Go through life expecting the worst and then you’ll never be disappointed. And on those rare occasions when something goes right for you, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. It sounds like a sensible philosophy, but according to Margaret Marshall and Jonathon Brown at the universities of Seattle Pacific and Washington, it doesn’t work that way.
They asked 81 students to complete a word association task. Before the task the students said how well they expected to do based on some sample questions.
Afterwards, the researchers found that the students who expected to do well, but in fact did badly, actually felt better about themselves after the task than the poorly performing students who expected to do badly.
On the other hand, the students who expected to do well and did do well, felt happier about themselves after the task than the students who did much better than they expected.
What was going on? One clue came from other questionnaires the students filled in. These showed that the students who expected to do well were more positive about life in general. Another possibility was that the students with high and low expectations differed in what they attributed their success or failure to.
In a second study using the same task, the researchers found the high-scoring students who expected to do well, put their success down to their ability, more than the high scoring students who hadn’t expected to do well. On the other hand, the poor performers who expected to do well, but did badly, tended not to see their failure as caused by their lack of ability (unlike the poor performers who expected to do badly).
The great American psychologist William James recommended lowering your expectations. “Make thy claim of wages a zero, then hast thou the world under thy feet”, he wrote. But combined with previous work showing that pessimism undermines people’s performance, this research suggests that it’s probably best not to think the worst.
Marshall, M.A. & Brown, J.D. (2006). Emotional reactions to achievement outcomes: Is its really best to expect the worst. Cognition and Emotion, 20, 43-63.
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.
Link to William James' classic text