stage curtain

Image by dcJohn

Our lives are fairly predictable in some ways.  The floor will be there when we get up in the morning.  The same brand of coffee will taste the same.  People will usually respond in roughly the same way to a polite greeting.  They will almost always stick to the road rules.  This all makes our lives much easier. 

And because some parts of our lives are predictable we develop expectations.  We expect people to obey the road rules and to respond to the rituals of our greetings.  Having expectations can be very useful.  I remember once when it occurred to me that I should have had expectatioins.  I was being interviewed for a scholarship for a visit to Japan (I live in Australia).  I hadn’t ever been interviewed for this kind of thing before, so I didn’t think that I would know what they would ask.  I don’t think terribly well on my feet; so they asked questions, I responded slowly and not terribly well, and needless to say, didn’t get to visit Japan.  Going home on the train it occurred to me that I could have made a good guess at the kinds of things that they would ask.  For instance, whether I had any knowledge or experience of Japan.  If I had thought about this and developed some expectations I could have been much better prepared, and probably done a lot better in the interview.  Who knows, I might have got to go to Japan.

So expectations can be very helpful.  And I think they are necessary.  Imagine if we had to renegotiate our relationship every time we met a friend.  Or if we had to drive with no expectations.  I think this would make most of our lives outside our homes very difficult, if not impossible.

But!  Expectations can be dangerous too.  They can lead us to miss little things that are important.  Our friend responds in the usual way to our greeting, and we miss the hint of tears in the voice or the moistness in their eyes.  In some work situations, or when driving, relying too much on expectations can be quite dangerous.

And expectations can very strong.  So strong that they may not even be changed by experience.  Dan Ariely conducted the following experiment.  He gave beer drinkers a beer with a few drops of balsamic vinegar in it.  Some he told that he had added stuff to it.  They said they liked it.  (He doesn’t reveal the brand of beer he used.)  Then he told some that what he had added was balsamic vinegar.  They didn’t like it.  Even after repeated tasting, they still hated it.  Their expectation of what the beer tasted like was actually stronger than their taste.  Their expectation of what balsamic vinegar would do to the beer affected their taste.  Those who knew to expect balsamic vinegar hated it even after repeated tastes, those without this expectation liked it.  Our expectations can be this strong.  [There is a very good interview with Dan Ariely on a program called All in the Mind on Australia’s Radio National; the equivalent of Britain’s BBC or the US’s PBS.  The program website also contains lots of links to Dan Ariely’s work.]

I think this all means that expectations play an important part in our lives.  I think we need to be aware of how important our expectations can be to us.

Here’s one way to start
.  Think about a relatively unimportant thing you are going to do and imagine different scenarios.

Say, buying something from the supermarket or your local shop.  Then imagine it going just startlingly well.  Perhaps getting through the checkout quickly or meeting an old friend you really like.  Take a moment to note how you feel.  Then imagine the same shopping expedition going very badly.  They’ve moved the stuff, so you can’t find it, the queue to the checkout is a mile long, you finally get out to find your car has been stolen . . . you get the idea.  Then take a moment to note how you feel.  It is likely you felt good after imagining the good experience and bad after imagining the bad experience.  And yet, nothing had changed – except your expectation of what would happen. 

You could then go on to beginning to see the effect of expectations in your life. 

One way to do this is to reflect on the day.  Thinking about how you went about things.  Things like: the way you greeted people, conducted a meeting, set about doing the tasks you wanted to get done.  And then getting a sense of how your expectations shaped your behaviour.  Perhaps you had expectations about the people you greeted, the meeting you were conducting, or the best way to achieve finishing your tasks.

Another way to become aware of our expectation is to play with them.  (This can be fun.)

Take some part of your life and start imagining that the expectations have changed.  What if we didn’t speak as a way of greeting – that we bowed instead?  What if we dressed differently?  What if customers could recommend a politeness bonus for checkout operators?  What if schools taught emotional literacy?  What if employees set their own pay?  What if it was impolite to discuss the weather or what was reported in the newspaper.  The possiblities are endless.  When I do this it brings me a sense of lightness.

Have their been times when you have become aware of some expectation and how it has affected you?  If you would like to tell me about it in the comments I’d love to hear it.

7 Comments to “Expectations: Necessary and Dangerous”

  1. Neil Moffatt says:

    A nicely thought out article – thanks.

    In the last few years, I have used an expectation mechanism to make my birthdays more enjoyable. Basically, I try to have no expectations as to how the day should be. And then, whatever happens, I enjoy myself.

    Extending this to every day is too hard on my mental faculties, but I use the principle often, especially when meeting new people – I treat them as I find them as much as possible, warts and all, as they say.

  2. Evan says:

    Thanks Neil. That’s a great example of how to use expectations positively.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  3. Devin says:

    I like the way you discussed different aspects of expectations in terms of usefulness, challenges/danger, and strength.

    Nice entry. I just found your site this morning, and I plan to bookmark it and read more.

    Well done!

  4. Evan says:

    Thanks Devin.

    I hope you continue to like it. Please feel free to give me any feedback on what I write or what you would like improved.

    Thankyou for taking the time to comment.

  5. Flit says:

    That episode of All In The Mind was really good. Listening to it has made me want to try beer with balsamic in it. In fact that is how I found your site, searching for beer and balsamic.

    But will I really be able to tell if I enjoy it or will it just be my expectations making me think I enjoy it. I’d better rope in a few friends and perform a double blind trial.

  6. Evan says:

    Thanks Flit. Whether you will be really able to tell is the question. Let me know how you get on with your double blind trial – I’ll be interested to hear.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment.

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