Great Expectations

A few weeks ago I was flying back from Boston to NYC. When I checked in at Delta with some time to spare, the agent asked me if I wanted to get on an earlier flight. With a little legwork, I caught the 3:30pm and was home in my apartment in less than 90 minutes. Upon reflection, I was thinking about how pleased I was with this unexpected outcome. I had no expectations of getting home hours ahead of schedule, so when it happened it gave me a little rush…A happy ending and I felt great.

The reason it felt so good is likely physiological. As author, David Rock has written, “for a long time now, scientists have known that the neurotransmitter dopamine is involved in the rewarding aspects of things. The brain is finely tuned to expectations, and an expectation that isn’t met, no matter how seemingly unimportant, can sometimes pack a punch.”

Had I arrived at the airport expecting an upgrade or an earlier flight, I probably would have been unhappy if I didn’t get it. When you step back and look at all possible outcomes this way, it makes sense to minimize one’s expectations of positive rewards in most situations. Keeping an even keel about potential wins, pays off.

This stands out for me when I think of my parents’ behavior in raising our family of five. Growing up, my mom and dad would often keep the daily plans or future trip ideas private from us young children, as they knew that we would become easily frustrated at the smallest unmet expectation. “But I thought we were having pizza for dinner? You said our friends could come over! What about seeing Disney World this summer?!”

Unmet expectations can pack a punch for adults, too. Here’s why:

There is a link between dopamine and the reward circuitry. Professor Wolfram Schultz found that when a cue from the environment indicates you’re going to get a reward, dopamine releases in response. Unexpected rewards release more dopamine than expected ones. Thus, the surprise bonus at work, even a small one, can positively impact your brain chemistry more than an expected pay raise. ??

But, if you’re expecting a reward and you don’t get it, dopamine levels fall steeply. This feeling is not a pleasant one. In fact, it feels a lot like pain. Expecting a pat on the back at work after pulling an all-nighter, and not getting one, can create a depression that lasts for days. Low levels of unmet expectations are something we all experience daily. Expect no traffic, and watch your mood plummet when the turnpike is jammed. Expect the service at McDonalds to be fast but find a long queue, more frustration. Not only does dopamine go down in these instances, you also get a mild threat response, which can cause aggressive behavior. In a diagram form, where (x) represents dopamine surge in the brain, imagine: (x) = Expectations met: (dopamine up, not a big burst of heaven – but a small mild reward response) 2(x) = Expectations exceeded: (much stronger reward response. dopamine is up, big reward) -10(x) = Expectations not met: (dopamine drop, threat rise in nasty neurotransmitters.)
Creating the right expectations drives much of our experience of life. We cannot control the outcome of any given event, but we can learn to manage our perceptions.