Great Expectations and Change-Making

What we see or choose to see has a profound effect on what we do and achieve. Choose wisely. The role of expectations — what we anticipate happening from our actions — is another critical pillar of behaviour change. In this latest in the foundations of behaviour change series, we look at how what we expect shapes what we get.

According to Greek mythology, Pandora was the first woman created, but that’s not what she’s known for. The name. Pandora is most commonly associated with the mythical box that this woman was bestowed, that contained all manner of misery and evil. It is that same box that Pandora was tricked into opening and, in doing so, released all those calamities into the world. Realizing what had happened when she was tricked, Pandora quickly shut it trapping only a single thing inside: hope.

Hope is where we place our aspirations for the world. And it’s those hopes realized and unrealized that drive much of what we do to make change happen. These hopes coupled with our experience create expectations.

Dashed Expectations

Like for many others, Christmas time in 2021 was a holiday season of dashed expectations. What was meant to be a time of celebration and modest returns to pre-pandemic activities and even a chance to see people ‘in real life.‘ turned out to be another mostly isolated experience at home. The chance to see people I had missed for many months, even years, was dashed with the arrival of another Greek named woe from another book (damn you, Omicron!).

What made this time so challenging for me and so many other people was that it challenged the expectations of what was going to happen this holiday season. It challenged our expectations of the virus. It challenged our expectations of plans, strategies, and even how the world works. Outcome expectations play a large role in behaviour change.

We can see expectations shape not only our social performance but our mental and physical health. Placebos are a great example of this. There is an abundance of research that illustrates how placebos can be as powerful or more than actual medication or other interventions when used in the appropriate context.

Expectations and Mindsets

There is a quote that’s often attributed to Henry Ford that says whether you think you can, or you think you can’t you’re right. Whether Ford actually said this or not, it still is true. Our expectations do a lot to shape our performance and this is made more evident in research from Carol Dweck and colleagues.

Dweck’s concept of mindset speaks to a set of beliefs and thinking habits that shape our worldview. In particular, Dweck emphasizes the distinction between those with a growth mindset and a fixed mindset.

Those with a fixed mindset tend to see things as being set, including abilities, resources, and a belief that we need to work within constraints to accomplish something. They put emphasis on limits. Those with a growth mindset tend to see possibilities and are much less likely to see themselves as challenging, pushing or finding ways around limits. They see room for growth.

In practice, constraints do limit us, but at the same time is there are often possibilities within those constraints. Our mindset guides our choices about how to approach problems. The more you believe that you can do more, the more you will do, if you believe you can’t, you likely won’t. Your expectations shape, what kind of performance you have.

Placebos: The Real Power of Fake Interventions

There’s an enormous body of research that indicates that placebos that a ‘fake’ medication or intervention can be as powerful as any other real medication when used in the right context.

Now a placebo can’t fix a broken bone or shrink a tumor, but it can have a powerful effect on areas that are influenced by self-awareness – like pain.

Our brains can elicit biological responses to psychological stimuli and a placebo amplifies this effect. Now, if anybody has ever jumped out to surprise you, you know exactly how tightly coupled the mind and body are inextricably linked by something that isn’t actually physical.

One of the studies that tested the placebo effect was a 2007 study published in Psychological Science by Harvard researchers Alia Crum and Ellen Langer. Crum and Langer studied hotel cleaning room staff to see if the power of suggestion could translate into physical benefits.

In the study, half of the participants were told that their work cleaning hotel rooms was good exercise and satisfied the U.S Surgeon General’s recommendations for an active lifestyle while the other half were not given this information. Over the course of four weeks, those who had been told their work was considered exercise, reported themselves to be getting significantly more exercise than before the study.

Furthermore, those participants also showed a decrease in their weight, blood pressure, body fat, waist to hip ratio and body mass index – all physiological indicators of exercises. This was despite the fact is they actually had not changed their behaviour in any particular way. They just saw what they were currently doing as a form of exercise.

This is one of the reasons why the placebo effect can be so powerful. How we see ourselves and our world can shape what we do in subtle ways. And those small adjustments can make a big difference.

Feedback and Expectations

Expectations can be a challenge when it comes to innovation. Now, by definition, an innovation is something new and it means we don’t have experience doing it. And it may change what we expect and how to expect something. Evaluation provides us with a reality check.

Evaluation is a means of gathering systematic feedback to confirm our assumptions and challenge or extend our belief system based on our expectations. Now there’s a fine line between having an elevated expectation and a delusion. And it’s been often said that the difference between a vision and a delusion is whether more than one person can see it.

What feedback does is it makes our results from our expectations visible so that other people can see them. It also allows us to assess whether that expectation was pushing us to new heights or maybe it was just a delusion.

Take-Home Expectations

So what can we expect from expectations?

First of all, our expectations matter. So choose them wisely.

Second, our belief in possibility, and our mindset are vital in shaping what we will pursue by challenging our beliefs about what’s possible and pushing them a little further. We can do more than we thought possible. Remember that our prospects are our beliefs.

Third, gather feedback, whether we were being overly optimistic or pessimistic will depend partly on whether or not we can show results from our actions based on those expectations. Do what we expect, translate it into reality, evaluate and provide yourself with the feedback needed to make judgments about your expectations and that of others and you’re off to making innovation more aligned with your actions.

So consider your expectations, your passport to making change a reality.

Censemaking: The Innovation Podcast is available online wherever you get your podcasts. Listen to other episodes and subscribe by clicking here.

Photo by Jan Tinneberg on Unsplash, Anita Jankovic on Unsplash, Tim Rüßmann on Unsplash

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Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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