Expectations Colour Reality

I tend to be a bit cynical about the self-help industry; it often seems geared around getting your clients to open their wallets and say “Help yourself”. Yet I cannot deny the positive impacts of motivational media. When you feel like your day has been nothing but wading through chest-high blancmange1, a cheery reminder that “You only fail when you stop trying!” can be just the tonic to help you reach dinner-time with your sanity, if not intact, at least not missing any pieces.


There’s a lot of it about.

And yet, at other times, the same statement can seem like the most tedious inanity that ever cloyed its way out of the primordial syrup. So what gives?

There’s a learning metaphor I like that suggests concepts are like Lego blocks, and we better assimilate new ones if there are sufficient others to connect it to2; a block on its lonesome is easily misplaced, but a firmly connected one is likely to stay where you put it. If we don’t have the appropriate framework, we won’t be able to connect with a new concept, so it will seem either impenetrable or silly3.

A similar metaphor can be applied to moods. If we’re in a particular mood (e.g. grouchy), our available connectors may be incompatible with the thing we’ve just encountered (e.g. a cutesy “it gets better!” quote), and so it will be easily brushed aside.

This pattern shows up all over the place. In our biases (any new information about someone or something has to connect to—and thus reinforce—our existing framework). In priming/anchoring (once we start thinking in a particular direction, it can be hard to change). Placebos work because we’re told they will heal us. Over-hyped experiences inevitably disappoint.

Changing our perspective will change the way we react to something, separate from the actual value of what we’re reacting to. Imagine you go to a restaurant and see a particular dish on the menu—the one you fondly remember your mother making when you were a child.

You eagerly order, only to find that they do it … differently. Not badly, just not like mother used to make. You leave the restaurant feeling unsatisfied with your meal (and maybe with the evening out in general). Whereas if you’d acknowledged beforehand that the dish was likely to be different, you would probably have been quite happy with it.

And this, I think, is what’s really behind the common motivational concept (which I’ve seen many variations of, attributed to all kinds of people): “If you can’t change your circumstances, change your reaction”. I found this idea irritating for a long time, because we can’t control (all of) our reactions; if we get a shock, for example, our body dumps adrenaline into our system before we’re even consciously aware of it. But we can control our expectations going into a situation, and that will impact how we react.

If we don’t expect a movie based on a favourite childhood book to be that great, we’ll still be disappointed when it’s turned into largely empty spectacle with an overdose of Legolas4, but we won’t be shocked and tempted to write angry letters to the director. Our expectations colour our reality. Which hopefully is more meaningful with the rest of the post to undergird it.


1 Please note, I’ve never actually tried this, it just seems like it would be difficult (it may actually be tremendous fun). And “blancmange” is a funny word. 😉

2 I might not connect my block in the same place as you—my pre-existing structures may be quite different. We may both be able to lock in the new idea, but because we connect it differently, we’ll have different associations with that idea. Hence one of the values of brainstorming, in that the same concept can send different people off in different directions.

3 When you’re trying to convey a concept to someone else (especially if it’s new to them), it’s easy to be so focused on the concept itself that you take for granted the framework around it. If you’re thoroughly familiar with a concept, a short statement can be deep and meaningful. If you’re not, the same statement can seem vague and airy-fairy.

4 I’m not angry, just disappointed given what might have been. And it makes for an amusing example.

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