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The Development of Responsiveness to Outer Expectations

Responsiveness to outer expectations has positive and negative consequences.

Key points

  • Positive effects of responsiveness to others include compensation for weak inner expectations and a tempering of rigid inner expectations.
  • Negative effects of responsiveness to others include antisocial and self-destructive behavior, enabling addicts, and ignoring one's own needs.
  • A balance between responsiveness to inner and outer expectations is good, but an autonomous perspective on expectations is better.

Is it good or bad to care about what others expect from us?

Being responsive to outer expectations—what others want us to do—can be either a blessing or a curse. Mutual responsiveness to each other's expectations helps us to cooperate and coordinate our activities. Others' expectations can be a guidepost when we are unsure what to do. Others' expectations can motivate us to show up when we can't find the motivation inside ourselves. These are all good things.

On the other hand, sometimes other people expect us to do things that are unsafe or unhealthy. Notably during adolescence (but even in adulthood), peer expectations can encourage drug and alcohol abuse, recklessness, and antisocial behavior. Furthermore, when we focus too much on what others expect from us, we ignore our own needs.

This post summarizes what psychological science knows about the positives and negatives of being responsive to outer expectations, starting first with the positives.

Responsiveness to Outer Expectations Can Compensate for Weak Inner Expectations

In a previous PT post, I explained what psychological science knows about the nature, origin, and consequences of inner expectations—that is, what we expect of ourselves. In short, our adult self-expectations are an internalized version of behaviors our parents expected from us during early childhood. During those formative years, parents expected us to adopt their rules, beliefs, and values, most of which are meant to keep us safe, healthy, and capable of interacting constructively with others. Émile Durkheim (1925/2002), a founder of modern sociology, referred to this as the development of discipline.

Unfortunately, children with a negative temperament and/or neglectful parents often fail to develop clear self-expectations. Without strong self-expectations, lives can become aimless and chaotic. Resistance to parental rules can extend later to disrespect for authority figures such as teachers and law enforcement officers, leading to delinquency and criminal behavior unless intervention occurs.

Fortunately, children who do not fully internalize their parents' rules and moral values have a second chance to develop self-regulation when they begin to play with other children. Rule-governed play activities represent a template for future cooperative and competitive activities in adulthood (Huizinga, 1949; Piaget, 1932/1997). Successful play requires accurate perspective-taking, the ability to apprehend the state of mind of other children. Accurately visualizing what your teammates expect you to do and what they intend to do allows you to coordinate your activities with them. For example, if you sense that a soccer teammate expects you to move in a certain direction for a pass, then you can move in that direction to accept the pass.

As long as peers are expecting you to do things that are mutually beneficial, responsiveness to others' expectations can be a positive force in your life, compensating for weak inner expectations.

Responsiveness to Outer Expectations Can Temper Strong Inner Expectations

Jean Piaget (1932/1997) observed that very young children tend to be rigid about rules. Obedience to parental rules is always right, and disobedience, always wrong. Even the rules of games are absolute and inviolable for children between the ages of 2 and 5—there is only one right way to play games and the rules cannot be changed.

Piaget also observed that rigidity about rules normally gives way to the development of a more flexible morality after age 5. Getting along with other children from different backgrounds requires perspective-taking or empathy, the ability to understand and accept (or at least tolerate) those differences. Piaget noticed that school-aged children become less rigid about rules, accepting that the rules of a game can be changed if everyone agrees. Moral rules evolve beyond specific parental dos and don'ts into prosocial ideals like taking turns and fair play.

Various factors, described below, affect how successfully children learn responsiveness to their peers' expectations. Piaget (1932/1997, p. 294) noticed that some children remain fixated on their parents' rules (and, by extension, the rules of other adult authorities) without developing responsiveness towards their peers' expectations. He labeled this profile type the petit saint, a child who possesses a stronger inner sense of right and wrong and who is willing to tattletale on peers who break the rules. This profile resembles Gretchen Rubin's Questioner, who is responsive to inner expectations but not outer expectations.

Development of Responsiveness to Outer Expectations

Various temperamental and cognitive qualities affect responsiveness to outer expectations. Children on the autism spectrum have great difficulty taking the perspective of others and may be more interested in playing with things than with other children. Children who are temperamentally shy might want to play with others, but their anxiety inhibits them from doing so. Some children are more sociable than others and are therefore more likely to engage frequently in social play. All these individual factors will influence how much time a child invests in thinking about what others expect from him or her.

Societal factors can also affect how much children attend to outer expectations. According to David Riesman (1961), when Western society was based on agriculture, mining, and small enterprises, parenting was strict, resulting in the development of strong inner expectations. Riesman labeled this the inner-directed personality type. When the economy shifted towards bureaucracies and service trades, parenting became more permissive, and this encouraged children to pay more attention to their popularity with their peers than to traditional, inner standards. The result was a rise in what Riesman called the other-directed personality—someone who cares deeply about what others expect and depends on others for guidance in all matters. The advent of social media has intensified other-directedness, as children strive to be liked by hundreds of virtual friends.

The Dark Side of Responsiveness to Others' Expectations

Riesman's other-directed person lacks strong inner expectations and therefore might be persuaded by peers to do anything, right or wrong. Piaget labeled this pattern the chic type, someone who flouts adult rules but experiences strong solidarity with peers. Psychologists who have studied "need for approval" have concluded that this need can contribute to juvenile delinquency (Reeta, 2020). Similarly, enablers put the needs of alcoholics and addicts and abusers before their own, leading to poor outcomes for everyone. The negative slant on other-directedness is built right into some personality items designed to assess that trait. For example, "I live too much by other people's standards" and "In order to get along and be liked, I tend to be what people expect me to be rather than anything else" (Collins, Martin, and Ashmore, 1973).

The prevalence of other-directedness and its associated problems is consistent with Gretchen Rubin's (2017) observation that her Obliger Tendency type is the most common in her assessments and possibly the most troubled of the Four Tendencies. Obligers are so busy attending to others' expectations that they often fail to meet their own needs.

Autonomy as an Antidote for Dark Inner-Directedness and Other-Directedness

One might suppose that an imbalance between inner and outer expectations is what leads to problems. Inner-directedness (responsiveness to inner expectations but not outer expectations) results in Piaget's petit saint or Rubin's Questioner. Other-directedness (responsiveness to outer expectations but not inner expectations) results in Piaget's chic type or Rubin's Obliger.

Is the ideal personality type one that combines responsiveness to both inner and outer expectations (Rubin's Upholder type)?

While many positive things can be said about an Upholder, who responds equally to inner and outer expectations, Upholders who have not thought carefully about the consequences of following expectations can become trapped in a web of competing expectations. Without an objective perspective on expectations, even an Upholder can fail to accomplish good things and achieve happiness. Furthermore, as Rubin points out, we can't really choose to become an Upholder (or any other type), because that has already been determined by our temperament and upbringing.

The solution, according to Durkheim (1925/2002), Hogan (1973), Piaget (1932/1997), Riesman (1961), and Rubin (2017), is to increase our self-knowledge and develop perspective on our responsiveness to expectations. This generates autonomy, the ability to transcend parental and peer expectations and truly think for ourselves. Autonomy will be the topic of my next PT post.


Collins, B. E., Martin, J. C., Ashmore, R. D., & Ross, L. (1973). Some dimensions of the internal-external metaphor in theories of personality. Journal of Personality, 41, 471–492.

Durkheim, Émile. (2002). Moral Education. (E. K. Wilson & H. Schnurer, Trans.). Mineola, NY: Dover. (Original work published 1925 as L'éducation Morale by Libraire Félix Alcan.)

Hogan, R. (1973). Moral conduct and moral character: A psychological perspective. Psychological Bulletin, 79, 217–232.

Huizinga, J. (1949). Homo ludens: A study of the play-element of culture. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Piaget, J. (1997). The moral judgment of the child. (M. Gabain, Trans.). New York: Free Press Paperbacks (Original work published 1932 by Routledge, Trench, Trubner & Co.).

Reeta, V. (2020). Effect of peer influence on juvenile delinquency. Research Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences, 11, 148-152. 10.5958/2321-5828.2020.00026.1

Riesman, D. (1961). The lonely crowd. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Rubin, G. (2017). The four tendencies. New York, NY: Harmony Books.

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