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Cognitive Dissonance

The Power of Low Expectations

Going in expecting little may be a trick to getting a lot out.

Key points

  • Previous research and common sense says that our expectations affect our experience.
  • Disconfirmed low expectations caused a greater change in people's impressions of a videogame than disconfirmed high expectations in a study.
  • My own experience watching "She-Hulk" fits with this result, as I had very low initial expectations, but ended up really liking it.
Source: Disney+
Jen Walters in a scene from "She-Hulk: Attorney at Law".
Source: Disney+

This past fall, Marvel released its worst series yet, at least according to anonymous people online. She-Hulk: Attorney at Law currently enjoys a dismal 5.2/10 rating on IMDB and an atrocious 2.3/10 user rating on Metacritic. Back when the show was releasing weekly episodes on Disney+, the online conversation about it was … not kind. People were posting the cringier clips from the show online, like She-Hulk twerking with Megan Thee Stallion, and after watching them I concluded the show was, at worst, schlocky garbage and, at best, just not for me.

But I was completely wrong.

She-Hulk is great. It’s a fun, silly, low stakes antidote to the dizzying, lore-infused, world-annihilating fare that you typically get with Marvel movies and shows. Instead, it’s basically a workplace comedy that happens to include people with superpowers. And unlike other Marvel series, the superpowers are generally treated more as an oddity or an inconvenience rather than an awe-inspiring source of heroism.

I liked the show much more than I expected, but maybe that’s just because my initial expectations were set so low. Ironically, She-Hulk itself is largely about overcoming people’s expectations of you. The main character, Jen Walters (She-Hulk’s human alter ego), has no desire to be a superhero, and wants desperately for the world to see her as the capable, kind person she is. But all the world wants to see is She-Hulk, the giant, green bodybuilder who can pick up a car and has amazing hair. And apparently, that’s all most viewers wanted too: more “Hulk smash” and less “Jen talk”.

The influence of expectations on enjoyment

Last year, I wrote about how people’s expectations can affect how they experience things. At the time, I wrote that this wasn’t exactly a deep psychological insight, but there wasn’t a lot of research on how or when it happened.

A 2015 study by Jaroslav Michalco, Jakob Grue Simonsen, and Kasper Hornbæk tested almost exactly my experience watching She-Hulk. They looked at the effects of discrepancies between people’s initial expectations and their actual experiences on their overall impressions, though they focused on videogames, rather than TV shows.

In one experiment, 176 subjects played a game for at least five minutes. Half of the subjects played a game that had been previously scored to be in the top 10% of games on the website the games were drawn from; half played games scored in the bottom 10%. In other words, some played games there were “good” and others played games that were “bad”.

To influence subjects’ expectations, they showed subjects a screen describing the game before they played it. In one group, the game was described very positively (“very fun”), with multiple 10/10 user reviews (“AWESOME”). In another group, the game was described very negatively (“not very fun”), with multiple 1/10 user reviews (“TERRIBLE”). A third control group did not see a description before the game. The description they saw was randomly assigned and did not depend on whether they were about to play the “good” or “bad” game.

After playing the game, all subjects rated the game they played on a 1-10 scale and rated it on a host of other qualities, like its beauty and goodness. They were also asked to rate, on a -3 to +3 scale, whether they thought the game was worse or better than they expected it to be. This allowed the researchers to group the subjects into those who liked the game less than expected (gave a negative score), more than expected (positive score), or thought the game met their expectations (gave a score of zero).

The results showed that there was a difference between those who liked the games less than expected and those who liked them more than expected. The researchers compared these groups’ ratings of the game to those of the zero-score group (those whose expectations were met). On average, those who liked the game less than expected gave 25% lower ratings overall compared to the zero-score group. But those who liked the game more than expected gave 43% higher ratings, on average, compared to the zero-score group. And those who initially saw negative reviews of the game and then said they liked it more than expected gave, on average, ratings 62% higher than the zero-score group.

The difference between unmet low expectations and high expectations

It’s not surprising that people adjusted their ratings when their experiences didn’t match their expectations. But their adjustments weren’t symmetric. These results suggest that going in with low expectations and having them disconfirmed may be extra satisfying, perhaps causing people to overcompensate in their ratings to adjust for the discrepancy.

When I last wrote about this topic, I focused mostly on the downside of going into something with too high expectations. What this study may suggest is a unique upside to going into something with too low expectations. Being pleasantly surprised, as I was with She-Hulk, may result in a more positive experience than going in with no expectations at all, or with too high expectations.

We’d probably all be better off lowering our expectations a little anyway.

For now, go ahead and watch the twerking scene. It’s as dumb as it sounds. But maybe it’ll lower your expectations for She-Hulk enough that you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.

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