MIAMI — We all have our own way of viewing the world around us, and with those perceptions inevitably come expectations. Some people are naturally more positive, and inclined to see the good in most scenarios, while others can’t help but adopt a more pessimistic outlook. Now, researchers from the University of Miami say how we process and deal with wrong expectations appears to predict anxiety symptoms later in life.
“Whether we are conscious of it or not, we’re always forming expectations,” says Aaron Heller, senior author in the study and an associate professor in the Department of Psychology, in a university release. “Whenever our expectations turned out to be wrong, they become a learning signal that we use to form better expectations in the future.”
In the past, psychology researchers have studied how predictions and expectations may influence individuals’ moods and outlooks using simulated scenarios within a controlled lab setting. This latest work, however, takes things a step further by examining the highs and lows of human expectations using a very real topic for the participating undergraduate students: their grades.
Students learn more when they beat their expectations
More specifically, study authors analyzed a group’s expectations regarding their exam grades while attending a chemistry class at the University of Miami.
The students consented to sharing their grades on four exams taken during one semester. After taking each test, the students sent Prof. Heller the grade they expected to get (from 0 to 100). Prior smaller lab projects examining how people learn from such expectancy violations have found that many tend to display “optimistic learning bias,” or a proclivity toward learning more from positive outcomes, relative to negative surprises.
This study yielded similar results. Generally, most students showed optimistic learning bias. They appeared to learn more when doing better than they expected as opposed to when they did worse. However, another group of students were consistently pessimistic over the course of the semester.
“When the more optimistic students received a lower score than they anticipated, they changed their expectations appropriately, but did not overcorrect following these disappointments on the next exam. But the students who were more pessimistic tended to predict they would get a lower score on a subsequent exam even if their last grade was slighter higher than what they predicted,” Prof. Heller explains. “This led them to be more inaccurate in what they expected overall, and due to how they learned, predicted whether students would develop symptoms of anxiety later on in life.”
All in all, this research provides compelling evidence that students’ positive and negative emotions weren’t just driven by the actual exam grades they received but also by the grades they expected to get.
“Helping people to have more accurate expectations is an important treatment option for things like anxiety and depression,” Prof. Heller adds.
Moving forward, the research team wants to expand their work to focus on attaining a better understanding of why students at UM are leaving STEM majors.
“We would love to examine, using these kinds of psychological variables, why some students are leaving STEM majors and then developing interventions to help them stay in these STEM programs,” Prof. Heller concludes.
The findings appear in the journal Science Advances.