Great expectations: Interpretation of positive or negative information is all a matter of anticipation, psychologist say

August 21, 2012 By Greg Tammen, Kansas State University

(Medical Xpress) -- Each month a new jobs report is issued in the United States. Each month the report is also met with criticism even if jobs are added.

But a person's decision to view increased hires as a positive or negative may be a matter of how outcomes compare to expectations, said Michael Young, professor and psychology department head at Kansas State University.

According to Young, placing more people in jobs may seem like a positive, but if the numbers are lower than project or are not enough to lower the , then the addition can be seen as a negative.

"You can push around the apparent positivity and of the outcome by reframing it, and can thereby provide a different for comparison," Young said. "Creating 80,000 jobs is better than 20,000 jobs. But creating 80,000 jobs when 180,000 are needed to hold unemployment constant is not so good."

have labeled the mismatch between expectations and actual outcomes as the contrast effect.

frequently use the effect to reframe information, giving it either a positive or negative spin that best serves their purposes and appeals to their base.

"The problems really arise when people fail to do the necessary digging because we like one spin over another since it fits our own suppositions," Young said. "Given that our president is currently a , a Democratic supporter might be more critical of data that put a negative spin on a jobs report and try to find data that disconfirms the negative framing. If the spin is positive, the Democrat may not look further into the data. The opposite was the case when there was a in the White House."

Outside of the political arena, Young said the can also see a mismatch between expectations and reality.

"It's like the kid who gets 10 gifts at Christmas and says, 'Is that all?' because he or she expected a huge pile like the ones on TV or a bigger haul than the neighbor got," Young said.

Likewise, animals show similar positive and negative stances when it comes to expectations and the actual outcome. For example, a pigeon will show excitement by responding faster if it receives two food pellets when the custom has been to only receive one. The pigeon will show frustration and disappointment by responding more slowly for the same two pellets, however, if it is expecting the customary four food pellets but only receives two.

Sometimes a negative view on a situation can have a positive effect, Young said.

Gossip, for example, is a form of sharing negative information. Although once dismissed as white noise, some researchers have since determined that gossip helps clarify, communicate and enforce socially acceptable behaviors that are not published in laws, rulebooks or manuals.

"If I complain about someone's bad breath or cellphone etiquette, there's an implicit message that 'you' should be careful to brush your teeth or not answer your cellphone," Young said. "Interestingly, though, we won't complain about those behaviors to someone who we know when they're engaging in them, but children have no such compunctions."

Similarly, talking about troubles and negative situations helps some people handle complex and frustrating situations.

"It externalizes our own failures so it's about the situation, not about me," Young said.

Explore further: Young children understand the benefits of positive thinking

Related Stories

Young children understand the benefits of positive thinking

December 22, 2011
Even kindergarteners know that thinking positively will make you feel better. And parents' own feelings of optimism may play a role in whether their children understand how thoughts influence emotions.

Federal welfare programs can have negative effects on children's cognitive scores

June 13, 2011
The United States federal government supports many welfare and entitlement programs that attempt to eliminate poverty by providing financial assistance to families in need. Now, a researcher at the University of Missouri ...

Gossip serves a useful purpose after all

May 20, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- Researchers in the US have discovered that hearing gossip about a person literally changes the way you see them, and hearing negative information about people makes their faces stand out.

Recommended for you

Intensive behavior therapy no better than conventional support in treating teenagers with antisocial behavior

January 19, 2018
Research led by UCL has found that intensive and costly multisystemic therapy is no better than conventional therapy in treating teenagers with moderate to severe antisocial behaviour.

Babies' babbling betters brains, language

January 18, 2018
Babies are adept at getting what they need - including an education. New research shows that babies organize mothers' verbal responses, which promotes more effective language instruction, and infant babbling is the key.

College branding makes beer more salient to underage students

January 18, 2018
In recent years, major beer companies have tried to capitalize on the salience of students' university affiliations, unveiling marketing campaigns and products—such as "fan cans," store displays, and billboard ads—that ...

Inherited IQ can increase in early childhood

January 18, 2018
When it comes to intelligence, environment and education matter – more than we think.

Modulating molecules: Study shows oxytocin helps the brain to modulate social signals

January 17, 2018
Between sights, sounds, smells and other senses, the brain is flooded with stimuli on a moment-to-moment basis. How can it sort through the flood of information to decide what is important and what can be relegated to the ...

Baby brains help infants figure it out before they try it out

January 17, 2018
Babies often amaze their parents when they seemingly learn new skills overnight—how to walk, for example. But their brains were probably prepping for those tasks long before their first steps occurred, according to researchers.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (1) Aug 21, 2012
I agree with what some of the article is saying, and I also agree with having a generally more positive attitude towards life and people.

However let's put it this way:

"Killing 66,000 civilians in the Iraq war is better than killing 100,000 . But killing 66,000 when none actually needed to die is not so good"

IOW it sounds a lot like spin when it's being used by the "other side"...doesn't it :)

not rated yet Aug 21, 2012
All human behavior under one year of age is 'acceptable' - aside from pathological contrains - where 'society's' influence on this age group is minimal.

Yes, children lack compunctions.
The pawlavian approach here hampers anticpations to expect postive alterations in human behavior.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.