Friday, April 3, 2009

The tyranny of high expectations

Have you ever suspected that expectations can shape your opinion?

I think I remember first running across this idea while reading a book on skiing about 20 years ago. (I thought it was something like “The Chi of Skiing”—I remember noting that it did not use the more common eastern religion words like “Tao” or “Zen”. But I can’t find it online. Maybe it’s long out of print.) The book talked about avoiding expectations, and instead trying to anticipate. I’ve learned in the 20 years since first encountering that idea that like so many prescriptions for living, this is much easier said than done.

It’s impossible to definitively test the influence of expectations on experience, of course, since we can’t rewind time and re-experience something with different expectations. But it could be statistically measured. It would be interesting to expose one group of people to negative reviews of a movie, for example, and another to positive reviews (and have a control group that knows nothing about the movie) and then analyze their ratings afterward. I suspect that (if most people are like me), negative expectations can often lead to my enjoying something more. (Provided it’s not completely horrid or absolutely great. I think this effect is strongest on shaping one’s opinion of a mediocre experience.)

But enough philosophizing. The reason I bring this up is that I’ve noticed this expectation effect twice lately. Last Thursday, while I was in Chicago for PyCon, I took the afternoon off and walked around the city. As it got late (and as I tired from all the walking) I decided I was in the mood for a movie. (I hadn’t seen one in a couple months.) I chose Watchmen. I enjoyed the graphic novel, which I read last year after I read a glowing recommendation of a friend. (He wrote something like “best graphic novel ever”, or maybe even “best novel ever”.) My expectations were high, especially after I saw that it is the only graphic novel to appear on Time’s “All-TIME 100 Greatest Novels” list. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t love it. (I suspect I would have enjoyed it more without such high expectations.) But I went into the movie with low expectations. I had seen some middling reviews, and heard some of a very negative review on the Slate Culture Gabfest (no. 29) before I skipped it to avoid spoilers. I enjoyed the movie immensely. It wasn’t great. But I had a very good time, and didn’t notice that it was long. I suspect I may not have enjoyed it as much if I had high expectations.

Yesterday I finished listening to Speaker for the Dead. I wrote about listening to the audiobooks Ender’s Game and Ender in Exile a little over a month ago in my Pleasures of a poor memory post. I had completely forgotten it. It was like reading (or hearing) it for the first time. But I had high expectations. I remember noting it as perhaps my favorite SF novel. Sadly, I wouldn’t rank it so highly anymore. Perhaps Orson Scott Card’s observations of human nature aren’t as impressive to me after I’ve acquired 25 more years of experience (and perhaps a tiny bit of wisdom). But I suspect the damping effect of my high expectations had a lot to do with it.

I guess my lesson is that to maximize my enjoyment, I should always expect the worst.

Speaker for the Dead did finish well though. Well enough that I just downloaded Xenocide (the next in the Ender series). I’m going to try not to expect much. (My expectations are lower actually, since I recall the series goes downhill after Speaker for the Dead.)