A danger of having wrong expectations: anxiety

You think you’ve done a great job on your exams, but when you see the actual results, it shows not to be the case… This new study looks at how student expectations of exam grades can exhibit which individuals have an optimistic or pessimistic outlook on life and the possible consequences.

From the press release:

Psychology researchers have analyzed how predictions and expectations can affect individuals’ moods and outlooks in a controlled lab setting, but University of Miami researchers decided to investigate the ups and downs of human expectations using what matters most to undergraduate students — their exam grades.

“Whether we are conscious of it or not, we’re always forming expectations,” said Aaron Heller, senior author in the study and an associate professor in the Department of Psychology. “Whenever our expectations turned out to be wrong, they become a learning signal that we use to form better expectations in the future.”

While previous prediction error studies conducted in the lab have used simulated scenarios, Heller and his team decided to take a more naturalistic approach by analyzing students’ expectations surrounding their exam grade predictions while attending a chemistry course at the University of Miami.

To help researchers collect the data, students consented to share their grades for four exams taken throughout the semester. After each exam, students sent Heller and his team what grade they expected to get (from zero to 100) on that exam. In smaller lab studies looking at how individuals learn from these expectancy violations, data has shown that people display what is called an “optimistic learning bias,” which means they tend to learn more from positive, relative to negative surprises.

In their study with students, Heller also found similar results. In general, most students displayed an optimistic learning bias in that they learned more when doing better than they expected than when they did worse. However, there was another group of students who were more consistently pessimistic over the semester.

“When the more optimistic students received a lower score than they anticipated, they changed their expectations appropriately, but did not overcorrect following these disappointments on the next exam. But the students who were more pessimistic tended to predict they would get a lower score on a subsequent exam even if their last grade was slighter higher than what they predicted,” said Heller. “This led them to be more inaccurate in what they expected overall, and due to how they learned, predicted whether students would develop symptoms of anxiety later on in life.”

In essence, the study presents evidence that individuals’ positive and negative emotions were not just driven by the exam grades they received, but by what they expected to receive.

“Helping people to have more accurate expectations is an important treatment option for things like anxiety and depression,” said Heller.

Abstract of the study:

Organisms learn from prediction errors (PEs) to predict the future. Laboratory studies using small financial outcomes find that humans use PEs to update expectations and link individual differences in PE-based learning to internalizing disorders. Because of the low-stakes outcomes in most tasks, it is unclear whether PE learning emerges in naturalistic, high-stakes contexts and whether individual differences in PE learning predict psychopathology risk. Using experience sampling to assess 625 college students’ expected exam grades, we found evidence of PE-based learning and a general tendency to discount negative PEs, an “optimism bias.” However, individuals with elevated negative emotionality, a personality trait linked to the development of anxiety disorders, displayed a global pessimism and learning differences that impeded accurate expectations and predicted future anxiety symptoms. A sensitivity to PEs combined with an aversion to negative PEs may result in a pessimistic and inaccurate model of the world, leading to anxiety.

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