Expectancy Theory

Among the most influential theories of work motivation to appear during the second half of the 20th century in Western psychology and organizational behavior was, in fact, a body of theories that were all variants of an expected-value formulation. In a nutshell, these theories held in common the premise that the motivational force a person would feel toward a particular choice (or position or alternative) was a joint, multiplicative function of the individual’s beliefs about the expected value of the outcomes that the choice alternative would bring about, multiplied by the perceived probability that the outcome would result from selecting that choice (or position, or alternative). These models assume that an individual would form beliefs and perceptions about all (or at least some) of the most salient alternatives available at any choice point and select to act in accordance with the alternative that yields the highest subjective expected utility, or payoff.

A few key elements of the model must be emphasized. (We have acknowledged that a variety of expectancy theory models are available. For ease of description, however, we will refer to them as a collectivity, in the singular case.) First, notice that expectancy theory is a within-person decision-making model: the individual chooses to behave in accordance with the alternative that she or he associates with the highest subjective expected utility. It was never intended to be predictive of differences across individuals in terms of the choices they make.

Second, note the perceptual nature of the major parameters of the model. It is referred to as expectancy theory for a good reason. The major parameters are all perceptual and based on the individual’s beliefs. Naturally, in any case, the person’s perceptions may be inaccurate or his beliefs may be false. The nature of these various beliefs and perceptions, accurate or otherwise, determines the motivational force toward any particular decision alternative.

Third, the elements of the model are combined in the mind of the individual multiplicatively. Therefore, if a given decision alternative has no positive outcomes associated with it in the mind of the person, this zero value will result in a nullification of the force associated with that decision alternative. The same would occur if the person sees no likely connection between selecting an alternative and the receipt of the outcome.

A Preliminary Working Example

So, for example, if Sally is considering job offers from two prospective employers (a large grocery store and a small florist), and having regular time off for travel is important to her, she will consider the expected value of time off (which should be constant for her as she considers the two job offers) as well as the odds, in her mind, of receiving regular time off under either of the two employment relationships. If the florist tells Sally that it is important that their staff be available 7 days a week and on call when business increases sharply, she may believe that the likelihood of getting time away from the flower store is small. If, on the other hand, the union contract held by the employees at the large grocery store guarantees holidays and generous vacation periods for its members, Sally would perceive (assuming she had researched the comparative time-off provisions of the two organizations carefully) that her chances of getting time for travel would be higher if she were to accept the unionized grocery clerk position. By the formulation of the expectancy theory model, the vacation-oriented considerations would contribute positive motivational force toward selecting the grocery store.

But, of course, Sally would likely have many other things to consider in addition to her vacation desires. She may also be quite concerned about the comparative pay levels offered by the two stores, the proximity of the two jobs to her apartment, the physical demands placed on her by the two jobs, her chances to learn a trade or occupation, and also the nature of the supervision under which she would have to work. In the same way that Sally had perceptions and beliefs about the vacation issues related to the two alternatives, she would have beliefs about the expected value to her of the pay levels, proximity factor, physical demands, career possibilities, and supervisory conditions associated with the two jobs.

Perceptions about expected value of outcomes such as these are referred to as valences (e.g., the expected value associated with the chance to learn a trade may be very high for Sally; in the lexicon of the theory, it would be said that career advancement holds high valence for Sally). It is the expected value—valence— that matters in contributing to motivational force, not the real value. In this case, learning a trade may, in fact, not turn out to be of value for Sally, even though at the time she is facing her job dilemma she believes it to be important. In summary, Sally would consider the expected value (or valence) associated with a range of work-related outcomes as she considers the two job alternatives. Presumably, the valence associated with any one of these outcomes would be constant across the alternatives, although some versions of the theory allow for other parameters in the model to influence valence beliefs.

Sally would also form beliefs about the probable connection between accepting the job at the grocery store and receiving certain levels of these outcomes. So, for example, the hourly pay at the grocery store may be considerably higher than at the small, independent flower store. In such a case, the terms of the theory would say that accepting the job at the grocery would be instrumental for earning high pay, whereas taking the job at the florist would not be instrumental for high pay. Given that high pay holds high valence for Sally and that she believes (correctly or otherwise) that high pay would be associated with the grocery job but not with the flower job, the high instrumentality belief, multiplied subjectively in her mind by the high valence for pay, would make a potent motivational force in favor of electing to join the grocery clerks’ union. But Sally would consider the odds of attaining the other outcomes, as well, were she to select either the florist or the grocer. The theory assumes that Sally will subjectively consider the valences of all the outcomes of interest to her, each multiplied subjectively by her subjective beliefs (or instrumentality beliefs) of attaining these outcomes at both the flower store and the grocery, and be more highly motivated to select the store that, in her mind, represents the higher aggregate of the products of her valence and instrumentality beliefs.

Notice that it is possible that a single consideration could trump the analysis. For example, if the grocery store job requires Sally to travel to work at one of its many outlets on 2 hours’ notice on a given day, she may decide that it is not feasible for her to take the grocery clerk position, given that she does not own a car, public transportation is scarce, and the stores are widely dispersed across the large city in which she lives. Meanwhile, the florist, whose small shop is located a block from Sally’s apartment, appears very attractive on the proximity dimension. According to the theory, the very high negative valence (i.e., expected negative value of travel time to work) may sweep the decision, swamping the subjective expected utility represented by the (valence x instrumentality) beliefs contributed by the other factors in Sally’s decision model (pay levels, time off for vacations, and so on).

Review of Terminology

To summarize, valence is the expected value of an outcome associated in the mind of the individual with a choice alternative. The strength of this parameter varies as a function of the person’s values and needs and can be estimated on the basis of personal experience, vicarious experience, or simple hunch. Valences can range from highly positive (often calibrated as +1.0 in statistical tests of the model); through indifference, or no expected value (calibrated as 0.0 mathematically); to highly negative, or aversive (calibrated as -1.0). Again, the person’s valence for an outcome may or may not be an accurate estimate of true value to him or her of that outcome, but it is the valence that matters.

Instrumentality is the subjective probability in the mind of the person that an act (such as selecting a job at a store, joining the army, marrying another person, or working hard on the job) will lead to a particular outcome. Different approaches calibrate expectancies different ways. Preferable approaches are those in which expectancy is conceived of as ranging from 0.0 (which implies that there is no expectation in the mind of the individual that an act will result in a particular outcome—for example, Sally may legitimately see no likely connection between working for the florist and being able to travel on the spur of the moment), to 1.0, which implies that the person sees a 100% chance that an act will result in an outcome. In our example, Sally would be wise to see such high expectancies for cross-town travel on foot and by bus, as well as membership in the clerks’ union, if she were to accept the job at the grocery chain.

Some versions of the theory explicitly add a component referred to as expectancy. In these versions, expectancy is the perceived probability (again, in the mind of the decision maker) that making any particular choice is possible. Here is an example: If Henry is trying to decide whether to pursue a grade of A in his math class, he may have subjective beliefs about whether attaining an A is possible, given his low aptitude for calculus and geometry. He may believe that even if he worked day and night, his mind is just not made for mathematical concepts, so there is no sense in trying for an A and wasting time and effort that could be used to gain good grades in other courses. If Henry firmly believes that an A in math is not possible (i.e., in his mind, the probability that effort would result in an A is 0.0), Henry would not bother to try for the A. Sally, the math whiz who knows she can get an A, would have an expectancy estimate of 1.0. So she would likely pursue that high mark. In these models, the expectancy factor (which ranges from 0.0 to 1.0) is conceptually multiplied by the aggregate of the products that resulted in Henry’s mind from the positive and negative outcomes of earning an A, each multiplied by the probabilities that the A would, in fact, get him those outcomes (such as Sally’s admiration, a chance for a scholarship, etc.).

Multiplicities of Outcomes

To this point, we have discussed extrinsic outcomes in the decision models of our examples, Sally and Henry. Valence-instrumentality-expectancy theories (which is the preferred term here) make room for the inclusion of intrinsic outcomes such as feelings of achievement, self-esteem, and self-actualization. They also include negative outcomes, as we saw in the case of Sally, who considered the cross town travel for the grocery chain as aversive.

Successes and Failures of the Theory

Valence-instrumentality-expectancy (VIE) models have enjoyed considerable success in the prediction of many within-individual choice situations in a variety of disciplinary and problems areas, such as work motivation (how hard to work, which position to accept, whether to retire, etc.), marketing (which brand of product to buy), and many others. Researchers have made many errors over the years in testing VIE models, however. Some have attempted to measure a model’s components with invalid scales. Others have attempted to use criterion variables other than individual choices among within-person alternatives, preferring instead to attempt to correlate predicted VIE composite scores with between-persons measures of criterion variables. Often the criterion variable has been a between-person measure of performance rather than effort, preference, or motivational force (the latter three being what the theory claims to be able to predict). Indeed, probably the most common “test” of VIE theories has been to validate hypothesized variances in individual work effort (even though performance has been used to operationalize effort).

Criticisms, Variations, and Assessed Value

Many have criticized VIE models on the grounds of the requirements they assume for human rationality. These critics argue that no person is as rational as these models assume, taking into account multiple outcomes at each decision point and making judgments about the valences and expectancies and instrumentalities associated with each outcome. Some point out that habits and impulses frequently trump rational behavior, making valence, instrumentality, and expectancy perceptions and beliefs irrelevant.

Notwithstanding the validity of the criticisms of the inherent assumptions made byVIE models, and despite the mixed record of empirical support the theory has produced in more than 40 years, VIE models have proven robust and highly useful in many theoretical and applied settings, particularly when tested using valid measures and operationalized as within-person decision models rather than between-persons models, using appropriate criterion measures. Moreover, VIE models have given birth to many variations that have included learning loops and insights into the processes through which estimates of the major parameters are formed and modified over time and with experience by individuals. But interest in VIE models has flagged in recent years, in large measure because they seem to have demonstrated their value and because two generations of critics, scholars, and researchers have exhausted the possibilities for new refinements, new applications, and fresh criticisms. Nevertheless, and on balance, these models are highly regarded and are expected to continue as members in good standing of the family of useful theories of work motivation.


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