Expectation States Theory Explained


First proposed by Joseph Berger, the expectation states theory is a social psychological theory that looks at how status hierarchies form within small groups. Within a group setting, the expected competence that a person has becomes the basis of the hierarchy that forms. This allows the group to utilize their resources in the best possible way to achieve an assigned task.

It can be applied to large-scale and small-scale situations.

For the expectation states theory to function, Berger must make 4 basic assumptions.

1. Activation. In any given situation, the characteristic most needed to complete a task becomes the social basis of discrimination for determining leadership within the group.
2. Burden of Proof. Once the hierarchy is established based on the expectations of skills from the leaders, there is a burden to prove that the skills are present to complete the task.
3. Assignment. Additional tasks may need to be completed that require the skills of other group members, which solidifies the hierarchy that is established as delegation comes from the leader.
4. Basic Expectations. As expectations are met by those at the top of the hierarchy, they are able to establish a firmer level of control over the group and be able to maintain their leadership over time.

A fifth assumption must also be made in the expectations states theory, although it is not part of the identified assumptions. Gender differences and roles must be seen as salient for the group to be able to function. Certain cultural norms may also need to be seen as salient for the hierarchy to be established.

Why Must There Be Saliency with Gender and Societal Positions?

Men and women have gender differences that are undeniable. In the past, that has led to patriarchal societies where the role of the woman is inferior to the role of the man. In certain group structures, especially in small groups, this view of society may still be present. Some men may feel their gender alone makes them a natural leader. Some women may feel like they need to take a secondary role to a man because that was how they grew up.

The opposite can also be true. Women may see themselves as natural leaders and men can see themselves as natural followers.

These perspectives must be set aside for the good of the group in the expectation states theory. The hierarchy must be established through the skills that are being presented for group evaluation instead of preconceived notions of superiority or inferiority.

In modern society, it isn’t just gender that can play a role in how people see the world and assume certain individuals “deserve” leadership positions. Here are some common points of separation that must also be discarded when forming the hierarchy.

  • Political affiliation. Someone who sees themselves as “conservative” may feel they are superior to someone who sees themselves as “liberal” and attempt to assume the mantle of leadership. The reverse is also true.
  • Religious affiliation. A Christian may see themselves as superior to a Muslim. A Jew may see themselves as being superior to a Buddhist. The reverse can also be true here as well.
  • Socioeconomic status. Having more money than someone else on a team can also create feelings of superiority. Purposely not having more money than others can create similar feelings.

When creating a hierarchy in a small group setting, these conditions must be set aside. Just because a person is a Christian doesn’t mean they’re an awesome carpenter. You need to have gone to school or have a family background in that field to begin establishing the assumed skill set that the group may need to complete a task.

It’s like saying, “Because I’m a man, I can fix cars better than a woman.”

Now that doesn’t mean these influential factors cannot play any role in the hierarchy structure that forms in a group setting. Sometimes, in fact, these factors can actually become part of the assumed skills that may be needed to take on a leadership role.

When Does Our Assumed Roles Become an Asset?

Let’s say you’re about to sit down for a nice afternoon of religious studies. You’ve got a cup of coffee in hand and a small group that is ready to crack open a holy book. The instructor comes in holding a Bible and says, “I’d like to have your group discuss the pros and cons of what James is trying to discuss in Chapter 2 of his book.”

You take a look around at your group. Let’s say you’re an atheist. There are two Muslims there, three who practice Hinduism, and one person who identifies themselves as a Christian.

That label of “Christian” brings with it an assumption of knowledge. They chose that religion, so they should know what James has to say. Or, at the very least, be able to find that book in the Bible.

In the establishment of a hierarchy, the label creates an assumption of skill. That person will take up the mantle of leadership, whether they like it or not.

Yet now they must be able to prove their skills. What if the person who identifies skills that work directly with the task at-hand shows that although they bear the label, they do not have the skills necessary to retain leadership?

The mantle will then pass to the next person who can take over at that step. Anyone who says, “I know where that book is,” and then opens the Bible to it becomes the leader.

The same is true for any skill. If your task is to fix a car and you’re the only one who has studied auto mechanics, then congrats! You’re the leader unless someone else can prove their skill set is better than your own.

Even gender can become an asset when looking at the establishment of a hierarchy, though it gets a little trickier there. It tends to be more about the physical assets a person can provide (Are they tall? Strong?) then a reflection of the actual gender.

How Do We Draw Information to Establish a Hierarchy?

According to the expectation states theory, people draw information about themselves and others based on their identity. If a person thinks of themselves as a leader, then other people will associate leadership with that person.

On the other hand, a person who is part of a marginalized minority group in society will likely experience the same marginalization in a small group setting, even if they don’t see themselves in that light. That is because people also draw information about themselves based on how they feel that the rest of society sees them.

To accomplish a task, people must establish a hierarchy to help put the best resources into the best places so the job gets done quickly. By following the principles laid forth in the expectation states theory, a better understanding of this process can be achieved.