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Predicting Problem Behaviors with Multiple Expectancies: Expanding Expectancy-Value Theory

By Borders, Ashley; Earleywine, Mitchell et al. | Adolescence, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Predicting Problem Behaviors with Multiple Expectancies: Expanding Expectancy-Value Theory


Borders, Ashley, Earleywine, Mitchell, Huey, Stanley J., Adolescence


According to expectancy-value theory, individuals choose behaviors based on the outcomes they expect and the values they ascribe to those expected outcomes. Expectancies, or anticipations of likely consequences for a given action, result from individuals' learning history and then become the basis for future behavioral choices (Del Boca et al., 2002). Empirical support for this theory includes studies of such diverse behaviors as aggression (Perry, Perry, & Rasmussen, 1986; Slaby & Guerra, 1988), alcohol consumption (Del Boca et al., 2002), and academic performance (see Wigfield & Eccles, 2000). Across .the board, expectations of greater reinforcement relate to more of the target behavior.

Nevertheless, research on expectancy-value theory is often limited by a focus on a single behavior and its accompanying expectancies. In studying aggression, for example, researchers generally examine only aggression behaviors and no alternatives to aggression. However, decisions about behavior are rarely this simple. Instead, individuals usually choose from several alternative behaviors in any given situation and therefore compare various expectancies. For instance, aggression expectancies likely compete with expectancies for more prosocial behaviors (e.g., talking with the provoker or getting outside help) in determining behavior choice. Cognitive theories of behavioral choice rarely address this problem of multiple behaviors.

Applied behavior analysis suggests the matching law, which does account for competing behaviors. In his original formulation of the matching law, Herrnstein (1961, 1970) suggested that any given behavioral decision arises from reinforcement for that behavior as well as reinforcement for alternative behaviors. As reinforcement for alternative behaviors increases, performance of the target behavior decreases. Likewise, environments that do not provide alternative reinforcement promote an increase in the target behavior. Although initial studies of this phenomenon focused on animals (for reviews, see Davison & McCarthy, 1988; de Villiers, 1977), researchers now successfully apply the matching law to understanding human alcohol consumption (Vuchinich, 1995) and students' behavior in special education settings (Martens & Houk, 1989; Neef et al., 1992).

The matching law may provide an important contribution to expectancy-value theory (and other cognitive models of behavior choice). Specifically, individuals may make a behavioral decision based on anticipated reinforcement for that behavior as well as anticipated reinforcement for competing, alternative behaviors. In a previous investigation of multiple expectancies, Levy and Earleywine (2003) examined the relations between alcohol use expectancies, studying expectancies, and drinking problems in college students. For students with high alcohol use expectancies, high studying expectancies were associated with fewer perceived drinking problems than were low studying expectancies. In other words, positive studying expectancies attenuate the effect of positive alcohol use expectancies and may buffer against drinking problems. By contrast, students with low alcohol use expectancies did not report drinking problems, regardless of competing expectancies. Besides providing a more complex understanding of drinking behavior, discovering the influence of alternative expectancies also suggests new interventions for drinking problems.

In this study, we examined multiple expectancies to better understand the problem behavior of high school students. Instead of focusing on drinking behavior, which is typically studied with college populations, we examined general acting-out behavior. Most problem behavior measures for children and adolescents include externalizing (e.g., hitting, throwing things, yelling) and hyperactivity (e.g., trouble sitting still, interrupting) problems. High scores on these scales generally suggest conduct problems, school misbehavior, and poor academic functioning (Achenbach, 1999).

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