Expectations serve as burden, tool in emergenciesLaw #4: "Expectation is reality"
By Art C. Botterell
The tricky thing about reality is that we have so many realities to choose from. Everyone has their own sense of how the world is working, and everyone's perspective is slightly different.
And even each of our individual worldviews vary from moment to moment, depending on our mood, our social context and what we had for breakfast. It's kind of amazing, in fact, that we manage to agree on as much as we do.
Or maybe not. A lot of the time our perception of reality is fairly automatic. There are certain things we've come to expect, and as long as things go as expected (apples fall, baseballs fly, sputniks orbit), we don't need to spend a lot of thought on them.
We practice a routine of management by exception; our attention goes toward the relatively few things that don't match our preexisting templates for life, the universe and everything.
And we constantly adjust those templates in response to life's surprises in an attempt to minimize the cumulative stress of change. We call that "learning from experience" or sometimes just "going with the flow." By that process, we construct a body of expectations, largely shared, that we think of as reality.
To keep from getting bogged down processing small surprises, we also set a largely unconscious threshold of incongruity and simply ignore certain things that don't match our expectations. This is what the research community calls the normalcy bias and the rest of us call denial.
Expectations as a burden
What's interesting about it is that humans can deny some really major things. It seems to have as much to do with the psychological cost of adjusting our mental models as it does with real-world consequences.
Which is why a large unexpected departure from the norm can be more than a surprise. An event like that can be a challenge to our sense of self-control and personal freedom, our faith in a just world or a loving deity, and even our sanity. An emergency or a disaster, whether shared or personal, can rock our world.
As a practical example, allow me to offer a tongue-in-cheek version of FEMA's history.
With each new administration, a new team of administrators is appointed. They read the Stafford Act and conclude that their primary responsibility is to hand out checks after a disaster.
Then a disaster strikes and they're pilloried for not being more proactive in the response phase. Recall, for example, Miami emergency manager Kate Hale's famous 1992 "Where's the cavalry?" complaint after Hurricane Andrew.
The administrators realize that the Stafford Act doesn't bound public expectations. On the next disaster, they throw federal resources at the problem like there's no tomorrow — and are subsequently pilloried for being wasteful and intrusive. And then there's another election.
Massively oversimplified, of course, but I'm afraid not entirely off the mark. Emergency managers are measured, ultimately, not against our explicit program goals or authorizing legislation, but in terms of public expectations.
Expectations as a tool
By the same token, it's well known that individuals and organizations alike tend to rise or fall to the level of expectations. It's been observed in athletes and physicians, in sales organizations and in cultures worldwide: Tell a person, or a community, or an agency, that it's incompetent or unnecessary or just plain ugly, and you'll generally get what you expect. And vice versa, which is why scientists sometimes call this "the Pygmalion effect."
It's even true of wine. In 2008 the Boston Globe reported on a study by scientists at CalTech and Stanford, which found that people think more expensive wine tastes better, even when it's really the same vintage as the "cheaper" competition.
"The human brain, research suggests, isn't built for objectivity," according to journalist Jonah Lehrer. "The brain doesn't passively take in perceptions. Rather, brain regions involved in developing expectations can systematically alter the activity of areas involved in sensation. The cortex is ‘cooking the books,' adjusting its own inputs depending on what it expects."
Which makes "expectation management" a tricky game to play. We can, for example, warn the public that we really won't be able to help them all that much in a big emergency. That'll take some of the heat off us in the short term. But it risks persuading the public that we aren't worth funding, or supporting, or even respecting, and in the longer run that can erode our capacity and make our predicted limitations self-fulfilling.
On the other hand, it can be argued, if we overpromise we may win near-term support at the risk of falling short when we're actually put to the test. That might even be true, but it puts us on the path of despair and that doesn't help anyone.
Personally I'd rather see our reach exceed our grasp so that we're motivated (and encouraged) to strive, if not for perfection, than at least for better. But that's just me.
It's conventional to talk about differences between expectation and reality. The point of the Fourth Law is that such differences are remarkable precisely because they're rare. Most of the time we humans see what we expect to see. Events need to be not just different from our expectations, but very different, before we take the trouble to really look at them closely.
The Fourth Law is also a rebuke to that officious impulse that's caused pretty much all of us, at one time or another, to begin a sentence with the words, "The reality is …" Claiming the power to define reality isn't just pompous, it's futile. Even if we can buffalo an audience into pretending to agree with us, they're still going to view the world through the lens of their own expectations.
On the other hand, there's tremendous power here for whoever is brave enough to wield it. By raising our expectations of ourselves, and by encouraging our political masters and the public to expect us (and themselves) to succeed in resilience, we're more than half the way to making it so.