Good and Bad Surprises

Sep 29 2017

When Darwin published The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals in 1872, surprise was one of six basic emotions that he highlighted along with fear, anger, happiness, sadness and disgust.

He described all of the physical manifestations of surprise in great detail, including the opening of the eyes, raising of eyebrows, wrinkling of the forehead, opening of the mouth, protrusion of the lips and deep breaths, along with other less frequent movements including clucking of the tongue, raising of the arms (with palms outwards and fingers separated) and clapping of the hand over the mouth.

Surprise is the only emotion that can be both positive or negative, and is associated with anything unexpected or astonishing. However, historically the meaning of surprise has shifted over the years, from generally more negative connotations in the past to a more balanced meaning with more frequent positive associations in modern culture going back to the 17th century.

Surprise comes from the latin phrase sur-praehendere, referring to a seizure or sudden apprehending. To many people, surprise is more of an involuntary state of mind than a true emotion.  In Robert Plutchik’s model of emotions, surprise is an anticipatory emotion, which helps us to orientate and prepare for further activity in reaction to a novel stimulus.

Thus, surprise is a holding pattern as we wait for further information and mental processing to work out what to do. Because of this, surprise is sometimes labelled as a knowledge emotion, along with interest and confusion, in line with appraisal theory where surprise is a judgement of novelty, complexity and unfamiliarity involving an additional layer of judgement associated with motivating orientation and learning.

Because of this fleeting and orientating nature, surprise is perhaps the briefest of emotions, lasting a few seconds at most. It has some similarities to fear, and some of the same physical signs.

Metaphors for surprise often relate it to a physical or natural force or a burst container, as in “I was staggered”, “coming apart at the seams” and being “overwhelmed by surprise”. Surprise is about losing control of yourself (another similarity with fear), and can occur at different levels of intensity from distraction to amazement.

Some languages do differentiate between good and bad surprises. Surprise often combines with other emotions, showing these positive and negative sides. Delight is a combination of surprise and joy and curiosity is surprise mixed with trust. On the negative side, embarrassment is surprise and sorrow, outrage or resentment combines surprise and anger, disbelief combines surprise and disgust and alarm is surprise mixed with fear.

As Darwin noted, surprise is a very primal emotion, and babies in the womb show a startle reflex in reaction to loud noises. Although there are many more pleasant surprises in the modern world, the most frequent emotion to follow on from surprise is still fear.


Emotions and Life: Perspectives from Psychology, Biology, and Evolution by Robert Plutchik

The Book of Human Emotions: an encyclopedia of feeling from anger to wanderlust by Tiffany Watt Smith

Emotions Revealed: Understanding faces and feelings by Paul Ekman

Metaphor and Emotion: Language, culture, and body in human feeling by Zoltan Kovecses

The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals by Charles Darwin

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