The Science Behind Surprises: why the unexpected makes us happy

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'Surprise' is the new buzz word in psychology, innovation and management. LeeAnn Renninger and Tania Luna, co-directors of Life Labs Learning, and authors of Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable have spent the last few years probing the topic, concluding that surprise aids learning, memory and community.

Luna and Renninger's research led to the world’s first surprise-led business, Surprise Industries, in which the goal is to engineer surprises for the benefit of companies and individuals. (If this sounds counter-intuitive, think about planning surprise parties or disguising presents in wrapping paper.)   

Our bodies go through specific physiological responses when surprised. Hit by the unexpected, our flow is disrupted for a ¼ of a second. We become alert and curious about that which we’ve been confronted with. Then, introduced to something new, our perspective shifts. Finally, we are compelled to tell others about the new experience we’ve had and share it with our tribe.

Asked if it matters whether the surprise is good or bad, Luna says ‘yes,’ but in both cases, surprise ‘intensifies experience,’ making it significant either way. This means that even the smallest of good surprises can stick in our memory, and give us a positive outlook for an extended period.

It isn’t just management gurus either. Primary school teachers note the importance of surprise in the classroom in a national report published by The UK Teacher’s union. New and unexpected activities, such as working with new materials, conducting lessons in unusual contexts, and other shifts in routine make the school day more memorable, enjoyable and increases engagement.

For adults, surprises can take us out of the daily grind, allowing us to return with a refreshed outlook. 

This is part of the logic behind Bloombox Club’s plant subscription service. On the importance of surprise, company founder and psychologist Katie Cooper had this to say:

‘I quickly decided it was essential that each plant would be kept secret until the very last minute. The “not knowing” builds anticipation in a way that ordering specific plants does not. When a subscriber opens the box to see what they’ve been given that month, they get a rush of feel-good chemicals.’  

Bloombox Club subscribers unbox a surprise plant, either once a month or once a quarter. Each plant is carefully sourced and selected to ensure it's not something widely available. This means that when subscribers open their monthly box, it could be the first time they've seen the plant at all. 

One subscriber said: 'I never open the preview email they send! I like to see it for myself first, the surprise is my favourite bit!'

You can find out more about our subscriptions here. 

Further reading: 

 

T. Luna and L. A. Renninger, Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected, Perigee, 2015.

 

The Teachers’ Union, Creativity in the Arts Curriculum, NASUWT, 2017. 

 

W. Meyer, M. Niepel, U. Rudolph and A.Schutzwohl, An Experimental Analysis of Surprise, Cogn. Emot., 5, 1991, pp. 295-311.



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