We all have expectations about upcoming events, current events, ourselves and others. Those expectations can alter your view of the present more than you would think. Sometimes, it’s for the better, sometimes it’s not. Let’s take a look at how it works.
Your Expectations Affect Your Likes and Dislikes
This might sound absurd, but when we’re told that something will be good, we tend to believe it, especially if we’re told by an expert. Whether it’s movie reviews, book reviews or — in the case of the Penn & Teller clip above — water, our expectations often outweigh the more critical side of our brains.
This is especially the case with foods. Over time, we’ve seen plenty of studies that show how our expectations change our perception of taste. For example, one study published in Food Quality and Preference tested the role of expectation on taste using smoked salmon flavoured ice cream (yes, you read that correctly). They found when people read the label “ice cream”, they disliked it and found it salty and savoury. When they labelled it “frozen savory mousse”, people liked it more because they weren’t expecting the usual sweetness of ice cream.
In a more classic study published way back in 1964, researchers looked at how beer brand labels affected taste. Researchers asked brand loyal college students to rate a bunch of unlabelled beers. In general, participants of the study didn’t seem to discern the taste differences among beer brands when they weren’t labelled, which suggests the brand name has a pretty big impact on how much we enjoy something.
And that’s just a few examples. Coke rates higher when consumed from a cup with the brand logo, the presence of the word “soy” on nutrition bars makes them taste more grainy, coffee tastes less bitter when we’re told it’s not bitter, and wine is a classic example of how expectations alter our perception of quality. In a truly bizarre study, researchers found that when they told people a comic was funny, they tended to agree, even when it wasn’t.
As far as preferences go, when we’re primed with an idea before taking something in, we tend to agree with whatever that initial expectation is and ignore what we’re actually thinking.
Why Expectations Change Your Perception of Reality
It’s not just taste and personal preference, either. Our expectations can alter how we view reality as a whole. It sounds absurd, but psychology and behavioural economics professor Dan Ariely describes it in the video above like so:
The way we anticipate something changes the way we perceive it… It suggests that the way the brain works is to influence our perception. If our perception has been established without the information from the brain, the information of the brain is no longer relevant…
If you think about it more generally, there’s a question about how our preconceived notions colour our view of reality… what happens when we view the world with glasses that are strongly tinted by our preconceived notions? What these results suggest is an interesting connection between the body and the mind… it suggests our mind tries to predict the future… by anticipating the future the mind actually changes our physiology… it prepares us for that future. By doing so the mind basically gets us to experience the reality that we anticipate.
This concept falls in line with the idea of the hedonic treadmill. We have a tendency to increase our expectations in a way that tends to devalue our accomplishments. Basically, if a B+ made you happy last year, it will take an A- to register the same satisfaction again. You’ve probably heard the classic phrase “happiness equals reality minus expectations”, and it’s true. In short, you can theoretically apply the placebo effect to your day-to-day life.
Speaking with Scientific American, science journalist and author Chris Berdik offers up this example of how exactly this works:
For instance, many people worry that they’re likely to choke under pressure. They look to coaches and elaborate training techniques to overcome this tendency. Or they just worry and bite their nails before important presentations or competitions. But in one study, researchers told some track athletes that what they thought of as pre-race jitters actually improved performance, while telling another group that this sort of arousal was usually detrimental. The athletes performed accordingly when the pressure was on. In another athletics study, the researchers gave every subject a personality questionnaire and then randomly gave some of them false feedback that their answers indicated they were the sort of person who thrives under pressure. When it came time to compete, the athletes told they would likely do better under pressure did so.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you can change the world around you with your mind. If you’re sick, you’ll still be sick. If you’re sad, you’ll still be sad. But what it does suggest is that we’re more in control of our future than we think, at least on a subtle level. If you expect to perform poorly, that thought might influence your behaviour in the present. This applies to all aspects of everyday life, from work to school to dating to exercise. You can’t physically alter the world, but your expectations play a key role in how you experience the present.
Other People’s Expectations Change You
How you think other people perceive you (or how they actually do, for that matter), changes how you act as well.
The most classic example of this comes from The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology back in 1977. This study looked at how various stereotypes might play a role in interpersonal attraction. Researchers gave men a photograph of a woman before a telephone conversation. Some of these photos showed attractive woman, others less attractive woman. Then the men talked to the women, half the men thinking they were talking with an unattractive woman and the other half thinking they were attractive. The women didn’t know this was going on. However, the men who thought they were talking to an attractive woman spoke differently, and the woman subsequently adapted behaviours stereotypically associated with attractive people. Basically, when the men thought they were talking to someone attractive, they changed speech patterns and conversation type, the woman then did so as well.
As he followed the children over the next two years, Rosenthal discovered that the teachers’ expectations of these kids really did affect the students. “If teachers had been led to expect greater gains in IQ, then increasingly, those kids gained more IQ,” he says…
As Rosenthal did more research, he found that expectations affect teachers’ moment-to-moment interactions with the children they teach in a thousand almost invisible ways. Teachers give the students that they expect to succeed more time to answer questions, more specific feedback, and more approval: They consistently touch, nod and smile at those kids more.
Again, like your own perceptions, this isn’t an always-on, hard science thing. You may not notice the subtle clues someone’s giving you about their expectations, or you might not need those social cues to act a certain way.
Expectations of others play a role in how we behave. In a recent episode of NPR’s Invisibilia, they explain how the world’s expectations of blind people change a blind person’s view of reality. It’s a large-scale example of stereotyping as a whole, but it’s obvious how this could apply to race, gender, religion and plenty of other characteristics. You don’t realise it, but we all tend to conform to the perceived expectations around us. Perhaps your friends call you the “quiet one”, or the “adventurous one”, or the “life of the party”, and you subconsciously conform to those stereotypes — even if that’s not who you are anymore.
Keep Your Expectations in Check
You can’t control what others expect of you, but you can work on your own expectations… at least to a point. Like a lot of these types of things, it’s about recognising your behaviour and trying to be mindful of it as best as you can.
That said, you can remember a couple of simple tips. Psychologist Bob Taibbi suggests separating your “wants” from your “shoulds”:
The herd mentality and auto-pilot are usually tied to the shoulds. These come from our heads, our superego, the parent voice in our heads. Shoulds are by definition expectations imposed by others. When we fail to do them we feel guilty. When we do follow them we often feel driven…and expect a payoff for our efforts: Since I am doing what I really don’t want to do, I do expect others to appreciate, notice, give me a reward, pat me on the head, do what I expect. When the expected payoff doesn’t come, our disappointment and resentment are fuelled.
Likewise, coming back to science journalist Chris Berdik, it’s important to use those expectations to your advantage:
On the other hand, if you can do things to alleviate anxiety, you give that anticipation a glide path. This is a theory that fatigue is governed by the brain in an anticipatory manner. So if you have run a lot of 10K races, your brain knows what your body needs, how much energy it’s going to take and what pace to set and it takes a lot of things into account like how you’re feeling and whether you’re hydrated. It eventually though can put on the brakes. It’s not just that you’re running out of gas. Your brain is like “Uh-oh. You’re going to run out of gas. It’s going to be trouble for you.” So it basically induces fatigue for you ahead of time.
Expectation isn’t some limitless resource, nor does it allow you to do something you couldn’t otherwise do, but it is a useful reminder that sometimes those self-fulfilling prophecies can alter our behaviour.
In the end, it’s about paying attention to what you think will happen, what’s actually happening in a moment, and how you might be projecting onto others. Take a week and think about your expectations for yourself and for your friends. Then watch how they play out in real time. Just how much your expectations for events, foods and people affect your views might surprise you.