A Capacity for Surprise

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.

Building Models and Examining the World and Our Thoughts

This morning listening to an episode of Conversations with Tyler, Russ Roberts, the guest on the show said something that really stood out to me, “I used to believe that…my models described the world, as opposed to gave me insight into the world.” We operate in a world where there is no way for us to ever have complete information. There is simply too much data, too much information, to much stuff going on all around us for our brains to perfectly absorb everything in a reasonable and coherent way.


You do not notice every blink, you could never possibly understand every chemical’s smell that makes up the complex aroma of your coffee, and you can’t hold every variable for that big business decision in your head at the same time. Instead, our brains filter out information that does not seem relevant and we key in on what appears to be the main factors that influence the world around us. We build models that sometimes seem like they describe the world with spectacular clarity, but are only a product of our brain and the limited space for information that we have. Our models do not reflect reality and they are not reality, but they can give us an insight into reality if we can build them well.


No matter what, we are going to operate on these models in our daily lives. We develop a sense of what works, what will bring us happiness, what will create well-being, and how we will find success. We pursue those things that fit in our model, toss those things that don’t fit in the model to the side, and somewhere along the line begin to believe that our model is reality and criticize everyone who has a model that doesn’t seem to jive with ours.


A more reasonable stance is to say that we have developed a model that gives us insight into some aspect of reality, but is open for adjustment, improvement, or could be scrapped altogether in favor of a new model if necessary. The only way to do this is to be an active participant in our lives and to work to truly understand ourselves and the world around us. The quote from Roberts on Cowen’s podcast aligns with the quote that I have from Colin Wright today. From Wright’s book Becoming Who We Need To Be I have a quote reading, “It’s not enough to just smell the fragrances that drift our way every day. We have to take the time to pull those aromas apart, to figure out what components go into them, and compare and contrast them with others. We have to be awake and aware, not just alive. We have to be participatory in our own lives, and give our mental capacities a reason to keep operating and expanding, otherwise they will, quite understandably, if we’re using biological logic, begin to shut down to save energy.”


Deciphering the aromas is a metaphor for understanding how we are interacting with the world and how the world exists around us. If we retreat to safety and comfort by believing that our models are correct and perfect, then we fail to improve our understanding of the world and our place in it. Our mind atrophies, and the potential we have for making the world a better place is continually diminished. Simply believing something because it benefits us, makes us feel good, and is what people similar to us believe can drive us and the world into an inefficient place where we fail to do the most good for the most people. There is nothing wrong with that world, it is an option, but if we believe that human flourishing is worth striving for and if we believe that we can help improve the living standards for ourselves and the rest of humanity, then we must use and expand our cognitive capacity to better understand the universe to improve the world for ourselves and the rest of humanity. Your model is incomplete and gives you insight into one aspect of reality, but you must remember that it is not a perfect description of how the world should be, and you must work continuously to build a better model with better insight into the world.