Expectations Matter

How society actually functions depends on how people expect it to function. Which means that if you could change expectations you could change society. Which requires will and wisdom.

We behave to a large extent on how others expect us to behave.

It is interesting to understand how expectations are formed. Within a closed system, expectations are endogenous by definition. In open systems, at least part of the expectations must be exogenous. Since individuals are not closed systems – that is, they are influenced by events and things outside of themselves – there is a role for others to influence the expectations that individuals have. For now, I will not go into how expectations are formed. I am only asking how the aggregation of individual behavior influenced by expectations gives rise to macro phenomenon.

People expect trash on the streets in India. That is they expect others to throw trash. That expectation allows them to feel free to add their own (small amount of) trash. Aggregated over many people over an extended period of time, the trash accumulates as the expectation itself gets reinforced. Eventually you have Singapores and Mumbais.

People expect the politicians to be crooks. Their expectation of a lower moral standard allows the politicians to be immoral scum. The immorality of politicians is widely known. The pile of immoral acts grows and at any time there is an average level of depravity. The next politician seeing the huge pile, feels free to add to the heap and indeed goes a little deeper in the depravity department. The average sinks further and people adjust their expectations downwards even more and the vicious cycle continues.

Go read the rest in a July 2007 post — The Tangled Web: Part 7.

2 thoughts on “Expectations Matter

  1. Societies are best when they are small and homogenous. Diversity may be beautiful, but it may lead to low trust among different groups. I haven’t read “Bowling Alone”, but from the reviews it seems that increased diversity leads to low levels of trust and public participation. And top of that, the thing which belongs to the government, belongs to no one in particular.
    And as far as politicians go — power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. They are the Alpha males (mostly) of every society. Earlier, people accepted them to be, but now in a democratic world, everybody is equal, at least in theory.

    Like

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