What’s in a Name? The Role of Expectations, and Reality, in Our Judgements

When Juliet muses that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” she’s refusing to allow a name and its baggage to overrule her better judgment. What could be more romantic than refusing to be encumbered by something as silly as a family name?

But putting romance aside, does Juliet have a point? As it turns out, not so much. Our perceptions, judgements, decisions, and behavior are influenced by the way things are worded, or “framed.” Modern psychology teaches us that our experience doesn’t just come from our senses but also draws on our existing knowledge, beliefs, and expectations.

Hearing the word “rose” primes certain expectations that can influence our judgements and perceptions. For example, one study showed that participants rated the same odors as more pleasant if they were given positive (compared to neutral or negative) names (sorry, Juliet). And it’s not just about names. Many studies show how expectations can influence our perceptions: for example, the color of foods influences how intense we perceive the flavor to be.

Our experience doesn’t just come from our senses but also draws on our existing knowledge, beliefs, and expectations.

But do we always accommodate prior information into our experience? What happens if our expectations and reality are clearly mismatched? That is, how does what we expect to happen, combined with what our senses actually tell us, influence our judgments and perceptions? The answer has many implications for our day-to-day lives, and for the interactions between organizations and customers.

First, let’s think of this from a perspective that we’re all familiar with—eating.

Imagine you’re sitting down to tuck into a tub of strawberry ice cream. It’s made by your favorite brand. It’s a hot day and the ice cream’s cold. It’s pink, suggesting that it’s going to have lots of fruity flavor. You know it’s going to taste good.

The first mouthful passes your lips and … something’s wrong! It tastes like … fish?! How do you think you’d respond?

In a devious study, appetite researchers at the University of Sussex explored this question. Collaborating with Heston Blumenthal—a U.K. chef famous for creating foods that aren’t quite what they seem—they created an ice cream flavored with smoked salmon.

The product looked like a savory mousse or a strawberry ice cream, and before tasting, participants were told that it was one or the other. Those who thought they were getting a savory mousse liked it. However, those who thought it was strawberry ice cream strongly disliked it. The same product was evaluated completely differently depending on the expectations created by prior information. But importantly, given that ice cream is usually pleasant to eat, it was the difference between expectations and reality that seemed to impact participants’ judgements.

Our biology reacts to the match between expectations and reality. If we expect nutritionally rich foods to make us full, we feel fuller and eat less than if we don’t have those expectations. These expectations start with the sight, smell, taste, and even thought of food kicking off a set of physiological responses before the food reaches our stomachs. Some of these responses contribute to fullness, and their strength depends on our expectations. But ultimately, these expectations only increase fullness if the food contains enough energy. In fact, there is some evidence that if high expectations are not met by the nutritional content of the food, it leaves us hungrier!

If you bought a product with a high price which turned out to be low quality, you’d judge the quality to be lower than if it was priced more honestly. The reverse is also true.

Do these findings translate away from the sensory world of food and roses? Importantly for marketers, the answer is certainly yes. Ayelet Gneezy and her colleagues argue that expectations of quality are created by price, and they serve as reference points by which we evaluate our subsequent experience. This means that if you bought a product with a high price which turned out to be low quality, you’d judge the quality to be lower than if it was priced more honestly. The reverse is also true—high prices for high-quality products can enhance our judgements compared to if they were underpriced. Companies that offer premium products adopt this principle—when was the last time you saw Apple discount their MacBooks?

This idea that expectations serve as reference points to which we compare subsequent information dates back to the earliest expectations research, in the Perhaps using our expectations as tools for evaluating our experiences is a valuable effort-saving mechanism. We notice inconsistencies rather than having to evaluate things from scratch. Indeed, expectation theories suggest that when there are large or noticeable differences between expectations and experiences, we are likely to judge our experience in the opposite way to what we expected. In the absence of inconsistencies, our expectations are a pretty good guide to how we should evaluate things.

It’s likely that we gather expectations from all around in our environments, and that they influence our perceptions and judgements for many of our daily encounters. Certainly, research on expectation matching can teach organizations two important things about how customers will perceive their products:

  1. Fabulous marketing and advertising that creates strong expectations really can enhance customers’ perceptions of products and services, if the real thing is a close enough match.
  2. Dishonest marketing, whether over- or under-emphatic, can have a detrimental impact on how customers perceive products and services.

It seems clear that organizations must strive to live up to the customer expectations they create. A customer-centric approach is touted as a way to win in competitive marketplaces. Maintaining customer loyalty and trust is increasingly important in a digital world that makes it ever easier to shop around. The research described here suggests that first, organizations need to understand customers’ expectations—and whether their products and services meet them—as a crucial part of any customer-centric vision.