A spirited exploration into the emotions of curiosity, anticipation, and surprise, and how we can use them to foster engagement, facilitate learning, change behaviours, and build better employee experiences. Along the way we’ll wallow briefly in a guilty pleasure, cast aspersions on the intelligence of infants, and talk conspiracies and inappropriate human-extraterrestrial relations. Don’t operate heavy machinery because you’ll literally be high as a kite before you’re halfway though. That’s not a promise, it’s a guarantee. Curious? That’s only natural. Come, let's sate your voracious cognitive appetite…
I’m more than a little excited, friends.
This weekend I’m seeing a movie I’ve waited for impatiently since 2015. I’d really love to tell you that the film is something highbrow and critically acclaimed, like Moonlight, Jasper Jones, or Whitely. A movie befitting of a discerning modern man. Heck, even Logan would have some degree of respectability. But, no. I’m eagerly anticipating a Saturday morning outing to see The Fate of the Furious.
No contrived snobbery or haughty elitism here, friends. I admit it — I’ve watched them all. I’ve laughed at the banter between Toretto and Hobbs. I’ve held my breath as Brian jumped his car onto a boat (repeat: jumped his car onto a boat). And when the final note of Whiz Khalifa’s ‘See You Again’ faded with the memorial montage for Paul Walker at the end of Fast & Furious 7, I blubbered uncontrollably and without shame.
Oh yes, I’m quite the fan. So when I beheld the trailer for number 8 — a hedonistic orgy of horsepower and almost-certain steroid abuse — I thrilled to the possibilities. What deadpan one-liners will The Rock deliver? Why is Dom, of all people, betraying his family? And… is that A BLOODY SUBMARINE? I considered the tank in Fast & Furious 6 a triumph, but forget about the bloody tank, we’ve got a submarine-sized budget now, people.
In truth, the only thing stopping me from jumping in my underpowered 1.6 litre four cylinder and drifting out of the carpark right now is a savage objection to the cinema. Ahhh, going to The Movies — what a delightfully antiquated concept. Let’s get dressed up in our Sunday best and go gather in the village square with all the other townsfolk to be mesmerised by motion pictures dancing across the silver screen.
I understand why people used to go to the theatre — because back then there wasn't a box in our house to put all those people into. But while technology advanced, sadly our behaviour didn’t. We continue to assemble en masse for an underwhelming experience accompanied by overpriced snacks. We hunt for desirable seats, but end up next to the guy who barks awkwardly in all the unfunny parts, behind the girl who hasn’t correlated the size of a three litre frozen coke with the maximum size of a human bladder, and in front of the hormonally-handicapped youths in the back row sniggering through all the romantic bits, because, emotions.
Even Gold Class is a little… odd. Everything is designed to be more like our living room, but without all the benefits. Are flannel pyjamas suitable attire? Can I bring my cat? Can you fall asleep halfway through The Notebook and serenade a primarily female audience through an emotionally-charged experience with what was later described as a series of unpredictable and bestial snorts? No, no, and only once. Also, I still have deeply ingrained reservations about the ability to order a pork cutlet while watching Hannibal.
It’s all quite an affront to my introverted sensibilities. Given that most of us now have respectably-sized screens and sound that surrounds us, I fail to see why I should go to the cinema when I can remain in the comfort of my own home, sans pants if I so desire.
But we’re well off topic now, and the reality of publicly airing my darkest secrets is beginning to sink in. Honestly, seeing The Notebook was not my idea.
The point I’m trying to get to, quite laboriously apparently, is that I’m about to make a decision that confounds all logic and violates several core values. But, why?
I’m glad you asked.
Three things: curiosity, anticipation, and surprise.
These three emotions are powerful enough to make a rational human make a very irrational life choice. But what really fascinates, is that these emotions aren’t just relevant to movie trailers and b-grade film franchises. These emotions are fundamental to engagement, learning, behaviour change, and better employee experiences.
The very same emotions that can change behaviours for the worse when it comes to movie choices, can change behaviour for the better at work. And that makes them very relevant indeed to a savvy leader like you.
That’s only natural. Come, let's sate your voracious cognitive appetite.
Have you ever paused to wonder why you read these quarterlies?
A masochistic bent? Likely. Curiosity? Certainly.
For you hardy folk who’ve waded previously through all the verbosity, turgid prose and flagrant abuse of the em dash, perhaps that emotion rests closer to morbid curiosity. How many grammar conventions will he violate this time? How many em dashes will he use? Spoiler: my quota remains quite unreasonable! But I digress…
The truth is, it wasn’t my wit nor your self-flagellation that drew you in. It was curiosity that seduced you to click and scroll. The irrepressible desire to acquire new knowledge or learn new skills. The primary driver behind exploration, investigation, and innovation.
Curiosity helped our species develop and evolve; pushed us to greatness. Driven by curiosity, we climbed the highest peaks and sank to the deepest depths. We braved world-edges and sea monsters to sail around the world — found new continents filled with further strangeness to explore. It prompted us to dress in big white suits and strap ourselves into too-thin tin shuttles stuffed with enough explosives to quite literally blow ourselves to the moon. Curiosity helped us make fire, then electricity. It gave us bacon with pancakes all smothered in maple syrup. Yes, not always in our best interests, but almost always interesting in its revelations.
It’s the reason that unsolved mysteries consume us. What happened to the Mary Celeste? Who was Jack The Ripper, really? What strangeness transpires in the Bermuda Triangle? Is there really a Loch Ness monster? Is there other intelligent life out there in the universe? And, if so, is it really so fascinated in probing us inappropriately? These uncertainties turn otherwise rational folk into conspiracy theorists and pundits for the paranormal.
But, why does curiosity burn so intense?
The irony that we’re inciting curiosity about the topic of curiosity isn’t lost.
Let’s begin our investigations with a brief foray inside our brains.
Perhaps the most important realisation is that curiosity isn’t something we need to learn. It’s in us from the moment we’re pushed out into this world, and plays a major role in our development through infancy and childhood.
It makes sense that to survive and evolve as a species, we’d be wired to be curious. Fire, food, and shelter — these essentials all relied on curiosity. And at the root of our curious behaviour: pleasurable chemicals.
Yes, our craving for new information takes place in the same primal reward pathway that responds to sex, drugs and rock and roll. We’re all junkies, of sorts. To be honest, you’re probably high right now. I know I certainly am. Dopamine, serotonin, and opioids — rushing through our brains, rewarding us for our curiosity.
Don’t fight it. Just relax…
So, our physiology means we can’t help but be curious, but why’s it important to the savvy leader? How’s curiosity relevant to shaping immersive employee experiences? How does it help us influence our people?
Life is busier; work is busier. We’re constantly beset by a barrage of communication — competing for our eyes, ears, and minds. Attention is more important, but also more difficult to earn than ever before.
We’ve become skilled at sifting out irrelevant or unexciting information. And to make matters more challenging, recent research clocked our average attention span at around 8 seconds. That’s down from 12 seconds at the start of the decade, and a whole second shorter than the much-maligned goldfish.
We can no longer rely on expectation: expecting people to read a manual; expecting people to learn a process; expecting people to know a policy; expecting people to pay attention. Do it because I told you to… no — you’re much, much better than that. Attention must be hard-earned, well-rewarded, and never, ever squandered.
So, how do we earn attention? Well, we know that curiosity changes our physiology to crave information. When we’re curious about something, it naturally holds our attention — drives us; consumes us. If we want attention, we don’t need to yell louder; send more emails; use more exclamation marks; threaten, plead, promise, or add anything else to the already deafening noise.
We simply need to foster curiosity.
Several recent studies suggest that curiosity not only primes us to learn about a specific topic, but also helps us remember peripheral and incidental information around the topic, too.
Neuroscientist Charan Ranganath rounded up 19 people and asked them to rate how curious they were to know the answers to over 100 questions. Participants then reviewed the questions they were most curious about, while researchers used a fMRI to monitor their brain activity. After looking at each question for 14 seconds, they were shown a photo of a completely unrelated person, then given the answer.
The participants were then tested to see how well they recalled both the answers and faces. In a fascinating discovery, Ranganath found that the more curious a person was about the question, the more likely they were to not only remember the answer, but also the face that preceded it. A follow-up test a day later confirmed the results. Curiosity prepares our brains for learning and long-term memory, not only about a specific topic, but also any peripheral information we’re exposed to at the time.
Memory also plays an important role in helping us identify whether something is novel or unfamiliar. The less we know about the stimulus, the more curious we become, the more we want to learn, and the higher the likelihood that we’ll remember it. But we’ll poke this idea more thoroughly when we get to Surprise.
There's several effective catalysts for curiosity:
While any of these techniques can make folk curious, incompleteness is particularly worthy of exploring further.
In the early nineties, George Lowenstein identified the psychological phenomenon where we’re most curious when we have a gap between what we know and what we want to know. Our need to close this gap triggers an emotional response — a cognitive itch that we desperately need to scratch.
Lowenstein’s theory showed that we can provoke curiosity by providing a small amount of information. For example: I know that Kris Kross will make you jump, jump — but why? I’ve thoroughly examined the lyrics, but Daddy Mac fails to specify.
Speaking of words, marketing and advertising copywriters have been guilty of exploiting the curiosity gap to gain our attention and influence our behaviour for years. Clickbait headlines tease us with just enough information to pique our curiosity, promising the satisfaction of resolution with just one click.
He was reunited with his cat after several years of separation. What happens next will amaze you…
I know exactly what those devious marketing devils are doing, but damned if I don’t pound that link with begrudging enthusiasm to find out exactly what went down when that adorable feline and his owner saw each other again.
The real thrill here though, isn’t heartwarming tales of man and beast — it’s how effective the curiosity gap can be at changing behaviours. This is one of the biggest challenges facing any leader. How do we change people’s behaviour to improve performance, productivity, safety, or culture? Well, there’s no need for sticks or carrots. Curiosity alone is enough of a trigger to make us change our own behaviours, even if it means more effort or making a less rewarding choice.
Evan Polman and researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison conducted several experiments to find out how effective the curiosity gap was in changing people’s decisions and behaviours.
Their first study took 200 unwitting participants and offered them a choice between a boring old plain cookie, and a delicious, chocolate-dipped-sprinkle-burnished biscuit. Which one did most choose? The answer is obvious. Or is it? In a cruel twist, researchers toyed with half of the participants by telling them that the plain biscuit was actually a fortune cookie with a personalised message inside. Of the 100 people who weren’t given any additional information, a very sensible 80% chose the superior chocolate-dipped cookie. But out of the 100 who were told the plain biscuit was a fortune cookie, 71% chose the plain cookie. Curiosity alone caused a majority to make an undeniably inferior cookie choice.
Additional experiments proved that not only will we chose less desirable options, but we’ll also go to more effort to close the curiosity gap. Researchers increased the use of stairs in a university building by roughly 10% simply by posting trivia questions near the elevator and promising answers could be found in the stairwell.
Obviously the real challenge is ensuring that behaviours remain changed over the long-term, but it shows how effective curiosity can be as a catalyst or trigger to begin the process of forming new habits and lasting change.
The catch with curiosity is that the simple act of learning or discovery can often be more rewarding than the outcome. Yes, the old it’s about the journey not the destination adage holds true here. And while it’s wonderful that people enjoy the process of learning, we also want their experience to end on a high.
Avoiding disappointment in the outcome means encouraging curiosity while managing expectations. Promising a specific outcome can be risky, as it sets potentially unrealistic expectations. However, promising enjoyment in the learning experience is a different thing altogether.
Time is an important factor in maintaining curiosity. Studies show that when we don’t expect to close the curiosity gap in the near future (a long time-to-resolution), our anticipation of the outcome decreases, and we’re more likely to become frustrated by our lack of knowledge.
That means that questions left hang too long, or information shared too slowly or sporadically can throw a big old wet blanket on curiosity, which is obviously exactly the opposite of what we want to achieve. In most cases we can avert these issues by designing shorter time-to-resolutions. However, in situations where long time-to-resolutions are unavoidable, we need to make progress visible to maintain motivation.
The amount we know about a subject also makes a big difference to how curious we are. A Caltech study found that our knowledge about a topic has a direct correlation with our degree of curiosity. Researchers took 40 students, an fMRI, and a quiz… they didn’t walk into a bar, but they did discover that we’re most curious when we know only a little about a subject, up until a point where we have a moderate amount of knowledge, at which time our curiosity steadily decreases. This means that to some degree, curiosity is contextual to the individual.
One of the biggest threats to curiosity is fear — the perception (whether correct or not) that we might not understand, make progress, or reach a desirable resolution. These are all instant motivation killers, and ones we should consider particularly when designing learning or development programs.
Let’s ensure that learning is achievable, even if that means catering to different ability levels rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. Perhaps even more importantly, we need to make sure that people believe they can accomplish it.
We should also be very wary of discouraging curious behaviours. As organisations place increasing importance on innovation, curiosity is a valuable quality to find and foster. However, hand-in-hand with innovation comes risk and uncertainty. Curiosity doesn’t always lead to organisation-changing ideas and industry-changing innovation. It can just as easily lead to glorious failure. And punishing failure because of curiosity is an excellent way to crush future curiosity, and potential brilliance along with it. But that’s a whole quarterly in itself, and one for another time.
The possibilities for curiosity in the workplace are thrilling. Curiosity isn’t an emotion that needs to be confined to learning or development programs — it can be woven throughout the employee experience. It’s particularly potent in a prologue stage⁺ — a lead-in campaign or touchpoints before the bulk of an experience begins. This is the perfect opportunity to use curiosity to win attention and build interest for upcoming programs, events, or experiences; inspire learning; or change behaviours.
That feeling of waiting for a parcel to appear in our mailbox; booking a holiday then waiting for the date to roll around; seeing a trailer for a new movie, then waiting for it to reach the cinemas…
That heady blend of impatience, expectation, and excitement, is anticipation.
Oh yes, anticipation segues very satisfactorily from curiosity, because it’s the transition from wondering about something, to predicting, guessing, and hoping. It relies on just enough information to form vague expectations, with enough ambiguity that there’s still the possibility of surprise and delight.
While satisfying curiosity requires an active approach, anticipation is a more passive state. It’s the way we feel while we wait for something to happen.
So, why’s anticipation important to us?
Because it’s the headspace we subconsciously give something before it happens — making it a natural period of engagement. And that provides us with a great opportunity to manage expectations, build excitement, and use cognitive framing for the experience ahead.
We can’t stop anticipation from happening, it’s in the way that we’re built. Like curiosity, anticipation was essential to our survival and progress. Yes, we were, and still are animals with a thrill for the chase — dopamine lathering us up in jittery anticipation and heightening our emotions. A very good thing too, because without this inherent enthusiasm for the hunt or harvest, our species would’ve likely starved itself into extinction a long time ago.
Anticipation is rooted in a primal part of the brain — the cerebellum. This is the area that controls automatic behaviours. Like curiosity, anticipation rewards us with dopamine when we expect good things. Recent research shows that while neuroscientists used think of dopamine as a pleasure chemical, it’s actually more of an anticipation of pleasure chemical.
Another similarity shared with anticipation is that it often outweighs the subsequent experience. We tend to feel more strongly about the future than we do about the present or past. Studies have confirmed this phenomenon in travel, purchases, and experiences.
Researchers in the Netherlands studied the correlation between travel and happiness in a group of 1,530 people. They discovered that while a holiday made people happier, the real peak came before they even left home. The anticipation of travel was a far more powerful driver of happiness than anything they experienced overseas, or their memory of the experience afterwards.
Another study found that just thinking about watching our favourite movie can raise our endorphin levels by 27%. Just thinking about the Fate of the Furious certainly has my endorphin levels redlining.
Marketing professor Marsha Richins also confirmed the bias towards anticipation in her research on purchasing behaviour. She found that even the most materialistic consumers took more pleasure in the anticipation of a purchase than in the purchase itself. Thinking about things they wanted to buy in the future, regardless of the size or expense, elicited strong, positive emotions including joy, excitement, and optimism. But it was the correlation between the strength of their emotions during anticipation, and their expectations for their purchase that was most interesting. The more they thought the purchase would change their lives, the stronger their anticipation, but also more disappointment when their expectations weren’t met. And this brings us to the real challenge.
Anticipation is inherently linked to expectation, which is when we believe, predict, or hope a specific outcome will occur.
Anticipation itself can be either positive or negative — our emotions generally depend on our expectations. If we expect something bad to happen, we feel worry or fear. When we think something good is likely to occur, we feel pleasure, hope, or excitement. Fortunately, we tend to be biased towards positive anticipation.
Our expectations are usually contextual, based on our personal beliefs, the information we already have, and memories of past experiences. They can also be influenced by external sources. Advertising and marketing use expectations to make us buy things — overpromising, overhyping, and overselling the features, benefits, and the impact it will have on our lives.
[Insert product/service/brand] will change your life…
It’s equally common to see this happen inside organisations. How many times have we seen others oversell the really-quite-mundane. How often have we been guilty of launching things that are probably unworthy of launch. It’s natural to get excited about new things and want everyone to know how great they are. But no matter how well-intentioned, rash over-exuberance generally only leads to disappointment, sadness, or anger when people’s expectations aren’t met. It also makes it more difficult to get folk excited again when something truly worthy of their enthusiasm comes along.
Yes, with expectation inevitably comes the potential for disappointment, if the experience is less than what’s expected.
Let’s ease your burden right now — there’s no shame in simply delivering on people’s expectations. There’s an assumption that we need to be continually blowing folk out of the water — always exceeding expectations. But in many situations delivering something people expect is actually a very good thing. Yale University professor of psychiatry, neurobiology and pharmacology, Marina Picciotto, proposes that happiness actually occurs when a our circumstances match our expectations.
That said, the most exciting and memorable experiences are usually when our expectations are exceeded. These are the moments we feel pleasure, surprise, and delight — making them fundamental to designing truly remarkable employee experiences. It doesn’t really matter how they vary, as long as there’s a better or more desirable outcome than what we’d anticipated.
We can also cheat a little here, and increase the likelihood of exceeding expectations by engaging in a little anti-hype. You’re probably familiar with the underpromise and overdeliver trope that’s done the rounds. Well, I hate to admit it, but when it comes to anticipation and expectations, it’s certainly a safe and effective option — especially for a group that’s cynical or skeptical, or in situations that don’t warrant unnecessary fanfare.
Whichever way we go, let’s ensure that people always know about the truly transformative ideas, initiatives, and programs. Because by staying quiet about them, we rob people of the opportunity for anticipation, and remove an important part of the experience.
Let’s make sure we use the anticipation stage to cleverly manage expectations and frame the experience ahead. Let’s encourage ambiguous anticipation without expectations. Let’s keep people in the moment — mindful and open-minded — wondering at the possibilities and anticipating any challenges.
This is known as anticipatory thinking. It’s not about crystal balls, tarot cards, or trying to guess the future. No, it’s about trying to prepare and adapt for whatever possibility the future throws our way.
Of all the possible outcomes for anticipation and expectation, perhaps the worst case scenario is confusion.
Confusion occurs when we have very specific expectations based on past experiences, but reality dramatically differs. This can exhibit as surprise, where something we don’t expect happens. It could cause uncertainty, where we’re not actually sure what’s going on. It may occur as variability, where things keep changing. These things all shatter our existing paradigms.
Visually, we’re always looking for anchors — cues for what action we should take. But when our expectations are completely wrecking-balled, our perceptual anticipation can’t tell us what to do next. This leads to confusion, and that sure ain’t good.
Studies have shown that when it comes to our happiness, frequency beats intensity. Looking forward to several small events makes us happier than anticipating one big event. So, rather than pinning all our anticipation to one large experience, we should consider designing a series of smaller touchpoints to foster ongoing anticipation.
There’s no clear formula to calculate the ideal duration for anticipation. However, it makes sense that the time spent anticipating an experience should relate to its importance. Modest experiences only warrant short periods of anticipation, while big or important events deserve more time anticipating them. It’s worth considering too, that when we feel strong positive emotions during anticipation, we’re prone to impatience. Strong negative feelings of anticipation tend to cause us anxiety. So, dragging out anticipation can risk causing unpleasant emotions.
If we remember only one thing about anticipation, it’s that it exists regardless of what we do. Our people are out there anticipating things already — the best we can do is shape how that anticipation affects their subsequent experience.
Anticipation is most powerful during the prologue stage — the touchpoints that happen before an experience begins. These are the times to encourage enjoyment of anticipation itself, framing the possibilities and challenges ahead, without setting specific expectations.
When the title of a section is ‘Surprise’, you feel a burden of responsibility — an obligation of sorts — to make at least a half-hearted effort to demonstrate your point. An animated gif might’ve done the job. Something visual that cleverly illustrates surprise. Probably something funny, yet cute. A startled pug for example, oh yes! But surely such tricks and gimmicks would’ve been — at least subconsciously — expected, and therefore not very surprising at all. An insult to your intelligence, even. And so I settled for what I hope you’ll find a slightly ironic, yet understatedly poignant exclamation mark.
Ahhh but perhaps I undersell the genuine importance of surprise. In a time where we Google away the unexpected by thoroughly investigating our experiences before we even have them, surprises are becoming far too infrequent. Unexpected moments capture attention in a noisy world, pique our curiosity, motivate us to learn, and make us remember.
And this makes surprise very important indeed for the savvy leader.
Let’s begin with some science-speak. Surprise is a brief, physiological, psychological, and emotional state. It’s a startle response experienced by humans (and animals) as the result of an unexpected event.
To turn this colloquial — it’s the neuropsychological equivalent of mashing a pause button. Surprise makes us stop what we're doing, hijacks our attention, redirects our focus, and forces us to pay attention to a new, possibly important event. It all happens extremely fast. The stimulus hits the pons, a message relay station in our brainstem, in a mere 3–8 milliseconds. The subsequent startle reflex is done and dusted in less than 2/10ths of a second.
Yes, our brain is well-equiped for surprises — rapidly turning our attention to things that are new, different, or changing. Once again, this makes sense from a survival and evolutionary perspective. Imagine you’re girt in furs and walking through an ancient forest when a giant lizard-beast bursts from the undergrowth with ill-intentions in it’s eyes. Surprise! The startle reflex possibly just saved our lives.
Behind this response to surprise is the hippocampus. Nestled inside the temporal lobe of our cerebral cortex, this is the area involved in discovering, processing, and storing new sensory impressions. It also acts as a novelty detector for incoming information.
Surprise and novelty are often used interchangeably, but they’re actually a little different. Like anticipation, surprise is linked to our expectations. When there’s a big difference between what we expect, and what actually happens, we feel surprised. Novelty occurs when we haven’t experienced or encountered something before. This relies on the hippocampus scanning our memory and comparing the incoming information with our stored knowledge. Novelty almost always elicits surprise, but we can still be surprised even if something isn’t novel.
Novelty tends to excite our hippocampus far more than familiar things. When we identify something as familiar, we know how to respond. Nothing more to see here, folks. But if the information is new, then our synapses light up in a glorious display — dopamine fireworks and new neural pathways. Learnings! It begins with the hippocampus firing off a good dose of the messenger substance, dopamine. This hits the substantia nigra and ventral tegmental area in the midbrain, where nerve fibres leading back to the hippocampus trigger more dopamine. This feedback mechanism is known as the Hippocampal-SN/VTA loop, a very scientific-sounding, very important process for learning and forming new memories.
But what if the same surprise is delivered over and over? Well, at the risk of stating the obvious, it’s probably no longer surprising. Yes, fool me once! This conditioning to a repeated stimulus over time is known as habituation⁺. This is the bane of advertising, marketing, branding, internal communications, and one trick ponies. Surprise is the key to breaking habituation, yet repeating the same type of surprise can lead to habituation itself. Oh, the delicious irony! We need to keep surprises unpredictable to remain surprising.
Surprise can be either positive or negative. This is often contextual — depending on the cause of the surprise, and how the individual interprets it. Surprise also amplifies whatever emotion follows it by roughly 400%, making positive surprises extremely potent.
Most of us have a fickle, love/hate relationship with surprise. We like routine, but we don’t like when life gets so predictable that it becomes boring. Surprise wakes us up — it’s exciting and exhilarating; heightens our emotions. But it can also make us feel really uncomfortable. We all have varying degrees of tolerance for surprises. Sometimes this is based on negative past experiences. Sometimes we’re simply experiencing too much change or uncertainty already, and we crave control to deal with the stress and anxiety.
This makes it very important to consider when we should use surprise. In times of organisational upheaval or change, when people are already on edge, even a positive surprise can potentially become the final proverbial straw.
While theories of motivation and learning go in and out of fashion, it’s been widely accepted since the mid 20th century that unexpected events are one of the primary drivers of attention, curiosity, exploratory and avoidance behaviours, and learning. This isn’t surprising. Only a few paragraphs previous, hippocampus deep, we discovered how surprise elicits a very clear physiological response that helps us form new memories.
Johns Hopkins researchers discovered that surprise is an essential factor in the way that babies learn. I admit that when I see a baby banging away at something without reason or logic, my first thought is to question this strange creature’s mental faculties. However, it turns out that that many of these apparently random displays are actually experiments to test hypothesises based on something that surprised them. For example, researchers noticed that after babies witnessed a ball appearing to pass through a wall, they tested the balls solidity by banging it on a table. When they saw a ball appearing to hover in midair, they tested the balls response to gravity by dropping it. Surprise was the catalyst for curiosity, learning, and a desire to understand.
Surprise, like curiosity, is also an effective driver of behavioural change. Surprise introduces new information which we need to reconcile with our existing beliefs and behaviours. This state is known as cognitive dissonance⁺ — an uncomfortable tension caused by wrangling two conflicting points of view at the same time. However, this also makes it a powerful motivator for change. We alleviate the discomfort by either justifying our existing behaviours and discarding the new information, or changing our behaviour to reflect the new belief.
Perhaps the most important consideration for effective surprises is allowing time afterwards to make sense of what just happened. Failing to make sense of surprising or unfamiliar experiences can result in confusion — leading to avoidance, disengagement, or moving on to something different. All of which, it goes without saying, are not ideal.
When it comes to surprises, timing is important to maximise impact. Recent research on surprise and Peak-End theory⁺ in customer service experiences revealed a couple of particularly interesting findings. The first, was that customers preferred a surprise ending to a surprise beginning. They were happiest when the experience began as expected, but finished with a surprise. Researchers also found that when looking at peak endings, surprise endings were more powerful than anticipated endings. Like other Peak-End studies, these findings are equally relevant to employee experiences.
While we tend to place surprise up on a pedestal, there are scenarios where surprise actually steals the opportunity for anticipation. Consider a surprise party for instance. I may be biased here, because the thought of any sort of party, let alone an underhanded ambush, is right up there with heights and spiders at inspiring my enthusiasm. But I often think that the person organising the surprise benefits more from the experience than the victim. They’re the ones who get to savour the anticipation of the surprise.
Effective narratives often shun mystery and surprise in favour of anticipation by revealing information early. This technique works especially well when there’s a dramatic or emotional revelation. From the very beginning of Romeo and Juliet we’re told we’re in for a tragic ending, but knowing this doesn’t ruin the story. It actually allows our emotions to build, making our reaction to the devastating conclusion even stronger.
In a similar way, horror movies often use anticipation to build tension and amplify scary moments. Musical cues let us know that something bad is about to happen, and after they’ve drawn out the suspense to breaking point, we’re so on-edge that the ‘surprise’ becomes a wonderful relief.
This is by no means a rally call to bring surprise into all that we do. No, let’s not start hiding in the hallways for sneaky water-cooler peekaboos. Let’s not throw curve balls into every delivery with reckless abandon. Not only does that completely contradict the notion of a surprise, but it risks getting very old, really quick.
No, let’s keep surprise as a tool for when we really need it. A way to gain attention when we need it most, redirecting it towards things that are truly transformative. Let’s use it to finish strong — end employee experiences high. Let’s exceed expectations. But, let’s ensure we use surprise discerningly in times of unrest or change.
There’s no single formula for surprise, but it’s surprisingly easy to do. We can surprise people simply by guiding them to make their own discovery. We can take a typical touchpoint and deliver it in a whole new way. The biggest surprises come from transforming moments that are usually the most mundane. These moments — the ones no one expects to be memorable — have the greatest opportunity to delight.
And so we come to the end, and having just banged on about the virtues of peak surprise endings, the pressure to deliver on this promise is quite palpable. But I’m weary friends, and inspiration fails. At this stage, the best I could muster would be some sort of insipid summary and a sadly impotent rally cry. Something much closer to Bridget Jones than William Wallace.