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Surprise principle

Principles > Surprise principle

Principle | How it works | So what



When what happens is not what I expect, I have to rethink my understanding of the world.

How it works

One way we manage the world is to make an educated guess as to what comes next and then see if we were right. This constant forecasting process allows us to make the right decision as to what to do next.

Surprise happens when what happens does not match what we expected or forecast would happen.

Nasty surprises

When what we expect is more than what happens in reality, we are disappointed. And the more we expect and the further away reality is from our expectations, the nastier the surprise.

Our emotional reaction to a nasty surprise can range from a mild disappointment to deep shock. Emotional ripples can spread further, with seething resentment and vengeance sought against the perpetrators of the surprise.

Generally speaking, nasty surprises will evoke the fight or flight reaction.  

Nice surprises

When reality exceeds our expectations, we are pleasantly surprised. A warm glow spreads across us. We feel lucky or honored.

When the reality is far from expectations, our legs can weaken as the disbelief of shock affects us. You see this in TV shows where prize winners and surprise recipients almost collapse with delight.

It is actually possible for a nice surprise to backfire and turn into a nasty surprise, for example when the recipient feels they are being manipulated or when the sense of obligation is felt to be excessive. 

Neutral surprises

As Freud said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes a surprise is just surprising. When a person falls over in front of us or a news item tells of snowstorm in summer, we are surprised, but find it neither nice nor nasty.

A common response to surprises that do not directly affect us is laughter. Humor is a strange thing, but seems to be a response to unexpected events (which is probably why jokes are only funny the first time we hear them).

Surprise causes learning

When our forecast does not meet reality, we may be surprised this time, but we won't be caught out next time! So we change our forecasting to account for the new things we have learned about how the world works.

Surprise causes inner change

When we change our forecasting, we seldom do it by changing the actual process. Instead, we change such things as our models of how the world works, and our beliefs about ourselves and other people. 

Surprise causes denial

'Well, I'm not surprised!' is a common retort by people to whom all kinds of surprisingly different things happen. A simple way we avoid embarrassment is to pretend that we are not surprised, and that we had expected the surprising event to happen after all.

The danger of denial is that we are so good at it that we convince ourselves that we were not surprised and hence don't change! 

So what?

So manage the surprises. If the other person is surprised, it should be because you want them to be. It should be because you have a pretty good idea as to how they are going to react to the surprise.

Manage expectations and reality

Managing their expectations means:

  • Understand what their current expectations are.

  • Understand how they predict the future, including their mental models and beliefs around the area of interest.

  • Subtly guiding their expectations.

  • Creating a reality that is different from what they expect.

Use nasty surprises to move people 

Nasty surprises can be used to shake people out of a complacent state. When they are clinging to their current comfortable position and refusing to see another point of view, a short shock can be effective at awakening them from their slumbers.

Use nasty surprises with care, lest they rebound on you. A fight reaction can easily get out of control and a flight reaction can make them run away from you. Play the bearer of bad news, but beware of being that bad news.

You can create nasty surprises by:

  • Telling them they cannot have what they want.
  • Shouting at them (when you are normally timid). 
  • Telling them the awful truth.

Nice surprises lead to exchange

Nice surprises will predispose the other person towards you, setting up the exchange effect. Make them feel good and they'll be happy to return the favor.

You can create nice surprises by:

  • Promising them something, then giving them more than promised.
  • Not promising them anything, just giving them something pleasant.
  • Praising them.

Neutral surprises lead to interest

You can intrigue people by being, saying or doing something different. A neutral surprise can be an effective hook that pulls people in, leaving them wanting more.

You can create neutral surprises by:

  • Being different from other people.
  • Being different from how you normally are.
  • Being different from what they expect.

You can also be humorous or otherwise cause a surprise that grabs their attention.

See also

Prediction, Theories about forecasting


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