Our expectations change how we experience the world

We’ve all heard about the ‘placebo effect’ – we expect to feel better, so we actually do. Why is that? After all, sugar pills don’t reduce pain or cure disease. It’s our expectations which cause the brain to release endorphins, easing pain. Our expectations are shaping our reality – and it happens a lot more than you’d think.

Our brains are taking in information constantly trying to make sense of the world. As we gain experience we start to form attitudes and expectations to short-circuit the process. After a while, this process means we perceive what we expect to see. Here’s a classic example of that bias in place:


We don’t expect to see a moonwalking bear so our brains literally don’t see it. The way we perceive the world is being shaped by our expectations. That was fun, fancy another? Of course you do:

Marketers can prime our expectations

For marketers, the lesson here is that setting expectations can change the way customers experience our products or services. If we improve the expectation a customer has – she’ll actually enjoy it more, even though the product is unchanged.

By way of example, let’s take the experience of going to a fancy restaurant. Your expectations are set by the website, by what friends have told you, even by the difficulty of getting a table, suggesting this is going to be a great experience. The menu describes in detail each locally farmed organic ingredient, some of which you’ve never heard of. The wine list is a telephone book – with several bottles over a thousand dollars. The food is well-plated, the service discreet but attentive, and of course the bill when it comes is steep but you pay it willingly.

Every part of the experience is designed to project luxury and so that helps define your experience (and how much you are willing to pay). The product itself (i.e. the food) though is unchanged. Similarly, blind test research has proven that drinking wine from the perfect burgundy or chardonnay glass makes no actual difference to the taste. We just think it does – and that becomes our reality, with its associated extra value.

Other examples of expectation setting can be found in packaging – just look at all the unboxing videos, and interest in them. Does the packaging in any way change the performance of your phone? No. It makes you feel good about your purchase and primes your experience.

Expectations change our preferences

Psychology and behavioral economics professor, Dan Ariely, ran experiments about the impact of expectations on experience using beer. In a blind test, he offered participants a taste of commercial beer and a taste of the same beer laced with balsamic vinegar. In one test, he told the participants in advance which sample had been doctored, then asked for their preference after tasting it. Understandably, few chose the vinegary beer.

In the second test, he gave the tastings first (the experience) then told the participants which one of the samples had vinegar added to it. In this second group, far more participants preferred the doctored beer. The information they had about each sample was exactly the same as the first group, as was the beer itself, but their expectations (and hence experience) was different. The difference in expectations accounts for a shift in preference. Even to the extent that this group was then given the ‘recipe’ for the doctored beer, and several opted to add vinegar voluntarily to their beer since they liked the taste. None in the first group opted to do that.

Clearly there are limits to how much expectations can impact our experience – the placebo won’t cure you, and poorly constructed products will never be premium. But expectations are a real part of the customer experience. Marketers need to give thought to how they are shaping those expectations to make them reinforce the proposition itself.


About the Author

Morgan McLintic is the founder of Firebrand. With over 25 years’ experience in the tech sector, he advises clients about their marketing and PR strategy. Prior to Firebrand, he was the founder of digital communications agency, LEWIS in the US, growing it to 250 staff and $35m revenue.