You Tend to Get What You Expect

You tend to get what you expect, so be careful what you choose to expect.

“You tend to get what you expect” is timeless wisdom that can be found in the writings of important thinkers throughout history, dating back to Greek philosophers and even prior.

“If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you are right.”- Henry Ford

“Whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can acheive.”- Napoleon Hill author of “Think and Grow Rich”

In 1984 the video game Tetris was introduced. It became an obsession for many video game enthusiasts.  Soon, psychologists started to hear from players that saw the shapes and patterns of the game in their day to day lives.  The players had trained their brain for pattern recognition based on the game.

They dubbed the phenomena and the possibilities it exposed “the Tetris effect”.  They had learned that the human brain can be trained to see patterns.  I want us to consider two possibilities of this finding:  A Negative Tetris Effect or a Positive Tetris Effect.

Negative Tetris Effect

Negative Tetris effect- A brain that has been trained to see problems versus solutions.  A brain that has been trained to see risks instead of opportunities.  We all know people in our lives that fit this description, perhaps it may even be you. A negative tetris effect causes us to constantly scan the world for threats, dangers, problems and risks.  Pessimistic, fault-finding mindsets have been found in studies to make individuals more susceptible to depression, stress, poor physical health, and substance abuse.  They also undercut creativity, lower motivation and inhibit your ability to achieve your goals.

We may also realize that certain professions train for this skill.  Editors look for spelling and grammatical errors.  Auditors look for financial errors.  Trial attorneys look for flaws in a witness’s testimony. It is important to note that the editor that reads this story will see the grammatical errors without consciously trying.  They cannot turn it off.

When the attorney gets home, that negative tetris effect is highly likely to persist in personal conversations and arguments with their spouse.  Is it any wonder that, attorneys have a suicide rate four times the US average?

This is clearly not a pattern that we would choose for a happy life.

Positive Tetris Effect

Positive Tetris Effect- A brain that has been trained to scan for / focus on the positive.  This training, based upon scientific studies, brings happiness, gratitude and optimism.

Alice Hertz Somers- “I know about the bad thing, but I look at the good thing.”

Why is this type of optimism helpful?  Optimists set more goals, set more difficult goals, put more effort into attaining goals and overcome obstacles more easily than pessimists.  Optimists cope better in stressful situations, and are better able to maintain high levels of well-being during hardship.  All skills that are crucial to high performance.

As an aside, most pessimists don’t like to be called pessimists, so they rebrand themselves as “realists”.  It is a marketing campaign that doesn’t fool too many people.

Want some proof?

A study was conducted where participants were first asked if they considered themselves lucky or not.  Then, they were asked to count the number of photos in a newspaper.  Those that identified as lucky finished within seconds on average.  Those that identified as unlucky finished in two minutes on average.  What was the difference?  Those that considered themselves lucky disproportionately saw a statement on the second page saying, “stop counting, there are 43 photos.”  They also disproportionately saw a statement halfway through stating “Stop and tell the experimenter, you have won $250.”  

What caused the lucky to see the statements more often than the unlucky? It is the Tetris effect at play…  we tend to get what we expect…  they expected luck and they were more likely to scan for and find…  good news.  It sure wasn’t luck, because luck doesn’t exist.

In another study, participants were asked to count the number of times that one, of two teams on a video, passed a basketball.  It isn’t too difficult to count, and most participants get the answer right.  However, around 50% of the participants miss a person dressed in a gorilla costume moonwalking prominently through the scene and pounding his chest.  Why?  The tetris effect…  you were asked to focus on one thing (the number of passes) and your brain narrowed your attention to that, so many miss the gorilla.  

Therefore, your brain is tuned to one frequency or another…  the good or the bad…  the risks or the opportunity.  Nothing absolute, some see the gorilla, but enough to make a difference (the unlucky disproportionately miss the trick to quickly counting the photos).

Maximizing the Benefits of the Science

What could we do to get more of the benefits of the positive Tetris effect?  We could train our brain to get more of the benefits to take advantage of a positive Tetris effect.

How?  Each day, write down 3 good things from that day.  They need not be large or profound.  This trains your brain to look for the good in your day to ensure that you have choices for your list.  It also gives you a nice dopamine hit when listing each thing helps you to remember / relive the experience.

When the father of Positive Psychology, Martin Seligman, and his collaborators studied it they found that after doing the “three good things” technique, the participants were happier after one week, one month and 6 months.  Great news! After stopping the exercise, the effects continued.

A Caveat

There is no need to wear rose colored glasses…  The Ideal mindset isn’t heedless of risk, but gives priority to the good.  Not just because it makes us happier, but because it is what creates more good.  As Jim Collins advised, there must be room for “productive paranoia”.  The type of visibility of problems that drives you to fix them.


Get your list of three good things started today.  And…  If you get what you expect, what will you expect?  Choose wisely.  My advice…  expect great things!

Just my opinion.  What do you think?  Let me know in the comments.

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