The Power of Expectations

I received some good news this morning! I applied to the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Fellowship program back in November, and found out that I have received an Honorable Mention.  I hadn’t expected much of anything to come out of it, since I had applied last year and didn’t get anything.  The program is super competitive and nationwide, involving thousands of applicants. So, it was a very happy surprise this morning.

Anyway, this reminded me of the power of expectations on how we interpret events.  If I had thought I was a shoe-in for the fellowship, “only” getting an honorable mention would have been pretty disappointing.  This idea of expectations can be easily applied to ballroom dancing.  Expectations can produce sort of a contrast effect – if we performed better than we originally expected, we’re really happy about it! But if we performed equally well and had originally expected to perform even better, we feel pretty disappointed about ourselves.  Another way expectations can change how we view the world is confirmation bias.  Confirmation bias is when you look for evidence that confirms your beliefs, ignoring evidence that discomfirms your beliefs (Klayman; Nickerson).  This can lead to people having beliefs that are not true.

Bringing this to a more concrete example: I like to come into a ballroom competition with relatively modest expectations.  So my goal for a pretty large and competitive event might be to get a callback or two.  Then, if my partner and I make the semifinal, that’s really awesome because we exceeded my expectations.  Once you start improving and placing better, however, this tends to raise your expectations.  So, making a semifinal might not be so great anymore because a final is what you expect.  Or you get even better and expect to win your event.  This would be fine and dandy if you do win everything, but if you fall short…then you might just feel disappointed, even though your objective achievement is pretty damn good, making it to a final in a competitive event.

On the flip side, sometimes expectations can lead to confirmation bias and even self-fulfilling prophecies (Diekmann, Tenbrunsel, & Galinsky).  If I think I am a bad dancer, when I watch a video of myself, I would only notice all the little mistakes I made and would conclude that I did a horrible job.  I might ignore all the things I did pretty well, and become discouraged when I didn’t have a real reason to be.  When it comes to self-fulfilling prophecies, if I expect to dance badly, I might feel more nervous and unsure, and then actually make more mistakes, which in turn causes me to perform worse.  If I expect to dance well, I might feel more confident, put more energy into my dancing, and perform really well.  Someone faced with the prospect of learning how to ballroom dance might shake their head and go, “Oh, I’m so uncoordinated, there’s no way I can learn how to do that.”  Because they hold this belief, they might not even try to learn, and would as a result continue to be a “bad dancer.”  To sum up, a pre-existing belief can bias how I interpret new information, or even change the situation itself to confirm that belief.

What might this mean for you?  I suppose it’s difficult to give any concrete advice, given the different ways expectations can work, but I think keeping in mind how your expectations might affect how you feel about your outcomes is a good practice.  Maybe changing your expectations can make you a happier person, or even a better dancer.  Maybe it could make you be a more patient partner, or even a more understanding, accessible teacher.  It could be that setting realistic and achievable expectations and goals is the best way to go, whether they are for yourself or others.

Edited: Added some citations for those of you who are particular psychology/empirical-research oriented, or merely curious.

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