Expectancy value approaches to motivation

The expectancy value theory of motivation is perhaps one of the simplest, but most useful, formulations of the psychology of motivation. Why do do we do things? According to expectancy approaches, because we think that they will probably generate an outcome we value. But is there more to it than that? What is it that makes some goals seem attainable? And is it better to ‘shoot the moon’ for a high value outcome which is likely to be unattainable, or are we better going for something smaller,but more likely..?

Lets explore expectancy value theory in more depth….

Expectancy value theory in action

Our expectancies of success…

What affects our expectancies? A key thing which seems to be important is our understanding of the probability of success. Our beliefs about such outcome expectancies can be based on the situation and/or our own belief in ourselves. These beliefs and attitudes give us an idea about us how hard we think success at a given task will be will be. Some situations (i.e. where others are doing well, or where the task looks easy on the surface) encourage us to see success as achievable, whilst others discourage such perceptions. Internally, high levels of self-efficacy – our sense of our expertise and ability in a given task domain – is a key predictor of positive outcome expectancies (it also acts a resource when which helps encourage states of challenge and threat). Reminding ourselves of our skills, increasing our abilities via training, or giving ourselves positive feedback (perhaps via short term goals) are all ways of increasing expectancies of success, and thus increase motivation. However, expectancy value theory argues that weighing all this up is only part of our motivation process. To complete the puzzle, we also need to understand how much we value the outcome – what will it mean to us to complete a particular task?

What value do we assign to an outcome?

A value of a goal or outcome can come in various flavours [^1] . Attainment value is the value the goal has in improving or maintaining a positive sense of self identity. Intrinsic value is the positive experience linked to simply enjoying doing the task (see a recent post on intrinsic motivation). The utility of the task is the extent to which it is relevant to some need or want we have. In contrast to values, we also evaluate relative costs – these include the time and energy (both physical and psychological) the behaviour takes and the fact in doing one activity, we lose the chance to do another (perhaps more valued) one. Attainment and intrinsic values are typically viewed as internally driven, and as such can be more stable motivators. In contrast, utility values are more extrinsic, and often more time specific (as the perceived utility may change).

Bringing it all together

Expectancy value theory can be summed up in a neat formula – where M is motivation, V = Value and E is Expectancy:

M = V x E

This equation is simple, but also has a few important features. In particular value is multiplied by expectancy (or, vice versa) to determine motivation. The implication of this? High levels of value will not motivate us unless there is some level of positive expectancy. Moreover, a small increase in value of a high expectancy goal will result in a large motivation gain (and, again, vice versa!). The net effect of this is that any selection of high or low outcome goals will motivate us only to the extent that we believe we can achieve them. Equally, belief in oneself is only a motivator when we value the action!

How can I use this information?

  1. Remember when setting goals that a moderately valued outcome with moderate expectancies of success is as motivating as a high value, low expectancy one. You need both value and expectancy to achieve stable, long term motivation
  2. Plan, revise, and do – then map your progress (increasing confidence and the expectancy of success)
  3. Identify (and remind yourself of) the value of the outcome (increasing the perceived outcome value)
  4. Short term goals as part of a long term strategy increases positive expectancies, and increased mastery can result in added intrinsic value.

All of these observations suggest we should use more subgoals to achieve success! Self imposed deadlines can be an important way of managing these…


[^1:]   Eccles, J. (1983). Expectancies, values, and academic behaviors. In J. T. Spence (Ed.). Achievement and achievement motives: Psychological and sociological approaches (pp. 75-1   Eccles, J. (1983). Expectancies, values, and academic behaviors. In J. T. Spence (Ed.). Achievement and achievement motives: Psychological and sociological approaches (pp. 75-146). San Francisco, CA: W. H. Freeman.

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