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How Your Expectations Affect Your Enjoyment

Having fewer expectations could increase your enjoyment of things.

Key points

  • We are most likely to experience disappointment (instead of other negative emotions) when we fail to get something we expect.
  • Research finds that people lower their expectations when they expect a bad outcome, likely to minimize disappointment.
  • When enjoying TV and other media, our expectations surely affect our impressions, but this topic hasn't been studied much.

Last week, Star Trek: Discovery concluded its fourth season. I love the show; it's easily my favorite Star Trek series. But lots of Star Trek fans hate it, including many of my hardcore Star Trek fan friends. For some, it's because the show has supposedly abandoned the bedrock values that define Star Trek. For others, it just doesn’t feel like the Star Trek that they know and remember.

But me? I don't know about any of that and I don't care. I'm a casual Star Trek fan, and I just think the show is a ton of fun. It's visually spectacular, and it's honestly pretty funny too, sometimes.

Does my wildly different experience just boil down to taste? Or is it about expectations? I hardly had any going into Discovery, so maybe I was free to enjoy it for what it was: a fun sci-fi adventure show.

I looked into the psychological research on this question. What I found was a fair amount of research on expectations and disappointment, though not much on my specific question. (More on that later.)

People make decisions to minimize disappointment

One of the first researchers to think about disappointment in a rigorous way was David Bell, who considered how we factor potential disappointment into our decisions. If you have a choice between $3,000 or a gamble with an 80% chance of getting $4,000 and a 20% chance of getting nothing, you might opt for the guaranteed $3,000, because the thought of taking the gamble and ending up with nothing would be so disappointing.

Bell argued that disappointment resulted from the disparity between what we expect to get and what we actually get, and factoring those disparities into our decisions could explain why we sometimes make decisions that might seem irrational from a purely economic point of view. (For instance, in the example above, the "expected value" of the gamble is greater than $3,000, meaning it's a good bet.)

People’s expectations influence their happiness

Bell's work was theoretical. Is there evidence that people's expectations actually affect how people feel? Research by psychologist Wilco van Dijk suggests that it does.

First, a series of studies in 1999 by van Dijk and his colleagues tested the idea that disappointment is driven more by the absence of an expected positive outcome than the presence of a negative outcome. For example, in one study, 100 students were asked to describe a past event that led to an intense negative feeling of disappointment, sadness, frustration, anger, or regret (different groups of students described different events). They then rated the extent to which the experience involved something positive that didn't happen or something negative that did happen.

The disappointing events were the only ones that people rated higher, on average, on the question about whether they involved a positive thing that didn't happen compared to the question about whether they involved a negative thing that did happen, suggesting that people are more likely to feel disappointment, rather than other negative emotions, when their expectations aren't met.

Are we aware of the effect of our expectations on our happiness?

A later experiment by the same researchers aimed to test whether people tweak their expectations to affect their own happiness. In the study, 80 psychology students completed an intelligence test. Half were told they would get their scores right away and half were told they wouldn't get their scores for two weeks.

Immediately after taking the test, all the students completed a questionnaire that asked them, among other things, to estimate how well they did on the test. If you just took a difficult test designed to test your intelligence, you might lower your expectations about how you did to soften the blow in case the results don't turn out so great. That's what the researchers predicted would happen, and it's exactly what they found.

The students who got their scores nearly immediately gave slightly lower estimates about their scores than those who expected to get their scores a couple weeks later. For example, for one version of the test, the students estimated they scored about 11 points lower out of 100 when they were getting their scores immediately compared to those who were getting their scores later. The researchers hypothesized that the threat of disappointment was greater for the students getting their scores back right away, which is why they lowered their estimates more than those getting their scores later.

It's worth noting that the individual score estimates varied a lot, and the sample sizes were relatively small—only 20 students per group (there were two different versions of the test). Therefore, these results ought to be replicated before drawing strong conclusions from them.

How do my expectations affect what I watch?

These studies suggest that one difference between me and the Discovery haters might be that their expectations for the show were too high. But it's hardly a deep psychological insight to point out that if you go into something with high expectations, you're setting yourself up for disappointment.

What this research fails to fully address is what can happen when our experiences don't match our expectations. Most Star Trek fans who hate the new show generally don't dismiss it because it's just not very good. Rather, their issues are more nuanced: it made noticeable changes to how certain species are portrayed or it broke with important franchise conventions. These kinds of expectations aren't easily placed on a spectrum from low to high. Instead, they're more like a set of expectations that each vary from small to large.

In other words, clearly our expectations affect how much we'll enjoy something. But most studies haven't fully explored how our sometimes complex expectations affect how we'll enjoy something.

If you're aware of more relevant research that I've overlooked, please let me know.