In the last couple of weeks, my travels have included Barcelona, Spain, and St. Louis, Missouri. Barcelona is a place that jet-setters regard as a world-class tourist destination. St. Louis, on the other hand, does not typically make the must-see list for the fast-living crowd. Not having previously hung out in either town, I therefore expected that St. Louis would be something of a let-down after Barcelona. But I had agreed to give a lecture at St. Louis University, so, still jet-lagged from my trans-Atlantic flight and a week criss-crossing the Iberian Peninsula in trains and rental cars, I reluctantly re-packed my bags to fly to a city I associated mainly with the Anheuser-Busch brewery and rabid baseball fans. So imagine my surprise when I found myself absolutely loving St. Louis!
How did that happen? The answer has something to do with the complex links between expectations, objective reality, and psychological pleasure. And I think there’s a broader life lesson in there somewhere.
High Expectations. My pal Bob Cialdini, who has traveled the globe in considerable style, recommended Barcelona as one of the best cities he had ever visited. I booked myself into the Hotel Market, described online as a cutting edge little boutique hotel in the trendy San Antoni market neighborhood, within walking distance from the old center city. When I arrived at what was in fact a trendy boutique hotel, built around an even trendier restaurant, the desk clerk asked whether I had ever been to Barcelona. I responded “No, but I’ve heard fantastic things!” She said in turn that it was in fact a wonderful city, but warned me about the danger of overly high expectations. As it turned out, Barcelona lived up to its reputation, lots of charming little neighborhoods, beautiful architecture, nice restaurants, and lovely fountains. Given my high expectations, though, and the fact that I had already been touring through Sevilla, Salamanca, and several lovely areas of rural Spain, it was hard to be completely bowled over by Barcelona’s loveliness. And there was the recurring concern that I would be robbed. After one fellow told me that his backpack had been stolen right off his back, I stopped carrying my backpack around, and when I heard about how Barcelona’s professional pickpockets could masterfully distract you whilst extracting your wallet, I started traveling without a wallet, but with a credit card in one pocket, and a few Euros in the other (still concerned that my pants were too loose, hence keeping my hands in my pockets half the time). I can’t show you a picture of the unexpectedly lovely neighborhood called Barcelonata, with its narrow streets, charming market, and stunning beaches overlooking Frank Gehry’s iconic sculpture from the 1992 Olympics -- because to avoid looking like a tourist, I eventually starting leaving my camera back in the hotel’s safety deposit box.
Low Expectations meet Objective Reality. Before I went to St. Louis, no one had mentioned it as a grand tourist destination. I had driven through the town thirty years ago, and I remembered seeing the massive arch from the freeway, but to be frank, I didn’t even stop, since I was rushing back to New York, you know, that ultra-exciting metropolis that people write songs about, helluva town and all (whose natives, like me and my childhood friends, typically know little or nothing about any territories west of the Hudson River). But last week, I was scheduled to stay over in St. Louis for three whole days. The first surprise was my hotel, it was a little boutique joint called the Ignacio, and its café was called Pintxos. I immediately surmised that it was owned by St. Louis University, given that SLU is a Jesuit institution, and that St. Ignatius was not only a founder of the Jesuits, but also a native of the Basque region of Spain (where “Pintxos” means tapas). My room was everything one hopes for in a modern boutique hotel, with those cool sinks and bathroom fixtures, and a big floor to ceiling window looking out on the statue in the courtyard. Having a free afternoon before dinner with the social psychology faculty, I inquired about whether there was a park nearby, to which I could bring my binoculars and perhaps see a few bird species we don’t have in Phoenix. The desk clerks promptly lent me a bike, and pointed me in the direction of Forest Park. St. Louis's giant city park turned out not only to be substantially larger than New York’s Central Park, but to be absolutely beautiful, dotted with lakes and streams, each surrounded by riparian areas full of beautiful birds (I saw a red-headed woodpecker and a red-breasted woodpecker almost as soon as I lifted my binoculars, as well as numerous lovely sparrows, warblers, and tree-creepers in my brief visit). The park also housed a lovely art museum with a collection to rival any you’d see in New York, and the surrounding neighborhood was rich with beautiful mansions (not McMansions, I mean seriously architectured old mansions surrounded by big oak trees and statues). On the way back to the hotel, I biked across St. Louis University's campus, which was itself quite lovely, full of fountains, statues, and greenery, despite its close proximity to the urban areas of St. Louis.
Then I had a lovely dinner at a Tuscan/Californian restaurant called “1111” in a cute little neighborhood called the Soulard, with the pleasant and charming social faculty at SLU: Eddie Clark, Richard Harvey, and Ruth Warner. Since I expressed an interest in seeing more of St. Louis, Ruth took me to their lovely Botanical Gardens and the stunning Cathedral Basilica the next day, and their students Erin Solomon and Kate Blankmeyer drove me through several charming old neighborhoods on the way to my talk that night. To top off my visit, my talk was in an auditorium packed full of students, faculty, and grad students (many crammed on the floors when the seats all filled up). There’s nothing like a full house when you give a talk, a lot more possibilities for contagious laughter and upbeat positivity.
Life lesson: Of course there’s something to be said for having high expectations – Rosenthal and Jacobson’s classic research on the “Pygmalion effect” demonstrated that students work harder when their teachers expect a lot, and if you never leave the hotel in a new city, you’ll never find anything to enjoy. I got to a lot of Barcelona’s beautiful sights because I forced myself to get out of the hotel (despite my fear of pickpockets!) But it’s easy to be disappointed if your expectations are too high – for that new job, that new relationship, that new restaurant, or that European vacation.
On the other hand, low expectations can have their upside, leaving room for pleasant surprises. So if you do decide to visit St. Louis, ignore what I said above, and set your expectations low. Who knows, maybe you won’t like it as much as I did.
Douglas Kenrick is author of Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life: A psychologist investigates how evolution, cognition, and complexity, are revolutionizing our view of human nature.