Emotional Gambling: The Problem With Expectations

Having high expectations at the casino rarely ends well, but I think she did alright. (photo by Bev Wagar)

Gamblers usually lose, which is why emotional gambling is a bad idea. I have two questions for you:

1. Should you expect to love this article? 

  • A. You could expect this article to be a revelation that transforms your life.
  • B. You could come into this article with no expectations, saying, “I’m not sure what I’ll get out of this, but I’ll read it to find out.”

2. Should I expect this article to be well-received?

  • A. I could base my identity as a writer and person on how well this goes. *gulp*
  • B. I could write this without expectations, saying, “The reception of this piece does not validate or invalidate my reason and passion to write it.”

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how we’re all better off with option B.

Note: I’ll be talking more in terms of setting expectations for results you can’t control rather than having high expectations for what you can control completely.

Do You Know What Expectations Really Are?

Setting an expectation is an emotional gamble.

For example, you may think, this meeting is going to go well. That is your emotional gamble, and the stakes of your bet are the emotional consequences of meeting, exceeding, or failing to meet your expectation. Let’s explore this example to gain insight:

  • If the meeting goes well: it’s rewarding to have your expectation met.
  • If the meeting goes very well: it’s more rewarding to exceed an already positive expectation.
  • If the goes poorly: You’re shocked as your expectation shatters before your eyes; it’s jarring to see it play out unexpectedly.

Just like any bet, expectations increase the risk and reward of a situation. But does it raise them equally? I think our emotions are volatile and strong enough as it is, and don’t need amplification. But is the increased risk of making an emotional bet worth the potential reward?

How Expectations Affect Our Emotions (Emotional Gambling)

When you set an expectation, you knowingly increase the risk of an emotional letdown, which can be scary. Think of a guy who expects his girlfriend to say yes to his proposal vs. the guy who doesn’t know what she’ll say. A “no” from her will produce a profoundly stronger emotional setback in the guy who expects the “yes.”

Having an expectation clearly magnifies the negative emotional response from it not being met; it increases the emotional pain if it doesn’t go well. But what of the reward side? What happens if she says yes to each hypothetical person? Does the guy with the expectation experience a higher euphoria? I think not, and here’s why.

The Reason Why Everyone Loves Being The Underdog

If you expect a standard to be met, you’re essentially creating a new “base level.” Being that you expect this to happen, the mind assumes that it is “in the bag.” That’s why a positive result—when expected—isn’t that exciting.

When a favored team wins, they enjoy the victory, sure, but what happens when the underdog wins? Pandemonium!

How do you think an underdog approaches a game? Do they firmly expect to win? Not likely. Do they firmly expect to lose? Hopefully not, as that would all but guarantee it. The only option remaining—and the one I think they typically adopt—is that they don’t go in with an expectation. Perhaps they go in with the mindset to play their best, focus on what they know, and see what happens.

On the flip side, when the underdog loses, it’s disappointing. But when the favored team loses, it’s devastating; it’s shocking.

In both cases, the underdogs have the upper hand. They get a softer cushion of defeat and a greater euphoria from winning. 

So from this example, not only do expectations amplify negative result emotional consequences, but they also damper positive result emotions. Have you ever heard someone say “don’t make assumptions”? This is why—when you assume and assume wrong, it’s bad news. It’s better to wait and see before trying to draw a conclusion.

A caveat to that, and the best argument for expectations, is that we do tend to act from them. In other words, the team who expects to win has increased confidence. However—and this is critical—you don’t need to have expectations to be confident in your performance (and as I’ll explain next, it’s possible to be more confident without them).

How To Be Confident And Successful Without Using Expectations

Expectations can add confidence. Absolutely. Think of the guy who assumes every girl will be into him. He will act more assertively and confidently. (I apologize, by the way, for all of these romantic examples. It’s like I’m single or something.) 

Confidence derived from expectations is based on how convinced you are the result will be positive. That assuredness drives you in the direction of making it happen. But there’s another type of confidence that’s stronger than this. It’s the kind James Bond has. Oh yeah, I just pulled the Bond card.

Basically, confidence comes in two flavors. One flavor is the familiar type that we get from expectations—being confident in positive results and acting accordingly. People think this is James Bond’s secret of confidence, but he employs a much more powerful version. 

The second flavor of confidence comes from not fearing a negative result. Do you see how this is more powerful? If you are confident based on a positive expectation and that expectation is shattered, then so is your confidence. It has a major weak spot. But if you are confident because you believe in yourself even if you get the “worst case” result, then you will never be shaken, as Bond is never shaken.

We know that Bond thrives of this second type of confidence because he faces fear all day and never flinches. Bond makes jokes as he’s being tortured. He has a witty remark ready when a gun is pointed at his head. He has no fear, and when you don’t have fear, what remains is confidence!

Now how does that relate to having no expectations? Well, when you don’t have expectations, it means you’re considering ALL possibilities, rather than being fixated on the best-case scenario. When you consider all possibilities, as an underdog does, you will naturally fear a negative result less. 

You can be confident without expectations because your mind has already calculated and internalized the possible outcomes. This is a HUGE advantage in life!

I don’t want to make this sound like a magic switch that transforms your life overnight, because it’s not. It can help immediately to switch off your expectations, but it won’t likely make you fearless until you practice it more. Like all behavior change, it requires consistent practice to change the brain. But this is something you can practice frequently. Just be mindful of your expectations.

Emotional gambling is a needless risk. Don’t take it!

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