Unreasonable Expectations

Luke: Listen, if you were to rescue her, the reward would be

Han Solo: What?

Luke: Well, more wealth than you can imagine!

Han Solo: I don’t know, I can imagine quite a bit. (excerpt from the movie Star Wars)

Following up on a previous topic about situational indifference, I’d like to focus on the value of reducing expectations (cue Miss Havisham* stage left). However, I must first point out that adjusting one’s emotional barometer in response to unwelcome news is different than succumbing to apathy and incredulous disillusionment. Furthermore, the “recommendation” to reduce expectations isn’t to imply that expectations should never be expected. The problem occurs when expectations are disproportionate to the evidence for maintaining such anticipations. Human appetites for gratification are generally larger than what is realistically on offer, and experiencing outcomes are often less intoxicating than imagining outcomes.

The Israeli-American psychologist Daniel Kahneman has examined two experiential states described as the experiencing self and the remembering self. Kahneman presents these states as somewhat paradoxical in that they seldom establish synchronicity or compatibility. For example, the experiencing self may feel exuberantly “in the moment” and elated during a pivotal milestone, but the remembering self may downplay the occasion or find reasons for criticism. Conversely, the remembering self may idealize a former event while the experiencing self may have felt nonplussed during the actual occurrence. In hedonic psychology—measuring reported states of pleasure and pain—a person’s most accurate response to stimuli would be what Kahneman refers to as “moment utility.”¹ Moment utility is simply the perceptual awareness and feelings of an event as it is unfolding. Obviously, variables of perception change after an event due to a combination of adaptation, emotional disposition, and the low-fidelity nature of memory when eroded by the passage of time. Studies in neuroscience have demonstrated that human memory is subject to multiple errors in storage and retrieval. Unlike the digital storage units etched on a DVD, memory shifts over time and the reliability of memory is “retrospectively colored” by one’s current emotional state. In summation, our remembering self becomes the commander in chief when adjudicating future decisions, and overall life satisfaction is invariably assessed from an historic perspective. Consequently, nothing in the future may live up to our hedonic predictions and euphoria has a limited shelf-life when compared with the tenacity of aspirations.

In physics, the “observer effect” refers to changes that the act of observation will make on a phenomenon being observed. Likewise, remembering states of well-being in psychology are influenced in ways that ultimately lead to subjective relativity. Innocuously-intended closed questions about life contentment become open-ended discussions with minimal resolution. Whatever could possibly be expected is gradually replaced by the realization that there’s probably less to anticipate than our unmitigated desires can fabricate. The best way to avoid disappointment may be to lower the bar on unrealistically favorable predictions.

There is an emotionally seductive reason why people want to vicariously identify with the protagonist in heroic films. However, life is not like an epic adventure movie that reaches a climactic conclusion; it’s more like a Victorian novel that ends ambiguously, unexpectedly, or tragically. Nonetheless, our allocation of time is ultimately what makes each moment worth experiencing.

1. Memory Vs. Experience: Happiness is Relative, Naina N. Chernoff, APS, Observer, Vol. 15, No. 5, May/June, 2002.

* The “Miss Havisham effect,” based on the Charles Dickens character, describes a painful longing for lost love, which can become a physically addictive pleasure via paradoxical activation of reward and pleasure centers in the brain.