Expressive behaviour

I first came across the term “Expressive behaviour” in my latest self-help book, The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research.

The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research

There is a review of this book here. The authors, Dr Marian Petre and Dr Gordon Rugg, introduce expressive behaviour and its counterpart, instrumental behaviour:

Instrumental behaviour consists of actions leading towards a stated goal…Expressive behaviour, on the other hand, consists of actions demonstrating to other people what sort of person you are…both [are] important

An example of instrumental behaviour might be having the goal of learning a new programming language so registering for a course on the topic or getting a relevant book out of the library. The example of expressive behaviour that the authors give is

sitting in the front of the lecture theatre and taking copious notes in a very visible manner to show that you take your studies very seriously

although I can think of a number of reasons why you might want to sit in the front of the lecture theatre and take copious notes that do not involve the need to show anything. An example of expressive behaviour among PhD students might be staying very long hours in the office to demonstrate that you are a dedicated student, rather than because that is the most productive or efficient way for you to work. (Again, sometimes it might actually be the most useful way for you to work.)

In the authors’ experience,

students are normally good at some types of instrumental behaviour and woefully bad at the sensible sorts of expressive behaviour, usually because nobody has explained to them which signals they need to send out.

It is easy to see how this situation could arise. In academia, certain conventions baffle those who are not familiar with them. (The concept of preparing a poster to take to a conference has been referred to as “quaint” by one non-academic acquaintance.) Indeed throughout this book, guidelines regarding expressive behaviour are implicit in the chapters discussing, for example, attending a conference, giving a talk and handling the viva.

Raising awareness of the concept of expressive behaviour is helpful to PhD students for two reasons:

One is simply that (as the authors suggest) may people are susceptible to some unhelpful types of this expressive behaviour. Being self-aware about this means that if someone finds themself caught in this way, they are in a position to (try to) decipher the signal that I am really trying to send out. They are more likely to be able to do this than anyone else, most of all the person they want to communicate with. The student could then work out how to act more constructively to achieve their goal.

Another reason is that appropriate expressive behaviour seems to be particularly critical when negotiating the academic path. As someone who does not find it easy to dissemble, thinking of my actions in terms of the messages that they send out might help me to find my way more easily.

This entry was posted in PhD and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Expressive behaviour

  1. Frank says:

    That’s an interesting categorization. I do agree that being aware of yourself helps you to understand other peoples behaviour, and to respond more usefully.

    So, are blogging and tweeting instrumental or expressive behaviour. For myself I can detect bits of both in my motivations.

    • Erika Cule says:

      I thought about the example of blogging and tweeting when I was writing this post! I agree these come under both categories.

      In the book the authors describe how something can well be both – they give the example of referencing, which both points your readers to relevant material to back up your statements, and shows that you know how to appropriately credit others for their work.

  2. Nice post, Erika!

    I remember a senior grad student in my department giving me some stellar advice about one particular piece of expressive behaviour when I first started in the lab: never go anywhere without a paper, lab book, or (for maximum impact) autorad film in your hand. Even if you’re just going for coffee, take a paper with you. Everyone will think you’re ever so dedicated.

    It totally works, by the way 🙂

  3. Steve Caplan says:

    Very interesting! The book and your post sum up some of the behaviors which are intuitive to some people, but probably completely unnoticed by others.

    In searching for the “correct” posture as a student or post-doc, I think your description captures my own views: in other words, the “instrumental behavior” is the really important one, BUT when it fits, it is worthwhile to combine it with “expressive behavior.” As per your examples, sometimes a student can make a good name for her/him self by asking a good question or two at a seminar–even if the answer doesn’t especially intrigue you. Or, if you are in the lab late in the evening or on a weekend and the PI does happen to be in his office, coming by to show some data and make sure your efforts are noticed. (If you aren’t already dubbed as a dedicated student/post-doc). On the other hand, I wouldn’t ever suggest coming in to the lab for no reason just to try to impress the PI.

    Of course, there is a fine line between doing some of these things subtly, and ostentatiously, which may come across as presumptuous or perhaps even arrogant with fellow students.

    But I do think the point is made that a student can do subtle things that will help promote her/his “instrumental behavior.”

    Very nice blog to see it put in words!

    • Erika Cule says:

      Thanks Steve. It seems to me that whilst both “expressive” and “instrumental” behaviour are important, the wrong sort of expressive behaviour can be detrimental, which is why I think being aware of this idea might help a student act in a more useful way.

      I don’t think that being awarded your PhD makes you immune from expressive behaviour, but more experienced researchers marshal it more appropriately more of the time.

      • Steve Caplan says:


        You would THINK that having a Ph.D. might mean that expressive behavior is better channeled into the correct (or more subtle) modes. I’m not at all sure. There are some PIs who will completely dominate/hog a Q&A session after a seminar, entirely oblivious to the other 80 people present–even to the point that interested people begin packing their things and leaving the room. And believe me, the Q&A hogging is NOT coming out of intellectual curiosity, but only (thank you for making me aware of the term!) out of “Expressive Behavior.”

  4. cromercrox says:

    Oh gosh, this brings back memories, mostly bad ones. When I was an undergraduate in Leeds, I very much enjoyed and appreciated the fact that Yorkshire people (and the many Geordies with whom I hug out) were very much take-them-as-you-find-them and called a spade a fookin’ spade. Then – oh, then – I went to Cambridge as a graduate and found that people are never as they seem. They are just nests of sliding panels, and with the exception of a very few people I was never entirely sure which of their many personalities, if any, were trustworthy, or genuine. It literally drove me round the bend.

  5. Pingback: Bragging Rights Central: new archive post | VWXYNot?

  6. Pingback: A Chemical Education » Blog Archive » Book Review: The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *