Skip to content
The OCR Glossary

Expectancy Violations Theory

Sherry J. Holladay

Expectancy violations theory (EVT) explains how people react to violations of their expectations of another’s behavior in a particular situation and how receivers process and evaluate information about their interactions with relational partners. The theory was developed by Judee Burgoon and has been extended by numerous others. The original formulation of EVT focused on perceptions of and reactions to nonverbal communication interaction in initial dyadic encounters (zero-history dyads) but has been extended to both verbal and nonverbal behavior.

Reputation largely depends on an organization’s ability to meet the expectations of important constituents. Thus, violations of those expectations can lead to erosion of trust, when people question the credibility and competency of the organization. The tenets of EVT are derived from theories concerning interpersonal interaction and cognitive processing, including social exchange theory, uncertainty reduction theory, attribution theory, and nonverbal communication theories. This entry describes several fundamental concepts of EVT and findings from previous research.

Several key concepts provide the foundation of EVT. First, the concept of expectancies refers to what people believe an interaction should and will be like. Expectancies are influenced by (a) the context of the interaction (e.g., cultural norms, specific features of the setting), (b) the relationship between the interactants (e.g., relational history, liking, similarity), and (c) the interactional partner’s communicator characteristics (e.g., personality, appearance, reputation).

Second, deviations from expected behaviors—violations—may arise during an interaction. Expectancy violations create arousal (uncertainty), which directs attention toward the behavior and the communicator. Evaluation of the violation itself as well as evaluation of the communicator influence the effect of the expectancy violation. Third, violation valence refers to the perceived negative or positive value of the departure from behavior expectations, irrespective of the person who committed the violation.

Fourth, communicator reward valence refers to the evaluation of the specific person who committed the violation. It involves the mental calculation of the benefits (rewards) and losses (costs) associated with communicating with that specific person based on qualities such as status, credibility, attractiveness, liking, and potential for future interaction. Because communicator reward valence includes both the positive and the negative attributes the other person brings to the interaction, the specific person committing the violation affects the interpretation of the violation. Hence, the way one feels about the expectancy violation is influenced by who committed the violation as well as the nature of the violation itself.

By moving from a purely interpersonal communication domain to a more general “relationship” focus, EVT has extended into disciplines such as marketing, public relations, and business communication, in which consumer-organization relationships or public/stakeholder-organization relationships are relevant to organizational success. Business-oriented research examines how an organization’s constituents react when it violates their expectancies. In this research, the organization is positioned as the communicator. Some EVT research examines reputation as an independent variable and studies how an organization’s reputation affects aspects of its relationships with or behavior toward its constituents. In other research, corporate reputation serves as a dependent variable, and aspects of constituent relationships or behavior toward constituents are changed to determine the effect on reputation.

For example, Ainsworth Bailey and Carolyn Bonifield applied EVT in their study of how positive and negative organizational reputations interacted with fulfillment and nonfulfillment of a promotional promise to influence various attitudes and intentions toward the brand. They suggest that positive reputations are earned by companies that behave in accordance with consumer expectations, while negative reputations may stem from violations of consumer expectations. For companies with negative reputations, fulfillment and nonfulfillment of promotional promises did not differentially affect consumer attitudes and intentions. However, fulfillment and nonfulfillment did influence consumer attitudes and intentions toward organizations with positive reputations. They claim that a positive reputation provides a protective buffer when infrequent expectancy violations occur.

Bailey, A. A., & Bonifield, C. M. (2010). Broken (promotional) promises: The impact of firm reputation and blame. Journal of Marketing Communication, 16(5), 287–306.

Burgoon, J. K. (1978). A communication model of personal space violation: Explication and an initial test. Human Communication Research, 4(2), 129–142.

Burgoon, J. K., & Hale, J. (1988). Nonverbal expectancy violations: Model elaboration and application to immediacy behaviors. Communication Monographs, 55(1), 58–70.

Burgoon, J. K., & Jones, S. B. (1976). Toward a theory of personal space expectations and their violations. Human Communication Research, 2(2), 131–146.

Burgoon, J. K., & Walther, J. B. (1990). Nonverbal expectancies and the evaluative consequences of violations. Human Communication Research, 17(2), 232–265.

Kim, S. (2014). The role of prior expectancies and relational satisfaction in crisis. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 9(1), 139–158.

See Also

Expectation Management

See Also

Please select listing to show.