Expectancy Violations Theory

Judee K. Burgoon’s Expectancy Violation Theory (EVT), first articulated in the late 20th century, provides a comprehensive framework for understanding communication’s role in social interactions (Burgoon, 1978). At the heart of EVT is the principle that people hold specific expectations for others’ behavior based on social norms and personal experiences. These expectations are centered on the belief that individuals in a society are capable of predicting and evaluating the behaviors of others, thereby creating a standard for social exchange (Burgoon, 1993; Burgoon & Jones, 1976). Burgoon’s concepts of “expectancy”, “violation”, and “communicator reward valence” in EVT provide a practical approach to understanding social interactions (Campo et al., 2004).

The core postulates of the theory include:

  • People have expectations for communication behaviors;
  • People notice and judge unexpected actions based on who does them and how unusual they are;
  • Positive deviations lead to better outcomes than expected behaviors, and negative ones to worse.

According to EVT, expectations come from three sources: (1) communicator characteristics, such as personality; (2) relationship characteristics, such as being friends vs. being romantic partners); and (3) context characteristics, such as culture and the situation which may be predictive (based on experience) or prescriptive (based on social norms). When actual behavior does not align with expectations (violation), it triggers focused attention (arousal/distraction) and demands an interpretation and evaluation of the behavior, ultimately determining the positive or negative value of the violation (violation valence), affecting future interaction patterns and outcomes (Burgoon & Hale, 1988).

Expectancy violations are interpreted through the communicator’s perceived reward value, shaping how the unexpected behavior is understood (Burgoon et al., 1989). High-reward communicators often have high status, credibility, or likeability, predisposing others to respond more favorably to their expectancy violations. In contrast, low-reward communicators may not receive such leniency due to lower status or credibility. Violations by high-reward communicators are likely positive (i.e., positive violations). In contrast, violations by low-reward communicators tend to be viewed negatively (i.e., negative violations). This aspect of EVT demonstrates how the effectiveness of communication strategies can be assessed by observing individuals’ reactions to expectancy violations.

The EVT can greatly enhance the effectiveness of advertising by introducing elements that defy audience expectations, as seen in Apple’s iconic 1984 Super Bowl commercial, which starkly deviated from conventional advertising norms of the time. Scott (2012) provides a reader-oriented interpretation of this ad. By presenting an emotionally resonant and jarringly different narrative, the ad captured attention, created a memorable impact, and fostered emotional resonance with viewers. These elements differentiated the brand from its competitors and encouraged viewers to share the ad, expanding its reach.

Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty” is a prime example of EVT in action within emotional marketing. By showcasing real, unedited women, Dove’s advertisements subvert traditional beauty ad expectations, typically featuring airbrushed models. This unexpected representation resonates emotionally with a broad audience, mirroring the diverse reality of women’s appearances. Feng et al. (2019) note that this innovative approach captured viewers’ attention and encouraged a deeper emotional engagement with the brand, challenging entrenched beauty norms and contributing to the campaign’s success.

In the evolving field of consumer behavior studies, Evans and Bang (2019) expand the application of EVT to the context of multiplayer online games (MOGs). They begin by identifying the core expectations of MOG players—centrality, socialness, and features—and then probe their impact on attitudes toward both the advertising presented within the game and the brand itself and the players’ purchase intentions. Their research uncovers that each identified component significantly and positively influences the players’ attitudes towards in-game advertisements, illuminating new facets of advertising effectiveness in the gaming industry.

Rosenberg and Siegel (2016) studied to the context of direct-to-consumer prescription drug advertisements. Their study crafted ads that highlight conflicts in consumers’ lives, examining how these ads influenced perceptions and intentions regarding drug usage. The results showed that ads emphasizing goal expectation violations resulted in psychological disequilibrium. This state led to more favorable evaluations of both the advertisement and the drug, increased positive outcome expectations, greater acceptance of potential harm, and a heightened intent to use the drug, demonstrating the nuanced power of targeted advertising in influencing consumer behaviors.

Certainly, the effectiveness of the Expectancy Violation Theory is debated, especially regarding cultural nuances. Critics suggest it may oversimplify complex social interactions and cultural diversity, which is critical in areas like advertising (Lee & Joo, 2005). Furthermore, within the advertising domain, where cultural nuances are paramount, applying EVT might be problematic due to the standardized messaging often employed, which may not align with a multicultural audience’s diverse expectations and interpretations.

In conclusion, Expectancy Violation Theory offers a unique and insightful framework for understanding and analyzing communication strategies, particularly in advertising, and is a powerful tool in the arsenal of communication and marketing professionals. Nonetheless, the theory’s potential limitations in addressing cultural diversity and complexities in social interactions remind us of the need for a nuanced approach in its application.


Burgoon, J. K. (1978). A communication model of personal space violations: Explication and an initial test. Human Communication Research, 4(2), 129-142.

Burgoon, J. K. (1993). Interpersonal expectations, expectancy violations, and emotional communication. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 12(1-2), 30-48.

Burgoon, J. K., & Hale, J. L. (1988). Nonverbal expectancy violations: Model elaboration and application to immediacy behaviors. Communication Monographs, 55(1), 58–79.

Burgoon, J. K., & Jones, S. B. (1976). Toward a theory of personal space expectations and their violations. Human Communication Research, 2(2), 131-146.

Burgoon, J. K., Newton, D. A., Walther, J. B., & Baesler, E. J. (1989). Nonverbal expectancy violations and conversational involvement. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 13, 97-119.

Campo, S., Cameron, K. A., Brossard, D., & Frazer, M. S. (2004). Social norms and expectancy violation theories: Assessing the effectiveness of health communication campaigns. Communication Monographs, 71(4), 448-470.

Evans, N. J., & Bang, H. (2019). Extending expectancy violations theory to multiplayer online games: The structure and effects of expectations on attitude toward the advertising, attitude toward the brand, and purchase intent. Journal of Promotion Management, 25(4), 589-608.

Feng, Y., Chen, H., & He, L. (2019). Consumer responses to femvertising: A data-mining case of Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty” on YouTube. Journal of Advertising, 48(3), 292-301.

Lee, K.-Y., & Joo, S.-H. (2005). The portrayal of Asian Americans in mainstream magazine ads: An update. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 82(3), 654-671.

Rosenberg, B. D, & Siegel, J. T. (2016). The effect of inconsistency appeals on the influence of direct-to-consumer prescription drug advertisements: An application of goal disruption theory. Journal of Health Communication, 21(2), 217-227.

Scott, L. M. (2012). “For the Rest of Us”: A reader-oriented interpretation of Apple’s” 1984” Commercial. Advertising & Society Review, 13(2).