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Why We Don't Like Surprises

I Don’t Like Surprises

Surprises are usually considered a good thing. And I actually don’t dislike all surprises--just the kind with sudden loud noises, or where people jump out and appear suddenly out of nowhere. I definitely don't like the kind that involve clapping and singing at a restaurant—or latex balloons! I made that clear to my parents when I was 10. “Don’t ever do that to me again” I said, as if I had been assaulted.

People have surprise birthday celebrations, all the time. Some plan surprise visits for friends, even gifts are based on this idea.

So if surprises are such a big part of our culture, why do I sound like a party pooper? Why do some of us dislike them?

Here I explain what surprises are, how our brains perceive them, and why people have such opposing opinions about them.

The Definition of Surprise

A surprise is any event, living thing, object, or environmental change that the individual did not expect to see.

They can be positive or negative, intentional or not, and long-lasting or short-term. Anything from finding an unexpected gift from a loved one, to getting a sudden paycut, can be categorized as a surprise. They also vary in time and intensity. How long a surprise lasts and how strongly we feel about it is tied to the explanation we are given considering the event itself or the conclusion we draw ourselves.

Some "Surprise" Examples

One day when I was a child living in Minnesota, I looked outside the window at our house and a hot air balloon was headed for our yard. True story. Weird, awesome surprise! The travelers had encountered an issue with their baloon and had to make an emergency landing. Everyone landed safely, but the sight of a hot air balloon right in front of our house was surprising! And I loved it!

Although there are some things that are objectively more surprising than others (like seeing a plane land on the field during a game, versus finding out that your roommates used up all the coffee), the level of surprise we feel lessens when we receive an explanation.

Once we understand that the plane is a prop or that your roommate decided to make coffee cake, everything begins to make sense again. The longer we go without an explanation for something unexpected, the more lasting memory the situation creates. If you see a pot of flowers inexplicably floating in the middle of a room, you will definitely remember that image longer than coming home to find out your kids have rearranged some furniture.

How The Brain Processes Surprises

So we understand what surprises are and how they work in the outside world, but what happens in our brain when they happen?

Surprises “happen” in the nucleus accumbens, a part of the brain that deals with the perception of different situations. This is also the part of the brain that deals with our pleasure and reward systems.

The other part of our minds, which is active when something unexpected happens, is the amygdala. Its job is to help us decide whether this is a positive or negative situation and for our bodies to start releasing the respective substances, most often dopamine and oxytocin. There are studies that show that our brains seem to enjoy the unexpected. US researchers compared the activity of the reward pathways in the brain in both random and organized situations. According to that study and some further research, our brains are more active when they don’t expect the stimuli than when they do. This means that the dose of chemicals we receive is higher when we experience a surprise.

The Surprise-Startle Reaction

Another important aspect of surprises is that they cause reactions.

The surprise-startle response is one of the 9 basic human affective reactions, or general biological responses to stimuli.

Affects (noun; pronounced af-ekts) appear in the form of facial expressions, skin changes, and body reactions. Plus, the surprise-startle affect is the only neutral reaction that can occur in response to both something positive happening, and something negative.

Then, there are 2 basic positive affective responses that reflect an individual’s general response to pleasing or positive stimuli. These are interest-excitement, and enjoyment-joy. Negative affecive responses reflect an individual’s general response to negative stimuli. These 6 basic negative affective reactions include distress-anguish, anger-rage, fear-terror, shame-humiliation, disgust, and dismell which is the reaction to a negative odor.

To give this a little more perspective: a feeling is our awareness of an affect. A feeling plus our memory of past experiences is an emotion. The internal rules that we develop subconsciously to try and get more positive and less negative biological response is called a script. And the collection of scripts that we use to regulate affect is called personality.

Why Some People Dislike Them

So why do people say that surprises really aren’t their cup of tea?

When faced with a surprise, some people feel awkward and confused, as if a big amount of pressure is right on top of them - these are all symptoms of anxiety.

For many people, events like these mean the loss of focus and flow in their day.

If the brain doesn’t know what to expect, it can’t keep us out of harm’s way, which is exactly why some of us feel uneasy when we think about surprises. Unexpected situations are known to cause stress which is why there are people who worry every time there is the possibility of such an event occurring. Some choose to keep certain things about themselves private - like birthdays for example - in order to avoid surprises as much as possible. And when we understand that this is because their brains experience a massive amount of stress just thinking of the unexpected things that may happen, we really can’t blame them. There are also our unique experiences with the world of surprises. If there were multiple times we were unexpectedly disappointed, it’s normal for us to connect them with something bad. Hence every time we think about them, we reinforce the belief that they aren’t a good idea.

Final Thought

Although it’s commonly accepted for people to like surprises, there are those who do not. The wiring in our brain is similar. However our experiences are unique. This is why some people don’t enjoy the unexpected. Not only that, it would seem that the people who don’t like surprises seem to have them connected with a source of anxiety - an emotion more complicated than simple reward centers in our brain. Regardless of which group you fall into, we should all respect each other’s opinions and act accordingly with others. Objectively speaking, surprises are neither bad nor good, and both types of people have their reasons for enjoying or not enjoying them. Do YOU like surprises? Share your opinion below!


I’m Melanie Gallo, Ph.D., a WorkLife Psychology coach and writer specializing in personality and thinking habits. Through my fun and innovative app called Coach2GO, I help busy-minded people define, get and keep their WorkLifeJoy. Like to be notified of my future posts? Simply subscribe to Coach2GO today.


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