The New You

Finding the motivation to change.

Expect More from Yourself—You’ll Get It!

Use the power of positive self-expectancy to push yourself to the next level.

Those of you who read my earlier post on The Law of Attraction are familiar with how our thoughts affect our actions and thus results in life. This post will discuss self-expectancy, which is exactly what it sounds like: our predictions and expectations of our own future performance in a given task. People with high or positive self-expectancy, for example, generally expect that their endeavors will be successful, whereas people with low or negative expectancy are genuinely shocked when anything they do turns out well. This spectrum applies to every conceivable human action, whether that means starting a business or shooting a free throw. What's interesting to me is that often, self-expectancy exists independently of a person’s actual skill level. Which brings up an interesting question: to what degree do our expectations for ourselves influence our choices—and our ability to achieve our goals?

We like to think that our self-expectancies depend on our objective, observable abilities and our past performances. It would make sense if human beings worked like that. But what I'm telling you now is that the process can really work in reverse—our expectations for ourselves affect our future performance.

Colonel Koch (My Grandpa) on the left.
Consider an important military study. Army soldiers were assigned to train for three days outside in the freezing Massachusetts winter, where temperatures fell as low as -18C. Among other things, researchers measured soldiers' expectations going into this three-day retreat: were they dreading to the grueling winter training, or looking forward to it as a chance to prove themselves? The researchers discovered that the more soldiers expected to hate cold weather training, the more they hated it, the more stressed and angry they felt—and the worse they did during the training itself. Soldiers who expected to do better were not only more cheerful and well-rested throughout, they performed much better! And they were less likely to get injured by the cold. An astonishing discovery: even in the most chilly, biting frost, the attitudes and expectations you have for yourself can fortify and protect your body—and help it unlock its true potential.

Another study, this time from the sports world: Hodges & Carron grouped people into teams, manipulated whether they had high expectations for themselves or low self-expectancy, and then measured their performance in actual games. As it turns out, teams with high self-expectancy perform significantly better. But more importantly, even in rigged games when they ended up losing no matter what, the teams who expected better of themselves were much more likely to bounce back from an unfair loss and perform even better during the next game. Teams who'd been conditioned by the researchers to expect less of themselves resigned themselves to losing—whether they could have beaten the next team or not.

There are several studies which have produced similar findings on the power of raising expectations in order to raise performances. Israeli Defense Force recruits were randomly told that they had been assigned to either "High", "Regular" or "Unknown" conditions, and the soldiers who believed they were in the high group did much better on objective tasks like rifle and navigation field tests. Hockey players who worked to raise their self-expectancy shot with greater accuracy during games. The list goes on and on. As basketball legend and intuitive cognitive-behavioral psychologist Michael Jordan once said, "You must expect great things of yourself before you can do them."

To a much greater extent than we're often willing to admit, our expectations for ourselves influence our future behavior, and our performance is a function of those same expectations. Which brings me to the most liberating aspect of all this: your self-expectancy—and its accompanying real-world output—is completely up to you. You get to choose whether or not you think you'll be successful. This is entirely within your power. And I invite each of you to leverage this to your advantage.

Many of us, I think, come to develop negative self-expectations as a kind of defense mechanism. After all, it can be comforting to tell yourself that you'll fail, because when you do succeed it may feel that much more significant. And it can be difficult to tell yourself to expect that your every attempt will be successful—it makes you vulnerable, which is always difficult.  Sometimes we try to protect our self-esteem by bracing for a negative outcome with low expectations.

But my advice to you is to take that difficult step and force yourself to expect your very best—and then some. When you set out to achieve your goals, listen to the positive voices in your head and ignore the whispers of doubt constantly lurking underneath. Never let a single defeat become a final defeat—get back out there and attack the next opportunity. Orient your thoughts, your behaviors and your internal narrative of yourself straight upwards, pointed firmly towards the success you've now begun to expect as your new normal.

Because I think you’ll find that when you raise your self-expectancy, your performance rises to meet it.

Follow Dr. Fader on Twitter for updates on Motivation, Sport Psychology and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Jonathan Fader, Ph.D., is a psychologist and an assistant professor of family medicine at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

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