5 Ways To Create Surprise

What accounts for various emotional responses to surprise?

Posted Aug 17, 2018

"If you know exactly what you are going to do, why do it? "- Popularly attributed to Picasso.

Surprise is a sense of wonder that we feel toward the unexpected (Mellers et al., 2103).  Surprise is an important key factor that encourages interest and motivates our curiosity. And, curiosity is a key motivator to learning. The emotion of surprise is displayed by an open mouth and wide eyes in reaction to increased arousal and attention (Ekman &Davidson, 1994). In contrast, highly predictable environments can lead to reduced attention and lowered arousal (sleepiness).

When a surprising event occurs, two brain processes are initiated: a rapid reaction response, and a slower reflective response. For example, we might experience fear when encountering a snake, but then realize it is a curved stick. Cognitive reflection eliminates or inhibits the assessment of fear or risk. The laughter results from the sudden change of a tense reaction into relief.

Surprise requires an unexpected outcome (e.g., a fans running onto the baseball field). As the followings describe, surprise is characteristic of an unpredictable environment (Huron, 2007).

1.     When you least expect it - Watching a surprise win in a game, thousands of spectators simultaneously experience a huge surge of dopamine. People keep coming back as if addicted to the joy of experiencing unexpected rewards. This helps explains why Zappos goes to such lengths to deliver shoes before they are promised. Delighted customers experience the pleasure of a surprisingly positive outcome.

2.     Questioning the status quo - The surprise arises from a discrepancy between an actual outcome and a highly practical schema (or existing knowledge). As used by advertisers, schema incongruent messages can motivate consumers’ interest, and capture their attention (Hye, 2013). For example, a talking baby buys stock in an online trading ad. We also learn better when we are surprised. In a classroom setting, students are more persuaded by a surprising explanation that goes against their held expectations.

3.     I’ve Never had an experience like this before - Surprise often accompanies novelty, because novelty violates one’s expectations. Novelty captures our attention. A novel event can be almost anything - seeing a painting for the first time, learning a new word, having a pleasant, or unpleasant, experience. However, novelty decays very rapidly. We become habituated. New activities are exciting at first but then become boring.

4.     Keep them guessing - The appeal of many forms of media entertainment such as movies, video games, or music, often seems to directly originate from their power to arouse feelings of tension and suspense (Lehne & Koelsch, 2015), For example, in movies or novel tension and suspense are created in narrative plots. And the experience of tension and suspense persist until the conflict is resolved. This explains why spoilers are bad: they reveal all the information at once, which takes away the suspense and the pleasure of a story.

5.     The contrast effect - Pleasure is increased when a positive response follows a negative response (Zellner et al., 2006). To feel excited and motivated, you must occasionally feel bored. It is like the old joke, “why do you keep beating your head against the wall? Because it feels so good when I stop.” Similarly, we will enjoy our lunch more for being deprived of breakfast. Literally, hunger is the best sauce. And, if you want to be certain you will enjoy your meal pay attention to what you choose as an appetizer. Research has shown that an appetizer that is too good can psychologically spoil your appetite for the main course (Lahne et al., 2017).


Ekman P., Davidson R. J., editors. (eds.). (1994). The Nature of Emotion: Fundamental Questions. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Huron, David (2007). Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation. The MIT Press.

Hye Jin Yoon (2013) Understanding schema incongruity as a process in advertising: Review and future recommendations, Journal of Marketing Communications, 19:5, 360-376.

Mellers B, Fincher K, Drummond C, Bigony M.  (2013) Surprise: a belief or an emotion? Prog Brain Res; 202:3-19.

Zellner D. A., Allen D., Henley M., Parker S. (2006). Hedonic contrast and condensation: Good stimuli make mediocre stimuli less good and less different. Psychon. Bull. Rev. 13, 235–239.

Lahne Jacob, Richard Pepino, Debra Zellner (2017). You’ll spoil your dinner: Attenuating hedonic contrast in meals through cuisine mismatch. Food Quality and Preference; 56: 101.