Expectancy Value Theory Definition Explained


Created Martin Fishbein in the 1970s, the expectancy value theory is linked to the uses and gratifications theory. The idea is an expansion of one fundamental concept: that behavior is a function of the expectations that each individual has. Those expectations are based on the value of whatever goal that person happens to be working toward at any given moment.

Because multiple behaviors can be chosen at any given moment, with some approaches offering simultaneous behaviors that could be implemented, the theory suggests that an individual will choose a behavior that provides the best possible combination of value and success in relation to the goal.

How Do People Orientate Themselves to the World?

According to the expectancy value theory, people will orient themselves to the world they see based on a foundation of their belief systems and evaluations. Belief can be religious, scientific, or any other system that has helped to establish that person’s unique personality.

People choose behaviors based on their expectations of finding success. Attitudes, behavioral intentions, or specific approaches are seen as a function of evaluation. There will be degrees of positive and negative outcomes that come from every behavioral decision that is made. Choosing the behavior with the greatest positive outcome options, combined with the least negative outcome options, will directly affect how that person interacts with the world.

Those beliefs, when thoroughly evaluated, lead a person toward specific gratifications. This is where the “wants” and “needs” are given definition. People have specific survival needs, such as food, water, and shelter, but the belief structures of the individual can create different needs that may usually fall into the “wants” category.

Certain influences can affect this evaluation process as well, such as addiction. The average person may not “need” cocaine, for example, but someone who uses cocaine regularly may classify it as a “need” because of their psychological connection to the substance.

Once the needs are separated from the wants, the expectancy value theory shows that the individual will pursue their gratifications based on a value proposition that reflects the desired goal. Only the needs that will bring the best levels of success will be pursued, which will then lead an individual toward media consumption.

Why Is Media Consumption an Integral Part of the Theory?

Think about how you decide what products to purchase at the grocery store. Let’s say that you need to purchase bread. There are 27 different brands and types that are available on the store shelf. How do you decide which is a want and which is the “need” that best meets your goal?

  • If cost is your primary motivating factor, you will purchase the $0.88 loaf of bread that falls apart whenever you try to spread butter on it.
  • If health is your primary motivation, then you’ll purchase the $5.99 loaf of bread that is infused with vitamins, minerals, and Omega-3s.
  • If diet is your primary motivation, you might purchase a loaf of gluten-free bread, no matter what it might cost.

Every person has a unique value proposition that they are examining based on their personal beliefs and systems. If someone only has $2, they’ll purchase two loaves of the cheap bread because that can meet their hunger need effectively – even if their preference is for the $5.99 loaf of bread with fortification.

Why? Because of the specificity of the goal. Someone trying to meet a hunger need (cheap bread) will have a different behavior than someone trying to meet a nutritional need (fortified bread).

Media consumption in the expectancy value theory doesn’t refer to watching advertisements or clicking on banner ads while reading a blog. It has to do with what you perceive to be valuable and then acting upon it. Once you’ve acted, you’ve obtained your gratifications, and this will impact your belief structure.

You bought two loaves of bread for $2. It met your hunger needs and you felt satisfied in reaching you goal. The next time you get hungry and have a couple of bucks, there is a good chance that you’ll repeat the decision.

Let’s say that those two loaves of bread didn’t satisfy your hunger. That result will impact your belief system and change behaviors in the future. The next time you get hungry, you might spend $0.88 on a loaf of bread and then use the remainder to purchase a food product to go with the bread.

Through a process of examination, seeking, and consumption, we each create a belief system that leads us all towards goals that are personally important. It is that process which is the foundation of the expectancy value theory definition.