The Surprise Principle

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.

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

When what we expect is more than what happens in reality, we are disappointed. Our emotional reaction to a nasty surprise can range from a mild disappointment to deep shock. Generally speaking, nasty surprises will evoke the fight or flight reaction.

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

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.

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.

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.

Summing-up: 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.

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