rusbult (2001) and Anderson et al. (2003) found that people become more similar in different ways the more time that they spend in a relationship together.

So it may be that the relationship leads to an alignment of attitudes, and also a greater complementarity as couples assign each other roles: “He does the cooking and I do the hoovering”.

Theories of Romantic Relationships


Psychologists Thibault and Kelley (1959) proposed the Social Exchange Theory which stipulates that one motivation to stay in a romantic relationship, and a large factor in its development, is the result of a cost-benefit analysis that people perform, either consciously or unconsciously.

In a relationship people gain rewards (such as attention from their partner, sex, gifts and a boost to their self-esteem) and incur costs (paying money for gifts, compromise on how to spend their time or stress). There is also an opportunity cost in relationships, as time spent with a partner that does not develop into a lasting relationship could have been spent with another partner with better long-term prospects.

How much value is placed on each cost and benefit is subjective and determined by the individual. For example, whilst some people may want to spend as much time as possible with their partner in the early stages of the relationship and see this time together as a reward of the relationship, others may value their space and see extended periods spent together as more of a necessary investment to keep the other person happy.

Thibault and Kelley also identified a number of different stages of a relationship which progress from the sampling stage, where couples experiment with the potential costs and rewards of a relationship through direct or indirect interactions, through the bargaining and commitment stages as negotiations of each partner’s role in the relationship occur and the rewards and costs are established and become more predictable, and finally arriving at the institutionalisation stage where the couple are settled and the norms of the relationship are heavily embedded.

Comparison Levels (CL) and (CLalt)

The comparison level (CL) in a relationship is a judgement of how much profit an individual is receiving (benefits minus costs). The acceptable CL needed to continue to pursue a relationship changes as a person matures and can be affected by a number of external and internal factors.

External factors may include the media (younger people may want for more from a relationship after being socialised by images of romance on films and television), seeing friends and families in relationships (people who have divorced or separated parents may have a different CL to those with parents who are still married), or experiences from prior relationships, which have taught the person to expect more or less from a partner. Internal perceptions of self-worth such as self-esteem will directly affect the CL that a person believes they are entitled to in a relationship.

CLalt stands for the Comparison Level for Alternatives and refers to a person’s judgement of if they could be getting fewer costs and greater rewards from another, alternative relationship with another partner. Steve Duck (1994) suggested that a person’s CLalt is dependent on the level of reward and satisfaction in their current relationship. If the CL is positive, then the person may not consider the potential benefits of a relationship with another person.


Operationalising rewards and costs is hugely subjective, making comparisons between people and relationships in controlled settings very difficult. Most studies which are used to support Social Exchange Theory account for this by using artificial procedures in laboratory settings, reducing the external validity of the findings.

Michael Argyle (1987) questions whether it is the CL which leads to dissatisfaction with the relationship, or dissatisfaction which leads to this analysis. It may be that Social Exchange Theory serves as a justification for dissatisfaction rather than the cause of it.

Social Exchange Theory ignores the idea of social equity explained by the next relationship theory concerning equality in a relationship – would a partner really feel satisfied in a relationship where they received all of the rewards and their partner incurred all of the costs?


Equity theory builds upon the assumption of Social Exchange Theory that romantic relationships can be viewed as economic models (loss, risk, benefits etc.), but factors in people’s desire for equality in relationships. If one partner is benefiting from more profit (benefits-costs) than the other, then both partners are likely to feel unsatisfied.

Walster et al. (1978) makes the distinction between an uneven level of rewards or costs between partners which may be balanced out over time or be perceived to have different values (perhaps one partner receives less rewards, but also suffers fewer costs from the relationship; they may not help with as much of the housework but treat their partner more for their effort) and the imbalance of profit, where one partner suffers from greater costs but does not receive a higher benefit for their trouble. They are under-benefiting whilst their partner over-benefits, which is likely to make both people feel uncomfortable.

What may be more damaging than initial inequity, which can be identified and dealt with (or perceived as normal) at the beginning of a relationship, is a change in equity over time. One partner may lose interest in the relationship or what is initially perceived as fair (perhaps one partner “chasing” the other) may be viewed as unfair if it continues to develop.

A partner who feels that they are receiving less profit in an inequitable relationship may respond by either working hard to make the relationship more equitable, or by shifting their own perception of rewards and costs to justify the relationship continuing.


Huseman et al. (1987) suggested that individual differences are an important factor in equity theory. They make a distinction between entitleds who feel that they deserve to gain more than their partner in a relationship and benevolents who are more prepared to invest by worker harder to keep their partner happy.

Clark and Mills (2011) argue that we should differentiate between the role of equity in romantic relationships and other types of relationships such as business or casual, friendly relationships. They found in a meta-analysis that there is more evidence that equity is a deciding factor in non-romantic relationships, the evidence being more mixed in romantic partnerships.

Social Equity Theory does not apply to all cultures; couples from collectivist cultures (where the group needs are more important than those of the individual) were more satisfied when over benefitting than those from individualistic cultures (where the needs of the individual are more important than those of the individual) in a study conducted by Katherine Aumer-Ryan et al. (2007).

Some cultures have traditions and expectations that one member of a romantic relationship should benefit more from the partnership. The traditional nuclear family, typical in the early to mid-20th century, was patriarchal, and the woman was often expected to contribute to more tasks, such as housework and raising the children, than the man for whom providing money to the family was perceived to be the primary role.

Rusbult’s Investment Model


Rusbult et al.’s (2011) model of commitment in a romantic relationship builds upon the Social Exchange Theory discussed above and proposes that three factors contribute to the level of commitment in a relationship.

Satisfaction and Comparison with Alternatives (discussed above), are the first two factors. They are the extent to which a partner feels a relationship is worthwhile for them when comparing other possible relationships and their investment against the rewards offered by the pairing. The third factor is an addition to the model, investment size, which explains why relationships do not all breakdown when the CL or CLalt are low.

Investment in relationships can be measured as a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic investments which have been made over the course of the relationship. Intrinsic investments are those which have been added by a single partner such as money towards a date or a gift, time spent with the person and any self-disclosures which have been made. Extrinsic investments are those which have been created or developed over the course of the relationship which are shared by both partners, such as large purchases (a house or car) or even children.

Rusbult’s model proposes that commitment occurs when the CL and CLalt are high and the investment level is high. We can observe this in a relationship through relationship maintenance mechanisms, or behaviors which only couples who are committed to a relationship will exhibit. These include behaviors such as forgiveness, willingness to sacrifice, and being overly positive about their partner.


Le and Agnew’s (2003) meta-analysis of studies relating to similar investment models found that satisfaction, comparison with alternatives and investment were all strong indicators of commitment to a relationship. This importance was the same across cultures, genders, and also applied to homosexual relationships.

Many of the studies relating to investment in relationship rely on self-report technique. Whilst this would be perceived as a less reliable and overly-subjective method in other areas, when looking at the amount an individual feels they are committed to a relationship, their own opinion and the value that they place on behaviors and attributes is more relevant than objective observations.

Again, investment models tend to give correlational data rather than causal, it may be that a commitment established at an earlier stage leads inevitably to the partner viewing comparisons more favourably and investing more into the relationship.


Duck’s (2007) phase model suggests that the breakdown of a relationship is not a single event, but rather a system of stages or phases which a couple progress through which incorporate the end of the relationship.

Intra-Psychic Phase

In this phase, one of the partners begins to have doubts about the relationship. They spend time thinking about the pros and cons of the relationship and possible alternatives, including being alone. They may either internalise these feelings or confide in a trusted friend.

Dyadic Phase

The partners discuss their feelings about the relationship; this usually leads to hostility and may take place over a number of days or weeks. Over this period the discussions will often focus on the equity in the relationship and will either culminate in a renewed resolution to invest in the relationship, or the realisation that the relationship has broken down.

Social Phase

Other people are involved in the process; friends are encouraged to choose a side, and may urge for reconciliation with their partner, or may encourage the breakdown, through expression of opinion or hidden facts (“I heard they did this…”). Each partner may seek approval from their friends at the expense of their previous romantic partner. At this point, the relationship is unlikely to be repaired as each partner has invested in the breakdown to their friends, and any retreat from this may be met with disapproval.

Grave-Dressing Phase

When the relationship has completely ended, each partner will seek to create a favourable narrative of the events, justifying to themselves and others why the relationship breakdown was not their fault, thus retaining their social value and not lowering their chances of future relationships. Their internal narrative will focus more on processing the events of the relationship, perhaps reframing memories in the context of new discoveries about the partner, for example an initial youthfulness may now been seen as immaturity.


Duck’s model may be a relevant description of the breakdown of relationships, but it does not explain what leads to the initial stages of the model which other models of relationships discussed earlier attempt to do.

Duck’s phase model has useful real-life applications. When relationship therapists can identify the phase of a breakdown that a couple are in, they can identify strategies which target the issues at that particular stage. Duck (1994) recommends that couples in the intra-psychic phase should be encouraged to think about the positive rather than the negative aspects of their partner.

Rollie and Duck (2006) added a fifth stage to the model, the resurrection phase where people take the experiences and knowledge gained from the previous relationship and apply it to future relationships that they have. When Rollie and Duck revisited the model, they also emphasised that progression from one stage to the next is not inevitable and effective interventions can prevent this.

Virtual Relationships in Social Media


Sproull and Kiesler’s (1986) reduced cues theory, proposes that we are less likely to self-disclose personal information in a Computer-mediated Communication (CmC) as people online are likely to be more disinhibited due to an increased deindividuation caused by the inability to access cues which many Face to Face (FtF) interactions rely upon such as facial expressions and verbal intonation. This means that people in online communications are more likely to be aggressive and rude in response to any personal disclosures made.

Walther’s (1996, 2011) hyper personal model, argues that actually CmC relationships encourage self-disclosure much earlier than FtF interactions, due in part to the sender of messages’ ability to alter and manipulate exactly how they come across to the other party. Walther says that this selective self-presentation means that the lack of cues serves to increase the speed and intensity of relationships as people are able to portray themselves in the best possible light. The deindividuation which occurs in CmC relationships can make people feel less accountable for their actions and therefore less inhibited, making disclosure much more likely.

Absence of Gating

Gating in relationships refers to a peripheral feature becoming a barrier to the connection between people. This gate could be a physical feature, such as somebody’s weight or a disfigurement, or a feature of one’s personality such as introversion or shyness. It may be that two people’s personalities are very compatible, and attraction would occur if they spoke for any length of time, but a gate prevents this from happening.

McKenna and Bargh (1999) propose the idea that CmC relationships remove these gates and mean that there is little distraction from the connection between people that might not otherwise have occurred. Some people use the anonymity available on the internet to compensate for these gates by portraying themselves differently than they would do in FtF relationships. People who lack confidence may use the extra time available in messaging to consider their responses more carefully, and those who perceive themselves to be unattractive may choose an avatar or edited picture which does not show this trait.


Walther and Tidwell (1995) point out that although some cues are absent, such as facial expressions, people can correctly use other cues, such as the length of time that it takes someone to write a response, to gauge their true feelings. Emoticons are often used as substitutes for facial expressions in CmC relationships, although these are more easily manipulated by the sender than their true reactions to stimuli.

The relevance of research into CmC relationships changes rapidly as more technology is released and the way that we interact with technology changes. Much of the research cited in this article took place before the year 2000. The way we interact with people over facetime®, emoticons and tinder® could be completely different to the technologies which were the inspiration for the theories outlined here.

The majority of relationships, especially romantic relationships, do not take place entirely online, but rather are a mixture of FtF and CmC, reducing the deindividuation effect required for the reduced cues and hyper personal theories.

McKenna and Bargh (2000) found that lonely and socially anxious people felt more-able to express their “true- selves” in CmC relationships, and the percentage of lasting relationships which began as CmC for these people were higher than for those formed in the offline world.

Parasocial Relationships

Levels of Parasocial Relationships


Levels of Parasocial Relationships

Parasocial relationships may be described as those which are one-sided, Horton and Wohl (1956) defined them as relationships where the ‘fan’ is extremely invested in the relationships but the celebrity is unaware of their existence. Parasocial relationships may occur with any dynamic which elevates someone above the population in a community, making it difficult for genuine interaction; this could be anyone from fictitious characters to teachers.

Maltby et al. (2006) used the Celebrity Attitude Scale (McCutcheon et al., 2002) in a large scale survey and classified responses into three levels of behaviors and beliefs linked to relationships with celebrities.

    - Entertainment-Social is the least extreme relationship type. The person sees the celebrity as a source of entertainment and may speak about them often with like-minded friends. Examples could be discussions about soap operas or reality television stars.

    - Intense-Personal relationships occur when people connect aspects of the celebrity to their own identity. They may have a strong feeling that they should have a real life relationship with the celebrity and believe that they share a kinship.

    - Borderline pathological relationships are used to describe the actions of someone who displays obsessive behaviors relating to a celebrity. They may invest a large number of resources in meeting or attempting to befriend the celebrity, for example by sending them personal gifts.

The Attachment Theory Explanation

Bowlby’s theory of attachment suggests that those who do not have a secure attachment earlier in life will have emotional difficulties and attachment disorders when they grow up. Parasocial relationships are often associated with teenagers and young adults who may have had less genuine relationships to build an internal working model which allows them to recognise parasocial relationships as abnormal.

For example it may be that those with insecure resistant attachment types are drawn to parasocial relationships because they do not offer the threat of rejection or abandonment.

The Absorption-Addiction Model

McCutcheon (2002) proposed that parasocial relationships form due to deficiencies in people’s lives. They look to the relationship to escape from reality, perhaps due to traumatic events or to fill the gap left by a real-life attachment ending.

Absorption refers to behavior designed to make the person feel closer to the celebrity. This could be anything from researching facts about them, both their personal life and their career, to repeatedly experiencing their work, playing their music or buying tickets to see them live, or paying for their merchandise to strengthen the apparent relationship.

As with other Addictions, this refers to the escalation of behavior to sustain and strengthen the relationship. The person starts to believe that the ‘need’ the celebrity and behaviors become more extreme, and more delusional. Stalking is a severe example of this behavior.


The absorption-addiction model can be viewed as more of a description of parasocial relationships than an explanation; it states how a parasocial relationship may be identified and the form it may take, but not what it is caused by.

Methodologically, many studies into parasocial relationships, such as Maltby’s 2006 survey, rely on self-report technique. This can often lack validity, whether this is due to accidental inaccuracies, due to a warped perception of the parasocial relationship by the participant, or genuine memory lapses, or to more deliberate actions.

For example the social desirability bias making the respondents under-report their abnormal behavior. There is often competition between fans of celebrities to see who is the ‘biggest’ fan, which may lead to an exaggeration of the behaviors and attitudes when reporting the relationship.

McCutcheon et al. (2006) used 299 participants to investigate the links between attachment types and attitudes towards celebrities. They found no direct relationship between the type of attachment and the likelihood that parasocial relationship will be formed.

About the Author

Will Goulder is an A-level psychology teacher from CATS College Canterbury.

References / Bibliography

Altman, I., Taylor, D. A., & Actman, I. (1973). Social penetration: The development of interpersonal relationships (2nd ed.). New York: Holt,Rinehart and Winston.

Anderson, C., Keltner, D., & John, O. P. (2003). Emotional convergence between people over time. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(5), 1054–1068. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.84.5.1054

Aron, A., Melinat, E., Aron, E. N., Vallone, R. D., & Bator, R. J. (1997). The experimental generation of interpersonal closeness: A procedure and some preliminary findings. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23(4), 363–377. doi:10.1177/0146167297234003

Buss, D. M. (1989). Sex differences in human mate preferences: Evolutionary hypotheses tested in 37 cultures. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 12(01), 1. doi:10.1017/s0140525x00023992

Clark, R. (1989). Gender differences in receptivity to sexual offers. Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality, 2(1), 39–55. doi:10.1300/j056v02n01_04

Davis, J. L., & Rusbult, C. E. (2001). Attitude alignment in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81(1), 65–84. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.81.1.65

Dion, K., Berscheid, E., & Walster, E. (1972). What is beautiful is good. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 24(3), 285–290. doi:10.1037/h0033731

Feingold, A. (1988). Matching for attractiveness in romantic partners and same-sex friends: A meta-analysis and theoretical critique. Psychological Bulletin, 104(2), 226–235. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.104.2.226

Flanagan, C., Berry, D., & Jarvis, M. (2016). AQA psychology for A level year 2 - student book. United Kingdom: Illuminate Publishing.

Gallagher, M., Nelson, R., J, Y., & Weiner, I. B. (2003). Handbook of psychology: V. 3: Biological psychology. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Huston, T. L., & Levinger, G. (1978). Interpersonal attraction and relationships. Annual Review of Psychology, 29(1), 115–156. doi:10.1146/

Kerckhoff, A. C., & Davis, K. E. (1962). Value consensus and need Complementarity in mate selection. American Sociological Review,27(3), 295. doi:10.2307/2089791

Landy, D., & Aronson, E. (1969). The influence of the character of the criminal and his victim on the decisions of simulated jurors. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 5(2), 141–152. doi:10.1016/0022-1031(69)90043-2

Little, A. C., & Jones, B. C. (2003). Evidence against perceptual bias views for symmetry preferences in human faces. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 270(1526), 1759–1763. doi:10.1098/rspb.2003.2445

Singh, D. (1993). Adaptive significance of female physical attractiveness: Role of waist-to-hip ratio. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65(2), 293–307. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.65.2.293

Sprecher, S., & Hendrick, S. S. (2004). Self-disclosure in intimate relationships: Associations with individual and relationship characteristics over time. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology,23(6), 857–877. doi:10.1521/jscp.23.6.857.54803

Walster, E., Aronson, V., Abrahams, D., & Rottman, L. (1966). Importance of physical attractiveness in dating behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4(5), 508–516. doi:10.1037/h0021188

Waynforth, D., & Dunbar, R. I. M. (1995). Conditional mate choice strategies in humans: Evidence from ‘lonely hearts’ advertisements. behavior, 132(9), 755–779. doi:10.1163/156853995x00135

→ A-level Home Page|Memory Revision|Social Influence Revision | Attachment Revision|Psychopathology Revision|

Was this article useful? Please help us improve by giving feedback below

→ A-level Home Page|Memory Revision|Social Influence Revision | Attachment Revision|Psychopathology Revision|

The Body’s Response to Stress (AO1 Only)

→The Sympathetic Medullary System - SAM|Hypothalamic Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) System

The Sympathetic Medullary System

  • The body's response to acute (short term) stress.
  • The hypothalamus also activates the adrenal medulla. The adrenal medulla is part of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). .
  • The adrenal medulla secretes the hormone adrenaline. This hormone gets the body ready for a fight or flight response. Physiological reaction includes increased heart rate.
  • Adrenaline leads to the arousal of the sympathetic nervous system and reduced activity in the parasympathetic nervous system.
  • Adrenaline creates changes in the body such as decreases (in digestion) and increases (sweating, increased pulse and blood pressure).
  • Once the ‘threat’ is over the parasympathetic branch takes control and brings the body back into a balanced state.

Hypothalamic Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) System

  • The body's response to chronic (long term) stress.
  • The hypothalamus registers the presence of a continuing stressor and stimulates the pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotrophic releasing factor (ACTH)
  • Which activates the adrenal cortex (outer layer of the adrenal gland).
  • Which releases corticosteriods such as cortisol.
  • This maintains a steady supply of energy, but also suppresses the immune system.

Stress-related Illness and the Immune System

The immune system is a complex collection of biological structures and processes which protect the body from disease by identifying and destroying viruses, bacteria and cancer cells (collectively known as antigens). When we are chronically stressed, cortisol is released as a part of the pituitary adrenal system.

One of the effects of extra cortisol is a reduction in white blood cells, including killer T cells, which are important in fighting antigens. This means that the immune system does not work as effectively, so that we are more prone to colds, flu and other viral and bacterial illnesses.

Stress can also affect the immune system by raising blood pressure. Hypertension (consistently raised blood pressure over several weeks) is a major risk factor in coronary heart disease (CHD). However, CHD may be caused by eating too much salt, drinking too much coffee or alcohol.

Stress responses also have an effect on digestive system. During stress digestion is inhibited. After stress digestive activity increases. This may affect the health of digestive system and cause ulcers. Adrenaline released during a stress response may also cause ulcers.

Kiecolt-Glaser et al., (1984)

Aim: To investigate whether stress of important examinations has an effect on the functioning of the immune system


  • This was a natural experiment. The researchers took blood samples from 75 first year medical students (49 males and 26 females), all of whom were volunteers.

  • Blood samples were taken: (a) one month before their final examinations (relatively low stress), and (b) during the examinations (high stress)

  • Immune functioning was assessed by measuring T cell activity in the blood samples.

  • The students were also given questionnaires to assess psychological variables such as life events and loneliness.

Findings: The blood sample taken from the first group (before the exam) contained more t-cells compared with blood samples taken during the exams.

The volunteers were also assessed using behavioral measures. On both occasions they were given questionnaires to assess psychiatric symptoms, loneliness and life events. This was because there are theories which suggest that all 3 are associated with increased levels of stress.

Kiecolt-Glaser et al found that immune responses were especially weak in those students who reported feeling most lonely, as well as those who were experiencing other stressful life events and psychiatric symptoms such as depression or anxiety.

Conclusion: Stress (of the exam) reduced the effectiveness of the immune system.

Evaluation (AO2)

  • This was a natural experiment which also used a real life stressful situation, so ecological validity is high.
  • However, we cannot establish cause and effect (between stress and a weakened immune system). Does stress cause illness or does being ill make you more prone to stress?
  • Also, the study does not take into account for the other factors which affect people’s lives. These can be drugs, alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, general health, diet, physical activity, sleep patterns, age and medication. It is very unlikely to gain complete control over these extraneous variables.
  • Measuring T cell activity is an objective way of measuring immune system functioning so demand characteristics should not be a problem.
  • Sampling bias: Participants were all students so results may not be generalisable to the general population.

Life Changes

Life changes are infrequent, major events such as getting married, retiring, Christmas holidays etc.

Holmes and Rahe (1967) developed a questionnaire called the Social Readjustment Rating Scale (SRRS) for identifying major stressful life events. Each life event is given a score to indicate how stressful it is.

Key Study - Rahe, 1970

The aim of this study was to investigate whether scores on the Holmes and Rahe Social Readjustment Rating Scale (SRRS) were correlated with the subsequent onset of illness.

Procedure: 2,500 male American sailors were given the SRRS to assess how many life events they had experienced in the previous 6 months. The total score on the SRRS was recorded for each participant.

Then over the following six-month tour of duty, detailed records were kept of each sailor’s health status. The recorded number of Life Change Units were correlated with the sailors’ illness scores.

Results: There was a positive correlation of +0.0118 between Life Change scores and illness scores. Although the positive correlation was small (a perfect positive correlation would be +1.00), it did indicate that there was a meaningful relationship between Life Change Units and health (this is often referred to as a statistically significant correlation). As Life Change Units increased, so did the frequency of illness.

The researchers concluded that as Life Change Units were positively correlated with illness scores, experiencing life events increased the chances of stress-related health breakdown. As the correlation was not perfect, life events cannot be the only factor in contributing to illness.


  • The SRRS does not take individual difference into consideration. The scale assumes that each stressor affects people the same way. Not necessarily true e.g. for some people divorce is extremely stressful while for others it can be amicable or even a relief.
  • The research is unethical as stress is a sensitive topic and asking participants to think about their stress on a regular basis may provoke psychological harm and in fact cause more stress.
  • The data is correlational and does not prove that stress causes illness, therefore we cannot say that life changes cause illness, but only there appears to be a relationship between life changes and illness.
  • The sample has a gender bias as it is based on males (androcentric) who may have have different ways of dealing with stress and their stressors may be different than females. This means we cannot generalize the results to females.
  • Most people experience major life events very infrequently. Therefore a better measure of stress might look at the stresses and strains of daily life. These are called “daily hassles”, e.g. such as losing your keys.
  • The study may lack validity due to social desirability. A with most questionnaire studies, people may lie to appear as if they are coping with their stress, or conversely, may lie to appear more stressed than they actually are to gain sympathy and attention.

Daily Hassles

Daily hassles frequent, minor, everyday events such as getting losing your keys, getting stuck in traffic, weight problems.

Daily uplifts are positive everyday experiences that are thought to counteract the effects of daily hassles e.g. good weather, talking to friends or getting enough sleeps.

Key Study - Kanner et al (1981)

Aim: Kanner et al (1981) were interested in investigating whether it is daily hassles, rather than major life events that are the most stressful. They developed a 117 item hassles scale and a 135 uplifts scale to examine the relationship between hassles and health.

Procedure: An opportunity sample of 100 American participants, including 52 women and 48 men, all white, well-educated and middle class were asked to circle the events on both scales that they had experienced the previous month and rate each according to severity (for the hassles) and frequency (for the uplifts).

Each participant was tested once a month for ten consecutive months using the two stress measures together with another two psychometric tests for psychological well-being.

Results: They found the hassles scale tended to be a more accurate predictor of stress related problems, such as anxiety and depression, than the SRRS. Uplifts had a positive effect on the stress levels of women, but not men.

Evaluation (AO2)

  • The research is unethical as stress is a sensitive topic and asking participants to think about their stress on a regular basis may provoke psychological harm and in fact cause more stress.
  • The data is correlational and does not prove that stress causes illness, therefore we cannot say that hassles cause illness, but only there appears to be a relationship between hassles and illness.
  • The sample is culturally bias / ethnocentric as it is based on 100 Americans who may have have different ways of dealing with stress and their stressors may be different than other cultures. This means we cannot generalize the results to other cultures.
  • The study may lack validity due to social desirability. As with most questionnaire studies, people may lie to appear as if they are coping with their stress, or conversely, may lie to appear more stressed than they actually are to gain sympathy and attention.

Workplace Stress Including the Effects of Workload and Control


  • Giving staff too much work can make them stressed because they become frustrated (when they can’t complete it). This is known as work overload. This can be quantitative, where people feel that they have too much to do or are expected to do it too quickly, or qualitative, when they find their work too difficult.
  • Giving staff too little work can make them stressed because they become bored. This is known as underload.


  • Research has shown that lack of control at work can lead to stress. For example, no control over deadlines. People may not no control over their pace of work – e.g. if working on a production line.
  • Having no control over your work rate or content; not being able to set your own priorities leads to poor physical health.

Key Study - Johansson Swedish Sawmill

Procedure: 14 employees in a Swedish sawmill were studied. Their work was highly repetitive and they had no control over the pace at which their work was carried out (machine paced). They were compared with a group of group of 10 low stress workers who had more control over their workload. The levels of adrenaline and noradrenaline (stress hormones) in their urine was measured both at work and in their free time, and their number of illnesses and absences from work were recorded.

Results: The people in the high stress group had higher levels of stress hormones whilst at work than those in the low stress group and their levels of illness and absenteeism were also higher.

Conclusions: Repetitiveness, high demand/workload and lack of control were linked to higher levels of stress, which increased illness.

Evaluation (AO2)

  • Measure of stress hormones in the urine is an objective measure of stress levels - reduces the chance of investigator effects and has higher validity than self report measures of stress levels.
  • The results of the study were useful to real life - the researchers made practical suggestions to lower absenteeism and reduce workload - they suggested job rotation and allowing workers a higher level of control.
  • The sample was culturally biased / ethnocentric as the study only used Swedish people who might find machine based work more stressful than other cultures.

Personality Factors (Type A and Type B behavior, Hardiness)

Type A and Type B Personality

Friedman and Rosenman identified what they called a Type A personality - this refers to a behavioral style which is characterised by high levels of competitiveness, time urgency and anger or hostility. People with Type A personalities are often high-achieving workaholics who multi-task, push themselves to meet deadlines, and hate delays. People with type A personality are more likely to have higher levels of adrenaline and their body could go into fight or flight.

In contrast, Type B personality types are generally patient, relaxed, easy-going, and at times lacking an overriding sense of urgency.

Key Study - Friedman and Rosenman (1974)

Aim: To investigate whether there was a link between Type A personality and the development of heart disease.

Procedure: Over 3000 American men between 39 and 59 were interviewed to identify whether they were Type A personality or Type B. They were monitored for eight and a half years and their lifestyle and levels of health were assessed.

Results: After 8 and a half years, 257 men (from the original 3000+) had developed heart disease. 70% of these were from the Type A group.

Evaluation - AO2

  • It was a longitudinal study which does give us a good idea of the long term effect of personality factors on stress related illness.
  • Friedman & Rosenman did not specify what aspect of type A behavior might be responsible for heart disease. Later researchers reviewed the original data and found that it was ‘the negative behaviors’ such as hostility that seemed to be responsible.
  • Once again this is a natural experiment which uses correlational detail so cause and effect cannot be established.


Whereas people with Type A personality are likely to suffer more from stress relating illness, hardiness is thought to be a 'protective' factor - meaning that those with hardy personalities may be less likely to suffer from stress related conditions.

Hardiness was proposed by Kobasa and Maddi (1977) and is made up of 3 characteristics:

  • Control: Those with hardy personalities feel that they are in control of stressful situations - this is very similar to having an internal locus of control - they do not feel that their level of stress is controlled by external factors.
  • Challenge: They see potentially stressful situations as opportunities for personal growth and development, rather than threats or stressors.
  • Commitment: They put 100% into whatever they do and do not give up easily. The feel a strong sense of involvement in the world.

Evaluation - AO2

  • Kobasa did not state whether all three factors (control, challenge, commitment) were equally important, and further research has concluded that control is probably the most important factor.
  • Much of Kobasa's research into the link between hardiness and stress related illness used a white male middle class sample, so it is difficult to say whether her results are generalisable to other populations.
  • Research has only shown a correlation between hardiness and stress related illness, so we cannot establish a cause and effect relationship.

Psychological and Biological Methods of Stress Management

Biological Therapy - Drugs

Drugs can be used to combat stress by reducing or eliminating the symptoms of the stress such as fast heart rate. Today there are two main categories:

  • Benzodiazepines (Lithium and Valium): These drugs slow the activity of central nervous system (e.g. brain and spinal cord) and enhance activity of GABA causing relaxation.
  • Beta blockers: These slow down activity in the sympathetic branch of the ANS by reducing levels of adrenaline and noradrenaline. This reduces blood pressure, heart rate etc. and produces a feeling of calm.

Evaluation - AO2

  • Quick acting in comparison to some other treatments (e.g. cognitive behavior therapy).
  • Drug therapies treat the symptoms and not the problem itself. Therefore, symptoms may reappear when treatment is stopped.
  • Some drugs may have side effects, for example the serotonin reducing effect of BZ's can cause depression. Aggression, short term memory loss and mental confusion are also possible.
  • Long-term use can result in tolerance (higher doses are eventually needed to produce the same effect) and dependence.

Psychological Therapy - Stress Inoculation Therapy

Stress Inoculation Therapy (SIT) is a form of cognitive behavioral therapy. The aim is to replace irrational and negative thoughts with more positive ways of thinking about a problem. There are three stages to the therapy:

  1. Conceptualisation - The therapist helps the individual to identify their stressors and how they respond to these and how successful these responses have been. Patterns of self-defeating internal dialogue (i.e. negative thoughts) are identified.
  2. Skill acquisition and rehearsal - The therapist teaches the client coping skills that may be general or event focused. For example replace negative thoughts with positive ones.
  3. Application and follow through - The client applies what they have learned to real life situations.

Evaluation - AO2

  • SIT does not have any undesirable side effects that might be encountered with drug treatments. Unlike drugs there is also no problems with risk of addiction or withdrawal symptoms.
  • SIT addresses the root cause of the problem - why the client is stressed – rather than just removing the symptoms of stress. This means it should have a longer lasting effect than other therapies which just deal with the physical effects of stress (e.g. drug therapy).
  • Compared to using drugs it is expensive and time consuming. While drugs work immediately SIT could take weeks and months to follow the three stages and change a client’s behavior.
  • SIT requires clients to be motivated and driven. They have to be prepared to practice new skills and apply them in the real world.

→A-level Home Page|Social Influence Revision|Psychopathology Revision|