Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

The secret of success: Lower your expectations

Change: Why thinking you can might mean you can't

Contrary to what you might think, sometimes you can actually benefit by lowering your expectations for yourself - at least that's what the researchers Polivy and Herman (2002) say in an article that I recently stumbled upon. It's an initially counterintuitive proposition that really does make sense once you look at it a little more closely.

This idea is based on the truism that people usually like to view themselves in a positive light and as better than average. And, it is supported by the empirically validated concept that people tend to have a corresponding bias. That is, people have a self-enhancement bias that operates outside of their awareness and makes them view themselves positively (for more on this bias, see my blog entry: When self-image conflicts with positive thinking).

Polivy and Herman found that the self-enhancement bias can interfere with attempts at self-improvement in the many areas that they considered; such as weight loss, alcohol abuse, and smoking cessation. More specifically, they found that people's unrealistic expectations undermine efforts at behavior change. People are unrealistic about how much they can change, how quickly and easily they can change, and how much making a change will improve their lives; each of which I describe more below.

People tend to think that they can change more than is realistic to expect. Polivy and Herman reference a study in which obese women participated in a 48-week weight loss program. Before treatment, many of these women defined an "acceptable weight" as a 55-pound loss and a "disappointed weight" as a 37-pound loss. However, they ended up losing, on average, 35 pounds; 47% of the subjects did not even meet their "disappointed weight." In this study, a significant change was defined by many of the women as a failure, which probably undermined their hopes and motivation for further change. As Polivy and Herman explained, "The best is the enemy of the good." (p. 679)

People tend to think they can change more quickly and easily than they can. Polivy and Herman cited another researcher who found that dieters tend to underestimate the effort that dieting takes. Along with this belief was a tendency for people to be overconfident in their abilities, thinking they had more sustainable willpower than they actually had. Similarly, with alcohol dependence, people frequently overestimate their ability to abstain from drinking; and this overconfidence often continues even after multiple failures. The same problem also occurs with people who commit themselves to stop smoking. As the researcher Prochaska has found, those people who successfully stop addictive behaviors do so only after numerous attempts.

People often believe that achieving their goal will change their lives in unrealistic ways. Polivy and Herman cited research, for instance, that shows that dieters believe that losing weight will lead to a job promotion, a romantic partner, or will change their self-image to being more in control or harder working. They note, "Normal dieters and patients with anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa all share an expectation that dieting and thinness will produce ‘overgeneralized self-improvement'..." (p.679)

All of this is not to say that self-enhancement and high expectations are bad. They do help people feel good about themselves. And, when people take initial steps toward change, even just starting an exercise routine or a new diet, they often feel a surge of high hopes and self-confidence. This can be really motivating; however, success requires that they also be realistic with what goals they set and how they plan to meet those goals.


Polivy, J. & Herman, C.P. (2002). If at first you don't succeed; false hopes of change. American Psychologist, 57, 677-689.

Dr. Leslie Becker-Phelps is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, NJ. She is also the ‘Relationship' expert on WebMD's Sex and Relationships Health Exchange.

If you would like email notification of new blog postings by Dr. Becker-Phelps, click here.