Expectancy-Value Theory is a theory of motivation that states motivation is determined by two factors:
- Expectancy: Whether we expect we can succeed at the task.
- Values: How much we value the task.
The theory was developed by John William Atkinson in the 1950s and 1960s. Jacquelynne Eccles is widely credited as the key scholar who brought it to the field of education studies.
The theory has two central components: expectancy and value. If both are lined up well, then we can expect a person to be motivated to complete a task. Many scholars have shown how the expectancy and value components influence one another. But more on that later. First, let’s look at these two key concepts in more depth.
Expectancy refers to whether we expect that we would be successful in a task if we attempted it.
It’s very similar to the idea of “locus of control“, which examines whether we think we have the power to influence outcomes. A person with an internal locus of control thinks they can influence outcomes if they put in the effort. A person with an external locus of control believes their success is dependent on factors they cannot control.
It’s also similar to the idea of self-concept (aka self-efficacy). This term states that some of us have high belief in ourselves. We generally think we’re good at tasks that we have a go at. Others have low belief in ourselves. We generally think we’re no good at tasks.
In general, the theory believes that people who expect to succeed are more likely to succeed purely by having that self-belief. Self-belief influences outcomes to some extent.
Here’s an example.
Let’s say you walk into an exam on a day when you’re feeling good about yourself and your abilities.
If you walk into an exam feeling confident you will do well in it, that self-confidence will help you to some extent when you come across obstacles in the exam. You might persist more, show more resilience, and be less likely to give up. As a result, you’ll leave the exam having had a good hard go.
But if you walked into the exam having gotten out of bed feeling like you’re no-good, you might walk into the exam with lower expectancy. You might not try as hard at some sections because you’re despondent, un-enthused and feel like you just can’t do it today.
This psychological and subjective component of ‘expectancy’ can influence outcomes.
Value, or in full ‘achievement task value’, is a fancy phrase, but it really means this:
How much do you value this task? Is it something you find important? Do you consider it worth doing? Do you consider it enjoyable? Will it help you in your life somehow?
According to expectancy-value theory, how much you value the task could have an impact on your motivation to complete it, and furthermore, it could impact on your success when you do the task.
Achievement task values are broken up into four categories: importance (aka ‘attainment value’), intrinsic value, utility value (how useful the task is), and cost.
Let’s break them down.
Attainment value (aka ‘importance’) looks at how important a person thinks it is to do well on a task. You might think a task is the most important thing you’ll do all day or all year. Or, you may think it’s a pesky task that you need to get done before lunch time. How much we value a task will influence how motivated we are to do it.
Attainment value also “incorporates identity issues”. If doing something is important to our sense of self, we’ll likely give it more effort and be more motivated to do it.
Take, for example, going to church. My mother – a dedicated Christian – will go to church every Sunday, even while holidaying. It’s important to her sense of self. Others in my family will willingly skip church on occasion because it’s something that’s good to do, but not at the core of their identity.
Intrinsic value refers to how much we enjoy a task. When we’re intrinsically motivated, we’ll do a task because the ‘doing of the task’ gives us pleasure. It’s the opposite of extrinsic motivation, which usually means we’ll only do a task if we’re given a reward or praise for doing so.
Take for example learning an instrument. Some people will practice and practice all day long because it feels good to play the instrument. Others will avoid it and skip practice because they’re a bit bored and bothered by the task.
Utility value refers to how useful we find a task for our lives.
For example, think about why you’re reading this article.
If you’re reading this article to research for a university paper, the utility value of this article is that it will help you complete a university course. That’s high utility value!
But if you’re reading this article for no reason other than pure enjoyment (I doubt it), the utility value is low. So, less people are probably reading it out of enjoyment – there’s less of an incentive to do so!
Utility value might have to do with your future (you usually pay more attention in a class that seems relevant to your life after school), succeeding in a job, or ensuring you’re healthy and wealthy!
This component of achievement task value is a bit like extrinsic motivation – we’re judging a thing by what rewards we get out of doing it.
Lastly we have cost. This component is similar to the idea of “opportunity cost” – what does the task cost us? Could I be doing something better with my time? Is it costing me money? Is it getting in the way of me having fun? These are all ‘costs’.
For this metric, we’re thinking about whether or not what we’re giving up to complete the task is actually worth sacrificing.
Findings of the Theory
The theory has been tested widely in psychology, education, consumer marketing, and other fields. Most findings seem common-sense and logical. But here are some of the key findings:
- High Expectancy and High Value = High Motivation. You’re more likely to do an activity if you both value the activity and expect to do well in it.
- The Environment Influences our Motivations. Environmental factors can include cultural milieu (what our culture values) and socializers’ believes (what our parents and other influential people believe is worthwhile).
- Our Experiences and Aspirations influence our Motivations. Whether we have experienced success in the past, whether we have long-term goals, and whether we feel good about ourselves will all influence how motivated we are to do a task.
- Expectations influence Values. If we expect that we would do well at something, we tend to value it higher. This is a self-completing cycle, where we think we’re good at something, so we value it, so we do it more, so we get better at it, leading us to reinforce our idea that we’re good at it!
Related Motivation Theories:
Overall, expectancy-value theory is a useful way of breaking down explanations for why people are motivated to do certain things. The theory helps us pay attention to the dual features of ‘expectations for success’ and ‘how much you value a task’ to see whether we can predict someone’s motivation to do it. Teachers and curriculum designers are one big beneficiary of this theory: by showing students the value in a task, and promoting students’ self-esteem, we can help foster motivation to learn.
Atkinson, J. W. (1957). Motivational determinants of risk taking behavior. Psychological Review, 64, 359–372.
Atkinson, J. W. (1964). An introduction to motivation. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand
Eccles, J. S. (2005). Subjective task values and the Eccles et al. model of achievement related choices. In: Elliott, A. J. & Dweck, C. S. (Eds), Handbook of competence and motivation (pp. 105–121). New York: Guilford.
Eccles, J. S., Wigfield, A., & Schiefele, U. (1998). Motivation to succeed. In: Damon, W. & Eisenberg, N. (Eds.) Handbook of child psychology (pp. 1017–1095). New York: Wiley.
Fredricks, J., & Eccles, J. S. (2002). Children’s competence and value beliefs from childhood through adolescence: Growth trajectories in two male sex-typed domains. Developmental Psychology, 38, 519–533
Wigfield, A., & Cambria, J. (2010). Expectancy-value theory: Retrospective and prospective. In: Urdan, T.C., & Karabenick, S.A. (Eds.) Advances in motivation and achievement (pp. 35-70.). New York: Emerald Group Publishing.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.