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Last updated Feb. 14, 2001


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Explanation of Theory:

Expectancy Violation Theory sees communication as the exchange of information which is high in relational content and can be used to violate the expectations of another which will be perceived as either positively or negatively depending on the liking between the two people.

Theorists: Judee Burgoon

Date: 1978

Primary Article:

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

Individual Interpretations:

When our expectations are violated, we will respond in specific ways.  If an act is unexpected and is assigned favorable interpretation, and it is evaluated positively, it will produce more favorable outcomes than an expected act with the same interpretation and evaluation.

Metatheoretical Assumptions:

Ontological Assumptions:

This theory assumes that humans have a certain amount of free will.  This is because it assumes that humans can survey 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 depending on what outcome they would like to achieve. 

Epistemological Assumptions:

The Expectancy Violations theory assumes that there is one truth.  This truth is that there are norms for all communication activities and if these norms are violated, there will be specific, predictable outcomes.

Axiological Assumptions:

This theory seeks to be value-neutral because the study was done empirically and seeks to objectively describe how humans react when their expectations are violated.


Expectancy Violations Theory is a scientific theory because it assumes that there is only one truth.  It further assumes that these norms and reactions to their violations are universal.  It seeks to predict the outcomes that will result when specific violations are presented.

Ideas and Implications:

The Expectancy Violations theory is a very practical and useful theory because it assumes that there are universal norms and reactions to violations to those norms.  It also seeks to predict what the reactions to each violation of norms will be.


An applicable example to help understand Expectancy Violations Theory can be demonstrated when Chris goes for a job interview.  He feels that he is not getting very positive feedback from the potential employer, so he knows he should not violate expectancies and further hurt his chances of impressing the interviewer.  However, if Chris suddenly felt more confident about the relationship he was building with the interviewer, he might consciously violate his or her expectations.  He could pick up a picture on his or her desk and comment positively on the picture, hoping that this act would make him positively stick out in the employer's mind later.

Relevant Research:

     Burgoon, J.K., Stern, L.A. & Dillman, L. (1995). Interpersonal Adaptation: Dyadic Interaction Patterns.
     Canary, K.J. & Dindia, K. (1998). Sex Differences and Similarities in Communication.
     Burgoon, J.K., Buller, D.B. & Woodall, W.G. (1989). Nonverbal Communication: The Unspoken Dialogue.

Location in Eight (8) Primary Communication Theory Textbooks:

     Anderson, R., & Ross, V. (1998). Questions of communication: A practical introduction to theory (2nd ed.). New York: St. Martin's Press.  N/A

     Cragan, J. F., & Shields, D.C. (1998). Understanding communication theory: The communicative forces for human action. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon. 289-290.

     Griffin, E. (2000). A first look at communication theory (4th ed.). Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill. 78-89.

     Griffin, E. (1997). A first look at communication theory (3rd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill. 97-109.

      Infante, D. A., Rancer, A. S., & Womack, D. F. (1997). Building communication theory (3rd ed.). Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press. N/A

      Littlejohn, S. W. (1999). Theories of human communication (6th ed). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. 144-146.

      West, R., & Turner, L. H. (2000). Introducing communication theory: Analysis and application. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield. 118-130.

       Wood, J. T. (1997). Communication theories in action: An introduction. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. N/A