Expectancy violation theory is a communication theory that explains how people react when social norms or expectations are violated.
Suppose someone comes very close to you while talking. They have violated the polite etiquette of the workplace, and you may now have negative feelings toward them. However, who the violator is can significantly shape this incident.
For example, if this situation happened with a friend you were romantically interested in, it may make you happy. So, unlike most communication advice, the expectancy violation theory posits that violations can be desirable—even more than confirmations—at times.
Let us learn about the theory in more detail and then look at real-world examples where it can be applied.
Expectancy Violation Theory Definition
Judee K. Burgoon defines her theory in the following way:
“Expectancy violations theory predicts and explains the effects of nonverbal behavior violations on interpersonal communication outcomes such as attraction, credibility, persuasion, and smooth interactions.”(Burgoon, 2015)
She adds that the theory makes the counterintuitive claim that “violations of expectations are sometimes preferable to confirmations of expectations.” Unlike most communication advice, her theory posits that positive violations can produce desirable results.
There are five key components of the theory:
Expectations are what people expect others to do in interpersonal relations. These are shaped by three factors:
- Personal characteristics, such as age, gender, ethnic background, etc.
- Relational characteristics describe our relationship (business, platonic, romantic) with the other person. These include things like familiarity, status, and liking.
- Context includes environmental factors (such as the amount of space available) and social norms.
So, men usually stand father apart and with more indirect body orientation than women. People in Mediterranean cultures interact at closer distances, while those in Scandinavian cultures stay further apart.
Our expectations are also influenced by any individuating information about the other (Burgoon & Walther, 1990). If you are aware of your friend’s idiosyncrasies (such as speaking from a close distance), then you adjust your expectations accordingly.
2: Communicator Reward Valence
Communicator reward valence is a marker of how the other person is evaluated in terms of rewardability.
In any interaction, people judge each other on many factors, such as attractiveness, status, credibility, etc. They then arrive at a judgment of how rewarding it is to interact with the other person.
We place violators on a rewardingness continuum, which ranges from extremely positive to extremely negative. So, for example, if a movie star were to come close to you, it would be rewarding. On the other hand, if an aggressive stranger did the same, it would be nonrewarding.
3-5: Arousal, Evaluation, and Violation
Three final components are arousal-distraction, the interpretation-evaluation appraisal process, and violation valence.
The first one says that violations (when expectations are not met) are psychologically and/or physiologically arousing: they distract our attention from what is being said and draw it towards the violation. Other theories also agree that humans are drawn to novel stimuli.
The appraisal process describes how people make sense of a violation. Interpretation involves assigning meaning to a violation, and evaluation is judging its desirability. Finally, violation valence refers to the final value we assign to the violation, seeing it as positive or negative.
The theory argues that both confirmations (when expectations are met) and violations can be positive or negative. In other words, there can be four outcomes:
- Positive confirmation: When behavior is expected and performed by a favorably regarded person, say a partner lovingly holding one’s hand.
- Negative confirmation: The behavior is expected but done by a negatively regarded person. For example, a nosy colleague comes and sits next to you.
- Positive violation: A favorably regarded person does something unexpected, such as a shy friend making a romantic move.
- Negative violation: A negatively regarded person violates expectations, say a disliked uncle acting inappropriately.
Expectancy Violation Theory Examples
- Cultural Greetings: Even something as simple as saying “hello” to someone varies across cultures. For example, in Europe, it is common to greet someone with three kisses on alternating cheeks. But something like this would be completely inappropriate in India. Similarly, In Japan, people do not address each other by their first names, and doing so without permission would be considered an insult. Instead, they use the last name followed by the term of respect “san”. So, without knowing social norms, we may unintentionally commit violations and be viewed negatively by people.
- Personal Space: The Expectancy Violations Theory was initially developed by Burgoon to study proxemics (the human use of space), and personal space continues to be a significant component. As we mentioned earlier, different cultures have different norms for personal distance. This can also depend on personalities: introverts choose more distance between themselves than extroverts. A violation of personal space by a favourable person (say a college crush) would be positive, while the same act by an unfavourable person (a rude colleague) would be negative.
- Family (Phubbing): Family relationships today are often violated by phubbing. It refers to being physically present with people but being completely engrossed in your phone, paying little attention to what is happening around you. This is often done by younger people, and Kadylak’s study reveals that older people feel ignored and disrespected in such situations (2019). They feel their sense of social etiquette is being violated.
- Social Media: How we behave on social media is also governed by certain norms, and going against them can lead to violations. For example, posting excessively emotional status updates or tagging people in pictures that might negatively portray them can be inappropriate. To avoid such incidents, many users now opt to create a friends-only profile or what is called a private account on Instagram. If violations are done by slightly distant users, then people are further encouraged to establish a friends-only profile (Stutzman, 2010).
- Teacher’s Behavior: How teachers behave in class can sometimes lead to violations. For example, they may get quite angry at times and express their emotion through sarcasm or putdowns, verbal abuse, and acts intended to demoralize students (McPherson, 2003). Besides these intense displays of anger, teachers may also violate norms through their clothing. Studies reveal that when teachers wear formal attire, students rate their credibility higher, although this is irrelevant for high-reward teachers. (Dunbar & Segrin, 2011).
- Evaluation of Media Figures: Media figures, being constantly in the public eye, are frequently evaluated based on their actions and words. When they make comments that offend a particular group or demographic, it damages their reputation. Making up fabricated tales about their lives further tarnishes their image in the eyes of the public. Moral violations, such as adultery, are especially damning for public figures, leading to backlash from their fan base. Such violations, especially in today’s age of swift online judgments, can significantly influence their career trajectories. The expectancy violations theory suggests that such negative reactions arise because these figures have deviated from societal norms or expectations set for them.
- Friendships: Friendships, based on trust and understanding, come with a set of unwritten rules and expectations. One of the most vital aspects of friendships is trustworthiness, which is damaged when promises are broken or when a friend behaves inauthentically. If one friend attempts to introduce romance into the relationship without the other’s interest, it can be seen as a violation, leading to feelings of discomfort or betrayal. Such violations can strain or even end friendships, emphasizing the importance of adhering to mutual expectations. This is consistent with the expectancy violations theory, which underscores the role of anticipated behaviors in interpersonal relationships.
- Romantic Relationships: Within romantic relationships, there are certain behaviors that partners anticipate from each other. Minor violations, such as being engrossed in one’s phone during a date, can lead to feelings of neglect or undervaluation. More significant violations, like infidelity, have profound repercussions, often ending relationships. It’s essential to understand that in romantic contexts, even minor deviations from expected behavior can amplify feelings of hurt or betrayal. The expectancy violations theory provides a lens through which we can understand why certain actions, even if unintended, can have significant emotional impacts in such relationships.
- Job Search: Transitioning from college to the job market can be daunting for recent graduates. Smith’s 2015 study highlights that many are unprepared for the amount of effort required in their job search. For instance, they may not anticipate the need for networking, extensive research on potential employers, or tailoring their resumes for each application. When a company receives a thank-you letter from an applicant post-interview, it is seen as a positive violation because it demonstrates gratitude and reduces the uncertainty about the candidate’s interest in the job. The expectancy violations theory, in this context, allows us to understand how exceeding job market norms can yield positive outcomes for job seekers.
- Workplace Interaction: The workplace is an environment where professional behavior is expected. Using profanity or other forms of abusive language is a clear violation of this expectation. Johnson’s study in 2012 revealed that people who resort to such language are often perceived as less trustworthy, less sociable, and lacking in education. Such negative perceptions can impede career progress and damage workplace relationships. By adhering to workplace norms, individuals can avoid these negative perceptions and foster a positive professional image. The expectancy violations theory underscores the importance of meeting these norms to ensure smooth workplace interactions.
Weaknesses and Strengths of the Theory
Expectancy violation is sometimes criticized for its inability to explain the complexity of interactions, but it is still an excellent way of understanding communication.
Some critics of expectancy violation theory argue that human interactions are extremely complex and there numerous contingencies. So, it is virtually impossible to consistently predict behavioral outcomes. (Miller, 2005).
Another criticism is that the theory assumes that violations are mostly highly consequential and negative acts. However, research shows that, in actuality, violations vary in frequency, seriousness, and valence. They are often positive and reduce uncertainty (Afifi, 1998).
However, expectancy violation is still an excellent way of understanding communication. Unlike commonsensical advice, it tells us that even violations can be desirable. It explains the various factors that shape our expectations as well as their violation.
As such, expectancy violation theory can help us analyze various phenomena, such as online interactions, romantic relationships, etc. Recently, Burgoon and her colleagues have also revised and made these ideas more comprehensive in their interaction adaptation theory.
Expectancy violation theory explains how humans react when expectations of interaction are violated.
Unlike common theories of communication, it posits that violations of expectations can often be positive. Our expectations are shaped by personal characteristics, our relationship with the interact, etc.
We take into account various factors (attractiveness, status, etc.) to evaluate how “rewarding” it is to interact with somehow and determine whether their violation is desirable or undesirable. Despite its limitations, the theory is an excellent way of understanding communication.
Afifi, Walid; Metts, Sandra (1998). “Characteristics and Consequences of Expectation Violations in Close Relationships”. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
Burgoon, J.K. (2015). Expectancy Violations Theory. In The International Encyclopedia of Interpersonal Communication (eds C.R. Berger, M.E. Roloff, S.R. Wilson, J.P. Dillard, J. Caughlin, and D. Solomon). Wiley. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118540190.wbeic102
Burgoon, J. K., & Walther, J. B. (1990). Nonverbal expectancies and the consequences of violations. Human Communication Research.
Dunbar, Norah; Segrin, Chris (2011). “Clothing and Teacher Credibility: An Application of Expectancy Violations Theory”. ISRN Education.
Johnson, D.I. (2012). “Swearing by Peers in the Work Setting: Expectancy Violation Valence, Perceptions of Message, and Perceptions of Speaker”. Communication Studies.
Kadylak, Travis (2019). “An investigation of perceived family phubbing expectancy violations and well-being among U.S. Older adults”. Mobile Media & Communication.
McPherson, Mary B.; Kearney, Patricia; Plax, Timothy G. (2003-01-01). “The Dark Side of Instruction: Teacher Anger as Classroom Norm Violations“. Journal of Applied Communication Research.
Miller, K. (2005). Communication Theories: Perspectives, Processes, and Contexts. New York: McGraw Hill.
Smith, S. A. (2015). The job searching and career expectations of recent college graduates: An application of the expectancy violations theory of communication.
Stutzman, Fred; Kramer-Duffield, Jacob (2010). Friends Only: Examining a Privacy-enhancing Behavior in Facebook. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.