Atkinson’s Expectancy-value Theory: What It Is And What It Proposes

Atkinson's expectancy-value theory

When psychologists have tried to study human motivations, they have found different elements to take into account to understand them. Atkinson, in 1964, proposed the expectancy-value theory, based on cognitive elements.

As we will see later, this theory understands that the intention to perform a behavior is determined by the person’s expectations of achieving an incentive (or goal) and by the value given to said incentive.

Expectancy-value models

There are many theories that have attempted to explain human motivations. Within them, and following a cognitivist point of view (which introduces cognitive elements when analyzing behavior), we find expectation-value models.

These models They consider the human being as an active and rational decision maker. Furthermore, they suggest that both the behavior that the person chooses when acting, as well as their persistence and achievement itself, are linked to their expectations and the value they assign to the goals or tasks.

Atkinson’s expectancy-value theory: characteristics

Expectancy-value theory was proposed by Atkinson (1957, 1964). This suggests that the intention to perform an action is determined by the expectations of achieving an incentive and by the value given to said incentive. Atkinson relates these concepts to the need for achievement.

Thus, the theory combines the constructs of need, expectation and value. It proposes that the manifestation of a behavior is the result of a multiplication between three components: the motive (or need for achievement), the probability of success and the incentive value of the task.

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More specifically, Atkinson suggests that the tendency to perform success-oriented behaviors is a joint function of the person’s motivation to achieve success, their expectation of achieving it, and inversely proportional to the probability of achieving it.

Components of the theory

As we have seen, there are three essential components in expectancy-value theory. Let’s see what each of them consists of:

1. Reasons

Motives are relatively stable dispositions or traits of the subject, which make you strive to successfully solve a task and feel proud of it or of avoiding failure (and the consequences derived from it).

A person’s tendency towards one motive or another will determine how they engage in achievement tasks.

2. Expectations

expectations of success reflect the probability that the person perceives of achieving a goal or achieving success in a task performing a certain behavior.

3. Incentive value

The incentive value of a given task is the subject’s affective (and positive) reaction to successfully solving the task (pride). The more difficult a task is, the less value the incentive will have to the person.

Practical example

To illustrate Atkinson’s expectancy-value theory, let’s give a practical example. Let’s think about a person who goes to the gym to lose weight. The strength of the expectation will be the possibility of losing weight that the person considers when performing said action (going to the gym).

The value of the incentive will be the judgment about the consequence of the action, that is, the value that the person gives to the fact of losing weight (for example an aesthetic value, a reaction of well-being with their own body, etc.)

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The more positive this value is and the more likely the person believes they are to lose weight, the more expectations they will have, and its cognitive process will increase the motivation to go to the gym.

Extension and derivations

The Atkinson model It was expanded by Atkinson and Feather in 1966. This new model includes both the achievement tendency motive, called hope of success, and a negative motive, called fear of failure.

Furthermore, they incorporate two basic affective states that are at the base of the motivation process: the satisfaction or pride that accompanies success and the shame that comes with failing at a goal.

New explanations opposed to Atkinson

As a result of Atkinson’s theory, new expectancy-value theories and models have been generated. These have been based on the authors’ works, although with certain differences at a conceptual level and in the causal relationships between variables.

The new models are made up of more elaborate components of expectation and value and with a greater number of determinants (psychological and socio-cultural).

Furthermore, new models conceptualize a positive relationship between expectancy and value (such as the Expectancy-Achievement Value Model of Eccles and Wigfield, 2002). This differentiates them from the classic theory of Atkinson, who, as we have already seen, established a negative relationship between expectations and the value of goals.

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