Expectancy-Value Theory

Why  do  some  individuals  participate  intensely  in sport activities over many years while others never get  actively  involved  in  sport  or  exercise?  What influences  initial  participation  in  sport  or  exercise?  What  influences  continued  participation? What  influences  the  intensity  of  participation?

How do we explain drop-out from sport and exercise  engagement?  How  do  we  explain  both  individual and group differences in sport and exercise engagement? Questions such as these have driven work in the area of motivation and sport and exercise for at least the last 50 years. Two main theoretical perspectives have emerged to address these types  of  questions:  expectancy-value  theory  and self-determination  theory.  This  entry  focuses  on one particular version of expectancy-value theory: Eccles  and  colleagues’  Expectancy-Value  Theory of  Achievement-Related  Behavioral  Choices.  This theoretical model has two components: a psychological  component,  illustrated  in  Figures  1  and 2,  and  a  socialization  component,  illustrated  in Figure  3.  The  following  sections  provide  a  brief description  of  each  of  these  components  and  a summary of related empirical research.

Psychological Influences on Sport and Exercise Participation

Building on the work of Norman T. Feather, Victor Vroom,  Albert  Bandura,  and  John  W.  Atkinson, Jacquelynne  Eccles  and  colleagues  developed  a comprehensive  theoretical  model  of  achievement-related choices, first published in 1983 (see Figure 1) and first directly applied to sport by Eccles and Rena D. Harold in 1991. It is henceforth referred to as the Eccles Expectancy-Value Model (EEVM). Eccles and colleagues hypothesized that both individual  and  group,  for  example  gender  or  race  or ethnic  group,  differences  would  be  most  directly influenced by individuals’ expectations for success and  the  relative  importance  or  value  individuals attached  to  sport  or  exercise  activities  compared to other activity options (see Figure 2). They then hypothesized how these quite domain specific self and task-related beliefs are influenced by cultural norms and stereotypes, experiences, aptitudes, and more general personal beliefs. In 1993, they specified a model of parental influences on the development  of  the  psychological  components  of  EEVT (see Figure 3).


Figure 1    General Eccles Expectancy-Value Model of Activity Choices

According  to  the  EEVM,  people  will  be  most likely  to  participate  in  those  activities  that  they think they can master and that have high subjective  task  value  for  them.  Expectations  for  success (domain-specific beliefs about one’s personal efficacy  to  master  the  task),  in  turn,  depend  on both the confidence that individuals have in their various abilities and the individuals’ estimations of the difficulty of the various options they are considering.

 Eccles and associates also predicted that these  self and  task-related  beliefs  were  shaped over  time  both  by  experiences  with  the  related activities,  and  by  individuals’  subjective  interpretation  of  these  experiences.  For  example,  does the  individual  think  that  personal  prior  and  current  successes  reflect  high  ability  or  lots  of  hard work?  And  if  the  latter,  will  it  take  even  more work  to  continue  to  be  successful?  Conversely do  personal  failures  or  difficulties  reflect  lack of  natural  talent  or  deficits  in  current  abilities? Can  the  current  ability  level  be  changed  through practice and instruction or does it reflect a stable entity  linked  to  genetic  or  other  stable  biological influences—that  is  does  it  reflect  natural  talents? Are  these  natural  talents  believed  to  be  linked  to gender  or  other  group  characteristics?  The  latter interpretative questions are particularly important for explaining gender and other group differences in participation in sports and exercise. It is likely, for example, that females in many cultures receive less support for developing a strong sense of their talent  for  sport  from  their  parents,  teachers,  and peers than males and are more likely to attribute their difficulties in mastering sports to insufficient natural talent than males. Research has supported this prediction.

Likewise,  the  EEVM  model  specifies  that  the subjective task value of various activities is influenced by several factors. For example, how much does  the  person  enjoy  doing  sport  compared  to other  activities  (referred  to  as  intrinsic  interest  in the  model)?  Is  participation  in  sport  or  exercise seen  as  instrumental  in  meeting  the  individual’s long or  short-range  goals  (referred  to  as  utility  value)?  Is  being  good  at  sport  or  exercise  a critical  part  of  the  individual’s  identity  (referred to  as  attainment  value)?  Does  participating  in sport or exercise interfere with other more valued options because of the amount of work needed to be  successful  either  in  the  major  or  in  the  future  professions  linked  to  the  major  (referred  to  as cost)?  The  answers  to  these  kinds  of  questions have  proved  critical  for  explaining  both  individual  and  groups  differences  in  sport  and  exercise participation.


Figure 2    EEVM for Sport Participation Source: Copyright © Jacquelynne S. Eccles

As the model was developed in the mid-1970s, it  was  clear  that  the  theoretical  grounding  for understanding the nature of subjective task value was much less well developed than the theoretical grounding for understanding the nature of expectations for success. Consequently, Eccles and associates  elaborated  their  notion  of  subjective  task value  to  help  fill  this  void.  Drawing  upon  work associated with achievement motivation, intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation, self-psychology, identity formation, economics, and organization psychology,  they  hypothesized  that  subjective  task value was composed of at least four components:

  1. Interest value (the enjoyment one gets from engaging in the task or activity)
  2. Utility value (the instrumental value of the task or activity for helping fulfill another shortor long-range goal)
  3. Attainment value (the link between the task and one’s sense of self and identity
  4. Cost (defined in terms of either what may be given up by making a specific choice or the negative experiences associated with a particular choice)

It is the belief of Eccles and colleagues that the last three  of  these  are  particularly  relevant  for  understanding  gender  and  other  group  differences  in activity  choices.  By  and  large,  research  has  supported these predictions.
Furthermore, Eccles and colleagues believe that both  individual  and  group  differences  in  these aspects  of  subjective  task  value  are  heavily  influenced  by  social  forces  and  socialization,  which themselves  are  influenced  by  cultural  norms  and stereotypes.  For  example,  have  the  individual’s parents,  counselors,  friends,  or  romantic  partners encouraged  or  discouraged  the  individual  from participating  in  sport  or  exercise?  More  specifically  with  regard  to  gender,  for  example,  Eccles and  colleagues  argued  that  the   socialization  processes linked to gender roles are likely to influence both  short and  long-term  goals  and  the  characteristics  and  values  most  closely  linked  to  core identities. They predicted that males would receive more  support  for  developing  a  strong  interest  in sport from their parents, teachers, and peers than females;  research  has  supported  this  prediction. For  example,  gender-role  socialization  has  been shown to lead to gender differences in adolescents’ sport ability self-concepts, the subjective task value of  sport,  and  actual  engagement  in  sport  activities.  These  outcomes,  in  turn,  have  been  shown to predict adult involvement in sport and exercise activities.


Figure 3    Eccles Parent Socialization Model

In summary, Eccles and colleagues assume that activity choices, such as participating in sport and exercise,  are  guided  by  (a)  individuals’  expectations  for  success  (sense  of  personal  efficacy) regarding the various options, as well as their sense of competence for various tasks; (b) the relation of the  options  to  their  short and  long-range  goals, to their core personal and social identities, and to their  basic  psychological  needs;  (c)  individuals’ culturally-based  role  schemas  linked  to  gender, social class, and ethnic group; and (d) the potential cost  of  investing  time  in  one  activity  rather  than another. They further assume that all of these psychological variables are influenced by individuals’ histories  as  mediated  by  their  interpretation  of these  experiences,  by  cultural  norms,  and  by  the behaviors and goals of one’s socializers and peers.

Eccles and her associates have spent the last 40 years amassing evidence to support each of these hypotheses. The findings related to gender differences participation in sport and exercise are quite robust. Here are just a few examples of both the psychological  and  socialization  models.  (All  of the survey instruments, details on the studies, and the publications themselves are available at www.rcgd.isr.umich.edu/garp.)

First,  the  researchers  looked  at  the  psychological predictors of participation in sport in high school.  They  used  path  analysis  to  determine whether  the  gender  difference  in  sport  participation was mediated by constructs directly linked to expectations for success (specifically the students’ self-concept  of  their  sport  ability)  and  subjective task  value  (specifically,  how  much  they  enjoyed sport),  the  subjective  importance  of  doing  well in  sport,  and  the  usefulness  of  sport  while  controlling for the students’ scores on. As predicted, the  gender  difference  in  participating  in  sport was  mediated  by  the  gender  differences  in  these beliefs.

The  second  part  of  the  research  has  focused on  the  role  of  experiences  in  the  home  in  shaping both individual and group differences in the self and  task-related  beliefs  just  discussed,  as well  as  such  differences  in  sport  and  exercise participation. First, using a variety of longitudinal  modeling  techniques,  Eccles  and  colleagues were able to confirm most of the basic links summarized  in  Figure  3.  Many  parents  do  endorse gender  stereotypic  beliefs  about  general  gender differences  in  abilities  and  interest  in  many and   parents’   gender-role   stereotypes   predict their  perceptions  of  their  own  children’s  math, sport,  and  English  abilities  and  interests  even after independent assessments of their children’s actual abilities in these three domains have been controlled, leading them on average to underestimate their daughters’ athletic abilities. In turn, parents’  estimates  of  their  children’s  abilities  in different skills predict developmental changes in their  children’s  own  estimates  of  their  abilities in these skills, as well as the children’s expectations  for  success  in  these  different  skill  areas, leading to the kinds of gender differences in the children’s own beliefs and task values discussed earlier.

Second,   on   average,   parents   provide   their daughters  and  sons  with  gender-role  stereotypic types  of  toys  and  activity  opportunities,  particularly  in  relation  to  sport.  Not  surprisingly,  these differential   patterns   of   experiences   partially mediate  the  emergence  of  gender  differences  in children’s  confidence  in  their  own  abilities,  their interests  in  participating  in  different  activities, particularly,  and  their  actual  emerging  competencies Not surprisingly, the extent to which each of these  facts  holds  true  is  more  marked  when  parents endorse the traditional gender-role stereotypes associated  with  both  ability  and  interest  in  these different skills areas.


Research  conducted  over  the  past  4  decades  by Eccles and colleagues, and by other researchers as well, has provided clear evidence that gender-role related  personal  and  social  processes  explain,  at least in part, the gender differences we see in sport participation.  Much  less  work  has  been  done  on exercise. Furthermore, interventions have been created that can help ameliorate these processes, with the result that both girls and women and boys and men are able to make less gender-role stereotypic choices for their own lives.


  1. Eccles, J. S. (1987). Gender roles and women’s achievement-related decisions. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 11, 135–172.
  2. Eccles, J. S. (1993). School and family effects on the ontogeny of children’s interests, self-perceptions, and activity choice. In J. Jacobs (Ed.), Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, 1992: Developmental perspectives on motivation (pp. 145–208). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
  3. Eccles, J. S. (2006). Families, schools, and developing achievement-related motivations and engagement. In J. E. Grusec & P. D. Hastings (Eds.), Handbook of socialization: Theory and research (pp. 665–691). New York: Guilford Press.
  4. Eccles, J. S., Jacobs, J. E., & Harold, R. D. (1990). Gender-role stereotypes, expectancy effects, and parents’ socialization of gender differences. Journal of Social Issues, 46, 183–201.
  5. Fredricks, J. A., & Eccles, J. S. (2004). Parental influences on youth involvement in sports. In M. Weiss (Ed.), Developmental sport and exercise psychology: A lifespan perspective (pp. 145–164). Morgantown, WV: Fitness Information Technology.
  6. Fredricks, J. A., & Eccles, J. S. (2005). Family socialization, gender, and sport motivation and involvement. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 27, 3–31.
  7. Jacobs, J. E., & Eccles, J. S. (1992). The impact of mothers’ gender-role stereotypic beliefs on mothers’ and children’s ability perceptions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63, 932–944.
  8. Jacobs, J. E., Vernon, M. K., & Eccles, J. S. (2005). Activity choices in middle childhood: The roles of gender, self-beliefs, and parents’ influence. In J. L. Mahoney, R. W. Larson, & J. S. Eccles (Eds.), Organized activities as contexts of development: Extracurricular activities, after-school and community programs (pp. 235–254). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  9. Perkins, D. F., Jacobs, J. E., Barber, B., & Eccles, J. S. (2004). Childhood and adolescent sports participation as predictors of participation in sports and physical fitness activities during adulthood. Youth and Society, 35, 495–520.
  10. Rodriguez, D., Wigfield, A., & Eccles, J. S. (2003). Changing competence perceptions, changing values: Implications for youth sport. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 15(1), 67–81.

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