The P-O-X Model – Explained

Recently someone asked me to explain the P-O-X model and for a while now, I’d been debating putting up explanations to psychology theories or to not, but with this question, I decided to do so. The P-O-X model, also called Balance Theory, was designed by Fritz Heider. The theory suggests that we need consistency of beliefs and values in our life and our attitudes often are organized in order to be in line with our values and beliefs. The creator, Fritz Heider (February 19, 1896 – January 2, 1988) was an Austrian psychologist. In 1958 he published The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations, which elaborated and expanded on his balance theory.

I found this video on YouTube and it is one of the better videos to explain the theory and is really helpful for those who are visual learners but for those who require some theoretical examples, I’ve borrowed an example from Wikipedia and Changing Minds that follow right after the video.


For example, (as someone kindly illustrated on Wikipedia)

a Person (P) who likes an Other (O) person will be balanced by the same valence attitude on behalf of the other. Symbolically, P (+) > O and P < (+) O results in psychological balance. This can be extended to things (X) as well, thus introducing triadic relationships. If a person P likes object X but dislikes other person O, what does P feel upon learning that O created X? This is symbolized as such: P (+) > X
P (-) > O
O (+) > X
Balance is achieved when there are three positive links or two negatives with one positive. Two positive links and one negative like the example above creates imbalance.


Multiplying the signs shows that the person will perceive imbalance (a negative multiplicative product) in this relationship, and will be motivated to correct the imbalance somehow. The Person can either:

Decide that O isn’t so bad after all,
Decide that X isn’t as great as originally thought, or
Conclude that O couldn’t really have made X.
Any of these will result in psychological balance, thus resolving the dilemma and satisfying the drive. (Person P could also avoid object X and other person O entirely, lessening the stress created by psychological imbalance.)

Further, Changing Minds illustrated some more examples for anyone who may still be unsure-

There are four sets of relationships that are usually balanced

  • P+O, P+X, O+X
  • P-O, P-X, O+X
  • P-O, P+X, O-X
  • P+O, P-X, O-X

There are also four typically unbalanced relationships, that are likely to be turned into the above balanced relationships in order to restore balance:

  • P+O, P-X, O+X
  • P+O, P+X, O-X
  • P-O, P+X, O+X
  • P-O, P-X, O-X

Heider (1958) illuminated this thus:

my friend’s friend is my friend
my friend’s enemy is my enemy
my enemy’s friend is my enemy
my enemy’s enemy is my friend

Newcombe (1953) added a third state of ‘non-balance’ and showed how the model can be used to highlight inconsistency in communication between three people. He talked about the ‘strain toward symmetry’ where both O and P tend towards the same attitude towards X.


Balanced: P+O, P+X, O+X: Jim likes Jane, Jim likes skiing, Jane likes skiing.

Unbalanced: P+O, P-X, O+X: Jim likes Jane, Jim does not like skiing, Jane likes skiing

Hope that helps!