Seriously, Dan!: No One Expects Expectation Theory

SeriouslyDan May 8, 2013 No Comments »
Seriously, Dan!: No One Expects Expectation Theory
I saw Iron Man 3 last week, and it was okay. I did not love it as much as everyone else.  I wanted Tony to have comic book Extremis powers, I wanted Pepper to date Happy the way Stan Lee and nature designed her. I wanted AIM henchmen to wear yellow AIM lab suits. I wanted Guy Pearce to apologize for The Time Machine. And, I expected them to relegate Favereu to door opening scenes. In other words,I was ready for the best movie ever. In retrospect, except for Downey’s performance and his kid assistant, who was not horrible, I was kind of disappointed.
I also saw Oblivion last week.  I expected Tom Cruise to be awful, but Morgan Freeman to be amazing. I expected the script and plot to be as bad a typical Mission Impossible movie. I expected to be three or four steps ahead of the action. I expected limited acting from the supporting cast, in short I expected to hate the film. I only went because I was on vacation with my family and my son wanted to see it. Cruise was great, the plot was surprisingly complicated and engaging and full of surprises, and the support cast was good, though I did not like Morgan Freeman’s monologuing, the film was one of my favorite Science Fiction experiences.
Apart from what they say about in my taste in films or my engagement as a fan, these experiences reveal the power of our expectations.  .In 1964 Dr. Victor Vroom (his real name!) defined the relationship between expectation and motivation as Expectation Theory. For me, Expectation Theory has been a great tool for objectively analyzing what I want and more importantly why I want what I want.  The theory has allowed me to determine what factors actually create or define goals in life.  While providing advice or coaching, it has been a tool for helping clients and friends understand their own motivations and what factors will enable happiness, success, and fulfillment.
My expectations were based on the levels of fun I expected from each movie and motivated me to see each. In the Iron Man 3 case, I was motivated by my expectations of the best superhero movie. In the case of Oblivion, my expectations were based on making my son happy.  The problem with both of these expectations were that they were not realistic.  Expectation Theory helps to explain why we make decisions, even if we are incorrect in our beliefs about the outcomes.
Basically, we can understand Expectation Theory involves three principles:
  • Expectation determines our performance (the quality and quantity of actions)
  • A person believes he will receive rewards if the performance expectation is met (positive results of actions)
  • The value the individual places on the rewards (how awesome the results are)
There is some more math involved, but for our purpose we can stick with these principles, avoid the math, and take it for granted that since 1964 there has been a lot of research to complicate and/or refute the theory. It’s not a perfect theory, but it’s a nice piece of thought-work that can be a great life tool.
Let’s go through this theory in terms that apply to you. Let’s say…for example…you are looking for a relationship.  You have expectations about that relationships that will cause you to take action.  You will join online dating sites, you will tell your friends you are ready for a relationship, you will prepare yourself with exercise, a new hair style, and upgrade your clothing.  You believe that taking these actions will bring you into a relationship and that being in a relationship will provide you specific rewards: a sense of completion, a feeling of connection, physical comfort, sexual pleasure, and someone to celebrate St. Valentine’s Day with.  Sure, there are more benefits we can imagine in a relationship from long term happiness to marriage, but whatever the benefits and rewards of a relationship, but the level you WANT those rewards will determine the effort you put into achieving your goal.
How do we know how much we value the rewards? First we must want the reward, for that is how we become motivated.  If we are neutral or negative on the reward, there will be no motivation.  Next, we must have three factors for motivation: expectancy, the ability to achieve the reward (instrumentality), and the positive view of the reward (valence). The value of the rewards will determine your motivation .Here are some examples of how you subconsciously determine your own motivation.
  • If your expectations of a relationship are negative, you will not be motivated to enter a relationship regardless of your own ability to get in a relationship and whether you find the idea of a relationship as a positive.
  • If you have all the belief in the world that the relationship will make you happy, but feel you are not desirable enough to find a worthwhile relationship, you will have no motivation towards being in a relationship regardless of how positive your view of any relationship is.
  • If you feel a relationship will give you benefits, feel you are able to get into a relationship, but have a negative view of relationships then you will not have motivation to get into the a relationship.
  • If you think the relationship will give you benefits, feel you are able to get into a relationship, and have a positive view of relationships, they will be motivated to get into a relationship.
So you can use expectancy theory to understand what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how to improve your life strategies. Sometimes the motivating rewards we seek are not realistic outcomes from our actions, and that leads us down paths that cause us discomfort or even pain.  Sometimes we understand our own abilities to achieve the rewards. When this happens we must take a step back and re-evaluate either our own resources or our approach.  It is possible that we can take actions to improve our “instrumentality,” but in order to do that…we need to have the motivation that comes from positive expectations.
Of course the future is not predictable, but a good strategy and planning based on the most realistic analysis of our current experiences and goals can help to create a life closer to our dreams.
I might go see Iron Man 3 again, but I don’t expect it will be better for me.
I do have high expectations of Star Trek, and I am motivated to see it.
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