Updated: Dec 14, 2018
“Expectations are the root of all heartache.” - Shakespeare
“The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.” - Michelangelo
“Expectations are premeditated resentments.” – Alcoholics Anonymous
Which quote is the most accurate? It turns out they all are. Expectations shape our perceptions of ourselves and the world, for better and for worse. They affect our performance, relationships, and future goals – and much of the time they are unspoken or unconscious.
Back in 1963, a psychologist named Bob Rosenthal proved the power of expectations on performance. In the first study, Rosenthal divided a group of rats of equal ability into two groups. He labeled one group “bright” and another group “dumb.” Then he asked his students to test the rats’ ability to learn a maze.
As Rosenthal expected, the rats who were arbitrarily labeled “bright” performed better on the maze than those labelled “dumb.” How did this happen? The students’ expectations of the rats had caused them to treat the rats differently, and it affected the rats’ performance.
Rosenthal replicated that study with 1stand 2ndgraders. He randomly assigned the children to two groups: “academically blooming” and “average.” Again, as he expected, the students in the high group performed higher and the students in the average group performed average. There is a wealth of research confirming the influence of teacher expectations on students' academic performance.
The brain is finely tuned to expectations and even subtle unconscious cues set off a chain reaction of neural activity. Neuroscientists have identified a link between expectations and the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is the reward and pleasure chemical, but it also plays a role in how the brain reacts to disappointments and threats.
When you anticipate a reward, the limbic system releases a dose of dopamine. But, unexpected rewards release more dopamine than expected ones. This is why flowers on a random Tuesday generate a stronger emotional response than the same flowers on Valentine’s Day. Or why the surprise note of appreciation from your boss will likely impact your brain chemistry more than an expected 3% pay raise.
Unmet expectations have an equally significant impact on brain chemistry in a negative way. When we expect a reward and don't get it, dopamine levels drop. The decrease in dopamine generates a mild threat response. To deal with the threat, the brain allocates more resources (cortisol) to the fear/threat center as it pauses activity in the rational/thinking regions.
The brain processes this all of this the same way it processes pain. This is why unexpectedly losing your job feels so much worse than being let go after months of downsizing rumors. This is also why it hurts so much when someone lets us down.
Another cognitive function at work in this example is the optimism bias, or wishful thinking. When predicting what will happen to us tomorrow, next week, or next year, we overestimate the likelihood of positive events, and underestimate the likelihood of negative events. It’s also often referred to as "the illusion of invulnerability," "unrealistic optimism," and a "personal fable."
We all do it. We buy lottery tickets with the hope of winning even though we’re more likely to get struck by lightning. We underestimate our chances of getting divorced, being in a car accident, or being diagnosed with cancer. We also tend to overestimate the success of a work project and underestimate the time it will take to complete it. Some studies maintain that pessimists make better leaders because they can more clearly see the downsides and pitfalls of things, and they are better able to estimate actual outcomes.
Tali Sharot, a neuroscientist at University College London, has spent her career exploring what makes our brain overestimate positive outcomes. Sharot maintains that 80% of us are influenced by the illusion of optimism, but she defends it as essential to the human experience. Optimism changes objective reality. Whatever happens, whether you succeed or fail, people with high expectations always feel better.
“Our brains aren't just stamped by the past. They are constantly being shaped by the future." - Tali Sharot
To those who say, “If you want to be happy, lower your expectations,” the science says otherwise. The key to wellbeing is not low expectations. Being optimistic doesn’t just affect our performance through self-fulfilling prophecy, it influences self-esteem, stress levels, and overall happiness.
However, knowledge is power and the key to managing expectations. Understanding how they work in the brain and how bias influences our perceptions protects us from disappointments, resentments, and the heartache we feel when they aren’t met.
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