Eight Days Of Emotion No.7: Surprise

The seventh in our series of posts looking at the primary emotions.

According to psychologist and emotional expert Paul Ekman, the defining quality of surprise is its brevity. Seen on the human face, surprise is a fleeting sensation, a feeling that quickly resolves into one of the other primary emotions, like happiness, anger or fear. But for brands and communications, surprise can have lasting and powerful effects, colouring an entire experience. Surprise is the spice of emotion.

The question is, is surprise a good thing? At BrainJuicer we see it as a broadly positive emotion, and display it as such on our results charts, but it should be approached with caution.

Telegraphed – but effective! – surprise from Bjork.

For a start, we have to ask – do people actually enjoy being surprised? As humans we tend to assume we like surprises and variety more than we actually do. Asked to predict our choices, we build surprises in, but left to our ordinary, day-to-day devices we turn out to be creatures of habit. And there are studies suggesting that spoiling twist endings in advance lets people enjoy films more.

Why is this? It’s all to do with our two ways of decision making – the fast System 1 and the slow System 2. Surprise tends to draw our attention to something and give us new information to process – waking up our slumbering, slow and effortful System 2. But this kind of higher-effort thinking is not as pleasant as the “fun, fast and easy” decisions we make with System 1, which is probably why habitual choices feel good and why spoilers don’t usually spoil our enjoyment.

This gives marketers something of a dilemma – how do they use the attention-getting power of surprise (which can also help drive word of mouth and online virality) while avoiding the extra effort and difficulty it can create?

One useful compromise seems to be to telegraph surprise, giving people time to anticipate it – the equivalent of letting people know there’s a twist in a movie, without necessarily giving away all the details. Take this advert, for the TNT TV channel, which tells you that something is going to happen when the button is pressed, but lets you be surprised by what actually does.

Not every kind of surprise works in the same way. There’s a sort of meta-surprise you sometimes find where the unexpected element comes in breaking brand or category conventions. If Axe commercials are generally juvenile babe-fests, for instance, a more thoughtful spot from them might seem surprising. Naturally, though, you need unusually settled brand expectations to pull this off for a mainstream audience, not just advertising fans.

One area where surprise is less useful or common than you’d imagine is in product or concept testing. This might seem counter-intuitive – wouldn’t high levels of surprise indicate something genuinely new or game-changing? But you have to remember Ekman’s definition of surprise – it’s a fast emotion which soon resolves into something else. So what you want with a surprising new idea is for it to rapidly resolve into happiness as people “get” it quickly. If that doesn’t happen, what you’re measuring isn’t really excitement, just bafflement.

That’s the last of our primary emotions, and next we’ll wrap up with a look at Neutrality – the absence of emotion.


One thought on “Eight Days Of Emotion No.7: Surprise

  1. Pingback: Eight Days Of Emotion: The Complete Series | Brian Juicer Blog

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