Expectancy violations theory

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Expectancy violations theory (EVT) is a theory of communication that analyzes how individuals respond to unanticipated violations of social norms and expectations.[1] The theory was proposed by Judee K. Burgoon in the late 1970s and continued through the 1980s and 1990s as "nonverbal expectancy violations theory", based on Burgoon's research studying proxemics.[2][3][4] Burgoon's work initially analyzed individuals' allowances and expectations of personal space and how responses to personal space violations were influenced by the level of liking and relationship to the violators.[2] The theory was later changed to its current name when other researchers began to focus on violations of social behavior expectations beyond nonverbal communication.[1][5] Because EVT is sociopsychological in nature and focuses on social codes in both intrapersonal and interpersonal communication, it is closely related to communication theories such as cognitive dissonance and uncertainty reduction theory.

This theory sees communication as an exchange of behaviors, where one individual's behavior can be used to violate the expectations of another. Participants in communication will perceive the exchange either positively or negatively, depending upon an existing personal relationship or how favorably the violation is perceived.[3][6][7][8] Expectancies are primarily based upon social norms and specific characteristics and idiosyncrasies of the communicators.[3][9] Expectancies can be derived directly from the current communication interaction but are often determined by a prexisting blend of person requirements (biological/survival needs), expectations (normative schemata) and desires (likes and dislikes) known as the mnemonic 'RED'. This is known as a person's interaction position (IP).[10][11] Violations of expectancies cause arousal and compel the recipient to initiate a series of cognitive appraisals of the violation.[12] The theory predicts that expectancies influence the outcome of the communication interaction as either positive or negative and predicts that positive violations increase the attraction of the violator and negative violations decrease the attraction of the violator.[7]

Beyond proxemics and examining how people interpret violations in many given communicative contexts, EVT also makes specific predictions as to how individuals will react to a given expectation violation. Will an individual reciprocate or match someone's unexpected behavior, or will that individual compensate or counteract by doing the opposite of that person's behavior? Before making a prediction about reciprocation or compensation, however, one must evaluate EVT's three core concepts: Expectancy, violation valence, and communicator reward valence.[13][10]

Recently, this theory has undergone some reconstitution by Burgoon and her colleagues and has resulted in a newly proposed theory known as interaction adaptation theory,[14] which is a more comprehensive explanation of adaptation in interpersonal interaction.[15]


The expectancy violations theory examines three components in interpersonal communication situations: Expectancies, communicator reward valence, and violation valence.[10]


Expectancy refers to what an individual anticipates will happen in a given situation. Expectancy violations refer to actions which are noticeably discrepant from an expectancy and are classified as outside the range of expectancy. In psychology, such behavior is frequently referred to as behavioral dis-confirmation.[16]

Burgoon (1978) notes that people do not view others' behaviors as random. Rather, they have various expectations of how others should think and behave. EVT proposes that observation and interaction with others leads to expectancies. The two types of expectancies noted are predictive and prescriptive.[17] Predictive expectations are "behaviors we expect to see because they are the most typical," (Houser, 2005) and vary across cultures.[17] They let people know what to expect based upon what typically occurs within the context of a particular environment and relationship.[10] For example, a husband and wife may have an evening routine in which the husband always washes the dishes. If he were to ignore the dirty dishes one night, this might be seen as a predictive discrepancy. Prescriptive expectations, on the other hand, are based upon "beliefs about what behaviors should be performed" and "what is needed and desired" (Houser, 2005).[17] If a person walks into a police department to report a crime, the person will have an expectation that the police will file a report and follow up with an investigation.

When the theory was first proposed, EVT identified three factors which influence a person's expectations: Interactant variables, environmental variables, and variables related to the nature of the interaction.[18] Interactant variables are the traits of those persons involved in the communication, such as sex, attractiveness, race, culture, status, and age.[18][19] Environmental variables include the amount of space available and the nature of the territory surrounding the interaction. Interaction variables include social norms, purpose of the interaction, and formality of the situation.[18] These factors later evolved into communicator characteristics, relational characteristics, and context.[10] Communicator characteristics include personal features such as an individual's appearance, personality and communication style.[10] It also includes factors such as age, sex and ethnic background.[10][20] Relational characteristics refer to factors such as similarity, familiarity, status and liking.[10] The type of relationship one individual shares within another (e.g. romantic, business or platonic), the previous experiences shared between the individuals, and how close they are with one another are also relational characteristics that influence expectations.[20] Context encompasses both environment and interaction characteristics.[20] Communicator characteristics lead to distinctions between males and females in assessing the extent to which their nonverbal expressions of power and dominance effect immediacy behaviors.[21] Immediacy cues such as conversational distance, lean, body orientation, gaze, and touch may differ between the genders as they create psychological closeness or distance between the interactants.[21]

Behavioural expectations may also shift depending on the environment one is experiencing. For example, a visit to a church will produce different expectations than a social function. The expected violations will therefore be altered. Similarly, expectations differ based on culture. In Europe, one may expect to be greeted with three kisses on alternating cheeks, but this is not the case in the United States.[22]

Communicator reward valence[edit]

The communicator reward valence is an evaluation one makes about the person who committed a violation of expectancy. Em Griffin summarizes the concept behind Communicator Reward Valence as the sum of positive and negative attributes brought to the encounter plus the potential to reward or punish in the future.[10] The social exchange theory explains that individuals seek to reward some and seek to avoid punishing others.[23] When one individual interacts with another, Burgoon believes he or she will assess the "positive and negative attributes that person brings to the encounter".[10] If the person has the ability to reward or punish the receiver in the future, then the person has a positive reward valence. Rewards simply refer to the person's ability to provide a want or need. The term 'communicator reward valence' is used to describe the results of this assessment.[10] For example, people will feel encouraged during conversation when the listener is nodding, making eye contact, and responding actively. Conversely, if the listener is avoiding eye contact, yawning, and texting, it is implied they have no interest in the interaction and the speaker may feel violated.

When examining the context, relationship, and communicator's characteristics in a given encounter, individuals will arrive at an expectation for how that person should behave. Changing even one of these expectancy variables may lead to a different expectation.[13]

Violation valence[edit]

The term 'arousal value' is used to describe the consequences of deviations from expectations. When individuals' expectations are violated, their interests or attentions are aroused.[10] When arousal occurs, one's interest or attention to the deviation increases, resulting in less attention paid to the message and more attention to the source of the arousal.[24]

Behavior violations arouse and distract, calling attention to the qualities of the violator and the relationship between the interactants.[25] A key component of EVT is the notion of violation valence, or the association the receiver places on the behavior violation.[26] A violatee's response to an expectancy violation can be positive or negative, and is dependent on two conditions: Positive or negative interpretation of the behavior and the nature (rewardingness) of the violator. Rewardingness of the violator is evaluated through many categories – attractiveness, prestige, ability to provide resources, or associated relationship. For instance, a violation of one's personal space might have more positive valence if committed by a wealthy, powerful, physically appealing member of the opposite sex than a filthy, poor, homeless person with foul breath. The evaluation of the violation is based upon the relationship between the particular behavior and the valence of the actor.[25] A person's preinteractional expectancies, especially personal attributes, may cause a perceiver to evaluate the communication behavior of a target differently in terms of assigning positive and negative valenced expectancies.[27]

Another perspective of violation valence is that the perceived positive or negative value assigned to a breach of expectations is inconsequential of who the violator is.[10] This perspective places much greater weight on the act of the breach itself than the violator. The difference between the negative violation and the negative confirmation do not appear significant. Dis-confirmations tend to intensify the outcomes,especially in the positive violation condition.[13]

Theoretical assumptions and viewpoints[edit]


After assessing expectancy, violation valence, and communicator reward valence of a given situation, it becomes possible to make rather specific predictions about whether the individual who perceived the violation will reciprocate or compensate the behavior in question. Guerrero (1996) and Burgoon (2000) noticed that predictable patterns develop when considering reward valence and violation valence together.[28] Specifically, if the violation valence is perceived as positive and the communicator reward valence is also perceived as positive, the theory predicts individuals will reciprocate the positive behavior. For example, your boss gives you a big smile after you have given a presentation. Guerrero and Burgoon would predict that you would smile in return. Similarly, if you perceive the violation valence as negative and perceive the communicator reward valence as negative, the theory again predicts that you reciprocate the negative behavior. Thus, if a disliked coworker is grouchy and unpleasant towards you, you will likely reciprocate and be unpleasant in return.

Conversely, if one perceives a negative violation valence but views the communicator reward valence as positive, it is likely that the person will compensate for his or her partner's negative behavior. For example, one day your boss appears sullen and throws a stack of papers in front of you. Rather than grunt back, EVT predicts that you will compensate for your boss' negativity, perhaps by asking if everything is OK (Guerrero & Burgoon, 1996). More difficult to predict, however, is the situation in which a person who is viewed unfavorably violates another with positive behavior. In this situation, the receiver may reciprocate, giving the person the "benefit of the doubt."[13]

The assumptions discussed thus far can be summarized into six major propositions posited by Expectancy Violations Theory:[29]

  1. People develop expectations about verbal and nonverbal communication behavior from other people.
  2. Violations of these expectations cause arousal and distraction, further leading the receiver to shift his or her attention to the other, the relationship, and the meaning of the violation.
  3. Communicator reward valence determines the interpretation of ambiguous communication.
  4. Communicator reward valence determines how the behavior is evaluated.
  5. Violation valences are determined by three factors: (1) The evaluation of the behavior; (2) whether or not the behavior is more or less favorable than the expectation; and (3) the magnitude of the violation. A positive violation occurs when the behavior is more favorable than the expectation. A negative violation occurs when the behavior is less favorable.
  6. Positive violations produce more favorable outcomes than behavior that matches expectations, and negative violations produce more unfavorable outcomes than behavior that matches expectations.

Needs for personal space and affiliation[edit]

Expectancy violations theory builds upon a number of communication axioms.[13] EVT assumes that humans have two competing needs: A need for personal space and a need for affiliation.[3][13] Specifically, humans all need a certain amount of personal space, also referred to as distance or privacy.[3] People also desire a certain amount of closeness with others, or affiliation.[13] EVT seeks to explain 'personal space', and the meanings that are formed when expectations of appropriate personal space are infringed or violated.[13]

Another feature of personal space is territoriality. Territoriality refers to behavior which "is characterized by identification with a geographic area in a way that indicates ownership" (Hall, 1966).[30] In humans, territoriality refers to an individual's sense of ownership over physical items, space, objects or ideas, and defensive behavior in response to territorial invasions.[30] Territoriality involves three territory types: Primary territories, secondary territories and public territories.[31] Primary territories are considered exclusive to an individual.[30] Secondary territories are objects, spaces or places which "can be claimed temporarily" (Hall, 1966), but are neither central to the individual's life nor are exclusively owned.[30] Public territories are "available to almost anyone for temporary ownership".[30] Territoriality is frequently accompanied by prevention and reaction.[32] When an individual perceives one of their needs has been compromised, EVT predicts that they will react. For instance, when an offensive violation occurs, the individual tends to react as though protecting their territory.


EVT offers an opportunity to study how individuals communicate through personal space. This part of the theory explains the notion of "personal space" and our reactions to others who appear to "violate" our sense of personal space.[33] What we define as personal space, however, varies from culture to culture and from person to person. The "success" or "failure" of violations are linked to perceived attraction, credibility, influence and involvement. The context and purpose of interaction are relevant, as are the communicator characteristics of gender, relationships, status, social class, ethnicity and culture.[33] When it comes to different interactions between people, what each person expects out of the interaction will influence their individual willingness to risk violation. If a person feels comfortable in a situation, they are more likely to risk violation, and in turn will be rewarded for it.

Introduced by Edward Hall in 1966, Proxemics deals with the amount of distance between people as they interact with one another.[34] Spatial distance during an interaction can be an indication of what type of relationship exists between the people involved.

Personal Space Expectations diagram

There are 4 different personal zones defined by Hall. These zones include:

  1. Intimate Space: (0-18 inches) - This distance is for close, intimate encounters. Normally core family, close friends, lovers, or pets. People will normally share a unique level of comfort with one another.[35]
  2. Personal Space: (18 inches – 4 feet) - Reserved for conversations with friends, extended family, associates, and group discussions. The personal space will give each person more space compared with the intimate distance, but is still close enough to involve touching one another.[35]
  3. Social Space: (4–10 feet) - This space is reserved for newly formed groups, and new acquaintances and colleagues you may have just met. People generally do not engage physically with one another within this section.[35]
  4. Public Space: (10 feet to infinity) - Reserved for a public setting with large audiences, strangers, speeches, and theaters.


Many different cultures are influenced by Proxemics in different ways and respond differently to the same situation. In some cultures, those who have not formed close relationships may greet each other with kisses on the cheek, engaging one another well within the intimate range of proxemics. In other cultures, a custom greeting is a handshake which maintains a physical separation but is well within personal space.[36] Across the Proxemic Zones, actions can be interpreted differently among different cultures. For example, Japanese people do not address others by their first names unless they have been given permission. Calling someone by their first name in Japan without permission is considered an insult. In the Japanese culture, they address people using their last name and 'san', which is equivalent to 'Mr.','Mrs.' and 'Ms.' in the English language. The way Japanese people address each other is an example of a verbal Proxemic zone. A Japanese person allowing another to call them by their first name is an example of intimate space, because this is a privilege extended only someone very close to them.[37]


Interpersonal communication[edit]

It is important to note that EVT can apply to both non-relational interaction and close relationships. In 1998, more than twenty years after the theory was first published, several studies were conducted to catalog the types of expectancy violations commonly found in close relationships.[25] Participants in friendships and romantic relationships were asked to think about the last time their friend or partner did or said something unexpected. It was emphasized that the unexpected event could be either positive or negative. Participants reported events that had occurred, on average, five days earlier, suggesting that unexpected behaviors happen often in relationships. Some of the behaviors reported were relatively mundane, and others were quite serious. The outcome of the list was a list of nine general categories of expectation violations that commonly occur in relationships. [38]

  1. Support or confirmation is an act that provides social support in a particular time of need, such as sitting with a friend who is sick.
  2. Criticism or accusation is critical of the receiver and accuse the individual of an offense. These are violations because they are accusations not expected. An example is a ball player telling a teammate he should have caught the ball rather than supportively giving him or her a slap on the back and offering words of encouragement.
  3. Relationship intensification or escalation intensifies the commitment of the communicator. For instance, saying "I love you," signifies a deepening of a romantic relationship.
  4. Relationship de-escalation signifies a decrease in commitment of the communicator. An example might be spending more time apart.
  5. Relational transgressions are violations of the perceived rules of the relationship. Examples include having an affair, deception, or being disloyal.
  6. Acts of devotion are unexpected overtures that imply specialness in the relationship. Buying flowers for no particular occasion falls into this category.
  7. Acts of disregard show that the partner is unimportant. This could be as simple as excluding a partner or a friend from a collective activity.
  8. Gestures of inclusion are actions that show an unexpected interest in having the other included in special activities or life. Examples include invitations to spend a special holiday with someone, disclosure of personal information, or inviting the partner to meet one's family.
  9. Uncharacteristic relational behavior is unexpected action that is not consistent with the partner's perception of the relationship. A common example is one member of an opposite-sex friendship demanding a romantic relationship of the other.

In later review of the studies, the support or confirmation category was inserted into acts of devotion and included another category, uncharacteristic social behavior. These are acts that aren't relational but are unexpected, such as a quiet person raising his or her voice.[39]

Computer-mediated communication and social media[edit]

As has previously been addressed, EVT has evolved tremendously over the years, expanding beyond its original induction when it focused on FtF communication and proxemics. The advancement of information and communications technology has provided tools for expressing oneself and conveying messages beyond just typing in text. As already discussed, arousal can divert one's attention or interest from a message to the source of the arousal.[10][24] Virtual realities created online through computer-mediated communication, especially those which evoke strong visual presence through media, can increase arousal levels, such as those with high violent or sexual content.[40] Just as people may use television viewing to increase or decrease arousal levels, people may use media in online communication to increase or decrease arousal levels.[41] People may interact with others online by assuming the identities of avatars which may take on completely different, alternate personalities. The differences in perceived intimateness, co-presence, and emotionally-based trust can very significantly between avatar communication and other communication modalities such as text chat, audio, and audio-visual.[42] The media options available to users when communicating with others online present a host of potential expectancy violations unique to CMC.

The introduction of social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as dating social networks such as Match.com and eHarmony, has greatly contributed to the increased use of computer-mediated communication (CMC) which now offers a context for studying communication devoid of nonverbal information. Though these media are relatively new, they have been in existence long enough for users to have developed norms and expectations about appropriate behaviors in the online world.[43] However, there has been a lag by researchers to study and understand these new established norms, which makes CMC rich with heuristic possibilities from a communications theory perspective.[43]

Ramirez and Wang studied the occurrence and timing of modality switching,[44] or shifts from online communication to FtF interaction, from the perspective of EVT.[45] Their research documented inconsistent findings which revealed in some instances relationships were enhanced and in others they were dampened, indicating the expectations, evaluations, and outcomes associated with initial modality switches varied amongst individuals.[45] Additionally, studies have found that when individuals who meet online meet face-to-face for the first time, the length of time spent communicating online can determine whether individuals will rate physical characteristics of each other positively or negatively.[45] Unlike FtF communication, CMC allows people to pretend to be connected with a person who violates their expectancy by ignoring violations or filtering news feed. Meanwhile, people can also cut the connection completely with someone who is not important by deleting friendship status when a serious violation occurs. A confrontation is much more likely for close friends than for acquaintances, and compensation is much more likely for acquaintances, a finding which contrasts typical EVT predictions.[46] Furthermore, EVT on the Internet environment is strongly related to online privacy issues.


In social media such as Facebook, people are connected online with friends and sometimes strangers. Norm violations on Facebook may include too many status updates, overly emotional status updates or Wall posts, heated interactions, name calling through Facebook's public features, and tags on posts or pictures that might reflect negatively on an individual.[46] Research has also shown that the act of unfriending on Facebook is perceived as a highly negative expectancy violation, with the duration of the Facebook friendship and personal ties to the unfriending party dictating how negatively the act is perceived. Moreover, the importance of the violation was also found to dictate whether the unfriending person informed the other individual of their actions.[47]

In a study conducted by Fife, Nelson, and Bayles of focus groups from a Southeastern liberal arts university, five themes were ascertained regarding Facebook use and expectancy violations:[43]

  • ""Don't stalk' – and when you do, don’t talk about it"
    • Though an understanding exists among Facebook participants that users will use the site to keep track of the behavior of others in a number of ways, excessive monitoring is likely to be perceived as an expectancy violation.
  • "Don't embarrass me with bad pictures"
    • Users may have the ability to control which pictures they post on their own Facebook page, but they do not have the ability to control what others post. Posting and "tagging" unflattering pictures of others may create expectancy violations.
  • "Don't mess up my profile"
    • Several participants expressed annoyance of others who alter their profiles knowing that their alterations could be perceived negatively, though they did not mention changing their passwords or protecting themselves in other ways.
  • "Choose an appropriate forum for messages"
    • Messages can be sent between Facebook participants through 'Facebook messages,' which are not public, or 'wall postings,' which can be viewed by anyone specified in the user's privacy controls. Posting messages which may be perceived as private, embarrassing, or inappropriate to a wall posting can create expectancy violations.
  • "Don't compete over number of friends"
    • Facebook users maintain a running total of 'friends' on their profile which is viewable to others. Engaging in comparisons with others over this statistic can create expectancy violations.

Electronic mail[edit]

Email has become one of the most widely used methods of communication within organizations and workplaces. When discussing expectancy violations with electronic e-mail, just as with other modes of communication, a distinction must be made between inadvertent violations of norms and purposeful violations, referred to as 'flaming'.[48] Flaming is defined as hostile and aggressive interactions via text-based CMC.[48] One form of expectancy violation in email is the length of time between the sending of the initial email and the receiver's reply. Communicator reward valence plays a large part in how expectancy violations are handled in email communications. Chronemic studies on email have shown that in organizations, responder status played a large part in how individuals reacted to various lapses in response to the previously sent email.[49] Long pauses between responses for high-status responders produced positive expectancy violation valence and long pauses from low-status responders produced a negative expectancy violation valence.[49][50] However, in the case of job interviews, long pauses between email for high-status candidates reflected negatively on their reviews. Expectations for email recipients to respond within a normative time limit illustrate the medium's capacity for expectancy violations to occur.[50]

Teacher-student communication[edit]

Teacher anger[edit]

McPherson, Kearney, and Plax examined teacher anger in college classrooms through the lens of norm violations.[51][52] Naturally, teachers will become frustrated and angry with students in classrooms from time to time. How teachers express themselves and convey those emotions will determine how students respond and interpret those emotional demonstrations. The students judged the appropriateness of teachers' anger in classrooms in the modal expressions of distributive aggression, passive aggression, integrative assertion, and nonassertive denial.[52] Students rated the aggressive expressions as highly intense, destructive, and inappropriate (or non-normative), including such behaviors as sarcasm or putdowns (most frequently cited), verbal abuse, rude and condescending behaviors toward students, and acts intended to demoralize students.[52][53][54][55] The students described assertive displays as appropriate and less intense.[52] Although anger is often considered to be a negative emotion, teacher anger is not necessarily a violation of classroom norms.[52] Based on the study, intense and aggressive displays of teacher anger are considered socially inappropriate by students.[52] These perceived norm violations result in negative evaluations of the teacher and the course.[52] Because only integrative-assertive expressions of teacher anger were positively related to students' perceptions of appropriateness, the study concluded that teachers should avoid intense, aggressive anger displays and should rather assertively and directly discuss the problem with students.[52]

Teacher dress[edit]

Clothing is considered a form of nonverbal communication. Dress communicates status, hierarchy, credibility, and attractiveness. Specific social codes dictate what forms of dress are appropriate in various cross-cultural contexts.[56][57] When individuals wear clothing that is deemed inappropriate for a given situation, or when an individual's clothing does not seem to match their perceived status or attractiveness, this can constitute an expectancy violation.[56] Studies on clothing and teacher perceptions have shown that when teachers wear formal attire, students rate their credibility higher. However, for high-reward teachers, clothing formality did not raise perceptions of attractiveness.[56][57][58][59] Interestingly, students seem to retain information best when teachers are dressed moderately, and teacher value appears to derive from what grade students predict they will get from a teacher more so than clothing.[56][57]

Course ratings[edit]

Most American colleges and universities employ course rating surveys as a method to gauge teacher effectiveness and the degree to which students are satisfied with the pedagogy of their professors. Expectancy violation and violation valence play a part in course ratings because a wide range of expectancies exist for students while taking a course.[60] Common expectancies for students include stimulation and interest, instructor behavior, relevance of the course, and the student's expected and actual success in the course. A higher education study on EVT and course ratings analyzed 228 students in seven introductory sociology classes at a university of 25,000 students.[60] Since the courses were required for most students, were open to all students, used the same textbook, and met for the same length of time during the semester, expectancy violations in the classroom could be reported more accurately.[60] Some factors used to report the data included instructor personality, interestingness and informativeness of textbook materials, difficulty of lectures, lecturer speaking ability, and the ability to answer questions. At the end of the study, the only factor that affected course ratings was relevance.[60] Expectancies had virtually no effect otherwise on course evaluations. This reason could be attributed to the fact that students who found a course highly relevant were already interested in the subject area and were more motivated to do well.[60]

Nontraditional college students[edit]

EVT has been used to study the experiences of non-traditional college and university students who begin an undergraduate education over the age of 25. The study focused on the students' expectations of their professors and how they should behave in the classroom. Since nontraditional students often feel that they are different from their academic peers, and since the traditional university setting focuses on the 18-23-year-old demographic, studying nontraditional student classroom experiences can help higher education institutions instruct teachers on how to behave in the classroom.[61][62] Traditional and non-traditional students have been shown to expect teachers to make use of examples, provide feedback, and adequately prepare them for exams.[61] Both traditional and non-traditional students have been found to have their expectations for instructor clarity negatively violated.[61] Surprisingly, non-traditional students differed from traditional students by responding negatively to affinity-seeking behaviors and believed that instructors should be less concerned with making class more fun and enjoyable.

College admissions[edit]

A 2008 study of the top 500 US colleges by Kaplan found that 10% of admissions offices checked applicants' Social Networking Site (SNS) profiles, and 38% of those saw information that reduced the applicants' prospects for admission.[46] In 2011, a college student was cited for underage drinking after campus police found pictures on Facebook of the student holding a beer.[46]

Profanity use[edit]

Swearing and cursing are some of the most readily observable instances of verbal expectancy violations. Examples of swearing expectancy violations include U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney telling Patrick Leahy, Senator of Vermont, to "go fuck yourself",[63][64] actor Christian Bale's lashing out toward a bystander who walked in front of the camera while he was filming,[64] and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's remarks during a live broadcast of his speech congratulating U.S. President Barack Obama on passage of the health care reform bill, commenting that it was a "big fucking deal".[64][65]

The use of profanity has been shown to influence the perceptions of speakers. It may also have emotional impacts on the user and the audience.[64][66][67] Swearing is common among many workplaces, and research has shown that profanity users appear less trustworthy, less sociable, and less educated.[64][66][68] Moreover, these traits are likely to appear as fixed among profanity users.[64] Expletives also vary among different cultures, so valence of expectancy violations involving swearing may differ when used in different contexts.[64]

Metatheoretical assumptions[edit]

Ontological assumptions[edit]

EVT assumes that humans have a certain degree of free will. This theory assumes that humans can assess and interpret the relationship and liking between themselves and their conversational partner, and then make a decision whether or not to violate the expectations of the other person. The theory holds that this decision depends on what outcome they would like to achieve.[69] This assumption is based on the interaction position. The interaction position is based on a person's initial stance toward an interaction as determined by a blend of personal Requirements, Expectations, and Desires (RED). These RED factors meld into our interaction position of what's needed, anticipated, and preferred.[69]

Epistemological assumptions[edit]

EVT assumes that there are norms for all communication activities and if these norms are violated, there will be specific, predictable outcomes.[28] EVT does not fully account for the overwhelming prevalence of reciprocity that has been found in interpersonal interactions. Secondly, it is silent on whether communicator valence supersedes behavior valence or vice versa when the two are incongruent, such as when a disliked partner engages in a positive violation.[28]

Axiological assumptions[edit]

This theory seeks to be value-neutral as supporting studies have been conducted empirically and sought to objectively describe how humans react when their expectations are violated.[3]


Predictability and testability[edit]

Expectancy violations theory has undergone scrutiny for its attempt to provide a covering law for certain aspects of interpersonal communication. Some critics of EVT believe most interactions between individuals are extremely complex and there are many contingencies to consider within the theory. This makes the prediction of behavioral outcomes of a particular situation virtually impossible to consistently predict.[15]

Another critique of the theory is the assumption that expectancy violations are mostly highly consequential acts, negative in nature, and cause uncertainty to increase between communicators. In actuality, research shows expectancy violations vary in frequency, seriousness, and valence. While it is true that many expectancy violations carry a negative valence, numerous are positive and actually reduce uncertainty because they provide additional information within the parameters of the particular relationship, context, and communicators.[70]

A First Look at Communication[edit]

Emory Griffin, the author of A First Look at Communication Theory, analyzed unpredictability in expectancy violations theory.[10] His test consisted in analyzing his interaction with four students who made various requests from him. The students were given the pseudonyms Andre, Belinda, Charlie and Dawn. They start with the letters A, B, C and D to represent the increasing distance between them and Griffin when making their requests.

Adapted from Griffin's diagram in the book A first look at communication theory.

Andre needed the author's endorsement for a graduate scholarship, and spoke to him from an intimate eyeball-to-eyeball distance. According to Burgoon's early model, Andre made a mistake when he crossed Griffin's threat threshold; the physical and psychological discomfort the lecturer might feel could have hurt his cause. However, later that day Griffin wrote the letter of recommendation.

Belinda needed help with a term paper for a class with another professor, and asked for it from a 2-foot distance. Just as Burgoon predicted, the narrow gap between Belinda and Griffin determined him to focus his attention on their rocky relationship, and her request was declined.

Charlie invited his lecturer to play water polo with other students, and he made the invitation from the right distance of 7 feet, just outside the range of interaction Griffin anticipated. However, his invitation was declined.

Dawn launched an invitation to Griffin to eat lunch together the next day, and she did this from across the room. According to the nonverbal expectancy violations model, launching an invitation from across the room would guarantee a poor response, but this time, the invitation was successful.

Griffin's attempt to apply Burgoon's original model to conversational distance between him and his students didn't meet with much success. The theoretical scoreboard read:

Nonverbal expectancy violations model: 1
Unpredicted random behavior: 3

However, when Grifffin applied the revised EVT standards on his responses to "the proxemic violations of Andre, Belinda, Charlie, and Dawn," the scorecard "shows four hits and no misses."[71]

Related theories[edit]

As mentioned above, EVT has strong roots in uncertainty reduction theory. The relationship between violation behavior and the level of uncertainty is under study. Research indicates that violations differ in their impact on uncertainty. To be more specific, incongruent negative violations heightened uncertainty, whereas congruent violations (both positive and negative) caused declines in uncertainty.[72] The theory also borrows from social exchange theory in that people seek reward out of interaction with others.

Two other theories share similar outlooks to EVT – Discrepancy-Arousal Theory and Patterson's social facilitation model (SFM). Like EVT, DAT explains that a receiver becomes aroused when a communicative behavior does not match the receiver's expectations. In DAT, these differences are called discrepancies instead of expectancy violations. Cognitive dissonance and EVT both try to explain why and how people react to unexpected information and adjust themselves during communication process.

The social facilitation model has a similar outlook and labels these differences as unstable changes. A key difference between the theories lies in the receiver's arousal level. Both DAT and SFM maintain that the receiver experiences a physiological response whereas EVT focuses on the attention shift of the receiver. EVT posits that expectancy violations occur frequently and are not always as serious as perceived through the lenses of other theories.

Anxiety/uncertainty management theory is the uncertainty and Anxiety people have towards each other, relating to EVT this anxiety and uncertainty can differ between cultures. Causing a violation for example violating someones personal space or communicating ineffectively can cause uncertainty and anxiety.[10]

The popularity of computer-mediated communication (CMC) as means of conducting task-oriented and socially oriented interactions is a part of the social information processing (SIP) theory. Coined by Joseph Walther, the theory explores CMC's ability to fulfill many of the same functions as the more traditional forms of interaction, especially face-to-face (FtF) interaction.[73][74] SIP can be used in conjunction with EVT to examine interpersonal and hyperpersonal relationships established through CMC.

Further use and development of the theory[edit]

The concept of social norms marketing follows expectancy violation in that it is based upon the notion that messages containing facts that vary from perception of the norm will create a positive expectancy violation. Advertising, strategic communications, and public relations base social norms campaigns on this position.[75]

Interaction adaptation theory further explores expectancy violations. Developed by Burgoon to take a more comprehensive look at social interaction, IAT posits that people enter into interactions with requirements, expectations, and desires. These factors influence both the initial behavior as well as the response behavior. When faced with behavior that meets an individual's needs, expectations, or desires, the response behavior will be positive. When faced with behavior that does not meet an individual's needs, expectations, or desires, he or she can respond either positively or negatively depending on the degree of violation and positive or negative valence of the relationship.[76][77]

Expectancies exert significant influence on people's interaction patterns, on their impressions of one another, and on the outcomes of their interactions. People who can assume that they are well regarded by their audience are safer engaging in violations and more likely to profit from doing so than are those who are poorly regarded.[78] When the violation act is one that is likely to be ambiguous in its meaning or to carry multiple interpretations that are not uniformly positive or negative, then the reward valence of the communicator can be especially significant in moderating interpretations, evaluations, and subsequent outcomes.

See also[edit]


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