In sociology, expectation corresponds to any general assumptions about the attitudes that particular social agents will take. In this sense, expectations of behavior refer to the roles and norms recognized in a community. For M. Sherif, a system of expectation is indispensable for the very existence of a social situation. The constitution of shared expectations in a social group signals, for example, the overcoming of a crisis of anomie, while representing for the individual the possibility of building more rewarding role relationships.

The theme of expectations – variously declined in sociological literature – is therefore placed in a context mainly investigated by social psychologists (deprivation, frustration of needs, incentives, gratification, etc.). Absolutely central, however, is the reference to the reference group that conditions the choices of each social actor. This intuition, already present in some of Marx’s reflections on work and needs, is developed by the studies of E. Mayo, regarding fatigue and satisfaction in productive experience, S. Stouffer regarding the system of expectation in a hierarchical structure such as the military and A. Touraine (expectation as a manifestation of the production of society).

The object of study of sociology and social psychology, expectations of behavior are produced by social roles and norms and can be defined as a cultural product. Roles consist of typical and recurrent modes of social behavior. By occupying defined social positions, actors produce expectations about the manner and content of social interactions related to status.

In any social aggregation, expectations tend to stabilize over time and this allows the actor to relate in a context of reduced complexity. Think of some situations that, given their frequency, can be considered typical of everyday life. For example, road traffic is regulated by rules – in this case explicitly stated in the highway code – which allow each driver to reasonably predict what the behavior of others will be; if each actor follows the rules of the highway code, traffic can take place without problems.

Expectations are formed and consolidated as the degree of social institutionalization increases. The growing experience of the individual about social aggregation allows the actor to use (and be invested by) expectations as solid and reliable as the knowledge of social dynamics is deepened.

Expectation and probability

The first parameter is the probability of occurrence of the event under consideration. In these terms it means the estimation, by the subject with the expectation, that the expected event will or will not happen, and it is situated in a point between full certainty and full uncertainty (in probabilistic terms, between 0 and 1). The higher the estimated probability, the more likely it is that it will influence our behavior and thoughts in line with the expected situation (do I think it will rain? I’ll bring an umbrella). The expectation can thus be confirmed or disconfirmed by the actual situation. If confirmed, all things being equal and in similar future situations, the expected event (‘it will rain’) will be considered more likely (expectation confirmation), or less likely (disconfirmation).

Expectation and confidence

The second parameter is the confidence we give to the estimated probability for the event, i.e., the degree of trust we give to our belief. To return to the previous example, we might ask a question like, ‘How much do I trust my judgment that it will rain?’ The thing is, I may not be an expert, I haven’t seen the weather forecast, I haven’t had my coffee yet etc. In other words, I might not believe that my weather forecast is very reliable and, based on that, I will act accordingly (e.g. I might go against my forecast and not bring my umbrella with me, at the risk of getting wet).

Expectation and abstractness

The third parameter for evaluating an expectation is its degree of abstractness. In these terms we answer the question whether the expectation was created from concrete and specific experiences (stored in the episodic memory) or from abstract generalizations (stored in the semantic memory), which synthesize the experience made from many events, people and contexts. The difference between the two modalities is not insignificant.

In fact, if in the first case (episodic memory) we will have expectations that will be formulated and applied ex novo, on the spot, they will require time and cognitive resources to be calculated, they will be less generalizable to similar situations and could lead us to make mistakes because they are wrong. In the second case (semantic memory), instead, they will be ready, articulated in cohesive structures with rapid activation, and will take into account the different possible situations, allowing us to adapt more quickly and with less effort. Let’s take car driving as an example and think about the first time we put our hands on the manual gearbox or crossed a busy intersection. Probably in those circumstances some of us will have felt a cold shiver and the urgent desire to run away, however with experience we have learned to drive cars of different types and crossed even very complicated intersections without batting an eyelid. From our many experiences with manual transmissions and road crossings, we have created expectation structures that can be used in different circumstances with similar traits, and we feel safer.

Expectation and accessibility

The fourth parameter is accessibility, that is, the ease with which the expectation tends to be activated in a given situation, prompting us to act and think as a consequence of it. It derives from how recently and how often the expectation considered has been activated over time in similar situations. The greater the frequency and recency of activation, the more likely it is to be very active and to influence our acting and thinking. Let’s go back to the previous example. Usually when I am in front of a red light my expectation is that all the cars in my lane will be stopped waiting for the green light like me and in case this does not happen, my reaction will be of surprise. This is because I have a very strong expectation that when faced with a red light you will stand still, even in formula one racing.

Expectation and clarity

The last parameter by which to evaluate an expectation is its clarity, i.e. the degree to which it can be expressed in verbal form. If this is not possible, the expectation will be possessed by the individual in its implicit, nonverbal form, and the subject will act on it unconsciously (Bargh & Ferguson, 2000). This parameter can relate to both the degree of complexity and articulation among possessed expectations.

The most basic expectations are, in fact, the product of simple and immediate associations between concepts and/or attributes related to events we observe in the world, and which with the accumulation of experience tend to become gradually more complex and connected. Most of the expectations we hold, however, are very complex, rich and differentiated in relation to the situations to which they refer. The moment we manage to identify them and give them a verbal form, we will be able to reflect on them calmly, share them with others and thus proceed to a critical work aimed at evaluating their usefulness, their adherence to reality and their adequacy in relation to our goals.

Unfortunately, introspection alone does not allow us to identify them, nor to grasp their importance for our thoughts and behaviors, also because, even if this were to happen, other factors would come into play (such as the promotion of self-esteem and a desirable self-image) that would prevent us from recognizing them clearly (Eagly & Chaiken, 1993). However, making an expectation explicit in words can be a powerful means of inducing changes in one’s way of thinking and acting, as therapists with a cognitive-behavioral orientation well know.

Starting from these considerations, then, a first way by which we could acquire greater awareness and control of ourselves could be to try to grasp with intuition what are the expectations that guide us in situations and take note of their influence on behavior, thinking and emotions. The influence of expectations on these three areas are the subject of the next article, which will close the introduction to this construct that is so important for social psychology and for understanding human behavior.


  • Bargh, J. A., & Ferguson, M. J. (2000). Beyond behaviorism: On the automaticity of higher mental processes. Psychological Bulletin, 126(6), 925–945. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.126.6.925
  • Eagly, A. H., & Chaiken, S. (1993). The psychology of attitudes. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers.
  • Roese, N. J., & Sherman, J. W. (2007). Expectancy. In A. W. Kruglanski & E. T. Higgins (Eds.), Social psychology: Handbook of basic principles (pp. 91–115). New York: The Guilford Press.

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