The Social Context of Exchange: Transaction Utility, Relationships and Legitimacy

ABSTRACT - According to traditional consumer behavior theory, exchanges depend on products but not on the social context in which they take place. Transaction utility (Thaler 1985), incorporating fair price into consumers’ assessment of transactions, provides a basis for integrating social context into the analysis of exchange. We examine the role of three contextual factors on fair price: relationship between buyer and seller, perspectives of buyers and sellers, and perceptions of legitimacy of profits. Two experiments tested these effects. Results showed that fair prices when dealing with friends are different from fair prices when dealing with strangers, and that the effect is qualified by interactions. Implications for relationship marketing and cross-cultural research are offered.


Maria-Eugenia Boza and William Diamond (1998) ,"The Social Context of Exchange: Transaction Utility, Relationships and Legitimacy", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, eds. Joseph W. Alba & J. Wesley Hutchinson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 557-562.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, 1998      Pages 557-562


Maria-Eugenia Boza, University of Massachussetts at Amherst

William Diamond, University of Massachussetts at Amherst


According to traditional consumer behavior theory, exchanges depend on products but not on the social context in which they take place. Transaction utility (Thaler 1985), incorporating fair price into consumers’ assessment of transactions, provides a basis for integrating social context into the analysis of exchange. We examine the role of three contextual factors on fair price: relationship between buyer and seller, perspectives of buyers and sellers, and perceptions of legitimacy of profits. Two experiments tested these effects. Results showed that fair prices when dealing with friends are different from fair prices when dealing with strangers, and that the effect is qualified by interactions. Implications for relationship marketing and cross-cultural research are offered.

"20: Unto a stranger thou mayest lend upon usury: but unto thy brother thou shalt not lend upon usury, that the Lord thy God may bless thee all that thou settest thine hand to in the land whither thou goest to possess it."


According to the marketing and consumer behavior literature, consumer assessments of exchange and customer satisfaction depend on the product or service being exchanged (Zeithaml 1988; Oliver 1980, 1993). From this perspective, customer satisfaction develops from comparing product attributes and price against certain product expectations and reference price. These classical models do not consider how the processes and outputs of exchange also depend on their social context. Previous research has examined the role of social context in the creation of meaning and consumption experiences (McCracken 1986), information andsocial networking (Brown and Reingen 1987), and gift giving (Sherry 1983). In spite of the recent attempts to understand relational marketing exchange (Dwyer, Schurr and Oh 1987; Morgan and Hunt 1994), there is little research that integrates social context in the analysis of transactions.

The social context of transaction for our purposes will be the social norms and cultural background of the exchange, as well as the relationship between buyer and seller. Consider the following example:

You are going out tonight. You need someone to take care of your kids for the evening. If you find a friend or a family member to take care of them, you may not know whether to pay that person to do it. If you insist in paying her it may be offensive, or even inappropriate. You may decide not to pay her but to give her a gift to show your gratitude. On the other hand, if you hire a baby-sitter, you will pay her per hour. Your friend and your baby-sitter are doing the same job, but the exchange does not seem the same because of the relationship between you, the buyer, and she, the provider.

Now imagine that your friend happens to make her living baby-sitting. In this case, even though she is a friend, you may expect to pay her because it is her job. In this case, you may expect your friend to be kind to you and possibly charge you less. At the same time, you friend may also want you to be kind to her, and pay her a little extra.

If customers only care about the value of the service, or what you get for what you pay, it should not make a difference whether a friend or a stranger does the job. On the other hand, if only the relationship between you and the person doing the job is important, why does it make a difference that your friend makes her living baby-sitting?

We cannot forget about the cultural context where the exchange takes place. If you were living in Venezuela, you would find that baby-sitters do not exist. The job of taking care of your kids for an evening is something that some woman in the family or close friend would do for you, but nobody would imagine that baby-sitting is something you have to pay for (except-of course-within the international community!)

In this paper, first we will analyze the role of fairness in exchanges using the concept of transaction utility (Thaler 1985). Transaction utility provides a basis for incorporating the effects of social context into traditional consumer behavior theories. Then we will propose a model that includes three contextual antecedents of perceptions of fair price: relationship between buyer and seller, perceptions of legitimacy, and different perspectives of buyers and sellers. The central questions we are going to be dealing with are: (1) How do buyers’ and sellers’ perception of fair price differ? (2) How does the relationship between buyer and seller affect fair price? and (3) What is the impact of legitimacy and social norms on fair price? Finally, we present and discuss an experimental test of the model, and its implications for theory and practice.


Thaler (1985) distinguishes two aspects of the psychology of buying, acquisition utility and transaction utility. Acquisition utility derives from customer assessment of value and price of the product. This component of utility captures whether the exchange is a good deal: "what you get for what you pay." Transaction utility, on the other hand, is assessed using a reference price that is an expected or "just" price for the product being exchanged. This second component of utility then captures whether the exchange is a fair deal: "what you paid compared to what you think you should pay."

Transaction utility provides theoretical grounds for incorporating social context into the analysis of transactionsbecause it integrates fairness in economic decision making. Thaler’s proposition is that reference price is a measure of a fair price that takes into account seller’s cost and fair profit. Thaler’s well-known example of transaction utility describes drinking a beer at a public beach. If a beer to be consumed at the beach comes from a luxury hotel, people will agree to pay more than if the same beer comes from a grocery store. The example illustrates that people are willing to pay more for the same product if they perceive that the seller has higher costs. Our first proposition in this paper is that transaction utility also embodies other dimensions of fairness coming from the social context of the transactions. In this paper we will explore the role of personal relationships between buyer and seller, and social norm of legitimacy of profits on buyers’ and sellers’ perceptions of fair price. In the next section, we will elaborate on these propositions and hypothesize their effects on perceptions of fair price.


Relationships between buyer and seller: Friends or Strangers

Thaler (1985) found that sellers would charge strangers far more than friends for the same commodity (a sports ticket). His interpretation of such findings was that "the price a seller would charge a friend would be a good proxy for their estimate of a fair price" (p.206). Our second proposition is that there is not one fair price, but several fair prices. The fair price for doing business with friends is different from the fair price of doing business with strangers because these social relationships unfold according to different social norms (Clark and Mills 1979, 1994).

One of the elements from the social context that shapes the process of exchange is the nature of the relationship between buyer and seller. Clark and Mills (1979, 1994) describe communal and exchange relationships. Communal relationships are those long-lasting relationships in which members benefit one another on the basis of concern for the other’s welfare. Friendships, romantic relationships, and family relationships often exemplify communal relationships. On the other hand, exchange relationships are those in which members benefit one another in response to specific benefits received in the past or expected in the future. Examples of exchange relationships are people doing business with acquaintances, and strangers meeting for the first time.

In both communal and exchange relationships, people voluntarily provide benefits to one another, but the interactions and the bases for rewarding such interaction are different. Within communal relationships, short-term equality of exchange is not expected. Instead, gift giving is the rule of interaction. Gifts in donor-recipient relationships are not conditional and do not involve a system of power and debt (Mauss 1929; Hyde 1979; Sherry 1983). For example, time that parents devote to raise a child is a gift, meaning that it is not conditional on any current or future repayment. The same person, performing in an exchange relationship, will adhere to completely different norms. She or he will give something to get something back. In short, the different norms in communal and exchange relationships shape what is fair in each relationship. For our purposes, friends will exemplify communal relationships, and strangers will exemplify exchange relationships.

Hypothesis 1:

Buyers’ and sellers’ perceptions of fair price when dealing with strangers will be higher than when dealing with friends.

It can be argued that not only social and cultural norms about how to deal with friends or strangers but also personality traitswill affect what is fair in transactions. Individual orientation toward caring for others and developing communal relationships may enhance the effect of the relationship on fair prices. To the extent that some people may be more prone to develop and sustain communal relationships, they may be kinder in exchange by considering the party’s interests. Clark and Mills (1987) developed psychometric scales to evaluate communal orientation as a personal trait. While not hypothesized to determine transaction utility, scales will be included as covariates in the experiment described below.

Perspectives on the transaction: Buyers and sellers

When discussing fairness, it is important to distinguish between a normative and a descriptive theory of fair price. The former refers to the true or absolute fair price, the latter refers to the perceptions of fair prices. The normative view of a single fair price drives from the idea that there is a true value for a product (see for example, Rao and Bergen 1992). From this perspective we would predict that buyers and sellers (after discounting for strategic interests) will agree on a fair price.

However, behavioral decision theory research on consumer behavior shows that buyers’ and sellers’ perceptions may differ. For instance, Kahneman, Knetsh and Thaler (1990) "endowment effect" explains that while a buyer might be unwilling to pay more than $2.75 for a mug he is unwilling to sell for less than $5.25.

From these results, we will hypothesize that buyers’ and sellers’ perceptions of fair price may differ because they consider different references for the transaction, but also that those references may work differently depending upon the relationship between buyer and seller. In exchange relationships, seller’s fair price will be higher than buyer’s fair price. The hypothesis assumes that buyers and sellers are considering only their own well being. In terms of price information, the seller’s alternative is the opportunity cost, while the buyer’s alternative is the market price. For each of the parties, either opportunity cost or market price represents a reference price if they were doing business with someone else.

In communal relationships on the other hand, both buyers and sellers care about their long-lasting relationship, and therefore will take into account their friend’s interests and alternatives. But, caring about their friends means something different for buyers and for sellers. Sellers trying to be kind to their friends may accept a lower price. At the same time, buyers trying to be kind to their friends may not take for granted a lower price. We can understand these different processes based on gift-giving relationships. A gift is what the donor chooses to give and not what the recipient asks for.

Hypothesis 2:

In exchange relationships, sellers’ fair price will be higher than buyers’ fair price. But in communal relationships sellers’ fair price will be lower than buyers’ fair price.


Legitimacy allows an agent, implicitly or explicitly, to say "I have a right to ask you to do this" (French and Raven 1959, Raven and Rubin 1976, Raven 1992). For our purposes, we narrow the concept of legitimacy to the legitimacy of a profit. Paraphrasing French and Raven, it would be "I have the right to make profits doing this because this is my business (way-of-living)". Therefore, legitimacy also affects perceptions of fair prices. In certain circumstances, the seller has a more legitimate right to ask for higher prices. For instance, if the activity is the seller’s main source of income, it may be legitimate to ask for higher prices.

The construct of the legitimacy of profits allows us to re-examine Thaler’s definition of a fair price. As we discussed earlier, his proposition is thatthe reference price is a measure of a fair price related to seller’s costs, therefore it is a perception of what is a fair profit to the seller. From the perspective of legitimacy, whether a certain level of profit is fair depends on the social norms that make it legitimate.

Here, we are not considering the issue of what types of exchange are legitimate as seen by a particular society. Instead, we focus on the role of the seller Cwhen is she expected or allowed to earn substantial profits? For our purposes, high profit legitimacy occurs in the context when the seller (provider) makes profit out of her regular job or way-of-living. On the other hand, low profit legitimacy occurs when the seller makes profit out of an incidental activity.

Hypothesis 3:

In legitimate profit-seeking activities, when the activity is the seller’s regular job, buyers’ and sellers’ perceptions of fair price will be higher than in incidental profit-seeking activities.

To summarize, the hypotheses test how communal and exchange relationships between buyer and seller, buyers’ and sellers’ perspective, and legitimacy of the right to ask higher prices affect perspectives of fair price.





An experiment replicated across two different settings tested the hypotheses. In each experiment, subjects evaluated fair price in one of several scenarios. Relationship between buyer and seller, legitimacy and perspective on the transaction were manipulated. We framed the experiment using service settings where sellers do not have other costs than opportunity costs. In a pretest, we identified two services that college students were familiar with: baby-sitting and house-painting.

Both experiments used a 3-factor between-subjects experimental design. Each factor corresponded to one of the hypotheses. The first factor varied the relationship between buyer and seller. Subjects read of a transaction with a friend (communal relationship) or a transaction with a stranger (exchange relationship). The second factor was legitimacy. House painting or baby-sitting was either a regular job or and incidental job. The third factor was the buyers’ vs. sellers’ perspective on the exchange. Subjects took the role of either buyer or seller.

In Experiment 1, subjects read a scenario describing a college senior (Anna) who baby-sits for Karen’s child. Anna and Karen are either friends or strangers. In the legitimate conditions, Anna earns her living by baby-sitting. In the incidental condition, she is an experienced baby-sitter, but earns her living by working at the library. Subjects completed multiple measures from Anna’s or Karen’s perspective. In Experiment 2, subjects read similar situations describing a college senior (Tom) who will do house painting for Larry.

The scenarios included some anchors on the alternatives for both buyer and seller. The seller’s opportunity cost was provided by their usual hourly wage. The buyer’s alternative was defined by the average market price. We also provided the average market price and market price maximum and minimum. Note that, to avoid confounding factors, we controlled for (1) experience of the provider in both regular and incidental conditions, and (2) the need of the provider to make his living (income effect). Several aspects of the scenarios are presented in Figure 1. This figure was not presented to subjects.


Subjects were 137 undergraduate students at a northeastern university. They were randomly assigned to one of the 8 conditions in each experiment. Each respondent received a three-page booklet that contained one scenrio for each experiment. The order of administration of the two experiments was counterbalanced.

Subjects were asked to read the scenario and answer the dependent variable questions. Fair price, the dependent variable, was assessed as follows:

"How much would you pay [charge] if you were in Karen’s [Anna’s] place?",

"How much do you think Karen [Anna] should pay [charge]?"

"What is the highest fair price Karen [Anna] could pay [charge]?"

The booklets also contained measures of two covariates, communal and exchange orientation. Items were a subset of the scales developed by Clark et al. (1987, 1989). Communal orientation was a summated six-item scale and exchange orientation a summated four-item scale. Manipulation checks were included for each experimental factor. Finally, subjects reported age and gender.


Manipulation Checks

One-way ANOVA on "Anna and Karen are friends" across friends and strangers conditions was significant (p<.000), and one-way ANOVA on "Baby-sitting is Ann’s way of living" across legitimate and incidental was also significant (p<.000). On the other hand, the framing was successful in controlling for confounding effects such as need to work and ability to deliver the service. One-way ANOVA on "Anna works because she needs to" and "Anna is a competent baby-sitter" were not significantly different across legitimate and incidental conditions (p<.3276 and p<.8111 respectively). Manipulation checks in Experiment 2 showed similar patterns.




Before testing the hypotheses, we tested whether the communal and exchange orientation (traits) defined by Clark and Mills modified perceptions of fairness. Analysis showed that communal and exchange orientation were not significant covariates in either experiment. Covariates are intended to account for differences in the responses due to unique characteristics of the respondents. In this case, the analysis of covariance did not identify a systematic effect of communal and exchange orientation on perceptions of a fair price.

Hypothesis Tests

Our first step in the analysis was to evaluate the relationships between the three dependent variable measures (how much would you pay/charge, how much should you pay/charge, and what is the highest fair price you would pay/charge). Even though these measures refer to slightly different aspects of a fair price, they are highly correlated. Further exploration on the relationship among these measures showed that they loaded on a single factor and formed a reliable scale (a=.80 and a=.76 in experiments 1 and 2). Thus, the three measures were averaged for each subject. Table 1 displays cell means across conditions. An ANOVA on each of the two experiments indicated a strong main effect for relationships between buyers and sellers on perceptions of a fair price (F =10.25, p<.01 and F =11.20, p<.01). But in the second experiment - house-painting - that main effect was qualified by two-way interactions with legitimacy (F =14.11, p<.05) and perspective on the transaction (F =20.90, p<.01). Table 2 shows the ANOVA test results.

Friend vs. Strangers

Results show a major main effect due to relationship in both experiments (see Table 2). Fair price when dealing with friends is lower than fair price when dealing with strangers. These results support the argument thatthe relationship between buyer and seller matters when subjects think of a fair price (Hypothesis 1). But, in the second experiment, the way in which the relationship between buyer and seller affects perceptions of fair price is qualified by interactions.

Buyers’ vs. Sellers’ Perspective

Results do not show a main effect due to perspective. This finding suggests that neither buyers’ nor sellers’ perceptions of fair price was always higher than the other. Buyers’ and sellers’ perspective will show its effect perceptions through interactions.

Legitimacy of profits

We hypothesized that in legitimate profit-seeking activities, buyers’ and sellers’ fair price was higher than in incidental profit-seeking activities (Hypothesis 3). Results do not support the hypothesis. Nevertheless, further analysis will show that legitimacy qualifies the relationship main effect.

Interaction effects

Experiment 2 showed a strong interaction between relationship and perspective. Simple effect tests helped to understand the nature of the interaction. Seller’s fair price when dealing with friends is lower than when dealing with strangers. Sellers’ fair price when dealing with strangers is closer to the seller’s opportunity cost, while sellers’ fair price when dealing with friends is at the lowest end of the market price band. On the other hand, buyers’ fair price when dealing with friends is not different from fair price when dealing with strangers. This result suggests that Hypothesis 1 holds for sellers’ but not buyers’ perceptions of fair price.

Results from experiment 2 also showed a significant interaction between legitimacy and relationship. This interaction occurs because the difference in fair prices for friends and strangers holds in incidental conditions but not in legitimate conditions. Seller’s fair price for dealing with friends and strangers is not different when it is the seller’s regular job (legitimate condition). In this case, fair prices locate between the opportunity cost and the market price. But, when house painting is not the seller’s regular job (incidental condition), seller’s fair prices for dealing with friends are very low (at the lowest market price) and seller’s fair prices for dealing with strangers are above the opportunity cost. This may mean that if a friend asks you to do something you do not regularly, it is fair to charge a low price. On the other hand, if someone you do not know asks you to do something you do not regularly do, he should pay more than what you regularly earn. The triple order interaction was not significant in either study.




Our findings replicate the effect of relationship in perceptions of fair price (Thaler 1985). Further, we extend Thaler’s research by integrating transaction utility with several contextual constructs. Below, we will discuss the practical and theoretical implications of these findings.

Friend and Strangers: Ideas for Relationship Marketing

The experimental findings supported the hypothesized effect of the relationship between buyer and seller on perceptions of fair prices. When dealing with strangers, subjects are motivated by short-term interest; whereas when dealing with friends, subjects care about the ongoing relationship. These findings may be extended to long-term relationships in business (McNeil 1980; Dwyer, Schurr and Oh 1987).

Doing business with friends seems to be a paradox. The results imply that fair profit from doing business with friends is lower. On the other hand, friends may prefer to do business with friends, because they can trust each other. The role of trust and related constructs such as commitment and equity areat the core of the theoretical discussions in relationship marketing. This stream of research investigates how trust and fairness contribute to the development of post-purchase satisfaction and long-term commercial relationships (Patterson, Johnson and Spreng 1997; Kumar, Sheer and Steenkamp 1995). The way we cope with the double-faced reality of doing business with friends is of special interest to research in relationship marketing.

Buyers and Sellers: What Cost is Important for Whom?

Buyers and sellers seem to act differently. When sellers are dealing with strangers, their fair price is closer to their own opportunity cost. But when sellers are dealing with friends, their fair price is closer to the lowest market price. In other words, when sellers care about the ongoing personal relationship with the buyer, seller’s fair price will show a discount or adjustment considering buyer’s alternatives. We can interpret this discount as a gift.

On the other hand, when buyers are dealing with strangers, they adopt the seller’s price. They do the same when dealing with friends. Buyers do not seem to take for granted that friends will adjust their price considering the relationship. It can be argued that even though buyer’s fair price does not show a price reduction for friends, it will not be a surprise if sellers offer a discount. A better understanding of this effect may come from research on donor-recipient relationships and gift-giving processes.

Situational Differences: Gender and Gender Roles in Transactions

Experiment 1 and 2 both showed a strong main effect. Nevertheless they differ in other effects. The scenario on house-painting services rendered more extreme results. A possible interpretation of the differences between Experiment 1 and Experiment 2 is a situational effect. At least two elements may affect such differences: gender associations and formality of the work. On the one hand, baby-sitting may be positioned as female work that is delivered on a regular basis and supported by some degree of personal relationship as well as personal trust. This is consistent with cultural research showing that female gender roles in the American culture are associated with caring and concern for others (Thompson 1996). On the other hand, house-painting services maybe positioned as a male work, usually a one-shot purchase from the buyer’s perspective, and where technical reliability may have a stronger effect than personal relationship on the purchase.

Limitations and further research

Some limitations and boundary conditions of our research are worth noting. First, this was a pilot experimental study with limited external validity. We collected data with a paper and pencil instrument and we interviewed student subjects. It is not certain how the findings may extend to other populations.

Second, even though we were evaluating the effect of dealing with friends on transactions, our questionnaire referred to an abstract friend and therefore we elicited hypothetical responses. In such conditions, subject responses are more likely to be normative judgments, but our hypotheses referred to the social norms that drive exchanges with friends. These results may picture better the normative domain than the actual transactions. Further research may explore the dealing of buyers and sellers with friends and stranger in actual interactions. Analysis of ongoing interactions may show that not only fair price and expected price may be different when dealing with friends, but also that participants engaged in gift-giving behavior.

Third, as we stated in the introduction, the social norms we are dealing with are contingent on a particular cultural context. Cross-cultural research may allow us to understand the differences in dealing with friends and dealing with strangers in different context.

Finally, our study evaluated the social context in transactions where both buyer and seller were individuals acting on their own. In order to develop business implications of the present findings, it is necessary to explore how perceptions of fairness in transactions evolve when the seller is an organization. Furthermore, it will be of interest to extend these results to business to business exchanges. In this context, it may happen that the social norms about how to deal with friends overlap with business practices and social norms.


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Maria-Eugenia Boza, University of Massachussetts at Amherst
William Diamond, University of Massachussetts at Amherst


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25 | 1998

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