How to Use Expectations to Improve Your Motivation

Do you have high expectations?​

When you’ve been faced with a difficult situation or taken on a big challenge in the past, have you ever been given the advice “just think positive” or “just think how great it will feel" once you’ve accomplished your goal. As I’ve discussed in a previous post, positive thinking can actually work against you if all you do is fantasize about how great it will be to have your desired outcome. Instead, you need to have a realistic, balanced view of what success looks like and the obstacles that could prevent making that outcome a reality. But there’s another piece of the puzzle that plays a vital role in determining your level of motivation, and therefore your ability to achieve your desired outcome. That missing piece is your expectations of whether you can and will achieve the goal.


Research by Professors Gabriele Oettingen, Ph.D. of New York University and Doris Mayer, Ph.D. of the University of Hamburg found that positive expectations predict higher effort and successful performance, which means they enable the motivation that produces those efforts. The opposite is true for positive fantasies, which lead to lower motivation and less success than negative fantasies. I discussed why that happens in my previous post. Thinking about a desired outcome and then the reality of what could realistically prevent you from achieving it (known as mental contrasting) can sometimes motivate you to take action to address the discrepancy between the two. But it doesn’t always work that way, which is where expectations come into play.

When do expectations matter?​

Expectations are “activated” only when you create that mental discrepancy between the desired outcome and your current situation and you believe you have a high probability of success. If you believe that your probability of success is low, you tend to disengage from the desired outcome, reducing your motivation to do anything that will attempt to move you toward your stated goal. This makes sense because, no matter how badly you may want something, if you know it’s completely unrealistic for you to achieve or acquire it, you won’t even waste your time and energy trying.

There are two primary reasons for this behavior. The first is purely an instinctive, energy-conservation reaction. Your brain naturally tries to preserve your body’s limited resources for situations where they are truly needed. If it believes that your energy would be wasted by pursuing that goal, it won’t mobilize the physiological and psychological resources to move you in that direction.

The second reason is social. As I’ve discussed in other posts, human beings are strongly influenced by the opinions, behaviors and expectations of other people.

Social Proof – What Are Your Neighbors Lying About?

Social Proof – Should You Drive After A Public Suicide?

Pluralistic Ignorance – Why Crowds Make You Stupid

Your brain is hard wired to submit to social norms and to avoid anything that may result in being rejected by your “tribe”, which it essentially equates to a death sentence. So your brain will resist the pursuit of any goal that it knows is a losing proposition because that means not only a waste of precious resources, but the potential for social ridicule.

When you look at it from an extreme, black-and-white perspective like this, it’s very easy to see how expectations would influence your motivation. Where it gets much more gray and, consequently, difficult to predict is when you’re less sure of your confidence level. Or even worse, when your confidence is high at a conscious level, but you have something that subconsciously resists pursuit of your goal.

Does this really apply to me?

This study isn’t the only one to arrive at this conclusion, either. Professors Albert Bandura, Ph.D. of Stanford University and Edwin A. Locke, Ph.D. of the University of Maryland published a review of the scientific literature on the topic in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Albert Bandura

Professor Albert Bandura of Stanford University

Edwin A. Locke

Professor Edwin A. Locke of the University of Maryland

They performed nine large-scale meta-analyses of research covering a diverse range of contexts, in both laboratory and field settings. 

Note About Meta-analyses

A meta-analysis is a statistical method that combines the results from multiple studies. There are a variety of reasons meta-analyses are performed, but some of the primary ones are to identify general trends that apply to different contexts and population groups, to resolve uncertainty when studies disagree, and to minimize the effect that a bias in any one study will have on the broader conclusions.

Drs. Bandura and Locke's analysis found "converging evidence" that self efficacy contributes significantly to a person's motivation and the resulting level of effort expended.

Note About Self-efficacy

Self efficacy is a term for your general belief in your ability to bring about things or changes in your life that you desire.

One somewhat surprising conclusion of this review is that self-efficacy has an even stronger effect on your actions than your past performance does. So, even if you haven’t always had success on something in the past, if you genuinely believe in your capacity to make it happen, your motivation to keep trying will not be dampened significantly.

It’s important to note, however, that expectations for success do not necessarily mean that you currently possess the skills or abilities necessary to achieve the goal. It simply means that you believe you will be able to figure it out as you go and, just as importantly, sustain the energy, focus and positive outlook to make it through the challenges you will undoubtedly encounter along the way.

...but that's not all​

Your expectations can be influenced by other people, like when you witness someone doing and achieving the thing you aspire to. It makes the possibility of your success seem much more tangible and realistic. They can also be influenced by people with experience or perceived authority on the topic or whom you trust. Have you ever watched an informercial or sales video online for a new fitness program or work-from-home business? You’ve probably noticed that they focus heavily on two things: building authority by showing you their “credentials” (i.e. the results they’ve been able to get) and examples of other “regular people” who have had success using their program.

The research shows that this boost in expectations is short-lived, though, which is part of the reason those videos push so hard to get you to buy now. They use all kinds of incentives and scarcity tactics to take advantage of your temporary belief that it is possible to get those six pack abs or to double your income while working from home. Once that high wears off, however, and the reality of doing the actual work kicks in, you’re left with the strongest determinant of your motivation: whether or not you genuinely believe it’s possible to accomplish. If you don't, you can’t significantly change that belief, at least not quickly.

So what can I do about it?​

You may be able to shift your expectations slightly by educating yourself about what it takes to be successful. But the only way to change it significantly is to overcome whatever you think is currently preventing your success. Changing that belief may be as simple as developing a skill that you don’t currently possess. But it could also mean overcoming limiting beliefs that stem from your childhood. As such, the amount of time it takes can vary dramatically. Ultimately, you need to decide how important your goal is to you and whether it’s worth the investment of time and energy it will take just to get to a point where you believe you can start working toward the goal.

Assuming you don’t have some kind of limiting belief that makes your goal a non-starter, what should you do? You need to think about how realistic it is that you will be able to commit to and do the things that are necessary, and whether those actions will ultimately produce the desired result. High expectations of success lead to strong performance, and strong performance leads to high expectations of success. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle, but it relies on you genuinely believing that you are capable of accomplishing your desired outcome.

So the key take away from the research discussed in my previous post and this one is that there are three components that all support and interact with each other to improve your motivation. Those components are to:

  • Clearly visualize your goal and define success
  • Evaluate your current situation and the obstacles that you are likely to face
  • Make an honest assessment of your expectations that you will succeed

When you have a goal or desired outcome that’s important to you, if you follow this process, you will greatly increase the likelihood that you will develop and sustain the motivation necessary to make it happen.

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