Cognitive Valence Theory (CVT)

What is Cognitive Valence Theory?

Engaging in affectionate or immediate communication carries risks. Sometimes people respond positively to such behavior; other times people respond negatively.

Cognitive valence theory (CVT) helps explain why people respond to increases in immediacy positively in some cases and negatively in others by examining six cognitive valencers, listed below.

  1. Culture,
  2. Personality,
  3. The rewardingness of the partner,
  4. The relationship,
  5. The situation, and
  6. Temporary states.

These six cognitive valencers, according to Pendell (2002) also influence how people give and receive affection. Hence, they should be studied closely.

Cognitive valencers can be thought of as templates or knowledge structures that people use to help them evaluate behavior as appropriate or inappropriate and welcome or unwelcome. The six cognitive valencers are explained below.

1.   Culture

Anderson (1999) argued that “culture is such a basic and invisible force it is often confused with human nature itself” (p. 231). We determine if something is appropriate in our culture Opens in new window, and that gives us a basis for reacting to it.

For instance, kissing the wife of a friend goodbye would often be appropriate in the United States but not in Arab countries. If a behavior is appropriate, it can be positively valenced; if the behavior is culturally inappropriate, it will be negatively valenced.

Within U. S. culture, Dan’s smile and self-disclosure would probably be perceived as appropriate and so would be positively valenced. However, if Dan’s self-disclosure was too intimate for a male in U. S. culture, it could be valenced negatively.

2.   Personality

Our personal predispositions make up our personality. People differ in their sociability, extroversion, and attitudes toward touch Opens in new window and the degree to which they approach or avoid new experiences or sensations (Andersen, 1993, 1998a).

A hug or an intimate disclosure may be appreciated by one person but not by another. Thus, people will valence the same behavior differently based on their personality. If Kevin is an outgoing, friendly person, he might welcome Dan’s self-disclosure. However, if Kevin is shy and introverted, he might be nervous and uncomfortable hearing something personal about Dan. In the former case, Kevin would likely react positively to Dan’s self-disclosure; in the latter, he would likely react negatively.

3.   Rewardingness

The degree to which we find someone rewarding influences how we react to their increases in intimacy behavior. Rewardingness, which is also called interpersonal valence, refers to the degree to which we find someone attractive. Recall from here that people can be attractive based on physical attributes (such as how beautiful they are or what clothes they wear), social qualities (such as how friendly they are), and instrumental qualities (such as how good they are at performing certain tasks).

In general, people who are physically attractive, have high social standing, possess positive personality traits Opens in new window, and are similar to us are highly rewarding. Thus, we react differently to changes in immediacy on the basis of who our partner is.

Anderson (1993) noted that “positive perceptions of another person’s values, background, physical appearance Opens in new window and communication style are the primary reasons why we initiate and maintain close relationships” (p. 25).

For example, a touch from someone you dislike is judged very differently from a touch from your highly attractive date. Similarly, if Kevin likes Dan and thinks he is good buddy, he is likely to react positively when Dan increases intimacy. In contrast, if Kevin thinks Dan is a pest who is no fun to be around or has negative qualities like abrasiveness, he is likely to react negatively.

4.   The relationship

The most important valencer of a person’s intimate behavior is one’s relationship. People are able to easily classify their relationships with others as friend, coworker, best friend, lover, fiancée, parent, boss, roommate, and so on. Thus, too much touch or self-disclosure on a first date is usually a turnoff, yet the same amount of touch or self-disclosure from a fiancée would be warmly accepted.

In the right relationship, almost any immediate behavior will be valenced positively. In the wrong relationship, such intimacy will be negatively valenced and cause negative relational outcomes. If Kevin and Dan have been close friends for years, Kevin will probably be open to a high level of intimate self-disclosure. But if Kevin does not know Dan at all and Dan suddenly starts disclosing information to him, Kevin will react negatively.

5.  The situation

The situation or the context in which intimacy behavior occurs is vital to the relational outcome (Andersen, 1993). Intimacy in the classroom, boardroom, bathroom, and bedroom produces distinctly different reactions.

Some settings, such as living rooms, Jacuzzis, and hotel rooms, are highly conducive to intimacy. Some situations are highly formal, and intimacy would be limited to handshakes or polite smiles. Passionately kissing your date goodnight in a private place has entirely different connotations from engaging in the same behavior in front of your parents.

The bottom line is this:

  • “Intimacy must be situationally appropriate.”

If Dan increases intimacy with Kevin during a private conversation, his self-disclosure is likely to be regarded positively. But if he increases intimacy while Kevin is in the middle of an important conversation with Jennifer, his self-disclosure is likely to be regarded negatively.

6.   Temporary states

Everyone has bad days and good days—intellectually, emotionally, and physically. Temporary states are short term internal conditions that make individuals feel and react differently at various times (Andersen, 1993).

Many things affect a person’s temporary state or mood, including having a fight with the boss, being criticized (or complimented) by a friend, getting a bad night’s sleep, partying too much, and receiving a pay raise.

A classic example of negative-state valencing is aperson’s response to an affectionate spouse:

  • “Not tonight, dear, I have a headache.”

Negative physical or emotional states generally lead to negative valencing of immediacy behavior Opens in new window, whereas positive states generally lead to positive valencing. Thus, Kevin is more likely to react positively to Dan’s increase in immediacy if he is alert, feeling well, and in a good mood.

Cognitive valence theory (CVT) focuses on explaining the intimacy process by combining verbal and nonverbal intimacy behaviors. The overall theory—as depicted in the diagram below—includes interpersonal perception, physiological arousal, social cognition, and relational outcomes (Andersen, 1985, 1989, 1998a).

The cognitive valence theory
The Cognitive Valence Theory (CVT)

As it is with the intimacy process model, CVT emphasizes how people respond to increases in intimacy behavior. The components of the theory are analyzed under the headings below, using Dan and Kevin to illustrate the components.

2.1.   Behavior

All intimate relationships begin with one person increasing intimacy via nonverbal Opens in new window or verbal communication (see the Behaviour column in diagram above).

As Andersen (1988a) explained, “Relationships do not occur in the absence of human contact. They begin, develop, thrive, and disengage as communicative acts” (p. 40). Thus, using Dan and Kevin to help illustrate, Dan would try to develop a closer friendship with Kevin by increasing immediacy through verbal or nonverbal communication.

In this vein, Dan would have a variety of verbal behaviors at his disposal, including personal forms of address and expressions of relational closeness such as telling Kevin that he respects his athletic performance and is glad they are teammates.

Usually, nonverbal communication plays a substantial role in promoting relational closeness, so Dan also might engage in behaviors such as smiling Opens in new window, making eye contact Opens in new window, touching Opens in new window, or hanging out with Kevin. CVT holds that all intimate relationships begin with the initiation of immediate or intimate communication behaviors by one or both people in a potential relationship.

2.2.   Perception

Behaviours by themselves do not develop closeness; one’s partner must notice the behaviors (see the perception column in the CVT diagram above).

Andersen (1989) indicates that “the expression of intimacy (closeness) by one person has no communicative significance if it is not perceived by one’s relational partner” (p. 8). Such perceptions do not need to be conscious, but they must register in the mind of the receiver.

Words spoken to no ear and smiles perceived by no eye do not communicate and have no chance of stimulating closeness. So Dan might smile and comment to Kevin that he enjoys being teammates. But if Kevin’s mind is on something else, Dan’s attempt to develop a closer friendship is bound to fail.

2.3.   Arousal

If Kevin notices Dan’s immediacy behavior, he will respond physiologically and possibly cognitively and behaviorally. Nonverbal immediacy behaviors are stimulating and increase physiological arousal (see the arousal column in the CVT diagram above).

In his summary of 24 studies on the relationship between immediacy behaviors and arousal, Andersen (1985) concluded, “The research generally supports a positive relationship between immediacy and increases in arousal” (p. 15). Increases in multichanneled immediacy behavior, such as more eye contact, smiles, and touch, increase physiological arousal (Andersen, Guerrero, Buller, & Jorgensen, 1998).

Sometimes arousal change is accompanied by positive emotions and other times by negative emotions. Take Kevin and Dan again as an example. If Dan hugs Kevin after he scores a goal during a soccer game, Kevin might feel heightened arousal, joy, and pride because Dan’s gesture affirms that he is highly valued as both a friend and teammate. On the other hand, Kevin might experience a high level of arousal if he is embarrassed by Dan showing him high levels of immediacy in public, especially since heterosexual men are often homophobic and regard such displays of affection as unmasculine (Floyd, 2006).

Many studies have shown that rapid arousal increases are aversive and frightening. For example, a threatening looking stare Opens in new window by a stranger with a menacing facial expression Opens in new window likely prompts high arousal and the impulse to flee in a receiver. As a consequence, CVT predicts that negative relational outcomes will occur when arousal levels are very high. By contrast, when a friend says ‘hi’ on the way to class, no arousal will occur because this behavior is highly routine and represents no real increase in immediacy.

The most interesting reactions occur in relation to moderate increases in immediacy. For example, when receiving a smile from an attractive person or personal self-disclosure from a friend, moderate arousal is likely to occur. Moderate arousal has been shown to stimulate cognitive processes, which in turn influences how people respond to increases in immediacy behavior.

2.4.   Cognition

For the sake of our example, let’s imagine that Dan’s friendly behavior leads Kevin to experience a moderate cognitive arousal increase. If this is the case, CVT predicts that Kevin’s response to Dan’s behavior will be contingent on how he cognitively appraises the situation.

Specifically, CVT suggests that Kevin will employ knowledge structures called cognitive schemata to make sense of Dan’s change in behavior (the key features of these schemata are the six cognitive valencers discussed earlier). When this sense making leads people to perceive the change in intimacy as positive, the behavior is positively valenced. In contrast, when people interpret the change in intimacy negatively, the behavior is negatively valenced.

2.5.   Relational Outcomes

As noted earlier, relationships are fragile and few relationships reach high levels of emotional and relational closeness. CVT provides one explanation for why this is so. Negative valencing for any of the six cognitive valencers can lead to decreased relational closeness.

When immediacy increases are valenced negatively, a host of aversive outcomes follow, including appraising one’s partner negatively, reducing immediacy behaviorally (perhaps by moving away), and maybe even disengaging from the relationship.

Positive valencing of the immediacy behavior, by contrast, results in more favorable appraisals of one’s partner, reciprocity of immediacy behaviors, and greater relational and emotional closeness. Thus, increasing immediacy behavior is not without risk, but the benefits can outweigh the potential costs if a more enjoyable, closer relationship is desired.

Dan’s original attempt to become friends with Kevin might have resulted in rejection, but luckily Dan ended up developing a rewarding and emotionally close relationship with a new friend.