Mind the Gap

You experience the gap numerous times each day. Everyone does. The gap, in this case, is the discrepancy between what you expect will happen and what actually happens. Because your brain finds this gap to be very unsettling, it responds by rushing to close it (i.e., explain it) as quickly as possible. Ostensibly, the purpose of an explanation is to help you understand what’s happening—or give you the sense that you understand—so you can determine a course of action to take.

This is an automatic process that works reasonably well in a variety of situations, especially if they’re straightforward and/or familiar. Coming up with explanations is so automatic and so fast that you probably don’t stop very often to question the validity or accuracy of the expectations that gave rise to the gap that needs explaining.

But if your expectations are based on unfounded assumptions or an incorrect analysis of the situation—or if they are missing critical information—then your explanation is bound to be flawed. And it turns out that most such explanations are flawed.

In truth, when we set out to explain our actions, they are all post hoc explanations using post hoc observations with no access to unconscious processing. Not only that, our left brain fudges things a bit to fit into a makes-sense story. Explanations are all based on what makes it into our consciousness, but actions and the feelings happen before we are consciously aware of them—and most of them are the results of nonconscious processes, which will never make it into the explanations. The reality is that listening to people’s explanations of their actions is interesting—and in the case of politicians, entertaining—but often a waste of time. —Michael Gazzaniga, Professor of Psychology, UC Santa Barbara

You can’t avoid having expectations. If your brain wasn’t predictive, you wouldn’t be able to function in the world you find yourself in. But those predictions are based, to a great extent, on the mental model the unconscious part of your brain maintains of what’s normal for you. Naturally, you feel pretty confident about them. But the degree of confidence you have in your explanations is not a reliable guide to their validity or accuracy.

When the gap is generated by a flawed explanation based on unfounded expectations, the action you take to correct or respond to it won’t get you the result you want. Instead you will be faced with yet another gap to explain and contend with. Continuing down this winding road can take you very far afield from your original destination.

As a result, the conscious part of your brain (the part you think of as “I”) may become more and more dissatisfied, frustrated, and even confused. You may give up or at least feel like giving up. The unconscious part of your brain, on the other hand, is likely to be quite satisfied with this state of affairs.

We have a big brain capable of greatness with hardwiring for survival. –David DiSalvo

The unconscious part of your brain is, as Cormac McCarthy put it, “a machine for operating an animal.” This particular machine’s prime directive is survival, and it thinks the best way for you to survive is to maintain your status quo. It has a variety of tricks up its sleeve to deceive you into thinking you’re moving forward when, in fact, you’re expending a lot of mental energy running in place on the hamster wheel.

The Myth of Self-Sabotage

Self-sabotage is a great example of an explanation created to account for the gap between the expectation that our behavior ought to be based on our conscious intentions and the experience of doing something other than what we consciously intend to do. If you accept the self-sabotage explanation, the logical action to take is to try to determine how and why you’re sabotaging yourself. This is a diversionary expedition that leads to a dead end. It contributes nothing in the way of helping you change your behavior.

The expectation that our behavior ought to be based on our conscious intentions is based on several unwarranted assumptions. The reality is that since we operate on autopilot most of the time, most of our behavior is generated by unconscious impulses, not by conscious intentions. And the unconscious part of our brain wants to maintain the status quo. You’re far more likely to keep doing what you’ve been doing than you are to do something different.

You may not like it, but the fact that you don’t always do what you consciously intend to do should not surprise or confound you. The logical action to take (instead of trying to figure out how and why you’re sabotaging yourself) is to retrain your brain to make the desirable behavior part of the status quo.

When you follow the path of least resistance by unquestioningly going along with your brain’s interpretation of events and behaviors, you end up digging yourself deeper into your rut. If you want to expand your mental model, change your direction, and give yourself more opportunities to succeed, one of the best things you can do for yourself is to develop the habit of questioning your expectations.

X Is for eXpectations

Life is an ongoing series of experiences, one after another after another. When you’re in the midst of one of them, you experience it. After it’s over, you explain it, meaning you remember it and tell a story about it, incorporating it into your ongoing narration.

But before anything even occurs, you have an expectation about what will or won’t happen, what should or shouldn’t happen, or how events will unfold and the consequences that are likely to ensue.

Expectation is

  • A belief about what should happen or the way things should be.
  • An estimate or forecast of a future situation based on present or past experiences.
  • Anticipation: looking forward to something, whether hopefully or fearfully.

Experience is:

  • The apprehension of an object, thought, or emotion through the senses or mind.
  • An event or a series of events participated in or lived through.
  • Direct personal participation or observation.

Explanation is:

  • A story about how or why something happened or turned out the way it did.
  • Rationalization, justification, and/or judgment about the experience.
  • The cognitive process of making something seem consistent with or based on reason.

There’s some degree of conscious (System 2) involvement in all three phases of an experience. But there’s even more unconscious (System 1) involvement in them.

The Way Things Should Be

According to Andy Clark, philosopher and cognitive scientist at the University of Edinburgh:

Our primary contact with the world…is via our expectations about what we are about to see or experience. 

Your expectations are constrained not only by what has already happened (your past experiences), but also—and even more significantly—by the stories (and explanations) you’ve constructed about them. Your expectations, arising from your mental model of the world, determine much of what you make of your experiences.

It’s worth remembering that your experience of what’s going on in your mind and in the world is not the same as what is actually going on in either your mind or in the world.

In addition to helping you navigate the terrain you inhabit, your mental model gives rise to your sense of the way things should be. It generates expectations that are either confirmed or denied, as well as assumptions, biases, etc., that determine what you pay attention to, what you perceive (even what you are able to perceive), how you interpret and respond to what you perceive, and the meaning you assign to it.

Who I am is the habit of what I always was and who I’ll be is the result. —Louise Erdrich

Although it doesn’t have to be, the cycle of expectation/experience/
explanation can be a vicious one that narrows your perspective—and your world.

Generating expectations isn’t something you are doing; it’s something your brain is doing. You may have come across advice to do away with expectations because they are either “self-defeating” or nothing but a prelude to disappointment. (Alexander Pope, Shakespeare, and Sylvia Plath are just a few who have linked expectations with disappointment.) The advice to eliminate them is based on a belief that expectations are consciously created, which gives us control over them.

Your Brain is Predictive, not Reactive.

Your felt experience may be that something happens and you react to it, but the reality is that your brain is not reactive but predictive. It is always doing its best to anticipate what’s going to happen next, as if it were playing a never-ending game of chess, continuously anticipating and preparing you for your next move.

Your brain generates multiple possible representations of what to expect in the environment. The representation with the smallest prediction error is selected. However the generation of representations is constrained by what is stored in memory and by the sampling of the environmentDirk De RidderJan Verplaetse, and Sven Vanneste, Frontiers in Psychology

You’re only aware of what your brain thinks you need to know, when you need to know it. Although your reactions and responses feel spontaneous and freely chosen, most of the time they are neither.

The unconscious is always several steps ahead of the conscious part of your brain. As neuroscientists have pointed out, this is what makes activities such as sports possible. If the brain was merely reactive, it wouldn’t operate fast enough to enable you to hit a baseball or block a goal. A reactive brain wouldn’t have helped Michael Phelps win his 10th gold medal while swimming blind after his goggles filled with water. All of his previous practice, experience, and knowledge gave his brain a solid basis for predicting what to expect and what he needed to do in order to win.

Because your brain is predictive:

  • You are not constantly surprised.
  • You don’t always have a choice.
  • You are able to engage in activities that require quick and accurate responses.
  • You are capable of learning from your experiences.
  • You don’t have to think about every little thing you do in the course of a day.
  • You find it difficult to change undesirable habits.
  • You may be tricked by various types of illusions.
  • You are unaware of your visual blind spot.

Your predictive brain—and the expectations it creates—can be a major obstacle when it comes to behavior change if you don’t take it into account. The neurons in your brain are constantly firing, interacting, and stimulating each other at various rates. If you stick to the belief that you always have a choice and try to use willpower to override your brain’s wiring, you will make things much harder for yourself than they need to be.

Not only can you not stop your brain from generating expectations, but doing so would be self-defeating. What you can do is become more aware of what those expectations are, check how closely they match reality, and evaluate how well they work for you in creating a satisfying and meaningful life.


Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.

The Anticipation Machine Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

anticipationPhilosopher Daniel Dennett describes the human brain as an “anticipation machine.” He says that making future is the most important thing it does.

Most of us do not struggle to think about the future because mental simulations of the future arrive in our consciousness regularly and unbidden, occupying every corner of our mental lives. –Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

Unfortunately, the process the brain uses—adding the past to the present to equal (predict) the future—is far from a fail-safe method for figuring out either what actually lies ahead or how we will feel should what we anticipate come to pass. Our “anticipation machine” creates what we experience as expectations: estimates or forecasts of future situations based on present or past experiences. Expectations are beliefs we have about what should happen or about the way things should or will be.

But the future is fundamentally different from the present; therefore, it isn’t something we can accurately imagine. Our images of the future are firmly lodged in the now, in what we already know and are familiar with. Our visions of what may be possible in the future are heavily constrained by what has already been—or rather, by the stories we’ve constructed about it. We’re not influenced by the past as much as we’re influenced by our stories about the past.

Who I am is the habit of what I always was and who I’ll be is the result. –Louise Erdrich

Not only is the future not the same as the present, but according to Daniel Gilbert, our future self is not the same as our present self (nor is our present self the same as our past self). Our future self may want nothing to do with the commitments our present self is busy making for it or the plans our present self is setting into motion at this very moment.

The person you are right now is as transient, as fleeting and as temporary as all the people you’ve ever been. The one constant in our life is change. –Daniel Gilbert

But wait; there’s more.

We try to repeat those experiences that we remember with pleasure and pride, and we try to avoid repeating those that we remember with embarrassment and regret. The trouble is that we often don’t remember them correctly. –Daniel Gilbert

So the bottom line is that we don’t remember the past—which we’re basing quite a few of our expectations on—correctly, we’re no good at imagining what the future is going to be like, and we can’t accurately imagine how we’re going to react to future events when they do occur.

When we spy the future through our prospectiscopes, the clarity of the next hour and the fuzziness of the next year can lead us to make a variety of mistakes. –Daniel Gilbert

But that doesn’t stop us from believing we can predict the future or from feeling certain we know what will make us happy or satisfied once we’re living in it. Our brain, after all, does crave certainty.

We tend to accept the brain’s products uncritically and expect the future to unfold with the details—and with only the details—that the brain has imagined. –Daniel Gilbert

There’s simply no way to guarantee our future happiness. There’s no way to guarantee anything. But quite a bit of research suggests that one of the biggest things that gets in the way of happiness is our firm belief that we know what will make us happy. What would it be like to loosen the reins, to let go of that mistaken notion? What would it be like to allow ourselves to stop trying to guarantee our happiness and allow ourselves to…stumble on it?