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Expectations • Posted: Oct 29, 2011 20:27:19Comments WelcomeVote CoolPhotoblogsPurchase a PrintShare

"What is a person without expectations?"

That is a question posed in an essay I read this week written by a young woman not much different from the one pictured above. She went on to say that frustration at not being able to fulfill either her own expectations or those of her parents and teachers forced her down a path of despair and rebellious anarchy that eventually led to scarring consequences she'll now have to deal with for the rest of her life. Her ultimate realization was that one doesn't necessarily have to play the same games as everyone else is playing, i.e. competing for a place in the top 1%. There are other ways to find meaning and fulfillment with one's gift of existence. A weighty conclusion from one so young.

But, what of her original question? What are your expectations? What are the expectations of those around you? What would all of us be without our expectations? It's an interesting set of questions. For instance, we expect our money to be worth something when we try to spend it. But what if our money is suddenly declined like a credit card bumping its limit? What if we show up for work and find the doors locked and a sign reading "gone out of business". What if we go to start our car and the battery is dead? What if our cell phone stops working? In all those cases, we'd be shocked, probably unprepared, and seriously inconvenienced.

Now try to imagine what life would be like if we literally had no expectations. :-) A long ago Saturday Night Live sketch featuring Tom Hanks comes to mind. The sketch is entitled "Short-Term Memory Man". Hanks is on a date, and each time he looks up from his menu he says, "Oh, hi. Who are you?" His date and the waiter, of course, do not suffer the same affliction.

Clearly, life without expectations would be largely impossible. We'd have no expectation that anything we'd try to coordinate our actions with would ever happen, at least not with any predictability. All interactions would be totally random, without the possibility for planning or sense of outcome. Serendipity and surprise would reign, but we'd never actually be surprised because we'd have no sense that anything that happens is out of the ordinary. A very strange world, in deed.

There is an interesting discussion going on lately at the intersection of statistics and public policy. Per a recent article in Science News, there are currently two competing theories on how to do statistics: frequentist and Bayesian. The two approaches differ in how they treat expectations. While frequentists treat observed events as both random and independent of precedent and each other, suggesting a regular bell shaped curve for the probable distribution of events, the Bayesian approach tempers its assessment of probabilities by taking into account the history of outliers, events that unexpectedly fall outside a normal bell shaped map of probable events. The Bayesian approach says, "Well, if outliers happen, they happen. And if they have happened, there is a not an insignificant probability they will happen again. We need to account for that." Bayesian curves predicting future events tend to cast a much wider net than frequentist approaches. Bayesian statisticians are, therefore, less frequently surprised by unusual turns of events like stock market crashes or unanticipated deaths in drug trials. And if there is no or a poor history of events they are interested in, they build a history and recalculate their predictions as new data comes in. Bayesians are not like Tom Hanks in that sketch. Frequentists are.

Now, just to be clear, a Bayesian approach is not the same as saying, "Oh my god, I just fell down the stairs. Therefore, stairs are unsafe and should be banned and avoided by everyone now and for all time." No, a Bayesian would say the lesson to be learned is that stairs are not completely safe for anyone all the time. You falling proves that. But, all the times you didn't fall also proves stairs can be used safely if used with caution.

The frequentist/Bayesian difference in expectation for the unusual also has significant consequence for debates over social policy and election outcomes. If one narrowly believes that things were fine when G.W. was in office, that gas prices were affordable, people had jobs, and could afford new pickups, then one would tend to believe electing Republicans during the next election cycle would be the way to go. But if one takes account of who established the policies that led to artificially low gas prices, corruption in lending markets, an eventual crash on Wall Street, and worldwide recession, then one might tend to think Republicans don't know what the hell they are doing, except with respect to facilitating exploitation of the 99% to the advantage of the 1%.

What the best answer or policy for the most number of people is, is not completely clear. An attractive young lady standing on a street corner considering her options would seem to imply she both has options and has a realistic expectation of achieving them. Most of us would like to believe that will always be the case, not only for her but for each and every one of us. But, the unanticipated can and certainly does happen. May your thinking toward better public policy prove ever more fruitful for all of us.

Tuesday, October 20th, 2009