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Language Expectancy Theory

Language Expectancy Theory is a formalized model about message strategies and attitude and behavior change. Message strategies include verbal aggressions like fear appeal, explicit opinions and language intensity which are more combat. Language Expectancy Theory assumes that language is a rule-governed system and people develop expectations concerning the language or message strategies employed by others in persuasive attempts (Burgoon, 1995). Expectations are a function of cultural and sociological norms and preferences arising from cultural values and societal standards or ideals for competent communication.

Language Expectancy Theory assumes that changes in the direction desired by an actor occur when positive violations of expectancies occur. Positive violations occur (a) when the enacted behavior is better or more preferred than that which was expected in the situation. Change occurs because enacted behavior is outside the bandwidth in a positive direction, and such behavior prompts attitude or behavioral change (Burgoon, 1995).

Positive violations occur (b) when negatively evaluated sources conform more closely than expected to cultural values or situational norms. This can result in overly positive evaluation of the source and change promoted by the actor (Burgoon, 1995).

Negative violations, resulting from language choices that lie outside socially acceptable behavior in a negative direction, produce no attitude or behavior change in receivers.

History and Orientation

Brooks (1970) provided a spark to begin developing the Language Expectancy Theory. He had expectations about what a source might or might not say in persuasive messages. Burgoon, Jones and Stewart (1975) added the impact of linguistic strategies. They claimed that strategic linguistic choices can be significant predictors of persuasive success. In 1995 Burgoon provided a detailed version of the formulation of the Language Expectancy Theory.

Scope and Application

The Language Expectancy Theory explains the effect of the use of different linguistic variations (language, language intensity) on people who use persuasive messages. It is used as a theoretical framework to explain the effects of several source, message and receiver variables on message persuasiveness. Persuasive messages are used often, with this theory the impact can be described of using different intensities in language.


Even though people are informed about skin cancer prevention, they do not always comply with prevention advice. From Language Expectancy Theory, it was predicted that messages with high language intensity would improve compliance with sun safety recommendations and that this effect would be enhanced with deductive argument style. Parents received sun safety messages (newsletters, brochures, tip cards) by mail that varied in language intensity and logical style.

Parents receiving messages with high- as opposed to low-intensity language complied more with sun safety advice. By carefully adjusting messages features, health professionals can obtain further compliance beyond that produced by educating people about health risks and creating favorable attitudes and self-efficacy expectations. Highly intense language may be a good general strategy in prevention messages.

Example from: Buller et al (2000)


Dillard, J.P. & Pfau, M. (2002). The persuasion handbook: Developments in theory and practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Buller, D.B.,Burgoon, M., Hall, J.R., Levine, N., Taylor, A.M., Beach, B.H., Melcher, C. Buller, M.K., Bowen, S.L. Hunsaker, F.G. & Bergen, A. (2000). Using Language Intensity to Increase the Success of a Family Intervention to Protect Children from Ultraviolet Radiation: Predictions from Language Expectancy Theory. Preventive Medicine 30, 103-114. Available online at www.idealibrary.com/.

Burgoon, J.K. & Burgoon, M. (2001). Expectancy theories. In W.P. Robinson & H. Giles (Eds.), The new handbook of language and social psychology (2nd ed., pp 79-102). Sussex, UK: Wiley.

This text was excerpted from the website of the University of Twente in The Netherlands (www.tcw.utwente.nl).

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