Expectations Definition

ExpectationsExpectations are personal beliefs about occurrences that may take place in the future. Expectations develop from a combination of individuals’ experiences and knowledge. For example, if one has the knowledge that a relative’s birthday is next Saturday and experience indicates that a family get-together was held each of the past 5 years on that relative’s birthday, then it is reasonable to have the expectation that a birthday celebration is likely to occur next Saturday. Expectations serve a basic function to prepare humans for action. The choices humans make are based on the expectations they hold for how their decisions will affect themselves and the world around them at some future time. Expectations range in certainty from a small possibility of occurrence to an almost certain occurrence. Expectations can be automatic and not given much thought, for example, expecting there will be sufficient oxygen available for breathing, or they can be deliberate, such as expecting one will make a positive impression on a new acquaintance.

Consequences of Expectations

Expectations affect how people think, feel, and behave. Expectations affect our thought processes involved in attention, interpretation, explanations, and memory. People pay more attention to information that is consistent with expectations or noticeably inconsistent. Expectations guide how people interpret information; specifically, people are more likely to interpret uncertain information consistent with their expectations. People are more likely to generate explanations for an event when it is contrary to expectations rather than consistent with expectations. Finally, people are more likely to remember information that is either clearly consistent with expectations or clearly inconsistent.

Expectations affect how people feel, including attitudes, anxiety, and depression. Attitudes, or one’s evaluation of an object, are a reflection of people’s expectations about the object combined with the value or importance they place on the object. Negative expectations, such as expecting to fail on a task, can lead to increased anxiety and depression. In contrast, positive expectations, such as believing in one’s ability to perform well on a task, can lead to decreased anxiety and depression and positive feelings.

Finally, expectations affect how people behave in many areas, such as choice of tasks, amount of effort exerted, drinking alcohol, and cooperation. In general, people behave in ways that are consistent with their expectations. For example, people choose to engage and put more effort into tasks for which they expect to succeed. Having positive expectations about drinking alcohol, such as increased social ability or sexual performance, is related to increased alcohol consumption. Expectations affect whether people will react in a cooperative or competitive manner with coworkers. If people expect their coworker dislikes them and/or is a competitive person, individuals will respond competitively. In contrast, if people expect their coworker likes them and/or is a cooperative person, individuals will respond cooperatively.

Expectations Application

The examination of how people’s expectations affect their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors has been applied to many areas of social life, including close relationships, academic performance, health-related behaviors, forming first impressions, judgments, decision making, and the development of worldviews (how one sees the world).


  • Olson, J. M., Roese, N. J., & Zanna, M. P. (1996). Expectancies. In E. T. Higgins & A. W. Kruglanski (Eds.), Social psychology: Handbook of basic principles (pp. 211-238). New York: Guilford Press.