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The Power of Surprise

The invisible role we play in changing people’s minds.

Key points

  • Surprise comments work below our conscious radar, helping us reshape our self-perception and reexamine long-held patterns of thinking.
  • Most of our formative moments—the moments that cause a revolution in our thinking—are the result of surprise.
  • We can use surprise comments strategically to enrich others’ lives and to shift our perspective on ourselves.

Every day, each of us has the opportunity to change someone’s life. Psychologist Michael Rousell found an unexpected way to have this type of impact: Harness the power of surprise.

What Is "Surprise"?

Surprise is the error signal our brains produce when something unexpected or mis-expected happens. It was an essential adaptation for our ancestors because it forced them to freeze and focus on threats and opportunities. Those who could not experience surprise could not react or learn quickly enough to survive.

On a neural level, surprise is a dopamine trigger, producing the neurotransmitter that drives attention and motivation. To put it simply, surprise is a big deal to our brains. It makes us stop, notice, and learn.

How Can Surprise Change Someone’s Life?

In his book The Power of Surprise, Rousell reveals his favorite insight gleaned from decades of his research: Surprise is a key ingredient in our formative moments. Formative events are the experiences that have shaped who we believe we are. They form our self-concept.

All of us are influenced by the combination of our past experiences, and the majority of our experiences are part of a slow, gradual evolution in self-perception. Rousell argues that formative events are like a sudden revolution, resulting in a sudden shift in how we perceive ourselves.

Here’s an example: It took Hector many years to develop the belief that he lacked leadership potential. And it only took an instant to change his beliefs when a coworker told him: “Most folks on our team just want to hear themselves speak, but you listen and make sure everyone feels heard. You are a great leader, and you inspire me to be better too.” This simple comment was the surprise spark that transformed Hector’s self-image. After hearing that, confirmation bias triggered Hector’s search for confirming evidence, causing him to re-label his past experiences from “people-pleasing” to “great leader.” The result wasn’t just a change in his thinking but also a catalyst for "self-fulfilling prophecy" actions such as volunteering for more leadership roles.

Here is another example Rousell shares in his book: Samantha felt her shyness was a weakness, until her swim coach surprised her by naming her captain. He said, “She may be quiet, but when this girl says something, you’re going to want to listen.” The surprise left her feeling quietly powerful. The change in her beliefs and behaviors was instant and lasting.

Surprise Pro-Tips: How to Trigger a Shift in People’s Self-Perception

Not all surprising moments are created equal. Rousell suggests these three research-backed steps to use surprise well:

  1. Identify a perceived weakness: Spot a self-criticism you’d like to help someone revise. For example, perhaps your student sees herself as a slow learner, your employee believes he lacks creativity, or your spouse beats themself up for being overly cautious.
  2. Flip the “weakness” to a strength: Next, identify the strength that is the opposite side of the same coin. For example, maybe the student who thinks she learns slowly is also very thorough. The employee who thinks he lacks creativity is highly logical. And the flipside of your spouse’s concern is their attention to detail.
  3. Deliver the message: Lastly, share your sincere perception of the individual’s strength. Rousell suggests making your message quick and to the point, as though you’re stating an empirical fact. The more you dwell on the topic or dress it up as flowery praise, the less surprising it will be, and the less power it will have to change someone’s mind. For example:

a. “I noticed you were the last one to finish your test today. I really admire how thorough you are. It’s a quality that will take you far in life.”

b. “Thanks for spotting the flaws in our thinking during that meeting. It’s a relief to have someone so logical in the room checking that our ideas make sense.”

c. “I don’t thank you enough for caring about the details and making sure we’re safe and secure. You’re the most thoughtful person I know.”

Surprise has the power to help others change how they see themselves. But, crucially, it also gives us the power to change how we see ourselves. Armed with these new surprise skills, you can now see yourself as an agent of surprise—unlocking people’s confidence and self-esteem wherever you go.

Learn more on our podcast, Talk Psych to Me.

References

The Power of Surprise (Rousell, 2021)

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