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Surprise and Learning

 

Explanations > Learning Theory > Surprise and Learning

Predicting the future | Surprise or not | Learning | So what

 

Surprise, it seems (maybe unsurprisingly), is quite closely related to learning.

Predicting the future

We manage in our daily lives in this big complex world by making constant predictions about what will happen next and what may happen in the more distant future.

The way we make predictions is by combining three things:

  • Available information on the current situation, including contextual data.
  • Memories of similar situations we have experienced
  • Hearsay and things we have been told about such situations
  • Mental models we have previously constructed ourselves or acquired from others

From these, we make an intelligent guess at what will likely happen next and into the future.

We are very good at this process and do it almost continuously at a subconscious level. We also do it selectively at a conscious level when something seems worth the extra attention.

Surprise or not

Generally, we're pretty good at prediction, and most of the time things turn out pretty much as we expected. In this way we manage to drive down the road without hitting anything and hold conversations without upsetting anyone.

Sometimes, however, things do not turn out as expected. The name we use to label how we feel is surprise.

Surprises can be good or bad, depending on the prediction and the benefits (or not) of what happens.

Learning

So what happens after surprise? It is not always learning. For example, we might ignore the event as beneath interest or explain it away as an anomaly.

But if it is important and if it happens again, we have to change our method prediction, and the critical thing we often change is the mental models we use to understand and explain the world. This is learning.

So what?

So if you want somebody to learn, try surprising them -- in a way that helps learning, of course. If you just make the person jump, they will only learn to ignore you or be nervous around you.

See also

Surprise, Schema

 

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