Article summary of Expectancy Violations Theory by Burgoon - Chapter

What is the Expectancy Violations Theory (EVT)?

The EVT is a theory about interpersonal communication which claims that violations of expectations are sometimes more liked compared to confirmations of expectations. There is also a distinction between positive and negative violations. Most of the time, it is advised to avoid expectancy violations. However, sometimes violations can produce desirable results.

How can we reconcile research findings?

Studies regarding proxemic choices have shown that seating arrangements, seated distances and standing distances are affected by different psychosocial and demographic factors (culture, gender, age, geographic location, and personality). As an example, people from Mediterranean cultures sit closer to each other (show closer proximity) than those from Scandinavian cultures. Males tend to stand farther apart and show more indirect body orientations than woman. Introverts also choose more distance between themselves and other compared to extroverts.

The type of relationship that people have also influences their proxemic choices. When people like each other, they sit closer to each other. People choose to sit further away from others, when their age or status differs a lot from their own.

When people keep farther distance, this expresses dominance, power, status and authority differences, dislike and repulsion.

In different contexts, different distances are appropriate. In private interactions, close proximity is preferred. People also sit closer to others when they want to show their approval of this person. In more formal and public interactions, people prefer further distances.

Sitting closer is not always preferred. Research has shown that people have the need for space between them and others, to achieve privacy and a sense of protection from threat. When people breach another’s ‘space bubble’, this is an expectancy violation. This can produce negative responses, such as leaning and looking away, and even feeling.

Different streams of research on proxemic norms and reactions to violations of these norms, show incompatible results on whether close proximity is desired and has positive outcomes, or whether is undesired and produces negative outcomes.

The EVT was created to address these questions. It uses propositions, which state an empirical relationship between two or more variables.

What are the key concepts and predictions in EVT?

Expectations is the first key concept. EVT is a communication theory, and is about what people expect from others in interpersonal interactions. Expectations arise from social norms, personal characteristics, relationship factors, and context factors. When people know each other well, they accept this person’s proximity rules. So, the first proposition is:

“Distancing and personal space expectations are a function of the social norms and the known idiosyncrasies of the interactants.”

Another key concept is communicator reward valence. This is explained by that when people interact, they rate each other one dimensions such as attractiveness, status, credibility, intelligence, charisma, etcetera. This evaluation forms the valence continuum. So, if someone who is highly valued gets close, people accept this more easily, because it is more rewarding compared to when an obnoxious loud mouth does this.

When other’s do not meet the expectations, this is called expectancy violation. When expectancies are met, this is called expectancy confirmation. The expected distances are not an absolute value, it is more a threshold. If someone passes this threshold, then there is a violation. These kind of violations often involve a threat threshold: if someone passes these thresholds, the other person feels discomfortable and maybe threatened. The greater the violation, the greater the effect. Whether this violation will have a negative or positive affect, depends on the value (reward) people assign to others.

Thus, the second proposition is:

“The communication outcomes of an interaction are a function of the rewardingness of the initiator, the direction of deviations from expectations, and the magnitude of deviation.”

Other three relevant concepts are arousal-distraction, interpretation-evaluation process, and violation valence. The EVT states that violations are physiologically and psychologically arousing, and that they distract attention from what is being said. The appraisal process refers to what the targets of a violation think of it. The interpretation involves whether people see the violations as intended, or accidental. Evaluation refers to whether the violation is judged as acceptable or unacceptable.

This involves three propositions:

  1. “When distancing is perceived as a statement of initiator’s regard for the target, closer proximity is interpreted as positive regard, and farther distance is interpreted as negative regard; when distancing is equated with threat, closer proximity is perceived as more threatening and farther distance as less threatening.”
  2. “Extremely close proximity is perceived as aversive and produces discomfort.”
  3. “The more rewarding the initiator, the closer the location of the threat threshold.”

The author also describes how violations and confirmations produce positive or negative outcomes. There are four kinds of outcomes. Positive confirmation happens when the pattern is expected and initiated by a valued interactant (a parent sitting next to a child). Negative confirmation happens when the proxemic pattern is expected but committed by someone who is low valued (a nosy, talkative aunt sitting down near to you). Positive violations refer to when a highly valued interactant comes closer than expected (when a romantic partner snuggles up close to his date on the sofa). Negative violations happen when a low valued interactor chooses to sit very close to you (a disliked ‘touchy-feely’ uncle sitting next to his niece).

Violations do not only reflect sitting too close. When partners are moving too far, this are also violations. Thus, the valence of the violation (positive/negative) is determined by the meaning that is ascribed to the distance, and the evaluation that is associated with the act and the actor.

This leads to two propositions:

1. “Violations are more tolerated and preferred by rewarding communicators than nonrewarding ones.”

2. “The valence of a nonverbal act and its violation status interact, such that:

  • Positive expectancy violations achieve better communication outcomes than positive conformations.
  • Negative expectancy violations achieve worse communication outcomes than negative confirmations.
  • Positive expectancy violations and confirmations achieve better communication outcomes than negative expectancy confirmations and violations.”

What are the research findings?

The propositions stated above are used and tested in studies. These studies show that some behaviors can have multiple meanings, depending on the rewardingness of the actor. Other behaviors do not have multiple meaning and reactions. For example, increased eye contact can be interpreted as liking, approval, but also as dominance, and aggression. Thus, when we want to predict the valence of a violation, we need to understand the meanings of nonverbal behaviors.

Key conclusions from research are:

  • Expectancies guide behavior and have persistent effects on behavior.
  • Communicator reward valence affects communication patterns and outcomes by itself and in combination with violation characteristics.
  • Nonverbal violations are ambiguous, have multiple meanings. The interpretations are dependent on the violator’s reward value.
  • Nonverbal violations often alter responses relative to confirmations.
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