John Thibaut

American social psychologist

John Walter Thibaut (1917 - Feb. 19, 1986) was an American social psychologist, and Professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was one of the last graduate students of Kurt Lewin, and the first editor of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.


  • When there is a range of opinion in the group, communications tend to be directed towards those members whose opinions are at the extremes of the range.
    • Leon Festinger and John Thibaut. "Interpersonal communication in small groups." The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 46.1 (1951): 92.
  • Solutions require thinking through a series of interrelated steps or stages, analyzing a number of rules at each point, and always keeping in mind conclusions reached at earlier points.
    • Harold Kelley and John W. Thibaut. "Group problem solving." The handbook of social psychology 4 (1969): 1-101; p. 69-70

The social psychology of groups. 1959


John W. Thibaut and Harold H. Kelley (1959), The social psychology of groups. Oxford, England: John Wiley.

  • An analysis of social relations in 2 parts: the properties of 2-person relations, and an extension of the chief concepts to the complex relations of larger groups. Beginning with the assumption that most social interactions must be reinforced to be repeated, the authors analyze 2-person matrices designed to express all the possible interactions and their outcomes in terms of rewards and costs to the participants. Also investigated are: the exogenous and endogenous determinants of rewards and costs, interactive interference and facilitation, formation and evaluation of the 2-person relation, power and dependence, norms and roles, tasks, and nonvoluntary relations. The chapters on larger groups take up interdependence, status, conformity, and group goals. 300-item bibliog
    • Abstract
  • The essence of any interpersonal relationship is interaction. Two individuals may be said to have formed a relationship when on repeated occasions they are observed to interact. By interaction it is meant that they emit behavior in each other's presence, they create products for each other, or they communicate with each other. In every case we would identify as an instance of interaction there is at least the possibility that the actions of each person affect the other.
    • p. 10
  • Interaction may begin for quite different reasons. One or both persons may know something about the other and, on the basis of this information, may (anticipate that interaction would yield good outcomes. This would result in a deliberate decision to seek out the other person and interact with him. Under other circumstances the two persons may be thrown together by the operation of factors beyond their control. Their jobs may bring them together, common friends may introduce them, or residence in the same neighborhood may result in a chance meeting. In these instances interaction is begun in response to the immediate situation without any necessary anticipation of the possible consequences by either participant.
    • p. 19-20
  • In evaluating the adequacy of the sampled and anticipated outcomes of a relationship, the members of a dyad will have need for some kind of standard or criterion of the acceptability of outcomes. At least two important kinds of standard for such an evaluation can be identified. To try to make the distinction between these two standards as intuitively clear as possible, we may begin by saying that the first of these, called the comparison level (or CL), is the standard against which a member evaluates the 'attractiveness' of the relationship or how satisfactory it is. The second, called the comparison level for alternatives (or CLalt), is the standard the member uses in deciding whether to remain in or to leave the relationship.
    • p. 21
  • In defining the CL the primary intention is to locate a psychologically meaningful mid-point for the scale of outcomes — a neutral point on a scale of satisfaction-dissatisfaction.
    • p. 81

Procedural justice: A psychological analysis. 1975


John W. Thibaut and Laurens Walker. Procedural justice: A psychological analysis. L. Erlbaum Associates, 1975.

  • Power can be maintained at its maximum only if it is used considerately and sparingly.
    • p. 119
  • The enactment of fair procedures is associated with the belief that one will be able to control one's own outcomes.
    • p. 212

"A theory of procedure." 1978


John Thibaut and Laurens Walker. "A theory of procedure." California law review (1978): 541-566.

  • The search for the most effective conflict resolution procedure requires identification of the primary objective in resolving different kinds of disputes. This article focuses on the kind of disputes considered in the legal system and draws on the results of the authors' empirical studies to develop a general theory of procedure for attaining the objectives of "truth" and "justice" in situations of cognitive conflict, conflict of interest, and in "mixed" disputes.
    • p. 541, Abstract
  • In this Article we propose a general framework for analyzing and classifying all conflict resolution procedures, including, of course, all procedures employed in the legal process.
    • p. 541
  • The initial step in stating a theory of procedure is to recognize the fundamental dichotomy between the potential dispute resolution objectives of "truth" and "justice." This dichotomy, we suggest, is the necessary result of differences in the type of conflict involved in the dispute.
    • p. 541
  • Decision control is measured by the degree to which any one of the participants may unilaterally determine the outcome of the dispute. For example, where a third-party decisionmaker alone may order a resolution to be imposed, the decision-maker has total decision control. Control over the process refers to control over the development and selection of information that win constitute the basis for resolving the dispute.
    • p. 546

Quotes about John Thibaut

  • Thibaut & Kelley were constructing their compact conceptual scheme in The Social. Psychology of Groups (1959). While different in important ways, their work converged with Homans's, strengthening the general exchange approach.
    • Richard M. Emerson, "Social exchange theory." Annual review of sociology (1976): 335-362.
  • Professionally, he had made major contributions to his science and university and had received recognition through election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1978), receipt of the Distinguished Senior Scientist Award from the Society for Experimental Social Psychology (1981), and receipt of the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Psychological Association (1983).
    • Edward Jones, Harold Kelley, and John Schopler (1987). "John Walter Thibaut (1917–1986)." in: American Psychologist 42(9): p. 874-875
  • Harold Kelley’s long-term relationship with John Thibaut, from 1953 until Thibaut’s demise in 1986, is considered an exemplary model of scientific collaboration. It began with their being invited to write a major chapter on group problem-solving and process for the Handbook of Social Psychology (1954). That chapter, updated in 1968, not only became a major resource in that field, but it led them to a separate volume, The Social Psychology of Groups (1959), which became one of the most influential works in social psychology. Although Kelley was ordinarily modest in referring to his work, he aptly described the result as “a stable focus on phenomena at the group level…hitting upon a comprehensive and systematic theory, the elements of which others might regard as mundane, but the combinatorial nature of which brings order to numerous interpersonal and intergroup phenomena.” A second volume, Interpersonal Relations: A Theory of Interdependence, elaborating and extending the original analysis, was published in 1978.
  • 1959: John R. P. French and Bertram Raven, The Bases of Social Power — argues that five types, or bases, of power (coercive, reward, legitimate, referent, and expert) are linked with leadership.
    • Nicholas J. Beutell. "Chronology of Management Theory," in: Eric H. Kessler ed., Encyclopedia of management theory. Sage Publications, 2013. p. 936
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