The Autodidacts

Exploring the universe from the inside out

Expectation Fields

“My Wife and My Mother-in-Law”

My brother expects everyone to be nice. I expect everyone is out to get me. Surprising no one, it seems like everyone my brother meets is nice, and everyone I meet is out to get me.

(When we are both talking to someone, our expectations clash, and the person is in a superposition between nice and nasty, and we debate about it afterward. But my brother’s expectations are stronger than mine, so people we both talk to tend to be nice.)

Which is to say, expectation fields are real. With our thoughts we create the world, and all that jazz? Maybe. But it has been studied, both in the classroom, and with rodents in mazes. Students perform better if their teachers think they are gifted. Rats are faster at mazes if the experimenter thinks they’re smart rats. How weird is that?

This makes a bit more sense of why my brother likes to “expect people to be their best selves”, and act as if that was already the default. It’s almost like humans are actually GPT-3 robots, and their behaviour is a form of prompt completion. They receive a compliment, or see a friendly smile, and click into the script that is part of that reality: the meeting a good-looking, nice person in a near-utopian democracy script. They are greeted with mistrust and coldness and my face, and they complete the reality I am creating — the neo-noir dog-eat-dog world of chronically paranoid loner misanthropes. As Kurt Vonnegut put it, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

So I’m gradually learning to be like my brother, and expect good things rather than bad things. It’s a big project. (Especially since everyone’s obviously out to get me!) But the results are, well, good.

I’m not saying to meet Craigslist cellphone scammers at your house, or leave your laptop with strangers at a coffeeshop while you go to the washroom, or be exactly like my brother. There’s a fine line between expecting goodness and inviting disaster.

But at most first encounters, the stakes are relatively low, and leaving room for the possibility that the person is a good person isn’t crazy. You can always update your impression.

In fact, it’s like applying the proven-best Prisoner’s Dilemma strategy to real life. When it comes to trust, start out with tit-for-tat and see what happens. Tat-for-everything seems rational, but it’s actually a losing strategy. “With our thoughts…”