Our Expectations Define Our Experience

By Chris Chittenden

“Remember, our conduct is influenced not by our experience but by our expectations."

… George Bernard Shaw (1856 - 1950) Irish dramatist & critic

Do you remember the cola wars from the 1980s and 1990s? At the time, Coca-Cola and Pepsi staged a titanic struggle to establish a greater share of the cola drinking market. As part of their involvement, both companies conducted taste tests, which both claimed they won. As with any comparative subjective tests, the way in which these tests were conducted had a lot to do with the results. Pepsi conducted blind taste tests where the participants were unaware of the product they were drinking. On the other hand, Coca-Cola indicated to participants which cola they were drinking – Pepsi or Coke. The key difference was that in one taste people knew what they were drinking and in the other one they did not. In other words, there was a different context for the two sets of tests. In many ways, the results would have given a warm feeling to the advertising industry as, at the time, Coke had a much higher recognition rate than Pepsi and the results seem to indicate that this brand recognition impacted on how people rated their taste when comparing the two.

You might think this is purely a matter of how people assessed something rather than it changing their actual experience of tasting. Yet this does not appear to the case. In often repeated experiments where placebos have been tested, people have consistently felt better. Indeed, when people are told of the supposed cost of a placebo, the more expensive placebos seem to generate greater results. It appears that people feel better if they think the cure is more expensive – an interesting insight into the cost of our health care system!!

What does all this mean for people in leadership roles or those who are trying to influence others? I suppose we could draw many conclusions about these observations. The one that showed up most strongly for me was that people will often get the experience they expect. Hence if we are seeking to engage others in something, it is vitally important to understand their expectations related to it. It may be that we may need to work on their expectations by seeking to creating a different context before we jump into whatever action is specifically needed.

These ideas came to me whilst listening to an audiobook of “Predictably Irrational” by Dan Ariely – see our You Tube link below for more thoughts from Dan Ariely on placebos. You can also explore his work further at the his website.

More articles on Being Human

© 2008 Chris Chittenden