People have expectations about how others should and will act in a given situation. Some expectations are based on personal knowledge about an individual, relationship, or situation. Other expectations are based on rules of social and cultural appropriateness. When a communicator’s behavior deviates from these expectations, an expectancy violation has occurred. Expectancy violations theory (EVT) explains how people respond to unexpected communication. EVT, which was developed by Judee Burgoon, initially focused on violations of personal space. The theory was later expanded to apply to other nonverbal behaviors and more general interpersonal events, including unexpected moves to escalate or de-escalate a relationship, transgressions such as deception and infidelity, and dating behavior (Burgoon & Hale 1988; Burgoon et al. 1995).
According to EVT, expectations come from three sources: communicator characteristics (such as personality), relationship characteristics (such as being friends vs being romantic partners), and context characteristics (such as culture and the situation). Behavior that confirms people’s expectations generally goes unnoticed. Unexpected behavior, on the other hand, captures people’s attention and leads to heightened arousal. Sometimes arousal change is aversive, leading to a fight-or-flight response. At other times arousal takes the form of an orientation response that leads people to scan the environment for information to help them interpret and evaluate the unexpected behavior. Evaluations are largely made on the basis of the perceived valence of the behavior and the reward value of the partner.
Valence refers to how positive or negative an expectancy violation is compared to the expected behavior. Positive expectancy violations occur when the unexpected behavior is better than the expected behavior, whereas negative expectancy violations occur when the unexpected behavior is worse than the expected behavior. Some expectancy violations are unambiguous. For example, receiving an especially nice gift from a relational partner is almost always a positive expectancy violation; infidelity is almost always a negative expectancy violation.
Reward value refers to the level of regard a person has for someone. Reward value is associated with characteristics such as physical attractiveness, social attractiveness, and status. When the meaning of an expectancy violation is fairly ambiguous, reward value is often the key determinant of whether the behavior is evaluated positively or negatively. For instance, a hug by an acquaintance is likely to be valenced negatively or positively depending on whether the acquaintance is perceived as unrewarding or rewarding, respectively.
According to EVT, valence and reward value work together to predict behavioral and emotional responses to expectancy violations, including patterns of reciprocity and compensation. Reciprocity occurs when a person responds to an unexpected behavior with a similar behavior (e.g., one person is flirtatious, the other person responds with a coy smile). Compensation occurs when a person responds to an unexpected behavior with a dissimilar or opposite behavior (e.g., one person is flirtatious, the other person pulls away). People often engage in compensation when a change in the intimacy level of an interaction makes them uncomfortable. Expectancy violations can also produce uncertainty. Burgoon and her colleagues have conducted numerous experimental studies applying EVT to the exchange of nonverbal behavior. In particular, EVT has been used to explain reactions to changes in nonverbal involvement. Nonverbal involvement cues, such as eye contact, touch, and vocal expressiveness, signal interest in an interaction. Other scholars have applied EVT to relationship transgressions (infidelity, deception) and dating behavior. Two consistent findings have emerged: when rewarding communicators engage in positive expectancy violations, people respond with positive affect and reciprocity; when unrewarding communicators engage in negative expectancy violations, people respond with negative affect and reciprocity.
Findings for rewarding communicators who engage in negative expectancy violations are less consistent. Studies looking at patterns of nonverbal communication have shown that when a rewarding communicator engages in a negative expectancy violation, the partner often compensates, at least initially. However, if the rewarding communicator continues acting negatively, the partner eventually reciprocates. Research on relational transgressions suggests that people are more likely to grant forgiveness and engage in constructive communication if the partner and the relationship were previously regarded as highly rewarding and the transgression only constituted a mildly negative expectancy violation. Highly negative expectancy violations often lead to destructive communication, even within the context of previously satisfying relationships.
Findings for unrewarding communicators who engage in positive expectancy violations have also been mixed. Sometimes people are suspicious of positive behavior by unrewarding partners; other times they evaluate the partner as more rewarding in light of the positive expectancy violation. Burgoon’s research suggests that unrewarding communicators fare best when they confirm expectations and act in socially normative ways. In contrast, rewarding communicators have more leeway to violate expectations – either positively or negatively.
EVT provides a good example of how the scope of a theory can broaden over time. The theory has been successfully applied to the study of nonverbal behavior for decades. Recent work on EVT expanded the theory’s scope by examining relational transgressions, dating behavior, expectations about sex, and sexual resistance, suggesting that the concept of expectancy violations explains a variety of human behaviors (Afifi & Metts 1998; Bachman & Guerrero 2006; Bevan 2003; Morr & Mongeau 2004).
- Afifi, W. A., & Metts, S. (1998). Characteristics and consequences of expectation violations in close relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 15, 365 – 392.
- Bachman, G. F., & Guerrero, L. K. (2006). An expectancy violations analysis of relational quality and communicative responses following hurtful events in dating relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 23, 943 – 963.
- Bevan, J. L. (2003). Expectancy violation theory and sexual resistance in close, cross-sex relationships. Communication Monographs, 70, 68 – 82.
- Burgoon, J. K., & Hale, J. L. (1988). Nonverbal expectancy violations: Model elaboration and application to immediacy behaviors. Communication Monographs, 55, 58 –79.
- Burgoon, J. K., Stern, L. A., & Dillman, L. (1995). Interpersonal adaptation: Dyadic interaction patterns. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Morr, M. C., & Mongeau, P. A. (2004). First date expectations: The impact of sex of initiator, alcohol consumption, and relationship type. Communication Research, 31, 3 –35.