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Expectancy Violations Theory


Explanations > Theories > Expectancy Violations Theory

Description | Research | Example | So What? | See also | References 



We predict the future based on our schemas and other beliefs we have formed. Having made the prediction, we then expect our predictions to come true. When they do not, an expectancy violation has occurred.

What happens next is that we are surprised. This draws us in, capturing our attention as we try to understand what has happened and perhaps modify our schema to cope with this new situation.

Socially, we have expectations about how other people should and will behave. Our reaction to the deviations of others from expectancy depends on what we have to lose or gain. 

How we react to violations depend on reward value, or what we expect to get from the relationship. Thus a man is likely to react more positively towards an attractive younger woman standing close than a larger man from an out-group.


Karmarkar and Tormala found that people who’d read tentative professional review of a restaurant were willing to pay 56% more than people who read the highly certain professional review. Yet those who read a confident amateur review were willing to pay 54% more for a meal than those who read an uncertain amateur review.

People expect experts to be confident and amateurs to be uncertain. When this expectation was violated, the resulting surprise seems to have led the subjects to conclude particular significance in the statements.


A sales person showing a person a pricey hi-fi system that has moderate quality. This sets the price-performance expectation. They then show them a mid-priced one which sounds much better. They then 'share' (and so amplify) the person's surprise at the superior quality. The person happily walks out with the system (which has a good margin), convinced they have a bargain.

So What?

Using it

Surprise people. Set their expectations then do something different. A good way is to set expectations low then exceed them.


Beware of people who surprise you, then try to convince you about something.

See also

Non-Verbal Behavior, Expectancy Theory, Schema, Surprise



Karmarkar, U.R., and Tormala, Z.L. (2010). Believe me, I have no idea what I'm talking about: The effects of source certainty on consumer involvement and persuasion. Journal of Consumer Research, 46, 1033-1049.


Burgoon (1978), Burgoon and Hale (1988), Burgoon and Le Poire (1993)


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