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What happens when you drop a book, flip a light switch, or turn up the thermostat?  What do you expect?  If these things didn’t happen, how do you feel?

Every living thing acts on expectation.  A subroutine that says  “If I do this, then this will happen”.  The Paramecium isn’t aware that if it moves where food is more common, it will get more food, but it acts that way nonetheless.  The bird may or may not know that of it sings loudest and longest, it will find a mate, but it behaves that way nonetheless.  One of the first lessons we learn as babies is that everything falls.  Food, dishes, the cat.  If something were to violate our expectations of gravity, by floating of rising to the ceiling, we would be rather alarmed.

We act in accordance with our expectations of how the world should behave.   If we see our food fall to the floor over and over again, we learn about gravity, elastic and inelastic collisions.  If we pull the dog’s tail and it bites us, we learn something different than if it whines.  Something we might take with us to the rest of the Animal Kingdom.  If our hard work or wits are rewarded, or not, we learn to expect those outcomes from the rest of our lives.

Our brains form associations of “if this, then that” all the time when we are kids.  They become a shorthand for reality.  If our expectations are fulfilled, our brain rewards us with contentment. If they are violated, we are uneasy. Even if the outcome is better than we could have imagined. These are lessons we learn before we can even understand words.  They exist as urges, comforts and the correct response. We are pushed by these early cause-effects to see the world in terms of those expectations, with unease at anything that breaks type, and a great unease if we try to act in a way that was not rewarded before we could even talk.

This is where our proclivities and disgusts come from.  A person without an emotional attachment to one outcome or the other is rudderless.  They will consider all alternatives meticulously and never be able to tell which one makes them happiest.  The rational actor model of behavior and economics is a dangerous myth.  It results in overly brutal decisions in the same way parking lots result in dependence on traffic.  Nobody considers the underlying needs of the people making the decisions, or the cars needing parking.
So what’s the solution?  Unfortunately, everyone reading this is already programmed.  The wetware is installed, in cyberpunk terms.  Just as the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the best time to instill values of hard work, clever thinking, and confidence in the world is in childhood, even infancy.

My pat answer to why urban schools do worse than suburban schools is that the kids are getting more powerful lessons about hope and the rewards of industry versus the surer rewards of quick satisfaction.  This story of making every moment in school a teachable moment, and raising better kids for it changed my mind, though I’d like to see it replicated, scaled, and universalized, especially in inner cities.

The reason the poor act the way they do, and get caught in the same generational loop of poverty, along with high fees and  poor services is that they are brought up to expect nothing better.  They were not raised with hope of a long and prosperous future, so why bother?  Success becomes more provincial, with place and confidence from close friends and almost no one else.  Give anyone without hope a glimmer of hope, and they will likely get angry, distraught, or morose before they get hopeful.  This is what happens when we violate expectations.

The most widely accepted story of why the above is a thing is that it emulates prison garb.  This is a physical embodiment of hopelessness.  The solution is not a ban, but better goals.


cf.  “How We Decide” – Jonah Lehrer