Disappointment and surprise

When evaluating expectations it is a standard cliche of the conversational genre to declare,

I don’t have expectations. That way I can’t be disappointed. And if something good happens, then I can be surprised that it happened.

The degree to which I encounter this formulation on everyday conversation suggests a sort of realism from the interlocutor. It is the lack of expectation that assures them that, whatever happens, they cannot be disappointed if the results turn out not to be what they expected them to.

This suggest that you can have positive (+1) expectations or negative (-1) expectations. The agent is positing that having no expectations, staying effectively in 0 is the best way to go on about life. Not only that, but that the element of surprise will add a +1 (or +2 or +3) to their state after the event that resolves expectations comes to pass.

There are reasons to be skeptical of claiming that an agent can stay effectively at 0 in terms of expectations. But if we are to believe them, they are not acting as conscious agents with regards to their bets. Rather, the perfect economic agent’s carefully weighted priors and intentions are supplanted by the casualness and unconsciousness of everyday life. Who can blame them?

A perfect state of zero seems to be a method of maintaining peace with the agent’s self and expectation. However, there is a failure mode in this framework which can exacerbate negativity instead of continuing the state of zero. Bluntly stated: disappointment is incremental; surprise, decremental.

The conversational cliche is a cliche because the vast majority of people that declare it, tend to break it. Cultivating a state of zero is a vast project, for which agents cannot so easily create the conditions for in everyday life.  (you expect a loan to come through! you expect to do well on a test! you expect that your sister will do a task you asked her to do! you expect ETH to go up!)

Rather, it is the case most often that the state of zero becomes -1 and which point the statement morphs into something more like,

I am always disappointed, therefore I can be surprised when something good happens

We can see the change with the first statement. Rather than maintaining a state of zero with regards to expectations, the agent chooses to stay in a permanent state of -1 with the idea that beginning with a negative will necessarily lead to 0 or +1. At this point we can introduce the three ideas that have been lurking in the background: negativity, realism, and positivity.

The perpetual state of -1 can map to different psychological and/or philosophical states, such as nihilism, pessimism, and others. But this post isn’t about that mapping, or the many arguments that entail proving such a mapping in terms of philosophical and psychological literature. For that reason, we use negative and positive axis to map onto -1 and +1 in terms of expectations with regards to bets.

The permanent state of -1 suggests that the agent is always in a state of negative expectation with regards to their moves and bets. By adopting this attitude, the wager is that such a state will eventually move on to 0 or +1. The available folk evidence, by which I mean interactions I have had over the course of my lifetime, suggests that it seldom does, specially in people that tend toward depression.

The reason is that the -1 in terms of expectations is incremental. The agent seldom stays in a fixed state of disappointment. Rather, with each outcome that does not have a positive (+1) payoff, disappointment increases. -2, -3, -4, -5, until the perpetual state of disappointment becomes more and more meaningless. Disappointment is vampiric. It chips away until most bets lack even the intention to be made.

The other side of the coin is that the state of surprise decreases with each surprise. In tensive semiotics, the formulation is intuitive: an emotion experienced decreases its effect with repetition over time. The intensity cannot be maintained over time for a general state of surprise; the ‘positivity’ in this conversational cliche.

The interest in negativity in bets and expectations here in the conversational cliche speaks to how much agents tend to try to optimize for the worst possible case scenario. By doing so, one of the failure modes is the agent establishing and reinforcing the worst case as the only game in town. Or why the fuck would anything nice ever happen? Instead of engaging in the project of cultivating zero with regards to expectations, or optimizing for better outcomes and payoffs, the perpetual state of disappointment becomes common sense. To fight common sense is notoriously difficult. Yet the approach of optimizing for continuous surprise should also be forgotten. To optimize for better outcomes is not to continuously be surprised, but to engage in the construction of an edifice where losses are re-purposed as fuel. Overturning the conversational cliche and driving it towards zero takes cultivation, for them onward the labour of construction begins.

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