We are Predictably Irrational: The Effect of Expectations

What we expect isn’t always what we get
Spoiler Alert: This week we’ll conclude our examination of Dan Ariely’s book, Predictably Irrational: The Forces that Shape our Decisions.
“The Effect of Expectations”

Would you hire a caterer that offers roasted chicken breast, or, one that offers, “succulent organic breast of chicken roasted to perfection and drizzled with a merlot demi-glace, resting in a bed of herbed Israeli couscous?” If you are hosting an event, would you offer to serve wine in glass juice cups, or, would you stock the appropriate glasses for champagne, wine, and cordials? “Even though controlled studies find that the shape of the glass makes no difference at all in an objective blind taste test, that doesn’t stop people from perceiving a significant difference when they are handed the correct glass.” And someone will probably hire the caterer offering fancy food-fare. Why? We are creatures of expectation.


“Expectations enable us to make sense of a conversation in a noisy room, despite the loss of a word here and there . . . And although expectations can make us look foolish from time to time, they are also very powerful and useful. The brain cannot start from scratch at every new situation. It must build on what it has seen before.” We are creatures of our past experiences. “Expectations also shape stereotypes (a way of categorizing information) in the hope of predicting experiences.” In addition to restaurants and caterers using fancy names on their menus so you expect delicious food, presentation plays a part in expectations as well. Remember, would you think your wine tasted better in a juice cup or fancy wine glass? Why do chefs drizzle fancy sauces on our plates and add garnishes? Why do companies use marketing tactics to reinforce expectations, too, like, “Things go better with Coke.” By constantly reinforcing a message, we start to expect, and believe, it is true.

Ariely’s Study

Ariely conducts a study with MIT students. He offers them a sample tasting of Beer A and Beer B, with a promise of a free glass of whichever beer they prefer. He explains Beer A is a regular commercial beer, while Beer B is a special, MIT brew. The results, an overwhelming majority choose the MIT brew, Beer B. (It is an MIT brew, so, expectations are it must be better, right?) Ariely runs the study again, however, this time students are told during the sampling that Beer A is Budweiser, and Beer B is the same Budweiser with some drops of balsamic vinegar added. Armed with the knowledge that Beer B has vinegar in it, the overwhelming majority “wrinkled their noses” and requested Beer A instead. “The moral, as you might expect, is that if you tell people up front that something might be distasteful, the odds are good that they will end up agreeing with you-not because their experience tells them so but because of their expectations.”

Getting a Grip on Expectations

So what are Ariely’s recommendations for dealing with expectations? Be aware that all humans are vulnerable to expectations. And, “when stripping away our preconceptions and our previous knowledge is not possible, perhaps we can at least acknowledge that we are all biased. If we acknowledge that we are trapped within our perspective, which partially blinds us to the truth, we may be able to accept the idea that conflicts generally require a neutral third party-who has not been tainted with our expectations-to set down the rules and regulations.”

As Ariely comments, we all get stuck from time to time. Some of us just get overwhelmed with our to-do lists and so nothing gets done. Some of us just think to ourselves, it has always been this way, the clutter, the disorganization-it will never change. Some of us realize we could be “trapped within our own perspective, which partially blinds us to the truth.” When this is the case it may be time to seek help.

Predictably Irrational: The Forces That Shape Our Decisions
Dan Ariely
Harper Perennial, (2010), 349 Pages, $15.99
Jenny Power- Absolutely Organized
Organizing Tool Kit
Predictably Irrational Book Link