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The Power of Expectations

“Oft expectation fails, and most oft where most it promises; and oft it hits where hope is coldest; and despair most sits” – William Shakespeare

If you’ve ever read the magnificent Joe Posnanski (and if you haven’t, what are you waiting for?), you’re probably familiar with his patented movie rating scale. The first time I read about it, I was blown away – the concept is so simple and elegant, yet it captures the intricacies of expectations and how they influence our final opinions of movies, books, beers, musics, video games, first dates, and yes, baseball players. Let’s take the M. Night Shyamalan film “Lady in the Water” for example. If you rented the movie after watching “The Sixth Sense”, you’d obviously have high expectations for the film – maybe a 3 1/2 to 4 star rating. And well, it turns out the movie was nothing like what you were expecting; it wasn’t a thriller or suspense story, but more something like a fairy tale for kids. To you, the movie was a flop – a one star movie in the end. Four stars minus one star gives you a negative overall movie experience.

But suppose you entered watching that same movie with different expectations. I’d watched little Shyamalan before watching “Lady in the Water”, and I’d heard from others that the movie was a disappointment. I was expecting something like a 1/2 star performance, but hey, the girlfriend wanted to watch it so we did. I wasn’t expecting a thriller or suspense movie, so the movie struck me as actually quite fun. I’d rank it a two-ish star movie in the end, giving me a positive movie experience. My expectations were lower than the quality I received, so it made the movie fun to watch.

It’s an odd coincidence that when I first read about Joe Poz’s movie system, I was studying abroad in Denmark. The Danes are masters of low expectations; their entire culture is built around “Jantelov“, the idea that nobody is better than anyone else. If you succeed and admit it, you’re ridiculed and held in contempt. And if you talk to a Dane, they’ll constantly remind you of the fact that their nation is no great shakes.* If you take a look at their nation’s history, you can understand why. They’ve lost every war they’ve been involved in since Viking times, their nation has shrunk continuously for the past 200 years, and their land is cold, dark, and uninspiring for 11 1/2 out of 12 months every year. Heck, the most cocky thing you can find in the entire nation is Carlsberg’s (their beer’s) slogan: “Probably the best beer in the world.” And even then… “probably”? What advertising agency over here would ever approve of such ambiguity? Danes are the kings of schadenfreude.

*My host family commented at one point that the war in Iraq probably wasn’t going to end well since the Danes were allied with the US. “We’ve lost every war we’ve been involved in – sorry, but it doesn’t look good for you.”

And yet, in multiple studies over different time spans, the Danes have been ranked the happiest nation in the world. Not who you would have expected, huh? In classic form, the Danes don’t have a great answer as to why – they just shrug their shoulders and say that they’re really not that happy. The weather stinks, their taxes are too high – jantelov all over again. The best answer I’ve ever heard came from one of my professors there; she claimed that if you were never expecting anything good to happen to you, you’d always end up pleasantly surprised.

What does any of this have to do with baseball? As fans, everything.

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