essay / research

Great (and terrible) expectations

Since I last posted, we’ve crossed over to a new year — a transition often greeted with expectations, whether channeled into new year’s resolutions or starry-eyed hopes. Lately I’ve been preoccupied with the pros and cons of expectation, in the context of psychology and a novel that starts with people snorting cocaine in New York bathrooms. But we’ll start with the psychology.

Expectations are central to psychological research. Researchers design many studies to prevent participants from developing expectations of the hypotheses being tested. That’s because any such expectations might cause participants to act unnaturally, like trying to do what they believe is desired of them even if those actions do not reflect their true thoughts or feelings. For example, if you think researchers want you to act happier in response to a film clip they’ve shown, you might start smiling more to satisfy them, not because you really feel like smiling. And that would warp the research results.

Yet not all kinds of expectation are purposefully avoided in research. Sometimes, expectations drive the very behavior of interest. Take studies on automatic biases, like weapon bias. American research studies have found participants more inclined to perceive the image of a gun after viewing black faces compared to white ones, due to often unconscious racial stereotypes. Such biases demonstrate the sheer power of expectations: assuming someone to be violent because of his appearance can actually make onlookers see things that aren’t there. So expectations can create optical illusions, some of which lead to tragedy.

And expectations can create illusions in reasoning, as with confirmation bias — which is the common tendency to focus on information that supports our pre-existing viewpoints, while ignoring any evidence suggesting we’re wrong. In such cases, since we expect to be right, that’s what we see. Expectations can also dull pain, change student performance in classrooms and interfere with crisis management. They’re everywhere, and they affect so many aspects of our lives.

So to avoid disappointment, just set your expectations low! That’s advice from David Rock, a consultant and expert in the “neuroscience of leadership,” in his 2009 piece for Psychology Today. Rock explains the role of the neurotransmitter dopamine in mediating expectations, as dopamine levels in the brain increase when we expect reward and also seem to help generate fear, which we might feel regarding shaky expectations. All that said, Rock concludes, we should purposefully keep expectations low unless we are certain of reward.

To that I say, fair enough — in some cases. It’s not a bad idea to lower expectations for a random movie you’re going to watch; that way, if it’s bad you’re less likely to feel let down, and if it’s good you get a happy surprise. But the motto “only get excited when you are certain of reward” strikes me as unnecessarily bleak. Complete certainty is a rare commodity. If we waited to be certain before getting excited about things, we would rarely be excited at all.

The subject of bleak expectations brings me to Jay McInerney’s novel Bright Lights, Big City, which I’ve just begun reading. Famously written in the second person (it feels like every third sentence starts with the word “you”), it tells that quintessential tale of a dissatisfied individual seeking meaning against the frenetic backdrop of New York City.

What grabbed me in the first chapter wasn’t necessarily the subject matter — so many books and films explore the pendulum swinging between intoxication with, and disappointment in, New York. What got me was its perfect tone in capturing a hazy, unavoidable and therefore very dangerous expectation: that something, anything, is going to come along and make things better. That’s expectation tinged with the desperate, with the belief that something better has to magically appear because you’ll be ruined if it doesn’t. And that’s another ugly side of expectation: when it becomes so single-minded that the person finds herself just waiting for one big thing. It’s a kind of expectation I hope to avoid — the kind apparently hiding in the point where Jay McInerney and psychological research overlap.



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