Great Expectations: The unconscious influence on perception and action

 

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Line drawings of our expectations on the left with reality on the right. Note that anywhere along the line on the right one could compare progress with the expectation on the left and be disappointed and/or angry even though the outcome is exactly as hoped for.

 

Last night I had a dream. In the dream things that I expected did not happen and I started to get upset, then angry, with how things weren’t happening the way I thought they should. In the dream I found myself yelling, “Stop doing that, that’s not the way you’re supposed to do it!” When I awoke I realized that this was a reflection of my unexamined feelings associated with being disappointed with something someone had done. I had been chewing on my judgments of them all the day preceding the dream so it was only natural that the issue should show up in a dream.

The issue wasn’t really about the unexplored feelings however, they were important but something else was affecting those feelings. The issue was really about my expectations for their behavior and it was these that were coloring my inner dialogue. And it was my expectations that were affecting what I was feeling about them.

So what about an unmet expectation was causing trouble in my mind or to put it another way when someone or something doesn’t live up to my expectation of the way they should be, why do I find that upsetting? Whoa, the onus of the problem just shifted radically from “it’s their fault” to “It’s mine”. My expectations are affecting how I see the world and then how I react to it.

There have been many studies about the effects of expectations in fields as varied as science, teaching, marketing, and politics. Expectations affect not only the findings of a scientist but on what they choose to study. They affect a journalist, a jury and a judge on what facts or non facts they choose to believe in and they also affect how a teacher perceives a student that can cause the teacher to either not expect much from a student or to expect more. Our expectations affect how we vote, listen to talk show hosts on T.V. / radio, and the products we buy and all of this opens us to manipulation the kind marketers and politicians use to get us to think their way instead of for ourselves. These real world perceptions also affect the decisions and pronouncements that a politician makes once in office and even affect when a policeman chooses to make an arrest or pull his weapon from its holster.

When I was a Freshman in High School we read Charles Dickens’ book “Great Expectations”. I loved the story but don’t think I really understood how the expectations of both the protagonist of the story, Pip, and the adults and others around him were affected by their expectations and how these judgments of the way life should or had to be ran their lives.

And behind every expectation there lays a judgment, a judgment that anything other than ones expectation is less– less important, valuable, honorable, patriotic, or correct… well you get the idea.

But let me narrow the field a little. In my dream as well as in my waking life I tend to let my judgments get in the way of what I am seeing. All too often I let my labels of what something is or should be affect what it actually is. All too often I will let my labels get in the way of my love for someone or something. This is true for not only how I see others and treat them, but for how I see myself that then will often lead to how I treat myself.

But I will always have judgments, I am like most people a “judgment machine” either judging something “good” (meaning it agrees with my point-of-view) or that it is “bad” (meaning that it doesn’t agree with my point-of-view)– yes I can choose to be tolerant of the so-called “bad” but often that’s just a personal expectation that I hold for myself because I judge myself to be a “good” and tolerant person. See? I’m a judgment machine!

One way that I deal with my judgments that affect my expectations, that affect how I feel about and how I interact with others, is to first become aware that that’s what I’m doing. For example, if I were to have the judgment that what someone is doing is stupid I just say to myself, “I’m having that “stupid judgment” thought again. What this does is to take the thought out of the automatic mode of perceiving the world and allows me then to shift my perspective and to look at myself to see what of myself that I may be projecting onto the event or the person.

Sometimes my judgments lead me to evil thoughts where I play a game in my head of tit-for-tat or an eye for an eye and I spiral down into negativity. What has helped me here is another expectation for myself i.e. that when I notice that I’m playing this negative scenario in my head that I will notice and never meet or counter evil with evil, negativity only breeds more negativity. I can use this negative energy to protest the evil in such a way that it makes some people stop and think about their actions or the actions of others.

But mostly I find that I just make these automatic judgments, expectations and decisions without assessing them and that of course doesn’t allow me to be at choice with either the perception or the response to them. This begs the question as to what degree am I really at choice with anything in my life, especially if I’ve allowed most of it to be run by my unconscious points-of-view – those unconscious points-of-view that the sleeping brain presents to us in our dreams in an attempt at trying to bring consciousness to our choices?

Ah, “free choice”, real choice, of what to think, what to feel, or how to act, how much do we really have? That’s a topic for another time.