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John Thibaut was a social psychologist, one of the last graduate students of Kurt Lewin. He spent a number of years as a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and was the first editor of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

The research group which he headed at UNC was regularly attended by Harry Upshaw, Jack Brehm, Kurt Back, and Edward E. Jones. He is best known for "A Social Psychology of Groups", co-authored by his long-time collaborator Harold Kelley.

The examination of social exchange led John Thibaut and Harold Kelley to develop social exchange theory, a process which was facilitated by Thibaut spending a year at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences where he had significant interaction with Kenneth Arrow.

The early variations of Social Exchange Theory stem from Alvin Ward Gouldner's (1960) norm of reciprocity, which simply argues that people ought to return benefits given to them in a relationship. Peter M. Blau built on the work done by George C. Homans in Exchange and Power in Social Life (1964). Later modifications to this theory focus attention on relational development and maintenance rules (see Murstein et al.).

Thibaut's later research was in the area of procedural justice, where he co-authored a book with legal expert Laurens Walker.

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