Why there is a downside to high expectations

Ed Finkel | Feb 23, 2018

High expectations can bolster confidence, resulting in increased effort, more persistence, and better performance. But when people fall short of expectations early on, many become concerned with what others think and potentially give up or change course, research suggests.

“After exhibiting initial poor performance on a task, individuals who face high external expectations feel more embarrassed about violating public expectations and in turn are less persistent than individuals who face low external expectations,” write University of California at Los Angeles’s Hengchen Dai, Chicago Booth’s Berkeley J. Dietvorst, American Express GBT’s Bradford Tuckfield, and University of Pennsylvania’s Katherine L. Milkman and Maurice E. Schweitzer.

The most direct way to maintain a positive reputation after an initial setback would be to persist in order to improve, but doing so risks further embarrassment and perhaps failure. For this reason, the researchers hypothesize, some people instead seek an exit strategy—whether that’s stepping down from an executive position or making a subtler move, such as switching tasks.

Take professional tennis players, for example. The researchers analyzed data, including scores and player rankings, from more than 328,000 men’s tennis matches. Favorites, or players entering a match with a higher ranking, won almost 62 percent of the time, and 18 percent of these players lost the first set but rallied to win the match.

The researchers used a regression discontinuity design (which compares observations just above and below a threshold) to study matches between closely ranked players, making status as favorite or underdog somewhat arbitrary but still potentially important psychologically. They find that being labeled a favorite instead of an underdog is associated with an estimated 27 percent increase in a player's likelihood of quitting, in some cases due to injury, after losing the first set of a match.

 “We have suggestive evidence that some of the injuries that favorites claim are, at the very least, less severe than those claimed by underdogs if not entirely fictitious,” the researchers conclude. “This is consistent with our proposed mechanism that people use quitting as an impression management strategy.”

In a laboratory experiment, the researchers engaged 304 participants in a trivia challenge and told them they would be randomly assigned questions of either “middle-school difficulty” or “expert difficulty.” In reality, the questions were the same, but participants who were assigned to the middle-school difficulty treatment had higher performance expectations. Participants were given the option to switch to questions on new topics at any time after the first 20 questions. They knew they would be told their score regularly, that scores would be posted on the blackboard before the session ended, and that if they switched topics, their scores would be based only on the questions they answered after switching, meaning they could effectively reset their scores. They also learned that switching topics had a cost—they would earn less money for each question that they answered correctly.

The impact of expectations
Study participants who faced higher expectations in a trivia challenge answered fewer questions before switching topics and reported higher feelings of embarrassment.

High Expectations         Low Expectations

High Expectations         Low Expectations

Dai et al., 2017

In the first 20 questions, participants in both conditions answered correctly approximately 23 percent of the time. Yet the middle-school difficulty participants switched topics sooner, after reporting significantly greater feelings of embarrassment.

“[W]e both theorize and demonstrate that facing high external expectations can, in the face of early setbacks, be a burden,” the researchers write. In the business setting, they say, this means that “managers should focus attention on employees who face high expectations and experience early setbacks and develop strategies to help them,” such as building a culture that accepts and learns from failure.