Unmet Expectations or Magical Thinking?

We’ve all been there: going above and beyond to do something nice for someone and hoping - no expecting - that they will reciprocate.  And when they don't, it's a great big fat buzz kill. Is it a case of unmet expectations or magical thinking? 


Maybe you've heard the saying: "Expectations are premeditated resentments." This slogan originated in the Alcoholic Anonymous 12-step program but the psychology of expectations is actually rooted in early childhood.  Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget maintained that young children have difficulty distinguishing between the objective world that we live in and the subjective world that lives in our imagination. According to Piaget, young children associate their thoughts with outcomes.  For example, wishing hard enough to get a bike for your birthday will cause you to get a bike for your birthday.  Piaget referred to this as magical thinking and estimated we outgrow it by about second grade.


That is where Piaget was mistaken. Most of us continue to engage in various forms of magical thinking - except that as grown-ups we call it having expectations. Think about the concept behind The Law of Attraction, which says that our thoughts attract events into our lives. If you hope something hard enough it's not a far step to becoming an expectation -  the strong belief that something will happen.


More than anything else, our expectations influence our reality as well as our interactions with those around us. In a self-fulfilling prophecy, people may succeed or fail depending on our expectations of them. Research shows that, compared to people we think will fail, when we believe in someone:

  • We treat them better,

  • We give them more opportunities to succeed,

  • We give them more accurate, helpful feedback,

  • We invest in them because we believe it’s an investment that will pay off. 

Now that you know how you treat people you believe in, think about how you treat people you don’t believe in – you give them fewer opportunities to succeed, less helpful feedback, and you invest in them less. How do you think that translates? This is known as the “Nocebo Effect” – negative expectations not only influence your perception of them, they practically ensure their failure.

There is no doubt that expectations shape the perceptions we have of ourselves and the world. They affect everything from performance to relationships to personal growth and future goals – and much of the time they are unspoken or unconscious. 

To really drill down into how expectations drive us or disappoint us, it’s important to parse them into 4 distinct buckets differentiated by two little words - of and for.

  • Expectations we have for ourselves;

  • Expectations we have of ourselves;

  • Expectations we have for others;

  • Expectations we have of others.

Expectations we have of ourselves (i.e., a moral compass, a strong work ethic, compassion for others, etc.) is very different from expectations we have for ourselves such as a rewarding career, a healthy work/life balance, or providing for our families. The same applies to others; we have expectations of them and for them. And the subtle differences have huge implications for the line of demarcation between expectations being premeditated resentments or the secret to success.  


As I teacher, I always knew that my expectations of and for my students would significantly influence their performance and there are many studies to substantiate this. 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 1st and 2nd graders. 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.


So high expectations in this context is a no brainer, right? But in relationships, the expectations we have of others gets more complicated. We expect certain things from others – remember my birthday, pay back a loan, back me up at work. When  those things don’t happen, we are disappointed, resentful or even in a state of psychological pain.  And the more we care about the person who doesn’t live up to our expectations, the more it hurts.

“Happiness grows in direct proportion to acceptance, and in inverse proportions to expectations.”  ~Anonymous

The Neuroscience of Expectations


We can thank our limbic system for this – in charge of emotions. 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 “pleasure chemical,” but it isn’t just released when we get something we want, it’s released in anticipation of getting something we want.  


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.


Managing Expectations


What’s the best way to manage expectations? First, being intentional about identifying your expectations is a good way to assess how fair or realistic they are.  Ask yourself, “What do I expect from this experience or person?” Then, determine if that expectation is (a) fair and reasonable and (b) clear and communicated to other people involved. Often times, we are disappointed by others who may have had no idea of our expectations.


Finally, altering your expectations can have a surprising impact. For example, imagine you are flying across the country for a conference and you’re hoping to be upgraded to first class for the long flight. If you think, “An upgrade would be a wonderful gift,” you’ll be thrilled to get the upgrade and not devasted if you don’t.  


However, if you expect an upgrade and you’re already thinking about the meal choices and how much more comfortable you’ll be in first class, you’ll likely be pleased but not thrilled if you get it.  By expecting it, you’ve taken some of the pleasure out of the reward. And if your expectations are not met, you’ll be much more disappointed sitting in the back of the bus than you would have if you didn’t expect the upgrade.


 Disappointment doesn’t have to destroy us. If taken in stride, it can strengthen us and make us better. With introspection and reflection, we may even learn how to view disappointment as a journey toward greater self-awareness. But if we always equate unmet expectations with unhappiness, the insight will remain in the shadows of disappointment.

I do my thing and you do your thing.

I am not in this world to live up to your expectations,

And you are not in this world to live up to mine.

You are you, and I am I,

and if by chance we find each other, it's beautiful.

If not, it can't be helped. 

Fritz Perls, "Gestalt Therapy Verbatim," 1969



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