Expectations Make A Difference

Knowing what to expect colors so much of our life’s experiences. The key is understanding what you control.

There are two sides of expectations — what we expect from others and what we expect from ourselves. And how we manage those expectations is critical to how we view our experiences and pursue our goals. …

Take an event as mundane as crossing the street. We push the button and expect the light to change in maybe 30 seconds. If it takes five seconds, “there’s a pleasant release of dopamine, and a general feeling of well-being,” he said, even if it’s only fleeting.

The downside is that when our expectations are not met — let’s say it takes a minute for the light to change — our negative feelings are much stronger than the good feelings we get when expectations are exceeded.

Which is a real shame. As Mr. Rock explains it, “If we expect to get x and we get x, there’s a slight rise in dopamine. If we expect to get x and we get 2x, there’s a greater rise. But if we expect to get x and get 0.9x, then we get a much bigger drop.”

“When we don’t hit our expectations,” he added, “our brain doesn’t just get slightly unhappy, it sends out a message of danger or threat.” That suggests that the cliché “hope for the best but expect the worst” has a lot of truth.

But not always. “The takeaway message,” Mr. Rock said, “is to be adaptive.”

“Having low expectations for yourself is a recipe for feeling good about yourself at any particular moment, but not getting anywhere,” Professor of psychology at Stanford University Carol Dweck says. “A good teacher sets really high expectations, but lets a student think he can reach them. That’s most motivating for students.”

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Still curious? Check out Your Brain At Work and Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.