How Do You Generate Social Expectations? How Do They Affect You?

February 28, 2018

You interact with many people every day. Some are familiar while others are strangers. You have a concept of each of their personalities, which is inferred from the interactions you have had with these people. This leads you to generate a set of social expectations about the behavior of each and every one of them.

Social psychology has been greatly concerned with the study of expectations. Thanks to this, we know that they are closely related to the impressions we have of others. First of all, let’s take a look at and discuss social perception.

Social perception

Human beings, deprived at birth of the resources needed to be independent, require complex social relationships. Thus, the brain is prepared to perceive our social environment and evaluate it. A very important part of controlling our relationships is knowing what the people who make up our social environment are like. This is where social perception comes into play.

A simple and interesting model used to explain this phenomenon is the model of social perception by Fiske. According to this model, we will fit anyone into a category upon barely meeting them. And they will stay in this category unless the relationship acquires new depth and we discover something which urges us to change their category.

Plus, if we’re interested, we will attempt to prove if their behavior adapts to this category. If it doesn’t, we will adapt and change the category until we have categorized or conceptualized the individual.

Two men are harboring expectations about each other.

This is a very important process. Think of it like this, without it, the task of managing our social relationships would be much more complicated. It’s important to keep in mind that it is a quick and useful process, but not a precise one. Human beings have very complex personalities that have a strong interaction with context, which can hardly be included within categories. However, this little “mental shortcut” is useful in letting us know how to treat the people around us.

When we have categorized our social environment and once we’ve formed concepts of each of these people, we begin to create expectations. But, what exactly are expectations?

Social expectations

Social expectations are ideas that we have of how someone in our social surroundings will behave in the future or in a specific situation. When we generate an impression of someone, these expectations are associated with the image we generate. This helps us imagine how we have to behave or act around them and to predict their behavior.

This conduct of generating expectations about our relationships fulfills an adaptive function. It’s pretty simple to guess what it is. In an artificial environment, based on complex societies such as the ones most of us inhabit, foreseeing the behavior of others allows us to adapt our own behavior. Thus, we would greatly benefit in social interactions. Despite that this isn’t a precise process, making a prediction and being wrong at times is better than not doing it or never guessing correctly.

It’s important to know that these social or behavioral expectations greatly influence our own behavior. We don’t treat everyone alike, just as we don’t treat the same person the same way in every situation. We can see this in many everyday situations.

Plus, we try to make others meet our expectations, either by forcing them indirectly or altering our perception them. This process takes place in both directions. We are also aware of the expectations others have of us. So we also attempt to adapt our behavior in order to satisfy these ideas.

A small reflection

Life is full of social expectations, both our own about others as well as other people’s expectations of us. In this sense, in order to keep our relationships comfortable, we have a tendency to meet these expectations. Breaking them could generate a space of uncertainty and, thus, anxiety. You have to keep in mind that this is not a precise process. Therefore, many times these expectations will not be met.

A mistake in attributing an expectation leads to three situations. Firstly, the person who receives the expectation will change their behavior to adapt to it. Second, the person who generated the expectation will change their perception in order to believe that their behavior fits the expectations. And third, the correlation between the expectation and the behavior is broken, and it is accepted as a mistake.

Two women are having a friendly conversation.

The first two scenarios avoid social conflict and manage to maintain any relationship early on. But the truth is that this can lead to big problems in the long term. This is because in the first case, a person changes their behavior to satisfy the other person. This leads the other generating a mistaken concept of reality. In the second case, the person who created the expectation is lying. They are unconsciously performing self-deceit about what the other person is like.

Beyond anxiety, a closer bond

The third option is the one which causes the most anxiety, due to a lack of control over what occurs. Despite this, if the relationship overcomes or accepts this anxiety, a much more stable relationship will be achieved. It’s possible that in temporary relationships (for example, with a neighbor), the first two options are the appropriate ones since there is no long-term relationship or a close link between them. However, it would be very neglectful to behave like this with our closest friends or family.

How do you think you behave with regards to your expectations? How would you like to behave?