Theoretical Directions

All known theoretical directions within which socio-psychological research is carried out – behaviorism, cognitivism, psychoanalysis, role theory, humanistic psychology – have contributed to the development of problems of interpersonal communication.

As is known, each of these approaches identifies a key determinant that determines social behavior. For behaviorism, these are external stimuli, for cognitive theories, these are internal psychological motivations, for the psychoanalytic direction, unconscious drives repressed into the subconscious, for the role paradigm, the structure of role prescriptions. Let us consider the main ideas and concepts developed in the framework of these areas and largely determined the theoretical understanding of interpersonal communication.


Among the socio-psychological theories that follow the behaviorist paradigm and influenced the development of the subject area of interpersonal communication, one can name the theories of social learning and social exchange. At the same time, the idea that a person’s skills in interpersonal communication are acquired by him in the course of life experience and can be maintained or changed with the help of some kind of reinforcement or observation is of key importance.

The very concept of “learning” means a systematic modification of the individual’s behavior when repeating the same situation. The following types of learning are distinguished:

  • reactive or reactive. Development of a conditioned reflex based on associative connections: just as it is possible to develop a reflex salivation in a dog to a light or a bell (even in the absence of food), a person can develop, for example, a reaction of disgust to the words “Nazi” or “Communist”, and also on people belonging to this group);
  • instrumental or operant. Reinforcing the desired behavior with support or reinforcement. People learn to act in a certain way because something pleasant follows, or in order to avoid something unpleasant;
  • observational learning. People often learn looks and actions simply by watching a model. At the same time, imitation, identification and role- playing training are distinguished. Imitation can take place without external reinforcement. In identification, one model is preferred over the other. The object of imitation and identification can be parents, brothers and sisters, other relatives, friends, neighbors, teachers, heroes of works of art, etc. Role-playing training means that special situations are simulated in order to develop certain behavioral skills. Most speech and communication courses use both live and symbolic models for teaching communication skills. For example, students watch their friend give a speech and then discuss his presentation, watch videos of speakers’ speeches and evaluate them in class.

The contribution of the theory of exchange to the study of interpersonal interaction can be considered the analysis of the relationship between people as an exchange of resources of a certain kind. According to the main provisions of this theory:

1) human behavior is motivated primarily by the desire for pleasure and the avoidance of pain;

2) the actions of other people are the main source of pleasure and pain;

3) the actions of others can be used to increase the pleasure received from them;

4) people strive to get maximum pleasure at minimum cost.

Exchange implies the existence of resources that can be transferred in the process of interpersonal interaction. It is customary to consider love, status, services, goods, information and money as resources. Obviously, different types of resources imply different exchange rules. People prefer one resource over another. These preferred, desired resources are perceived as rewards. Rewards act as a positive reinforcer and increase the likelihood of the behavior associated with that reinforcer. Of course, not all rewards are of equal value. The more accumulated resource a person has, the less valuable it becomes for him.

The loss of a desired resource or non-receipt of it is defined as a cost. There are three types of costs: 1) invested (invested) costs – the time and effort spent by a person to acquire a resource (for example, a person can invest a significant amount of money and time to obtain a diploma of education or a resource such as information); 2) direct costs – those resources that are given under the terms of exchange (money in exchange for something else); types of such costs can be boredom, disapproval of others, misunderstanding, lost time; 3) random (anticipatory) costs – investment of resources in anticipation of possible future rewards.

Some people strive for a profitable exchange at the maximum benefit for themselves and the minimum cost, regardless of the interests of others. Others are characterized by the desire for an honest exchange, when an attempt is made to mutually take into account the interests of the parties.


Various theories of the cognitivist direction also contain many ideas that explain the various processes of interpersonal communication.

The main idea of the cognitive approach is that a person’s behavior depends on how he perceives the social environment. No matter how chaotic or contradictory the situation, people bring a certain order to it. Cognitive schemes that organize the perception and interpretation of the social world affect human behavior. Thus, the processes of perception, interpretation, memorization, formation of images and their subsequent influence on human behavior are in the center of attention of cognitivists. At the same time, behavior is understood as directed activity; the source of activity and direction of behavior is motivation.

A great contribution to understanding the features of interpersonal communication was made by the theory of structural balance, the theory of communicative acts, the theory of congruence, the theory of causal attribution.

The main idea, which is developed in the first three theories (F. Heider, T. Newcomb, C. Osgood, P. Tannenbaum, etc.), can be formulated in the most general form as follows: the cognitive structure of the perceiving subject will be balanced if it obeys everyday life rule: “we love what our friends love”, “we do not like what our enemies like.” According to F. Haider, one of the authors of the theory of structural balance, these judgments express the ideas of naive psychology about a person’s desire for a balanced cognitive structure. Precisely because the analytical model of these theories includes three mandatory elements, namely, the cognizing subject, another subject, to which the first relates in a certain way, and finally, the object about which both the perceiver and his partner have some opinion – then research situations essentially turn out to be situations of interpersonal interaction. The task of the researcher is to determine which type of relationship between the three indicated elements gives a stable balanced structure, and which one causes a situation of discomfort. So, in accordance with the theory of communicative acts of T. Newcomb, the similarity of relations between A and B to the object will give rise to attachment between them and, on the contrary, the divergence of these relations will give rise to hostility between them. To bring the system into a situation of balance, it is necessary to negotiate, the purpose of which is to bring the positions of A and B closer to the subject of disagreement. The Newcomb model has found practical application in the study of mass communication processes, namely, in determining the conditions for the effectiveness of a persuasive speech impact on the consumer of information.

An important contribution of cognitivism to the study of people’s social behavior is the study of such a phenomenon as causal attribution, i.e. how people interpret the causes of the behavior of others in conditions of insufficient information about these causes (E. Jones and K. Davis, J. Kelly, R. Nisbet, L. Ross and others). Although the attribution process takes place when a person analyzes a wide variety of social phenomena, in the theory of interpersonal communication, special attention is paid to attribution regarding the behavior of an interaction partner.

The so-called “second cognitive revolution” had a serious impact on the development of the theory of interpersonal communication. It is associated with the development of discursive psychology (R. Harre) and the theory of social constructivism (K. Gergen). The design of this direction was influenced by the ideas of L. S. Vygotsky, in particular, his psychological theory of socialization, which considers language as the main cultural mediator of thinking and activity, included in the system of social life of society.

The main field of research is language, discourse, that is, the study of oral and written language communication that takes place in normal, natural conditions. The main object of research, accordingly, is the participants in the conversation, the “community of interlocutors”, while it is argued that speech not only serves human activity, but constitutes both types of activity and interpersonal relationships.

In the main provisions, social constructivism and discursive psychology are closely intertwined with the ideas of the so-called role paradigm.

role paradigm

The role paradigm has its roots in sociology. If for behaviorism and cognitivism the mental properties and abilities of the individual are the initial conditions for analysis, then the role paradigm focuses on relationships between people, the definition of rules and roles and their connection with social behavior. The study of human behavior in a social environment has as its subject the semantic, symbolic aspect of communication, that is, the symbolic nature of human activity. The key determinant of behavior is the role assigned to a person by social circumstances and his social position.

According to the theory of symbolic interactionism (J. Mead), society should be understood not as an objective structure, but as an ongoing interaction between acting individuals who meet in various situations. How people treat each other, react to others, depends on how they interpret the social situation. The most important factor that sets the frame and structure of social interaction is the definition of the situation. When people get together for, say, a celebratory dinner, people should develop agreement on how this will happen. The end result is an understanding by all present of the meaning of what is happening. If the event took place and a mutual typological understanding was achieved, then the everyday versions of the social structures contained in the minds of the participants coincided, thus forming the basis for further joint activity. This shared understanding is essential to social life. This process becomes the main research problem of interactionists.

If J. Mead considered a person’s ability to role-play in his imagination, then the representative of the dramatic approach E. Hoffman suggests considering not imaginary role-playing games, but the real behavior of people as acting. The initial principle of his analysis is that a person’s actions, and indeed his personality, are determined by the situation, the social game that he plays with other people. This principle is directed against personality psychology, according to which the personal qualities of a person determine the outcome of his communication with others. The way we perceive ourselves, according to Hoffmann, is determined not by our character, internal motivational profile or other internal personal qualities, but by our actions and the reactions of the “other” to these actions.


For representatives of the psychoanalytic direction, the main determinant of people’s behavior is unconscious drives repressed into the subconscious. The contribution of psychoanalysis to the development of the theory of interpersonal communication can be considered the study of family relations as a key factor in the formation of personality, as well as the relationship between therapist and client (the problem of transference). Each person can imagine his early relationships as the themes of his own interpersonal life, and all subsequent relationships as the development and repetition of these themes.

In the formulation of G.S. Sullivan (Sullivan, 1999), this idea is as follows: people are inseparable from their environment, personality is formed only within the framework of interpersonal communication, personality and character are not inside a person, but are manifested in relationships with other people, while with different people in different ways. Personality is a relatively strong stereotype of repetitive life interpersonal situations, which are a feature of her life. Personality is formed taking into account the initial specifics of its niche in interpersonal communication (primarily in communication with parents), therefore, in the process of any serious study of any patient, one cannot ignore the history and specifics of his interpersonal contacts.

According to psychoanalysts, from early childhood we set patterns or patterns of behavior into which we tend to fit all our future relationships, or at least all important subsequent relationships. If the child had a warm relationship with his father, then it is possible that he will tend to view the male authority figure in a positive light. If, on the contrary, the father was very strict towards the child, then perhaps he will consider authoritative men as threatening and treat them accordingly. If a child had to fight for parental attention with his brothers and sisters, then, most likely, he will consider his equals as rivals in the struggle for limited resources, etc.

Forced repetition or compulsive urge to repeat means the need to replay situations and relationships over and over again that were especially difficult or problematic in the early years of our lives.

Freud called the client’s desire to transfer his old patterns to the therapist transference. Freud’s developments in this area are not limited to clients and therapists, they are relevant to all of us in every relationship. Wherever we go, we continually repeat certain aspects of our early life in relationships with power, in love affairs, friendships, and business relationships.

Among psychoanalytic concepts, the transactional analysis of E. Berne is of paramount importance for the development of the theory of interpersonal communication. Having singled out three types of states of the I in the behavior of each person, which he called “Parent”, “Adult” and “Child”, Berne believed that the goal of a simple transactional analysis is to find out which state of the “I” is responsible for the transactional stimulus and which state of the person carried out transactional reaction and thus determines the nature of relationships between people (Bern, 1988). According to Berne, the first rule of communication is that as long as transactions are complementary, that is, the stimulus entails an appropriate, expected, and natural response, the communication process will proceed smoothly and can continue indefinitely.

The reverse rule is that the communication process is interrupted if what can be called a crossover transaction occurs, that is, the stimulus causes an inappropriate response. For example, the stimulus is designed for an Adult-Adult relationship (“Do you know where my cufflinks are?”). However, the interlocutor may suddenly flare up (“I’m always to blame for everything!”), Which corresponds to the “Child-Parent” scheme, or answer: “Why do you never know where your things are? You don’t seem to be a child anymore, do you?” – which corresponds to the “Parent-Child” scheme. Under such circumstances, the solution of the problem will have to be postponed until the vectors are put in order. The player must either become a “Parent”, complementing the “Child” who suddenly woke up in the interlocutor, or activate the “Adult” in him.

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