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Atkinson's expectation-value theory: what it is and what it proposes

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 expectation-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 expectations of the person to achieve an incentive (or goal) and by the value given to said incentive.

  • Related article: "Top 10 psychological theories"

Expectation-value models

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

These models consider the human being as an active and rational decision-maker. In addition, they suggest that both the behavior that the person chooses when acting, as well as their persistence and the achievement itself, are linked to the expectations of him and the value he assigns to the goals or chores.

Atkinson's expectation-value theory: characteristics

The expectation-value theory was proposed by Atkinson (1957, 1964). This suggests that the intention to perform an action is determined by the expectations of reaching 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 by three components: the motive (or need for achievement), the probability of success and the incentive value of the homework.

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

Components of the theory

As we have seen, there are three essential components to the expectation-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).

The tendency of the person towards one reason or another will determine how this is involved in achievement tasks.

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2. Expectations

Expectations of success they reflect the probability that the person perceives to reach a goal or to be successful in a task, performing a certain behavior.

3. Incentive value

The value of the incentive of a certain task is the affective (and positive) reaction of the subject before successfully solving the task (pride). The more difficult a task is, the less value the incentive will have for the person.

Practical example

To illustrate Atkinson's expectation-value theory, let's take a practical example. Let's think of 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 this action (going to the gym).

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

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

Extension and derivations

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

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

New explanations opposed to Atkinson

As a result of Atkinson's theory, new expectation-value theories and models have been generated. These have been based on the authors' work, although with certain differences at the 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, the new models conceptualize a positive relationship between expectation and value (such as the Expectation-Achievement Value Model of Eccles and Wigfield, 2002). This differentiates them from the classical theory of Atkinson, who, as we have already seen, established a negative relationship between expectations and the value of goals.

Bibliographic references:

  • Covington, M.V. (1992). Making the grade: A self-worth perspective on motivation and school reform. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Atkinson, J.W. (1964). An introduction to motivation. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand.
  • Miñano, P., Castejón, J.L. and Cantero, M.P. (2008). Prediction of academic performance from the cognitive-motivational variables of an expectation-value model. INFAD Journal of Psychology, 1 (4), 483-492.
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