Can 'surprise' work for social change?

Wednesday, 04 April 2018, 12:32 Hrs
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Surprising someone -- whether it's by a joke or via a gasp-inducing plot twist of a book or movie -- can not only create a memorable experience, but also become a powerful tool for social influence, according to a study.

Surprises are memorable, able to garner attention and arouse emotion, but a less heralded effect is that they can serve to shift attitudes and provide an avenue to influence people, said Jeffrey Loewenstein, Professor at the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois.

While many people think of surprise as an emotional expression, the study, published in the journal Topics in Cognitive Science, showed that surprise not only generates an emotional reaction, but is also "a push to learn, and an experience that people get excited to share with others". 

"Put those things together and surprise becomes a powerful tool for social influence," Loewenstein said.

Moreover, surprise not only has individual effects on beliefs and attitudes, but also "collective effects on the content of culture", the researchers said.

"We're in an information-rich environment where our primary challenge is how to identify what to pay attention to. And surprise, which shatters expectations, is a signal that says 'Hey! Pay attention!'," the researchers added.

That surprise can lead to changing attitude and shifting preconceptions.

"Critically, there is a second effect because you are not only making one person more open, you are also making them your ambassador. You are likely to generate word of mouth as they share the surprising experience with others. Surprise is a force multiplier for communication," Loewenstein said. 

What generates surprise need not be accidental or random. According to Loewenstein, there are predictable methods or patterns, such as the repetition-break structure, for generating surprise.

"Crafting surprises is something everyone can learn to do, and they will be more influential if they do," he noted.

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