The Power of Expectations

“I don’t have any expectations,” people sometimes say. Or, “I don’t know what to expect.”

It’s not that they’re lying when they say this; but they are mistaken.

Why? Because you almost always have expectations. You have no choice about this fact. Your subconscious mind expects certain things, whether you know it or not. The only choice is whether to make these subconscious expectations conscious, or not.

Somebody once said, “I didn’t know what my expectations were — until they were disappointed.”

Shakespeare is credited with saying, “Expectation is the root of all heartache.” It’s not expectations that cause heartache. It’s failing to make them conscious; it’s failing to manage them that causes stress.

The subconscious is where magical thinking resides, assuming you have any magical thinking premises at all. Examples of magical thinking are endless.

Here’s one: “Oh, having a baby will make him grow up, and will bring us closer together.” It fails virtually every time it’s tried, and it’s not an expectation many would consciously defend, but it’s a subconscious expectation with many implications for all involved.

It applies to less serious matters, too. “I don’t know what so-and-so will be like when I meet him.” Or, “I don’t know what such-and-such will be like when I go visit there.”

Yet after meeting so-and-so, or visiting such-and-such, you’re disappointed. How can you be disappointed if you didn’t have expectations? You had them all along — only they were subconscious.

The same applies when you’re delightedly surprised. In essence, your expectations were surpassed. Even though you supposedly didn’t have any.

Expectations are not only subconscious. They can alter the way you view reality, if you’re not careful. Consider this classic psychological study:

To illustrate just how powerful, let me begin by telling you about a classic study in psychology that is not about children, but about rats (because, well, most research in psychology starts with rats). In the study, undergraduates came into a lab and were told that they were going to be tasked with replicating a previous experiment. They were given one of two types of white rats, and over the course of a week, they were asked to train the rats to run a maze. Half of the students were told that they would receive “bright” rats, who, based on genetics, should learn to run the maze quickly. The other half were told that they would receive “dull” rats who should perform more poorly on the maze than the bright ones. Overall, the bright rats did run the maze more successfully than the dull rats by the end of the experiment. Further, over the course of the five days, the bright rats showed evidence of learning, running the maze more successfully with each day, while the dull rats showed little or no improvement over time.

Sounds pretty unsurprising, right? What if I told you that there were no actual differences between the rats at the beginning of the study; the rats weren’t actually “bright” or “dull”, and there were no real differences between them, including their age or sex. How then, do we explain these results? The researchers concluded that because the undergraduates had different expectations about how the rats should behave, they handled the rats differently when training them to run the maze, in ways that matched their expected potential (Rosenthal & Fode, 1963). The effect—where expectations eventually translate into real differences in behavior—has since been dubbed the “Rosenthal effect.”

The lesson or point in all this? Live consciously. Be self-aware. Know what’s going on in your subconscious, even if it doesn’t seem immediately important.

Successful, happy people are introspective. They know their minds and they manage their minds, including their expectations. They show better empathy and effectiveness toward others, because they’re aware others — like themselves — have expectations and those expectations have to be kept in mind. Expectations management is an explicit part of any successful business or enterprise, not to mention families and relationships as well.


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