Expectancy bias is real, and it shapes your reality. This means in some sense that what you expect is what you get. When I was a kid, I used to stand on my head so I could see what the world looked like upside-down. To look at the world from that perspective transfigured it.
My otherwise familiar living room would become something new and absolutely fascinating. As far as my visual field was concerned, all the shapes and colours were exactly the same, only inverted.
What bridged the gap between my familiar reality and the alien landscape — where the roof was the floor — was that I made it impossible to keep pretending that I understood what I was looking at. Instead, I just looked at it.
This is something they teach artists to do. Symbol drawing is a curse for beginning artists. I never got past it, actually. I’m still hopeless at drawing. To symbol draw is to draw what you think you see, instead of what you really see.
When you draw a stick man or a smiley face, you haven’t drawn a human figure or a human face. Instead, you’ve drawn symbols for a figure or a face. We could really consider them as closer to letters than honest-to-goodness drawings in terms of a record of a perception.
The standard exercise to break someone out of their symbol drawing is to get them to take a picture and to copy it, but by turning it upside down. Once they can no longer recognise the elements of the picture, they stop drawing what they expect — because they can’t expect anything at all from this new perspective. Then they start drawing what they see. The drawings usually turn out much better after that.
If you think you’re really hopeless at art, look up an inverted drawing exercise and complete it. You’ll probably learn something about yourself.
When I did it, I learned something important about how perception works at a very basic level. This insight is also substantially supported by literature in cognitive psychology.
What I learned is that my expectation affects both my perception of the world and the actions that I can perform in relation to the world. When I couldn’t free the world from my conceptual expectations, I couldn’t create the beauty I was wanting to.
My conceptions of the world influenced my perception, and so I could never escape my symbol drawing fully. I constantly confused my map of my visual perception with the perception itself. So all I had access to in the end was the map, and not the territory, so to speak.
In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi describes the consequence of seeing things as if you were seeing them for the very first time. He says:
If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.
He discusses this explicitly in the context of meditation, at least as much as you can divorce meditation from everyday life from the perspective of Zen. I think that the principle is worth considering even if you don’t meditate.
What you might be thinking now is: ‘Well that’s brilliant, Grayson. Maybe I can live a better life if I learn how to suspend my expectations. But Western, productivity-obsessed Stoicism culture is constantly shouting at me that life could be beautiful and amazing and 100% more productive if I just suspended whatever tragically mistaken beliefs I suffer from.’
I really hope you’re not thinking that. I’m not endorsing this sort of expectation suspension. In fact, performing that sort of expectation suspension, would get in the way of effectively suspending your expectations in the way I’m describing above.
The point that I want to make here entails a critique of Stoicism as it is expressed in our culture presently. The issue with this sort of Stoicism as I’m going to present it is that it involves a certain type of pathological acceptance that makes it potentially more difficult to experience free joy, such as the joy of creation, or the joy of exploration.
The critique I have for Stoicism is also applicable to any system of thought that emphasises rejecting the world of the sensory for some higher ideal. Namely, these systems of thought — including Buddhism, depending on which Buddhism you mean — all justify the suspension of expectation in order to reach an end. That end is the cessation of suffering. That’s a laudable and worthwhile goal, and all.
But the desire to cease suffering is entirely unrelated to freeing yourself from expectations as an activity. After all, if you free yourself of expectations to cease your suffering, you aren’t freeing yourself from expectations at all! This is a contradictory task. It’s a fool’s errand. You’ll never get there, so give it up now.
The justification for these quests was often something like the claim that reality was ultimately an illusion, and so not worth worrying about. I have issues with what the term ‘world’ denotes here. In my estimation it includes things like ‘me’ and ‘my suffering.’ Which is fine. I happen to believe the world is mostly an illusion myself. I did a philosophy degree — that was my mistake. You mostly learn silly ideas like that in a philosophy degree.
We can accept that the world is an illusion without accepting that it is discountable, rejectable or less valuable because it is an illusion.
If you understand what I said above with respect to the interaction effect between your expectations and reality, you have to admit that at least partially, reality is an illusion. Either that, or you have to resign yourself to believing that you’ll never have access to reality, and that you’ll always be walking around in a falsehood.
In both cases, you’re dreaming all the time. If your expectations affect your perception, then you’re fooling yourself constantly, and you can’t stop.
I’d like you to imagine a situation. Imagine that you were standing in front of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, at the Reina Sofia in Spain. You might be touched by the tragedy, or overwhelmed by a horrible confusion. You might think the composition was brilliant, and that only a master such as ol’ Pablo could have conceived it. It’s possible you would find it very boring.
For the purpose of my illustration, I do want you to like it. I like it, I think it’s a good painting. But I’ll admit, it’s not completely necessary for my point to land. In any case, I think it’s fair to suppose that if you took the time to look at it, you would probably have a reaction.
Now imagine that you learned it was a counterfeit. Would you find it less beautiful? Would you find it just as beautiful? I think this question could divide a room pretty easily. Most questions worth asking can. But I also think I would prefer to be the person who found it just as beautiful. After all, I was never seeing it in the first place.
I think Shakespeare wrote something about roses and designations, which might be relevant here. But I don’t really remember how that quote goes.
Remember that you’re fooling yourself all the time. You can fool yourself into suffering or you can fool yourself out of it. You can fool yourself into beauty, or you can fool yourself out of it. But don’t expect anything from fooling yourself. That would be a waste of time.
How can you ever hope to understand a system that produces false self-images of itself and of everything else as an essential matter of its function? That system is the conjunction of your perceptual system, including your expectations, and what you think of as the external world. You are never going to trick it or master it with tools that it gave you.
There are still reasons to drop your conceptual frame and let all of those expectations go, but they won’t earn you anything. If you’re going to fool yourself, do it for the same reason you dance or like walking in the woods— do it for the same reason I’m writing this right now!