Group Contributors:

Anna Rodrigues, Sylvia Buchanan, Nathan Bugden, Kathryn Dykstra and Jan Mazzulla


The Expectancy Violation Theory looks at how individuals react to the communication of others, either positively or negatively. Individuals will respond in specific ways when expectancies are violated.

expectancy violations theory, reward valence, cultural assumption, social norms, communication, arousal

Judee Burgoon (Biography)

Dr. Judee Burgoon was born in Ames, Iowa in 1948. She had a typical childhood in a large, working-class family comprised of four younger siblings and her two parents.
It was in elementary school that she was inspired by her choir teacher to become active in speech, drama, and debate.
She has a B.A. in Speech and English obtained in 1970 from Iowa State University. She received her Masters of Science in Speech Communication in 1972 from Illinois State University. Her Ph.D. is in Communication and Educational Psychology obtained in 1974 at West Virginia University.
Dr. Burgoon is currently a professor of Communication at the University of Arizona where she teaches undergraduate and graduate courses. Her current research interests include nonverbal and relational communication with emphasis on interpersonal communication processes. (University of Arizona, 1999)

Expectancy Violations Theory

Communication occurs during the exchange of information, and this communication can be either verbal or nonverbal. Individuals have preconceived notions (or expectancies) of how others should act. When others violate the expectations of another, either positively or negatively, individuals will respond in specific ways. (Burgoon et al., 1989).
The Expectancy Violation Theory looks at how individuals react to the communication of others. Either communication is reinforced in a positive manner (i.e. smiling, agreeing, eye contact, etc.) or in a negative manner (i.e. frowning, creating a physical distance, etc.). We learn what we consider to be appropriate through our interactions with others and our culture. (Burgoon, 1993a).

Communicator Reward Valence

A large part of “communicator reward valence” (that is, how positive or how negative a reaction to an encounter can be) is based on “physical attractiveness, task expertise and knowledge, socioeconomic status, giving positive or negative feedback, possession of appealing personal attributes, similarity to the perceiver, familiarity, and status equality with the perceiver" (Burgoon, 1993a). The same behaviours exhibited by different communicators can be interpreted in different ways. For example, if one’s personal space is invaded by a high-reward communicator (i.e. physically attractive person), their behaviour might be interpreted as friendliness. However, if an low-reward communicator (i.e. physically unattractive individual) invades one’s personal space, that behaviour might be interpreted as aggressive in nature (Burgoon et al., 1989).

Expectancy Violations Theory in the Adult Education Setting

Teachers expect that a class with adult students will proceed in a certain manner.
“Most teachers and students are likely to base expectations of each other on social norms developed from previous experiences with other teachers or students in general. “ (McPherson & Liang, 2007)

So what happens when a student is constantly looking everywhere but at the teacher during a lecture? This sort of unexpected behaviour can cause disruptions in the classroom.
•Teachers expect certain social norms to be followed in the classroom setting
•When a student doesn’t follow those social norms the teacher feels that his/her expectations of classroom behaviour have been violated.
•This will cause the teacher to become distracted and sometimes angry.

However, is every social norm violation an attack on the classroom atmosphere or on the teacher? It’s important to understand Expectancy Violations Theory in the adult education setting for these reasons:
•Communication in the classroom is extremely important
•Interpersonal research has shown how destructive communication can influence relationships in a negative manner (McPherson, M. B., Kearney, P., & Plax, T, 2003)
•A deviation from expected behaviour can cause problems in the classroom
•If teachers allow the behaviour to distract them or make them angry, this could lead to a breakdown in communication
•An uncomfortable learning environment in the classroom will result from communication breakdowns

Solutions to unexpected behaviour by adults in a classroom:
•understanding the Expectancy Violations Theory
•being open to the fact that adult students may violate social norms for a variety of reasons
•seeking to understand the behaviour rather than condemn it because it doesn’t fall within what is considered socially acceptable behaviour by an adult in a classroom setting

The Effects of Expectancy Violations within First Generation Canadian Students in Elementary Schools
The central assumption of the theory relates to nonverbal behaviour that deviates from an expected response. This action is then placed on a positive and negative continuum. Social meaning is the primary resource for this interpretation (Burgoon, Newton, Walther, & Baesler, 1989)
  • When wokring with students that are first generation Canadians it is interesting to notice that their conventions and expectancies of our communication as teachers is different than those of ours. Burgoon states that social meaning is the primary source of interpretation, this in turn affects how we as teachers deal with students whose social meanings differ from ours in the sense that their culture and primary resources are different than we may expect. For example students may not look you straght in the eye while they communicate wiht you. This may not necessarily be disrespect, we must consider the culture they use as their reference. Perhaps looking adults in the eye is disrespectful.
Decreased involvement through lowered immediacy, and gaze, usually are perceived as detachment.
  • Generally in North American culture these forms of decreased involvment appear to be elements of detachment. Yet as stated previously this may not necessarily be the case. Similarily constant attention may not necessarily mean that the student is entirely engaged in waht is going on. Perhaps they themselves are seeking attention rather than devoting their attention.
Increased involvement can evoke multiple reactions and causes mediation by the communicator. High involvement is evaluated differently based on who commits it. (Burgoon, et al., 1989).
  • It is also important to understand how different students level of attention affect us as teachers and our evaluation of these actions. For example a student who acts out is more likely to be praised for listening to the most basic of tasks. However, this may not necessarily be the best evaulation on the part of the teacher as first generation students may have difficulty understanding the material due to language or culture barriers. In relation to this the student acting out in other situations may not necessarily be a an attempt to frustrate the educator, but an attempt to ask for help.

Questions to Consider When Working With First Generation Canadian Children
  1. Am I fully accurate in knowing what cultures I am working with?
  2. How much do I understand about the students and cultures I am working with?
  3. What measures can I take to demonstrate my enthusiasm about my students?
  4. How I can I help my students to better understand my perception of expectancies?


The word arousal, as used by Judee Burgoon, are non verbal indicators which include body movelements and voice quality which occur during a verbal interaction (Burgoon, 1993). It is, in some instances considered to be more indicative of a persons emotional state than the actual words spoken during an interaction (Burgoon, 1993)

Why Arousal Matters

Why is arousal important to communication? Burgoon argues that behavioural indicators are the only form of information that is directly and immediately available to interactants (Burgoon, Non-Verbal Behaviors, 1992). Arousal is also important because if an interactant can appropriately decode the arousal of another interactan, the Yerkses-Dodson law can be aimed for. The Yerkes-Dodson law states the middling levels of arousal indicate the best condition to get the greatest result from an individual.

Arousal levels can be manipulated by the changing the level of involvement by the interactants.

Expressions of Arousal in Context

Postive Arousal
Physical Pleasantness
Vocal Pleasantness
Vocal Appropriateness
(Burgoon, 1993)

Negative Arousal
Random movements
Vocal Tension
Nervous Vocalization
(Burgoon, 1993 & Burgoon Nonverbal Behaviours, 1992)

Where the Chalk Meets the Blackboard

By violating the expected response, one party to a conversation can divert the attention of the other away from the purpose of the conversation and onto to the relationship between the two parties (LePoire, 1996). In the classroom it can be defense mechanism by a student who is afraid of the content of the learning that the teacher is trying to share.
Knowing the different types of responses that are manifested can also benefit the teacher who is able to “read” them accurately, to make changes to their approach on the fly to more effectively present the program and facilitate student learning.


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