Expectancy Violations Theory

Unlocking Communication Potential: 6 Key Insights into Expectancy Violations Theory in Mass Communication

Brief Overview on Expectancy Violations Theory

Expectancy Violations Theory (EVT) is a communication theory which tries to explain individual reactions to unexpected or unanticipated behavior of others. Introduced by Judee K. Burgoon in the late 1970s, EVT is rooted in the idea that people have established expectations for the non-verbal behavior of others and react when those expectations are violated.

This theory works on two essential components: expectancy and violation. Expectancy refers to what an individual anticipates will happen in a given situation, which is shaped by factors such as social norms, previous experiences, and context of the interaction. Violation, on the other hand, refers to behavior that deviates from what is expected.

The concept of expectancy in this theory does not necessarily equate to what is desired or preferred, but rather what is predicted to occur. The violation of these predictions or expectations then leads to arousal and distraction, requiring mental effort to understand and cope with the unexpected behavior.

For more theories like the Expectancy Violations Theory- EVT, read our comprehensive blog on 25 Mass Communications Theory

Importance of Expectancy Violations Theory in Mass Communication

In mass communication, EVT is broadly applicable in understanding audience responses to various communication forms such as advertising, public relations, journalism, and digital media. The theory helps to explain why some messages capture our attention while others do not, and why some communications are more persuasive and effective than others.

For instance, in advertising, an advert that violates our expectations (for example, by using unexpected images or messages) is more likely to grab our attention and be memorable. This is because the violation causes cognitive arousal, making us more alert and focused on the message.

Similarly, in journalism, news stories that violate our expectations (such as unexpected events or unusual details) are more likely to be newsworthy and grab audience attention. For example, a news story about an ordinary person doing something extraordinary is likely to draw more interest than a story about routine events.

However, it’s important to note that not all expectancy violations result in positive outcomes. According to Burgoon’s EVT, the degree of violation and the positive or negative perception of the violator significantly influence the outcome. This is crucial for mass communicators to consider, as negative violations can lead to backlash or audience disengagement.

Expectancy Violations Theory: A Deep Dive

Origin and Evolution 

EVT was first introduced by Judee K. Burgoon, a prominent scholar in interpersonal communication research. The theory was initially conceived as nonverbal expectancy violations theory, focusing primarily on people’s reactions to nonverbal behavior that deviates from social norms. Over time, the theory expanded to include violations of verbal communication as well, becoming the comprehensive EVT we know today.

The evolution of EVT has been marked by research testing its applicability to various contexts, such as personal space violations, inappropriate conversation topics, and even digital communication platforms. This continuous research and development have helped EVT maintain its relevance in the ever-changing communication landscape.

Key Concepts & Principles

Expectancy Violations Theory , EVT
Expectancy Violations Theory – EVT


In EVT, expectancy refers to what an individual anticipates will happen in a given situation. These expectations are informed by social norms, interpersonal relationships, and situational contexts. For instance, in a formal setting, one may expect formal language and professional conduct.

The violation of these expectations, according to EVT, can lead to different outcomes based on the nature of the violation and the individuals involved. The mathematical formula for expectation can be expressed as: E = Σ (Bi*Pi), where E is the expectation, Bi is the benefit of an outcome, and Pi is the probability of that outcome.

Violation Valence

Violation valence refers to the positive or negative value individuals place on a particular unexpected behavior. This essentially means how much someone likes or dislikes the unexpected behavior.

If the unexpected behavior is perceived positively, the violation has positive valence. Conversely, if the behavior is viewed negatively, the violation has negative valence. The formula for violation valence can be expressed as VV = (E – O)^2, where VV is the violation valence, E is the expectation, and O is the outcome.

Communicator Reward Valence

Communicator Reward Valence (CRV) is a calculation of the total positive and negative attributes brought to the encounter plus the potential to reward or punish in the future. In essence, it’s an assessment of how beneficial or detrimental further interaction with a communicator might be.

If the CRV is high, an individual is more likely to perceive an expectancy violation positively, and vice versa. The formula for CRV can be expressed as CRV = Σ(Ri – Ci), where Ri is the reward value of an attribute, Ci is the cost value of an attribute, and the summation runs over all attributes of the communicator.

EVT is a complex and dynamic theory. It provides valuable insights into our communication behaviors, helping us understand why we react the way we do when people don’t act as we expect.

For more theories like the Expectancy Violations Theory- EVT, read our comprehensive blog on 25 Mass Communications Theory

Expectancy Violations Theory in Mass Communication

Influence of Expectancy Violations Theory on Media Consumption

The Expectancy Violations Theory (EVT) posits that when people engage in communication, they have certain expectations and when these expectations are violated, it can lead to different reactions. In the context of mass communication and media consumption, EVT can significantly influence how audiences interpret and react to media content.

A study by Burgoon (1978) suggests that expectancy violations can either be perceived positively or negatively based on the reward value of the violator. If media content or messages are viewed as ‘rewarding’ or beneficial, audiences may respond more favorably to expectancy violations. Conversely, if the violator is seen as having low reward value, the violations may trigger negative reactions.

One key way EVT impacts media consumption is through the disruption of routines. Routine disruption theory (Lull, 1980) explains that media consumers often establish patterns of consumption. When these routines are violated, it can result in increased audience attention and engagement, but can also lead to dissatisfaction or disengagement.

Illustrative Cases of Expectancy Violations in Mass Media

Several instances illustrate how EVT has played out in mass media. The surprise release of Beyonce’s self-titled album in 2013 is a classic example. The unexpected release violated established norms in the music industry, garnering significant media attention and fan engagement.

On the other hand, the final season of the television series “Game of Thrones” also exemplifies the negative impact of expectancy violations. The abrupt shift in character development and narrative trajectory violated audience expectations, leading to widespread dissatisfaction and criticism.

Impact on Audience Perception and Behavior

EVT can also significantly impact audience perception and behavior. A research study conducted by Diddi & LaRose (2006) on television viewing habits found that unexpected changes in program scheduling can lead to increased audience curiosity and subsequent viewing.

However, when expectancy violations are perceived negatively, they can lead to behavioral changes. For instance, a 2019 study published in the Journal of Media Psychology found that negative expectancy violations in news reporting can lead to decreased trust in media, reduced news consumption, and increased news avoidance behavior.

In summary, EVT has considerable implications for mass communication and media consumption. While expectancy violations can sometimes enhance audience engagement and lead to positive outcomes, they can also result in dissatisfaction and changes in consumption behavior. It is therefore crucial for media practitioners to understand and navigate audience expectations effectively.

Practical Applications of Expectancy Violations Theory

Practical Applications of Expectancy Violations Theory in Advertising and Marketing

The Expectancy Violations Theory (EVT), originally proposed by Judee Burgoon, provides insights into how people react when their expectations are violated. In the realm of advertising and marketing, this theory can be leveraged to create unique, thought-provoking campaigns that deviate from the norm, catching the audience’s attention.

Surprise Element: By violating the expectations of the consumers, marketers can create a surprise element in their advertising. This surprise can pique the interest of consumers, leading to increased brand awareness and consumer engagement. For instance, Old Spice’s “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” campaign violated expectations with its humor and absurdity, causing it to go viral.

(In mathematics, this relationship can be represented as: Brand Awareness ∝ 1/Expectation)

Enhanced Recall: Violating expectations can also enhance recall. Research conducted by the Journal of Advertising Research found that ads that violate expectations are remembered better than conventional ads.

(Statistically, if E represents Expectation, R represents Recall, then R ∝ 1/E)

Engagement and Sharing: Ads that violate expectations are also more likely to be shared on social media, increasing their reach and impact. This is supported by statistics from the New York Times Customer Insight Group, showing that 61% of people share content online that is surprising or unexpected.

For more theories like the Expectancy Violations Theory- EVT, read our comprehensive blog on 25 Mass Communications Theory

Practical Applications of Expectancy Violations Theory in News Broadcasting

In news broadcasting, the Expectancy Violations Theory (EVT) is applied to create engaging content and to intrigue the audience.

Breaking News: News channels often apply EVT by presenting unexpected news items out of the regular programming schedule. The violation of expectation heightens the audience’s attention, thus making the news more impactful.

(If N is the news impact and E is the expectation, then N ∝ 1/E)

Creating Suspense: News channels also use EVT to create suspense by holding back crucial information, thus maintaining audiences’ interest and prolonging viewership duration.

(If V is viewership duration and E is expectation, then V ∝ 1/E)

Practical Applications of Expectancy Violations Theory in Entertainment Industry

In the entertainment industry, EVT is often used to retain audience interest and to generate buzz for films, music, and TV shows.

Plot Twists: Many successful films and TV shows incorporate unexpected plot twists that violate viewer expectations, keeping them engrossed and eager for more.

(If A is audience engagement and E is expectation, then A ∝ 1/E)

Innovative Music: In music, artists often violate listener expectations by exploring new genres or styles, thus creating an element of surprise and generating interest in their work.

(If I is interest and E is expectation, then I ∝ 1/E)

Critical Analysis of Expectancy Violations Theory

The Expectancy Violations Theory (EVT) is a communication model that attempts to explain the reactions people have when their expectations about another’s behavior are violated. The theory proposes that people hold specific expectations about the behavior of others, and when these expectations are not met, the violation can result in changes in perception and behavior.

Strengths and Benefits in Mass Communication 

Expectancy Violations Theory , EVT, Expectancy Violations Theory - Strengths and Weakness
Expectancy Violations Theory – Strengths and Weakness

One of the key strengths of EVT is that it provides a clear framework for understanding how people react to unexpected behaviors. This is particularly relevant in the realm of mass communication, where the audience often has explicit expectations about the content and format of the communication they receive.

Predictive Power: EVT is valuable in predicting how people will react when their expectations are violated. For instance, in a broadcast news scenario, if a well-respected anchor suddenly uses slang language, the audience might react with surprise, amusement, or offense, depending on their pre-existing expectations.

Broad Applicability: EVT can be applied across various forms of mass communication, from television and radio to newspapers and social media. These platforms often rely on maintaining a consistent tone and style to meet audience expectations.

Understanding Audience Reactions: EVT can help broadcasters and publishers understand their audience’s reactions better. For instance, the theory can help explain why some unexpected ad campaigns go viral (they pleasantly violate expectations), while others backfire (they unpleasantly violate expectations).

Limitations and Criticisms

Despite its strengths, EVT is not without its limitations and criticisms. Some of the key areas of concern include:

Subjectivity of Expectations: One of the significant criticisms of EVT is that it assumes people hold uniform expectations. However, in reality, expectations can differ vastly among individuals based on their cultural backgrounds, personal beliefs, and past experiences.

Lack of Clarity on Positive and Negative Violations: EVT struggles to predict whether a violation will be perceived as positive or negative. For example, an unexpected joke from a serious news anchor might be perceived as refreshingly humorous by some viewers, while others might see it as inappropriate and unprofessional.

Neglects Power Dynamics: Critics argue that EVT does not adequately address power dynamics. In mass communication, who is delivering the message and their relative power can significantly impact how a violation is perceived.

For more theories like the Expectancy Violations Theory- EVT, read our comprehensive blog on 25 Mass Communications Theory

The Future of Expectancy Violations Theory in Mass Communication

Emerging Trends

In the realm of mass communication, the Expectancy Violations Theory (EVT) has been gaining substantial traction. As a communication theory, EVT is centered around the premise that people have specific expectations regarding the behavior of others, and when these expectations are violated, different reactions can ensue, depending on the nature of the relationship and the context.

Digital Communication: In the age of digital communication, EVT has started to evolve, taking into account the new ways people communicate and interact. One emerging trend is the study of expectancy violations in the realm of social media. For example, research shows that individuals have certain expectations when it comes to response times or the type of content shared on social media platforms, and when these expectations are violated, it can lead to conflict or a reshaping of the relationship.

Artificial Intelligence: Another emerging trend is the application of EVT in interactions with artificial intelligence (AI). As AI becomes more integrated into daily life, people have expectations regarding its behavior and functionality. When AI fails to meet these expectations, it can result in user frustration or a decrease in trust.

Nonverbal Cues: With the rise of virtual meetings and communication platforms, nonverbal cues have become more significant. Researchers are exploring how expectancy violations regarding nonverbal cues impact communication in virtual environments.

Predictions and Implications

Expectancy Violations Theory - EVT
Expectancy Violations Theory – Implications

As we look toward the future, several predictions and implications can be made regarding the application of EVT in mass communication.

Role in Policymaking: EVT could play a crucial role in policymaking, especially in relation to digital communication norms and regulations. Understanding how expectancy violations impact users can assist in creating more effective policies.

User Experience Design: As AI continues to evolve, understanding how expectancy violations impact user experience can aid in the design of more user-friendly AI systems. This could lead to increased adoption and trust in AI technologies.

Conflict Resolution: In the domain of social media, understanding expectancy violations could lead to improved conflict resolution strategies. By understanding the root cause of conflicts, better measures can be taken to resolve them.

Virtual Communication: As virtual communication becomes more prevalent, understanding how expectancy violations in nonverbal cues impact communication can aid in the design of more effective virtual communication platforms.

For more theories like the Expectancy Violations Theory- EVT, read our comprehensive blog on 25 Mass Communications Theory