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Language expectancy theory (LET) is a language/psychology-based theory of persuasion.[1] The theory assumes that language is a rules-based system, that people develop expected norms as to appropriate language usage in given situations[2] and that unexpected linguistic usage can affect the receiver's behaviour resulting from attitudes towards a persuasive message.


Developed by Michael Burgoon in 1970, retired professor of medicine at the University of Arizona, the theory views language expectancies as enduring patterns of anticipated communication behavior which are grounded in a society's psychological and cultural norms. Such societal forces influence language and enable the identification of non-normative use; violations of linguistic, syntactic and semantic expectations will either facilitate or inhibit an audience's receptivity to persuasion.[2] Burgoon claims applications for his theory in management, media, politics and medicine, and declares that his empirical research has shown a greater effect than expectancy violations theory, the domain of which does not extend to the spoken word.

LET argues that typical language behaviors fall within a normative "bandwidth" of expectations determined by a source's perceived credibility, the indifidual listener's normative expectations and a group's normative social climate, and generally supports a gender-stereotypical reaction to the use of profanity, for example.[3]

Communication expectancies are said to derive from three factors:

  • The communicator – individual features, such as ethos or source credibility, personality, appearance, social status and gender.
  • The relationship between a receiver and a communicator, including factors such as attraction, similarity and status equality.
  • Context; i.e., privacy and formality constraints on interaction.


Violating social norms can have a positive or negative effect on persuasion. Usually people use language to conform to social norms; but a person's intentional or accidental deviation from expected behavior can have either a positive or negative reaction.[2]

When observed behavior is preferred over what was expected or when a listener's initial negative evaluation causes a speaker to conform more closely to expected behavior, the deviation can be seen as positive,[4] but when language choice or behavior is perceived as unacceptable or inappropriate behavior, such a negative violation can inhibit the receiver’s receptivity even to a persuasive appeal.[3]

Theory propositions

Language expectancy theory is based on several key assumptions,[2] including

  • People develop both cultural and societal expectations about language behaviors which subsequently affect their acceptance or rejection of persuasive messages.
  • Receivers have normative expectations about the level of fear-arousing appeals, opinionated language and magnitude of language intensity appropriate to persuasive discourse.
  • Credible communicators are free to select varied language strategies in developing persuasive messages, while less credible communicators must conform to more limited language options to be effective.
  • Receivers have normative expectations about appropriate communication behaviors, which are gender-specific.

Language expectancy theory and intensity

These propositions give rise to the impact of language intensity — defined by John Waite Bowers as a quality of language that “indicates the degree to which the speaker’s attitude toward a concept deviates from neutrality”[5] — on persuasive messages.[6] Theorists have concentrated on two key areas: 1) intensity of language when it comes to gender roles and 2) credibility.

The perceived credibility of a source can greatly affect a message's persuasiveness. Researchers found that credible sources can enhance their appeal by using intense language; however, less credible speakers are more persuasive with low-intensity appeals.[7] Similarly, females are less persuasive than males when they use intense language because it violates the expected behavior,[7] but are more persuasive when they use low-intensity language. Males, however, are seen as weak when they argue in a less intense manner. Theorists argue further that females and speakers perceived as having low credibility have less freedom in selecting message strategies and that the use of aggressive language is negatively violates expectations.[8]

Criticisms of language expectancy theory

  • Determining whether a positive or negative violation has occurred can be difficult.[9] When there is no attitude or behavior change it may be concluded that a negative violation has occurred (possibly related to a boomerang effect). Conversely, when an attitude or behavior change does occur it may be too easy to conclude a positive violation of expectations has occurred.
  • The theory has also been critiqued for being too “grand” in its predictive and explanatory goals.[9] Burgoon counters that practical applications of his research conclusions are compelling enough to negate this criticism.

See also


  1. M. Burgoon and Miller, 1985; M. Burgoon, Hunsaker & Dawson, 1994; M. Burgoon, Jones & Stewart, 1975
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 M. Burgoon and Miller, 1985
  3. 3.0 3.1 M. Burgoon, Hunsaker & Dawson, 1994
  4. M. Burgoon, 1994; M. Burgoon and Miller, 1985
  5. Bowers, 1963, p. 345; 1964, p. 416
  6. M. Burgoon and Miller, 1977
  7. 7.0 7.1 M. Burgoon, Dillard & Doran, 1983; M. Burgoon, Hunsaker & Dawson, 1994; M. Burgoon and Miller, 1985
  8. M. Burgoon, Dillard & Doran, 1983
  9. 9.0 9.1 M. Burgoon, 1993


  • Bowers, J.W. (1963). Language intensity, social introversion, and attitude change. Speech Monographs, 30, 345-352.
  • Bowers, J.W. (1964). Some correlates of language intensity. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 50, 415-420.
  • Burgoon, J.K. (1993). Interpersonal expectations, expectancy violations, and emotional communication. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 12, 13-21.
  • Burgoon, M. (1994). Advances in Research in Social Influence: Essays in Honor of Gerald R. Miller." Charles R. Berger and Michael Burgoon (Editors), East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1993.
  • Burgoon, M., Dillard, J. P., & Doran, N. (1984). Friendly or unfriendly persuasion: The effects of violations of expectations by males and females. Human Communication Research, 10, 283-294.
  • Burgoon, M. Jones, S.B., Stewart, D. (1975). Toward a message-centered theory or persuasion: Three empirical investigations of language intensity. Human Communication Research, 1, 240-256.
  • Burgoon, M. and Miller, G.R. (1977) Predictors of resistance to persuasion: propensity of persuasive attack, pretreatment language intensity, and expected delay of attack. The Journal of Psychology, 95, 105-110.
  • Burgoon, M., & Miller, G.R. (1985). An expectancy interpretation of language and persuasion. In H. Giles & R. Clair (Eds.) The social and psychological contexts of language (pp. 199-229). London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Burgoon, M., Hunsacker, F., & Dawson, E. (1994). Approaches to gaining compliance. Human Communication, (pp. 203-217). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
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