THE PARADOX OF SURPRISE - Impossible to Ignore - Carmen Simon

Impossible to Ignore: Creating Memorable Content to Influence Decisions - Carmen Simon (2016)


The Price We Pay for Extra Attention, Time, and Engagement

In 2013, Kleenex partnered with Facebook to provide care kits to users who were feeling sick. Israeli ad agency Smoyz helped with the campaign by searching Facebook for status updates in which users reported being ill. Then the agency used its online connections to find the users’ mailing addresses and sent them a get-well-soon Kleenex kit to help them feel better. Surprise! People who received the kit were so touched that every single person—no exception—posted their experience and gratitude online, turning the marketing effort into a viral campaign and capturing the attention of more than 650,000 people.

Surprises are not always generous and pleasant.

In the late 1970s, Romanian ambassador Corneliu Bogdan visited Charlotte, North Carolina, to watch the Davis Cup match between the United States and Romania, and he was in for another kind of surprise. A small Army band accidentally played the old, pre-Communist royal anthem. Surprise! The Romanian ambassador was in shock. Ceausescu had been cruel to subordinates for smaller mishaps. Luckily, the music was immediately stopped, and the organizers swiftly switched to other activities and then redid the opening ceremony with the correct anthem.

Earlier in the book, I mentioned a study of the most popular SlideShares of 2015. The results showed that surprise was the single most reliable predictor of staying on people’s minds long enough for them to act in our favor. When surprise was included, even a small dose (5-10% of the slides) was sufficient to compel viewers to like, share, download, comment, or embed the presentation on their own sites.

It is useful to understand the neuroscience of surprise, because when you surprise someone, whether the outcome is good or bad, you can rely on extra emotion and engagement. This chapter offers guidelines on how best to create surprises for audiences in such a way that we influence attention, memory, and action.


There are two processes going on in our brains when we’re surprised: a reaction and an evaluation of what just happened. The reaction is fast (150 milliseconds or less), automatic, and short-lived and is rarely a conscious process. The fast path takes the event to the amygdala, the brain region that prepares us for emergencies and assigns emotional significance to what happens. The fast track is also protective and suspicious. When faced with surprise, it is biologically adaptive to assume the worst. Evolution has taught us that it is better to exaggerate danger than it is to be realistic.

On the slower path, the surprising event takes a detour: it goes through cortex areas associated with rumination and evaluation before it reaches the amygdala. This is where the brain assesses the event, tells the amygdala to quiet the alarm, and concludes, “I won’t be shot for a national anthem mishap.” Since we are conscious of this slower appraisal process, we can relate to it more than to what’s happening on the fast track. The two processes, fast and slow, are often in conflict because they pursue different goals: the fast one wants to enable quick reaction to potential danger, and the slow one wants to evaluate accurately to be better prepared for the next time.

Surprise is a prediction error.

Given that natural selection favors those who can accurately predict the future, our brains have evolved to be constantly on fast-forward. From this perspective, biologically speaking, surprise is always bad. This is because surprise implies a failure to predict the future. Even when an event turns out to be good, such as receiving unexpected Kleenex for a runny nose, surprise is still a prediction error.

If all surprises are biologically bad, why is it that we enjoy some surprises? After all, the people who received Kleenex care kits enjoyed the experience even if it was not predictable. Cognitive scientist David Huron prompted me to ask this question of clients I coach: “Suppose you could know the exact date and time when your most cherished goals would be fulfilled, would you choose to know them?” Most say no. Some of the joy in life comes from uncertainty and the surprises we face along the way. While prophecy is a source of pleasure, too much certainty can diminish it.

Since all surprises are treated initially as bad, this means they induce a state of fear or stress—even if this never reaches our conscious state of awareness. Scientists confirm that when we experience fear or stress, the body releases opiates, such as endorphins, to counteract potential pain and allow us to function and fight if necessary. Since most surprises are false alarms, the net result is that opiates are still released; we don’t need them to fight, but we enjoy their effect.

So it looks like we are faced with a biological paradox: on one hand, we like to predict accurately, but on the other, we also seem to enjoy some surprises. Can we create for our listeners something that is predictable and surprising at the same time? To answer this, we must first understand how the human brain learns to predict and what is likely to appear surprising. For this, we turn to the psychology of expectations.


Our brains map out everything we do. Eating, working, feeling pain, or making love—many of these activities take place in the mind first. Neurocognitive studies have demonstrated that actions, such as a simple movement of the hand or physical exercise, take place in the brain first before they take place in reality. And we learn to predict what happens in the end by forming expectations.

The brain starts with the end in mind.

We form expectations automatically and mostly unconsciously based on what we pay attention to, memories of past experiences, and motivations and emotions we have along the way. Studies using electroencephalography and intracranial recordings suggest that the human brain has evolved to take input from our senses and run it through a hierarchy of neural networks that are constantly exchanging information and updating our past experiences and internal biases. The purpose of these complex but efficient processes is to minimize unpredictability and accurately predict what’s next.

One of the ways to reduce unpredictability is to form schemas or mental representations, which are typically the result of repeated exposure to stimuli. Think of movies. We don’t expect a guy named Bob to be a villain, nor do we expect a character named Beast to be selling cookies for charity. It is adaptive to form mental schemas because they allow the brain to process information quickly and respond appropriately. It would be exhausting to evaluate every single event we face, and the brain is constantly looking to save energy.

We may have schemas—and therefore expectations—for business meetings, grocery stores, airports, or our national anthem. On a home improvement show, for example, I saw a contractor showing an inexperienced homeowner how to use a glue gun. As the glue is pouring out of the gun onto the wooden panel, she observes, “It’s just like frosting!” She sees something new through an existing schema.

We have expectations constantly—of how our day unfolds, how we’ll react to a show, or what our partner may say after we share some news. When our expectations are met, we experience pleasure because we predicted accurately. When our expectations are not met, this prediction error is a teaching moment: we learn how to adapt. Negotiating the gap between what we expect and what happens is how the brain becomes a better prediction engine. And the value of good predictions is the most precious gift of all: living longer.

Accurate expectations = biological advantage

The terms “expectation” and “anticipation” are often used interchangeably. For this discussion, let’s keep them separate; let’s consider that expectations run constantly and sometimes quietly in the background, while anticipation is expectation in action. Anticipation is also linked to dopamine, which has a critical role in our ability to hold people’s attention and get them to act. This is why the next chapter is dedicated specifically to anticipation. For now, let’s focus on expectations, which constantly feed our future-obsessed brains, and let’s see how we can use them to offer our audiences surprises they enjoy and convince them to pay attention and make decisions.


Before we look at practical ways in which to create surprise for our audiences, let’s distinguish two more terms, which people tend to use interchangeably: “surprise” and “novelty.” Even though the terms are related, there are some differences, and knowing these differences helps us change our approach to how we create content to attract attention. We’ll define the term “novelty” as something that has not been previously experienced and “surprise” as something that occurs unexpectedly. It is easy to swap the terms because we often witness them together. For example, while working with a company on a presentation about a platform that scales marketing campaigns, we showed a first slide that displayed “The End.” The intent was to tell the people in the audience this was the end of their traditional marketing story, meaning there are currently too many tasks in marketing that happen manually and would benefit from automation. Starting with “The End” was perceived as new (the presenter’s audiences had not seen that before in a business presentation) and unexpected (we expect to see the phrase at the end of a sequence).

Sometimes we may experience just novelty without surprise, such as hearing various statistics related to a particular field or object. For example, according to a 2015 Bank of America report, approximately three-quarters (71%) of respondents sleep with their mobile phones. We may not have known that exact number (new information), but we’re not surprised by it. Sometimes, we experience surprise without novelty, such as a presenter checking a smartphone in the middle of his own presentation: we’ve seen people checking their phones, but seeing someone doing so in that context is unexpected.

For the most part, however, we tend to witness novelty at the same time as surprise. And our audiences’ brains are constantly looking to mitigate the tension between two states: on one hand, people want to minimize the energy necessary to process their environment and appreciate it when incoming stimuli conform to their expectations. On the other, they want to learn new things and revise their schema in order to make better predictions in the future. This is why the following guidelines are expressed from the lens of this dichotomy: offering your audiences new knowledge to stay adaptive and improving predictions to conserve energy.


When predicting a future stimulus, our best prediction is the stimulus that has occurred most frequently in the past. I remember reading about a stylish businesswoman taking a yoga class for the first time, who admitted to hearing “Prada” (the name of the fashion designer), instead of “Prana” (the word for breath or life-giving force), because she had been exposed to the former stimulus more than the latter.

We tend to prefer frequently occurring stimuli because they improve our prediction power. Abundant literature confirms that even though they deny it, people prefer familiar faces to unfamiliar faces, familiar foods to unfamiliar foods, and familiar objects to unfamiliar objects. As much as science reflects our preference for familiarity, we are almost insulted to hear this. Surely we are more attracted to novelty! To demonstrate that people are drawn to familiarity, scientists design studies where the exposure is separated from the stimulus. The way to do that is to place participants in an MRI scanner and show them a series of stimuli (pictures, text, or food) so quickly that the conscious brain does not detect them. When people are asked afterward which stimuli they would choose between two options (one they had “seen” and a new one), they choose the more familiar option. However, if they are told ahead of time that they had seen the stimulus, they claim to prefer the novel stimulus.

Further evidence for the preference for familiarity is found in studies where there is a time delay between the moment you see something and the moment you’re asked if you prefer that stimulus. After a day or days, you tend to prefer the stimulus that occurred more frequently. Familiarity wins over novelty when our conscious mental processing is disrupted or distracted. If you are tired after a day’s work and you are browsing through your iTunes, with limitless choices, do you find yourself migrating toward a familiar tune? Keep this principle in mind especially when you’re talking to people who are tired or overwhelmed. We constantly want to impress others with novelty, but when their conscious processing is already spent, you’re feeding the fast brain, which is drawn to familiarity.

Our preference for familiarity is called the exposure effect and has several scientific explanations. When we perceive something as familiar, we can let our guard down. The lower level of arousal means that we attend to the stimulus in a relaxed state, which creates pleasure. Another theory is that we misattribute the ease of processing to the actual stimulus: “Since it was so easy to see or taste or hear, it must be good, so I will choose it.” Based on these theories, we can estimate that it’s not so much that familiarity gives us pleasure; it is accurate prediction that gives us pleasure. And we attribute that positive feeling to the stimulus itself.

I once helped a presenter deliver a pitch on the importance of predictive data at a time when the concept was just gathering momentum. He knew that the people in his audience would be skeptical of some of his revolutionary concepts, so we opted to start with what they considered familiar: bad predictions. We included prophecies from those who predicted that the car, the computer, the airplane, the telephone, or the Beatles would not become popular. The presenter observed that it’s tough to be in the business of farfetched predictions. Feeding his listeners’ familiarity with bad predictions opened them up to listen longer.

Ron Berndt, program manager of Worldwide Sales & Partner Training at Cisco, attended one of my workshops and used these guidelines not only at work but also in his personal life. On Veterans Day, he was invited to give a 10-minute presentation in his hometown (Lake Geneva, Wisconsin) to about 500 students, faculty, veterans, and families. To engage students, he had to use something that felt familiar to them. Too much novelty, especially from a speaker they did not know, would have been too jarring. To teach them about the importance of veterans, Berndt had a brief quiz about famous actors who served in the military. Hearing names such as Ice-T, Chuck Norris, James Earl Jones, Mel Brooks, and Clint Eastwood prepared them for some novelty later on, when Berndt presented several modern-day heroes.

Reflect on your own content and ask: What do your listeners find familiar, and what are they prone to receiving without skepticism? The link to something that confirms their mental schema and alleviates threats buys you a few more minutes of their attention.


Although highly familiar stimulation is preferred, after some point, too much predictability leads to boredom. To mitigate the tension between the pleasure caused by predictability and the conscious preference for novelty, it means that we must break a pattern our audiences have learned to expect.

When entrepreneur Peter Thiele, cofounder of PayPal, announced that he would pay 20 kids $100,000 to pursue world-changing innovations as part of his fellowship … if they drop out of school … it created a great deal of commotion because he disrupted an existing schema we have about the importance of formal education.

Surprise is departure from an expected norm.

In order to deviate from a pattern, we must first identify a pattern that people recognize, and then we must modify it slightly. Picture the Mona Lisa. It is a painting you have seen multiple times in your life—whether the actual work of art or a photograph—and if you were to see it one more time, there would be no surprises. If you want to show the Mona Lisa to others and surprise them, you would have to break away from what they expect. If we type in any search engine “Mona Lisa variations,” we find the classic Mona Lisa morphed with Miss Piggy, Lara Croft, Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean), Santa Claus, the Terminator, Snow White, and many others. We also see her in different outfits—Egyptian goddess, biker chick, belly dancer—and with different accessories—sunglasses, cigarettes, devil ears, gas mask, tiara, clown nose and makeup, a fat cat that she is holding, hair rollers, or no hair at all. We even see the Mona Lisa in a wheelchair: this image advertised an event for an organization for people with disabilities. None of these effects would surprise us if we did not have the initial schema of this classic painting. So consider giving your audience members both something they expect and something they don’t expect.

When working on a presentation for Bill Ruth, vice president at General Electric Software, I was impressed by how he used the concept of the consumer Internet (existing schema) and modified it. This is what he said: “In the nineties it was the consumer industry with a billion people connected. Now think what’s going to happen when 50 billion machines get connected online. There will be more machines connected than there are people connected. It’s going to change the way every industry operates. It’s going to change the way every industrial product or service is delivered and managed.” This approach works because it builds on what people know but also takes them on a new path.

You can disrupt a variety of schemas to create surprises. Take linguistic schemas, for instance. Now check out the following line:

The old man the boats.

Known as a garden-path phenomenon, it leads you on the path of a common interpretation of each word until it disrupts a linguistic schema. You may have to reread it until you process it successfully and fit it within an existing expectation.

Think of social schemas. Give someone a hug when that person expects a handshake and watch the surprise. Creating optical illusions, such as offering multiple images within one picture, is an example of deviating from a perceptual schema. Check out Charles Allan Gilbert’s All Is Vanity, where you first see a skull, and then within the same picture, you spot a woman sitting at her vanity table.

We can create surprises by deviating from cultural norms, too. For example, scientists in music theory wanted to see if people from different cultures have different expectations based on different musical schemas. At the University of Washington in Seattle, several researchers presented volunteers with successive tones and asked them to predict what tone would come next in a melody. When they compared results across German, Hungarian, and American listeners, they found significant differences between the three groups, suggesting that mental representations are influenced by cultural background.

Can you think of ways in which your communication materials can deviate from linguistic, perceptual, cultural, or social norms to take your listeners by surprise?


Another way to provide surprise—and therefore attract attention by causing a prediction error—is not only to break a pattern but to break one that people consider sacred. For example, you may be familiar with a painting called Liberty Guiding the People by Eugene Delacroix, which he completed in 1831. The painting depicts the heroes of the French Revolution, alongside the dominant figure of Liberty. Portrayed as a goddess, Liberty is standing rebellious and confident, despite the dress that has slipped below her breasts. Her right arm is extended up, holding the French flag toward the sunlight. This is all well and good, except that her raised arm shows an extremely hairy armpit. It was this detail that caught the critics’ eye at the time. A goddess was always depicted with smooth, hairless skin. Critics were appalled that an allegory should have so much realism, that a goddess should resemble a natural woman so closely. The imperfection was forgiven, though, and the painting was welcomed with enthusiasm at the Louvre in 1874. Bare-breasted Liberty became such a French icon that she appears everywhere, from posters to book jackets and postage stamps.

Bobby Fischer, American chess prodigy, is known for having broken many sacred rules. In one internationally acclaimed match, he sacrificed his queen, a bold move dubbed “Be6,” that won him the match.

In any industry, there is a natural cycle: experts establish the rules, and practitioners follow them. But at some point, someone comes around and breaks a few of those rules. The unconventional approaches work until they become the new rules. In business content, bullet points used to be the rule. Now, we are shifting toward visuals. At first, vibrant visuals dominated—until someone started a trend toward black and white, with a few accent colors. Sharp images ruled, and then at some point, pixilation became an intriguing effect.

What are some of the sacred rules that exist in your field? Is there one you can comfortably break in order to get attention and gain an uncontested place in your audience’s memory when you take people by surprise? Would you be willing to sacrifice your queen?


Musical satirist Peter Schickele pairs the very familiar Symphony No. 5 by Beethoven with a sporting event atmosphere, complete with a cheering audience, a referee, and two commentators. As soon as the symphony starts—tah nah nah nah, the most recognizable four notes in music—one of the commentators remarks, “And they are off. The beginning of a symphony is very exciting. I don’t know if they are slow or fast because they keep stopping. And it looks like … yes, it looks like we are coming up to a cadence here, folks …” The commentary resembles that for baseball games, and the two familiar but unrelated fields (classical music and baseball) reward us on two fronts: the pleasure of predictability from both fields and the novelty and surprise that results from their combination.

Business presenters who successfully combine unrelated but existing schemas benefit from greater attention and memory. For example, when helping a company promote its data analytics services for revenue growth, we started with a comparison between a lightbulb and a laser. In the script, we mentioned that “a bulb releases light waves at multiple frequencies, which inefficiently go in random directions. Shine a penlight at a wall during the day, and it is barely visible. In contrast, a laser releases light waves on the same frequency, going in the same direction. A laser beam illuminates across the room during the day, reads DVDs, cuts through steel walls, performs brain surgeries, and even measures the distance to the moon.” We then asked the members of the audience whether their company was like a lightbulb, with brilliant people but going in different directions and operating in silos. We invited them to imagine an organization operating more like a laser: focused, synchronized, with incredible potential. And the way to make it happen was with proper data analytics. The juxtaposition between the lightbulb/laser and the concept of data analytics was perceived as new, even though each individual concept was considered familiar and easily recognized.

Look around you right now. What two familiar things can you combine that would delight listeners and take them by surprise?

Find the familiar and play off it.


Surprises are a function of expectations, and the expectations people form are tied to their beliefs. Expectations based on beliefs are often so strong that they turn into self-fulfilling prophecies. This has been tested and measured across a large spectrum of situations. Students who believe they will do well in school typically do. People who believe they will do well on a job typically do. People who believe they will have great relationships typically do. This means that when we link our content to an audience’s existing beliefs, we increase the likelihood of action.

In addition to strong beliefs, we often fortify our expectations with tools. This is why good-luck charms, omens, and lucky underwear tend to enhance self-efficacy. Science demonstrates that this is not magic. When researchers look at the psychological impact of “tools” such as four-leaf clovers, horseshoes, dice, and lucky numbers, they realize that one of the reasons they are effective is because they reduce anxiety, and anxiety has a negative impact on performance. From this angle, lucky socks can indeed be helpful in a job interview.

Placebo pills are another example of how the brain turns expectations into self-fulfilling prophecy. Abundant research demonstrates how patients who take placebo pills report significant improvement when they need relief from pain, anxiety, depression, sexual dysfunction, digestive disorders, insomnia, and even tremors in Parkinson’s disease. The common thread across these conditions is that they impact the brain regions that generate beliefs and expectations, interpret social cues, and anticipate rewards. Using MRI and EEG technology, scientists are able to pinpoint the neurological foundation of placebos. As we saw earlier, when faced with pain or fear or stress, the brain produces its own analgesic compounds called opiates, and placebos are known to activate them. These inert pills trigger areas of the brain that are responsible for assessing the significance of an event and potential threats. If you hear an alarm and you see smoke, you know something is about to happen and prepare for an escape. It is the same with pain. Placebo treatments hook into the brain’s systems that dictate a course of action.

Placebos certainly have their limitations; for example, they can relieve pain from chemotherapy but will not stop the growth of tumors. Real medicine and placebos are not mutually exclusive. The placebo builds off real treatments, and real treatments rely on the power of expectations.

In any message you create, consider your audience’s expectations. Tie your ideas or solutions to people’s existing beliefs of hope, or create new beliefs of optimism for the future. In addition, provide tools that can act as a catalyst to help their brains release their natural power to foresee a better path. You will be surprised by how inexpensive tools can take people from Point A to Point B by igniting their expectations for a better future. Kleenex offered tissues. In other business contexts, we can offer checklists, brief how-to videos, free apps, or trial software to help your audience perform a simple task after they listen to you. The brain has many resources to take it to the finish line if you know how to tap them. After all, patients don’t care so much whether their relief comes from sham pills or a kindhearted doctor. They want the expectation of getting better.

Expectations = beliefs + tools

It is also helpful to build strong associations between your content and something your audience truly enjoys. This is because enjoyment feeds the expectation of a desirable future. For example, when promoting pills, advertisers are brilliant in linking the benefit of taking a specific drug to a lifestyle that gives people satisfaction. When promoting acid reflux pills, marketers don’t just show the product and say, “Take this; it will relieve your symptoms.” In an ad from Saatchi & Saatchi, for instance, the intent is to associate an acid reflux pill with areas in someone’s life that offer peace of mind: “Is it time with your children? Is it curling up with a good book on the couch? Is it your favorite television show? Is it a little purple pill that helps you get rid of acid reflux?” When interviewed, the Saatchi & Saatchi advertisers said that the uplifting associations have the potential to feed into people’s expectations and activate the placebo effect. Viagra ads don’t even show men. They feature a beautiful woman talking to us from a comfortable bed.

In a recent presentation for ESPN, I had the opportunity to work with Nathalie Bordes, an emerging platforms researcher who studies marketing and consumer insights. Bordes knew her audiences at a recent conference enjoyed hearing how data informs marketing decisions. For her presentation, we showed how the MediaScience lab she commissioned in Austin, Texas allows for a controlled test environment of various media and uses scientific tools and measurements, such as reaction time, eye tracking, facial coding, biometrics, surveys, and focus groups. She had an easy time getting her listeners’ attention because she started with information they already enjoy: using data to measure marketing performance.

Link your content to uplifting associations.


Most of our actions are fueled by our desire to feel good. As we’ve seen in this chapter, a mixture of predictability and surprise provides your listeners with pleasure. However, each time you’re surprising your audiences and the outcome is pleasant, you’re helping them build a new set of expectations, a new set of possibilities for the next time they see you. This means that if you choose to offer surprises and elevate the familiar each time, they will start to expect it next time in order to stay satisfied.

In the 1920s, scientist Otto L. Tinklepaugh (what a delightful name!) carried out a series of experiments at UC Berkeley with rhesus monkeys. In one of his most famous experiments, Tinklepaugh trained monkeys to retrieve a hidden piece of lettuce. The experiment went like this. The monkey would sit on a chair and watch the researcher hide the lettuce under one of two cups. Then the monkey would be taken outside the room, and when it was brought back in, it would take the primate 3 to 4 seconds to go straight to the cup with the hidden lettuce and eat it. The experiment was then replicated, except this time, a banana would be hidden under one of the two cups. The researcher observed the increased enthusiasm of the monkey with the banana. Now that the monkeys expected the bananas, the researcher placed lettuce under the cup to watch the reaction. Here is what he noted: “Subject rushes to proper cup and picks it up. Extends hand toward lettuce. Stops. Looks around on floor. Looks in, under, around cup. Glances at other cup. Looks back at screen. Looks under and around self. Looks and shrieks at any observer present. Walks away, leaving lettuce untouched on floor.”

Your listeners’ expectations change constantly. Are you Keeping up?

Once you get your audiences used to a specific set of experiences and expectations, be prepared to maintain and raise that level if you want to surprise them and if they are to remain satisfied. Don’t give them lettuce if they expect bananas.


✵ Our audiences form expectations so that they can predict the next moment. When you give them something they expect, you satisfy a human need for accurate predictions, which generates pleasure.

✵ Audiences form expectations automatically and mostly unconsciously based on what they pay attention to, memories of past experiences, motivations, emotions, and beliefs they form along the way. To get attention, tie your content to existing beliefs for a better future and provide effective tools they can use after consuming your content, such as checklists, how-to videos, or free software trials.

✵ Too much predictability can lead to boredom. Offer your audiences something they expect (and can predict), as well as something that takes them by surprise. Use linguistic, perceptual, cultural, or social norms to break conventions.

✵ Juxtapose seemingly unrelated but existing schemas to create surprise.

✵ Continue elevating your content to ensure you are meeting your audiences’ ever-evolving palate for satisfying experiences.