The Suffering of Expectations

I have been thinking about the relationship between expectations and suffering, and this framing popped out recently.

Let’s suppose that there’s a scale of experiences, spanning negative and positive. This scale is relative to the current moment, which we will consider the center of this scale. There’s some way in which we evaluate experiences and determine whether they are positive and negative. Adding the dimension of time, we get this continuum of experience.

Within this continuum, I can now frame our predictions of experiences and their outcomes as expectations. When we predict experiences to happen in a certain way, we create new expectations. When we look at the past and recall our experiences, we evaluate our prior expectations. My guess is that suffering is somehow related to encountering a difference–a delta–between our expectations of experiences and our actual experiences.

At every moment of time, we subconsciously evaluate two expectation deltas.

The first delta is the prediction error. It’s the difference between what I expected to happen now and what really happened. Let’s say that the prediction error value is positive when my expectations were exceeded–that is, when what really happened was better than what I expected to happen.

When my expectations were unmet–what happened was worse than what I expected to happen, let’s say that the prediction error value is negative.

The second delta is the expectation gradient, or the difference between what I expect to happen in the future and what is currently happening. Let’s say that the expectation gradient value is positive when I expect better things to happen in the future …

… and the value is negative when I expect the future to bring worse things.

There’s something about these negative deltas. The bigger they are, the more inaccurate the prediction, whether in the past or in the future. The less accurate the predictions, the stronger the signal about the inaccuracy of the model that was used to issue these predictions. I wonder if we humans interpret that signal as suffering. We are wired to reduce the strength of this signal, to reduce the suffering. And boy, do we try.

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