Atkinson's Expectancy-Value Theory

The value you place on your goals and the expectations you have determine your motivations, according to Atkinson's theory.
Atkinson's Expectancy-Value Theory

Last update: 23 October, 2021

As a human being, you act due to impulses, motivations, and needs. In fact, these are vectors of force that direct, and in many cases determine, your behavior.

From scientific research, several study perspectives have been outlined that try to specify the influence of these motivations. One of them studies secondary motives. In other words, those that aren’t based on a biological basis, but are learned. Like the primary motives, the secondary ones activate and direct your behavior towards a goal. Following along these lines, in this article we talk about Atkinson’s expectancy-value theory.

Secondary motives aren’t as connected with survival as the primary ones. In fact, they tend to concern emotional development. However, some authors consider that the secondary motives are superior to primary motives and that they even condition the primary ones.

A classical perspective is one that considers that secondary motives function as a consequence of an impulse that generates a need, a need that arises from the individual themselves. Within this perspective, along with other authors, is Atkinson’s expectancy-value theory.

The cognitive perspective of Atkinson’s expectancy-value theory

John William Atkinson (1923-2003) was an American psychologist and pioneer in the scientific study of motivation, performance, and behavior in humans. More specifically, he studied achievement motivation and introduced cognitive elements in the analysis of goal-centered behavior.

Atkinson’s expectancy-value theory is based on cognitive elements. Therefore, it’s a mainstream cognitivist theory.

Cognitivism is a current of psychology that studies all the processes and elements that influence your knowledge, and therefore, indirectly, your behavior. These cognitive elements are the expectations about the achievement of a goal and the value you place on achieving it.

Mind of a person with mechanisms

The expectancy-value theory

The expectancy-value theory (1957, 1964) proposes that the achievement of a goal is the result of the multiplication of three components. These are the motive (or need for achievement ), the probability of success (expectations), and the incentive value of the task.

Thus, this theory studies three constructs: motives, expectations, and incentive value.

  • Motives. These are relatively stable dispositions or traits that impel you to strive to successfully solve a task and feel proud of it, or at least to avoid failure. Regarding the origin of the motives, Atkinson is in complete agreement with McCelland (1954) when he recognizes that, although they may be latent, they’re all learned. Thus, your tendency toward one reason or another will determine how you use it in achieving your task.
  • Expectations. These concern the perception of probability you have about the achievement of your goal. This variable is defined by Atkinson as ‘an advance knowledge of the consequences that can be derived from a given activity’.
  • Incentive value. This is the value you give to achieving a goal. It can be positive or negative. It influences the value of your incentive and the complexity of the task. Therefore, the more complex a task or goal is, the less incentive value it will have for you.

The incentive value, like the expectations, will vary from person to person. For this reason, they’re cognitive elements that mark individual differences.

In general, if the result of an activity is a source of satisfaction, the incentive value is positive. Otherwise, if the result is a punishment or simply has negative effects, its value will be negative.

The expectancy-value theory in academic performance

To better illustrate the expectancy-value phenomenon, let’s look at the following hypothetical scenario. Imagine that you want to pass an exam. The value you place on passing it is positive, and it’s also high. In addition, your expectancy of achieving it is high, as you’ve been preparing for it successfully with previous exams. In this case, your achievement motivation is high.

However, now let’s take another scenario. In this case, the incentive value you give to pass the exam is still positive, but the level of expectancy you have about passing is low. You also consider the task to be complex, with a high level of difficulty. In this case, your motivation will be lower, since the expectancy you have is low or null.

Finally, if the value you give to passing the exam is null or negative – since you don’t consider it positive to pass it, your motivation will be low, even if you have a high expectancy of passing it.

Boy studying in the library

The tendency to achievement and the tendency to failure

Atkinson reformulated the theory in 1966 and stated that the human being shows a tendency to avoid failure and establishes two conclusions regarding this:

  • The tendency to avoid failure is greater if the difficulty level of the task is intermediate.
  • When the difficulty of a task remains constant, the tendency to avoid failure is greater, provided that the reason for avoiding failure is strong and not weak.

Atkinson views this fear of failure as a negative motive and the tendency to achievement as a positive motive related to the hope of success in achieving a goal. In addition, he included in this reformulation, two affective states such as satisfaction or pride in achieving a goal or the shame of not achieving it.

New models

There have also been different expectancy-value models developed by other authors, including new conceptual variables. For example, the expectancy-value model of Eccles and Wigfield (2002) states that the relationship of expectancy and the value that one gives to the achievement of a goal is positive, while for Atkinson this relationship was negative.

In short, the expectancy-value theory has marked a milestone in the field of motivation and the psychology of individual differences. Furthermore, it’s made it possible to study the variables that influence the achievement of goals. For this reason, it’s applicable in different areas that are intended to achieve goals or objectives, such as academic or organizational fields.

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  • Arnau Gras (s.f.) El estudio de la motivación humana. Departamento de Psicología. Universidad de Barcelona.
  • Miñano Pérez, Pablo & Castejón Costa Juan Luis & Cantero Vicente Mª Pilar (2008) Predicción del rendimiento académico de las variables cognitivo-motivacionales de un modelo expectativa-valor. INFAD. Revista de Psicología, 1(4), 483-492.