A Capacity for Surprise

For much of our waking life we operate on System 1, or we at least allow System 1 to be in control of many of our actions, thoughts, and reactions to the world around us. We don’t normally have to think very hard about our commute to work, we can practically walk through the house in the early morning on our way to the coffee machine with our eyes closed, and we can nod to the Walmart greeter and completely forget them half a second after we have passed. Most of the time, the pattern of associated ideas from System 1 is great at getting us through the world, but occasionally, something happens that doesn’t fit the model. Occasionally, something reveals our capacity for surprise.


Seeing someone juggling in the middle of the shopping isle in Walmart would be a surprise (although less of a surprise in a Walmart than in some other places). Stepping on a stray Lego is an unwelcome early morning pre-coffee surprise, as is an unexpected road closure on our commute. These are examples of large surprises in our daily routine, but we can also have very small surprises, like when someone tells us we will be meeting with Aaron to discuss our personal financial plan, and in walks Erin, surprising us by being a woman in a position we may have subconsciously associated with men.


“A capacity for surprise is an essential aspect of our mental life,” writes Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, “and surprise itself is the most sensitive indication of how we understand our world and what we expect from it.”


Because so much of our lives is in the hands of System 1, we are frequently surprised. If we consciously think about the world and the vast array of possibilities at any moment, we might not be too surprised at any given outcome. We also would be paralyzed by trying to make predictions of a million different outcomes for the next five minutes. System 1 eases our cognitive load and sets us up for routine expectations based on the model of the world it has adapted from experience. Surprise occurs when something violates our model, and one of the best ways to understand what that model looks like is to look at the situations that surprise us.


Bias is revealed through surprise, when an associated pattern is interrupted by something that we were not expecting. The examples can be harmless, such as not expecting a friend to answer the phone sick, with a raspy and sleepy voice. But often our surprise can reveal more consequential biases, such as when we are surprised to see a person of a racial minority in a position of authority. It might not seem like much, but our surprise can convey a lot of information about what we expect and how we understand the world, and other people might pick up on that even if we didn’t intend to convey a certain expectation about another person’s place in the world. We are constantly making predictions about what we will experience in the world, and our capacity for surprise reveals the biases that exist within our predictions, saying something meaningful about what our model of the world looks like.

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