Expectancy Value Theory (MCAT Psychology Ultimate Guide) 

William Cohen
Published by William Cohen
Last Updated On: January 1, 2022

Motivation is what pushes and causes us to do things. In fact, someone's motivation to go to medical school is critical to taking the MCAT.

Social scientists, behaviorists, and psychologists have studied motivation for a long time.

They have developed many different views to explain why people do the things they do - biological, behavioral, and cognitive.

Cognitive theories of motivation say that behavior is planned as a result of the active processing and interpretation of information.

One of the most widely known cognitive theories is known as the expectancy-value theory.

The creators of the MCAT expect students to understand and be able to apply this theory.

Expectancy-Value Theory Summary

  • Motivation is the driving force behind every action a person or organism takes.
  • The expectancy-value theory is a cognitive theory that describes the relationship between an individual's beliefs about the likelihood that certain behaviors will result in favorable consequences and their values concerning those consequences.
  • High expectancy of success and a high value placed on the behavior and outcomes lead to high motivation levels.

What is Expectancy-Value Theory?

Person in formal attire pulling a rope

Some researchers categorize motives as "push" or "pull," with "push" motives referring to internal changes that cause certain states of motivation.

A pull motive is an external goal that motivates people to act in a certain way. In reality, most motivational situations contain both push and pull elements.

The expectancy-value theory states that there is a link between the expectancy (chance) of a particular outcome and the importance or value that person ascribes to that outcome [1].

This relationship has implications for how much effort a person will put into seeing the desired outcome.

To better understand this theory, let's take a closer look at its parts.


Woman crossing her fingers and wishful thinking

Expectancy is simply a term for the likelihood of success. It means behavior that is likely to be successful will cause a person to engage in that behavior more frequently than behaviors with low probabilities of success.

This happens for two reasons: a) people like to be successful and b) people do not like to fail.

To put it even more simply, people want to minimize pain and maximize pleasure, so they make conscious choices about what to do with their behavior.

Thus, people are more motivated to undertake behaviors that have a high likelihood of a positive outcome and are less likely to engage in behaviors that have a low likelihood of success.

When it comes to the MCAT, students who are most likely to take the exam are those who have studied hard and prepared well. In other words, they have a high expectancy of getting a good score on the MCAT.


Value is an individual's evaluation (good or bad) of the outcome. It is the personal importance or worth of something resulting from an individual's belief, experience, or attitude toward it.

“The success of our efforts depends not so much on the efforts themselves, but rather on our motive for doing them.” — Denis Waitley, speaker, writer, and consultant

An individual internally measures value based on personal interests, needs, and desires.

This means that people put greater value on outcomes they intensely desire than those they do not.

However, there are different frameworks by which people assign value to things [2].

Attainment Value

A student taking his time to study

Success in a specific activity is the key element of attainment value.

Most successful people work hard at their craft for a long time and their motivation to become excellent is a key to their success.

Most people do not take the MCAT for its attainment value.

There are certainly bragging rights if you have a perfect score, but that is not the primary motivator for most students.

Intrinsic Value

Joyful woman holding her phone

The intrinsic value of an activity is determined by the enjoyment that can be derived from undertaking it.

This enjoyment is purely from doing the behavior rather than becoming an expert (which would be more consistent with attainment value).

This value is motivation impetus for activities that a person does for the sake of the activity itself.

I would guess that very few people are motivated to take the MCAT because of its intrinsic value.

Utility Value

A woman having the habit of writing

Unlike intrinsic value, the utility value is not directly connected to the activity itself but rather to its outcomes and aftermath.

In other words, utility value means that the results of the activity are useful to the performer.

The motivation arising from utility value is based on the end result.

The vast majority of MCAT-takers place a high utility value on the examination.

After all, this test is a requirement for most medical schools, so there is great utility in doing well on the exam.

Relative Cost

An exhausted and overworked woman

On the other side of the value equation, you have relative cost.

This represents the sacrifice an individual is expected to make to accomplish a task or the effort they will need to exert to accomplish the task.

For the MCAT, there is a financial outlay for the exam and certainly many things that a student has to give up to find the time to study for the exam.

If the relative cost is larger than the attainment, intrinsic, or utility value, then a person will not place a high overall value on the behavior.

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Expectancy-Value on the MCAT

Expectancy-value refers to the relationship between people's beliefs about the probability of achieving different outcomes and their values for these outcomes.

It is expressed mathematically as B = f(E × V), where behavior (B) is a function of expectancy (E) times value (V).

The highest motivation toward a behavior occurs when the probability of success is high, and the value to the person is as well.

However, people can be motivated even with a low expectancy if the value is high enough (winning the lottery).

They can also be motivated even for a low-value reward as long as it is very easy to get.

Now you know enough about the expectancy-value theory to expect to do well on those questions and gain the value of bettering your score.


  1. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0361476X99910159?via%3Dihub
  2. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13664530.2020.1782975

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