Impact

Managing Expectations

March 19, 2012 999

Why do some people hide their light under a bushel while others promise more than they can deliver? In the latest edition of the Journal of Theoretical Politics, Dr René Lindstädt (University of Essex) and Dr Jeffrey Staton (Emory University, USA) have developed a theory to explain the phenomenon.

The standard explanation for why some people appear to understate their own abilities is that it acts as both a kind of insurance against failure – if others expect little of you, they will not be disappointed if you fail to achieve – as well as a way to impress others when the performance exceeds expectations.

For instance, when Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service presented human rights charges against the former Chilean President General Augusto Pinochet in support of an extradition request in 1999, observers suggested that they began by understating the evidence they planned to present. As the hearing drew on and the compelling nature of the evidence began to emerge, the effect was – according to one observer – ‘devastating’. The Crown won its case.

Dr Lindstädt and Dr Staton refer to the strategy as ‘downward management of expectations,’ and it occurs in a variety of settings, including in the political arena. For instance in the US presidential election in 2000, George W Bush’s campaign team presented its candidate as a poor communicator so that he would appear to perform better in debates (by exceeding expectations), and Ed Miliband, the current UK Labour leader, recently called on his party to ‘under-promise and over-deliver’ as part of the party’s effort at regaining public trust and confidence.

In their article, Dr Lindstädt and Dr Staton develop a game-theoretic model to understand under what circumstances managing expectations is possible and when it is successful. They conclude that ‘under-promising’ can be both aggressive (this is the standard logic) – to exploit the psychology of others to make oneself look better, but also defensive – to protect oneself against the embarrassment of failure. At the same time, they find that managing expectations is not always possible. Under some circumstances, individuals have to present their abilities truthfully lest they be ignored. One case in point is the example of applicants in the current job market (on this see also the coverage of Dr Lindstädt and Dr Staton’s research findings in a recent New York Times article.

It other circumstances managing does not even seem possible since under promising would mean suggesting a truly insulting outcome. For example, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was charged with cleaning up after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, would have found it hard to downwardly manage expectations because its reputation locally was already so low.

The conclusion is that while it might appear logical for people to always promise less than they can deliver, it is not always possible.

For more information please contact Dr René Lindstädt on rlind@essex.ac.uk

Related Articles

New SSRC Project Aims to Develop AI Principles for Private Sector
Industry
July 19, 2024

New SSRC Project Aims to Develop AI Principles for Private Sector

Read Now
Paper Opening Science to the New Statistics Proves Its Import a Decade Later
Impact
July 2, 2024

Paper Opening Science to the New Statistics Proves Its Import a Decade Later

Read Now
Megan Stevenson on Why Interventions in the Criminal Justice System Don’t Work
Social Science Bites
July 1, 2024

Megan Stevenson on Why Interventions in the Criminal Justice System Don’t Work

Read Now
A Milestone Dataset on the Road to Self-Driving Cars Proves Highly Popular
Impact
June 27, 2024

A Milestone Dataset on the Road to Self-Driving Cars Proves Highly Popular

Read Now
Why We’ve Had to Dramatically Shift How We Talk About UK Politics

Why We’ve Had to Dramatically Shift How We Talk About UK Politics

The upcoming UK General Election is often framed as ‘Rishi or Kier for PM.’ This is not, write the authors a textbook on UK politics, the questions being asked by actual Britons.

Read Now
Pandemic Nemesis: Illich reconsidered

Pandemic Nemesis: Illich reconsidered

An unexpected element of post-pandemic reflections has been the revival of interest in the work of Ivan Illich, a significant public intellectual […]

Read Now
How ‘Dad Jokes’ Help Children Learn How To Handle Embarrassment

How ‘Dad Jokes’ Help Children Learn How To Handle Embarrassment

Yes, dad jokes can be fun. They play an important role in how we interact with our kids. But dad jokes may also help prepare them to handle embarrassment later in life.

Read Now
0 0 votes
Article Rating
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments