Back to resources

A woman with a surprised expression

7. Surprise

Part of a short series on memory design

Denise Hampson
Wednesday 29th June 2022

What is this emotion?

If you are thinking to yourself “that looks a bit like a surprised face” then you’re right.

Surprise is a universal emotion and expression. The surprise response… head back, eyes wide, mouth open, jaw drops, sharp intake of breath, a rush of adrenaline, perhaps a high pitch squeal. It’s instinctive and super-fast and it’s what happens to us when we encounter something we weren’t expecting very suddenly.

The combination of those physical reactions are the perfect conditions for laying down new memories. Eyes wide, so we can take in all the information we need to determine quickly if the thing we weren’t expecting will cause us harm, and the intake of breath and rush of adrenaline, so we can think quickly and in case we need to run, fast!

When the brain gets something it’s not expecting, it tries to lock it down quickly and add it to the memory bank, so it won’t get caught out again. It’s a biologically hot moment for encoding and storing new memories. It’s why our attention is caught by the unusual, the new, the novel or the unexpected.

We have all at some point tried and failed to fake this response, perhaps if we’re given a gift we didn’t really love, or at the big reveal of a surprise we actually already knew about.

These unexpected events are easily to recall so they form the stories we share with others…

You’ll hear yourself say things like… “You’ll never guess what happened next”... It makes evolutionary sense that these are the stories we repeat. Telling others what happened means their brains can create a playbook for dealing with the same unexpected situations. It’s just that modern-day surprises are more likely to be about birthday cake, than they are to be about alligators hanging out at a nearby watering hole.

So how can you add the unusual or unexpected to your experience? It could be an unusual feature in the physical environment you’ve created, or it could be something delightful in the interaction customers have with your people. For example, coffee chain Pret-a-Manger occasionally and randomly give customers a free coffee. I used to think this was urban myth until it happened to me and, seriously, it made my day.

I had a great conversation with a client recently about whether we have used up all the great surprises available to us. Because surprises are so readily added to memory, and those stories get shared, they just become the thing that people begin to expect, which means they lose their power to surprise, and we have to level up again.

Or maybe surprises are like great music. We tell ourselves that all the best songs have already been written, but then along comes another belter.

I think the metaverse and web 3.0 will open up a whole new frontier in the design of surprises as the old rules of our physical environments are suspended and new rules are created.