What do you expect of others?

Sat, 19 Jul 2014

There’s a certain rationality to the idea that when we hold negative expectations of others, we’ll be pleasantly surprised, and if we hold more positive expectations of others, we’ll be disappointed.

As neither of those options appeal to me, I’m pleased to have learned that they’re not true.  In fact, by expecting and looking for the positives in other people, I find them, indeed even beyond what I expect.

How can this work, logically?  One explanation is that people sometimes change their behaviour based on people’s expectations.  My treating people with a positive regard, I believe we do make them more likely to live up to that.  If you treat teenagers as potential shoplifters, consciously or unconsciously they’re more likely to shoplift.  I’m sure this does explain some of the phenomenon, but what about where the other person doesn’t know I exist, let alone know what I’m expecting of them?

A second explanation is that there’s a lot going on in the world, and our brains tend to notice the things that confirm our beliefs.  This explains much of how opposing political party supporters or football fans can rationally maintain contradictory beliefs despite living in the same world.  If we maintain positive expectations, we’ll be more likely to notice the thousands of positive acts that go on around us, that we might otherwise disregard, and take less notice of the negative acts.

My final explanation is that people’s motives and actions aren’t clear-cut.  There are lots of actions that can be blamed on selfishness, or credited to more noble goals.  By maintaining a positive view of human nature, we’re more likely to see the same act as positive.  For example, it is likely that the vast majority of an opponent politician’s behaviour is due to them genuinely wanting to make the world better as they see it, but it is far more common to hear people attributing it to evil, selfishness or corruption.

I don’t feel unjustified in my positive expectations of others.  In any given day, we can witness hundreds of acts of kindness or consideration - some small enough to be explained as instinct or politeness, some much bigger but no less common, such as sacrificing time to be a good parent, while some acts may be considered truly heroic.  Society is incredibly different from what it would be if everyone spent their whole time only looking out for themselves.  I’d encourage anyone to spend time, even just 5 minutes, going through life and making a point of noting the positive actions of others.  They happen an awful lot.

I’m not under any illusions that the world, or the people in it, are perfect.  I know that there’s a lot wrong, and a lot of scope for us to make the world a better place (which we’re far more likely to do if we haven’t given up on people).  I wouldn’t consider myself naive.  I just don’t see the point in convincing ourselves that the world is worse than it is.