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Should You Manage Your Expectations?

A lesson about optimism from the 2012 London Olympics

By Jan-Emmanuel De Neve and Tali Sharot

The organizing committee of the 2012 London Olympics will have set up the first games in history to be on budget with Prime Minister David Cameron proudly stating: “We’ve delivered this incredible Olympic Park on time, on budget and in real style.”

This feat is in no small part due to the British Government having adjusted the original Olympic budget for the systematic tendency to underestimate the cost and duration of projects. This propensity is part of what is known as the "optimism bias", which tends to creep into our predictions of the future. Organizations can account for the optimism bias in their planning and would be ill advised not to do so. Individuals are also in a position to anticipate their own optimism bias and adjust expectations when budgeting a renovation or planning a wedding. We wondered, however, whether an individual could also adjust his or her own expectations from life and whether one should?

Research suggests that "managing" one's personal expectations is easier said than done and could even be counterproductive. Consider the conventional wisdom that "the secret to happiness is low expectations." The logic goes like this: If we don’t expect to be successful or happy than we will not be disappointed when things don't work out, and pleasantly surprised when things do—right?

There is a problem with the notion that people should lower expectations to increase wellbeing. It may work in theory, but it does not hold when tested empirically. It turns out that people with high expectations are generally happier, whether they succeed or fail. This startling finding appears to be the result of three cognitive processes.

First, what matters for our wellbeing is how we interpret the events we encounter. Two psychologists, Margaret Marshall and Jonathon Brown, asked students to guess the grade they were going to get on a midterm exam. Yes, people who expected an A but got a C were surprised. But did they feel worse than those who expected a C all along? No, because the students who believed they would not do well took that as a confirmation of their lesser ability. In contrast, students who expected an A but got a C concluded that next time they would put in more effort and were hopeful that they would eventually get that A. The few students with low expectations that did get an A attributed this to luck, while when people with high expectations succeed they believe it is because of their personal traits—I got an A because I am clever.

Click here to read Marshal & Brown's paper.

Second, when tweaking people's expectations upward they actually do better. Cognitive neuroscientist Sara Bengtsson recently showed that it was enough to prime people with the word “clever” to make them score higher on a rule-learning task. Why? Individuals that have been made to think that they will do well are more inclined to learn from their mistakes and subsequently do better. On the other hand, if someone is made to believe that they are unlikely to succeed than they are less inclined to learn from errors and so they become more likely to fail. Setting subjective expectations high or low has objective consequences.

Click here to read Bengtsson's paper.

Finally, having high expectations about the future makes us happier at present. In fact, we enjoy anticipating good stuff so much that we are even willing to pay for it. The behavioral economist George Loewenstein asked students at his university to imagine they could get a kiss from their favorite celebrity. He then asked how much they would be willing to pay to get a kiss from that celebrity now or at some later stage. The students were willing to pay the most, not to get the kiss immediately, but to receive it in in three days. They were willing to pay extra for the opportunity to wait. The intuition here is that expecting something good to happen results in anticipatory pleasure. Optimists expect more kisses in their future and those expectations enhance their wellbeing today.

Click here to read Loewenstein's paper.

The key to our wellbeing is not low expectations. It is the ability to interpret unexpected negative outcomes in a positive way. We should look at failure as an opportunity to learn and do better, and bask in our high expectations.

Click here to view Sharot's TED talk on the subject.

Dr. Jan-Emmanuel De Neve is Assistant Professor of Political Economy and Behavioral Science at University College London. Dr Tali Sharot is a Wellcome Trust Fellow at the Department of Cognitive, Perceptual and Brain Sciences at University College London and author of The Optimism Bias.

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