Bet Low, Lose High: The Psychological Basis Of Low Self-Expectations

I’ve always found that watching sports with other people adds to the excitement. It infuses the room and everyone in it with a contagious, electric vibe. Playoff time is the only occasion when I am willing to wait an hour for a table in an already overcrowded restaurant with so-so food. I love hearing the collective “Oh!” and “Awwww” when my team scores or comes closing to scoring.

There is one friend, however, that I refuse to watch the playoffs with. I’ve told her in no uncertain terms that I’d rather jam a fork in my hand than spend 3 hours with her at a sports bar. She is an absolute downer. It doesn’t matter if “our” team (I use the term “our” lightly, because she never watches games during the regular season) has a near-perfect record and finished in first place. As soon as the opposing team scores an early point, she’ll assume our chances at a championship are over. It doesn’t matter if there’s 2 hours and 59 minutes left in the game. In her mind, we’re done. She’ll sign off with her usual “Oh well. It was good while it lasted,” and I’ll conspicuously but determinedly reach for my fork.

At first, I just couldn’t understand why she gave up so easily; why she set such low expectations despite strong evidence to the contrary. And then I realized that setting the bar low somehow made disappointment easier for her to swallow. I understood, because there’s nothing more soul-crushing than get punched in the face by an unexpected failure when you had set your sights and your heart so high.  And as usual, our study on the psychological basis of low self-expectations bore this out:

Analyzing data from 16,144 people who took our Success Likelihood Test, we paid particular attention to those who set the bar high for themselves and those who set the bar low. Aside from being significantly less ambitious (average score of 34 for the low group vs. 77 for the high group, on a scale that ranges from 0 to 100), individuals with low self-expectations were also:

  • Afraid to fail (score of 69 vs. 33 for the high expectations group).
  • Ironically, afraid of succeeding (score of 58 vs. 24 for the high expectations group).
  • Concerned about the social consequences of being a success, like jealousy (score of 44 vs. 27 for the high expectations group).
  • More likely to have low self-esteem (score of 26 vs. 69 for the high expectations group).
  • More likely to have a more limited potential for success (score of 40 vs. 71 for the high expectations group).

Their limited potential for success, however, is entirely self-inflicted, and appears to come from a deep-seated fear. The low expectations group essentially set themselves up for failure from the start, thwarting any chance of achievement whatsoever. For example, according to our study,

  • 84% of the people in the low expectations group admit that fear and self-doubt have affected major career and life decisions (vs. 32% of the high expectations group).
  • 66% shy away from any sort of competitive environment in which their skills are put to the test (vs. 14% of the high expectations group).
  • 53% shy away from any goal that pushes them out of their comfort zone (vs. 6% of the high expectations group).
  • 37% purposely avoid opportunity, even when it effortlessly falls onto their path (vs. 2% of the high expectations group).
  • 49% are afraid of standing out because of their achievements (vs. 11% of the high expectations group).
  • 54% are concerned that talking about their accomplishments will make them appear arrogant (vs. 28% of the high expectations group).
  • 66% constantly worry about making mistakes (vs. 30% of the high expectations group).
  • 52% are afraid of losing other people’s respect if they make a mistake or fail (vs. 18% of the high expectations group).
  • 61% are terrified of being criticized by others (vs. 23% of the high expectations group).

Here’s the bit of wisdom that stood out the most in this study: While it may seem like a foregone conclusion that setting your expectations low will guarantee success, this isn’t the case at all. Even though the high expectation group had a propensity to set goals for themselves that were extremely difficult to achieve, they still had a higher likelihood for success, and refused to be held back by a fear of failure or the burden of responsibility that success can bring. People who set low expectations are their own worst enemy. They are not setting the bar low because they want to “test the waters” or pace themselves; they are setting it low because they see the path to success as a minefield of problems. With failure comes, for example, the potential for humiliation and disappointment; with success comes the potential for jealousy or added pressure. Couple that with self-doubt and the fear of not being good enough, and what you have is one stumbling block after another.

When it comes to achieving success, our self-doubt is our worst enemy. It doesn’t matter if other people don’t believe in you; I’ve always found that being around someone who brings me down angers me and only pushes me to defy them. But the only person who has ever really made me feel small, insignificant, incapable, and unworthy has always been, and will probably always be, me.

 

Insightfully yours,

Queen D

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