Surprise! You've Got Some Explaining to Do

Abstract

Why are some events more surprising than others? We propose that events that are more difficult to explain are those that are more surprising. The two experiments reported here test the impact of different event outcomes (Outcome-Type) and task demands (Task) on ratings of surprise for simple story scenarios. For the Outcome-Type variable, participants saw outcomes that were either known or less-known surprising outcomes for each scenario. For the Task variable, participants either answered comprehension questions or provided an explanation of the outcome. Outcome-Type reliably affected surprise judgments; known outcomes were rated as less surprising than less-known outcomes. Task also reliably affected surprise judgments; when people provided an explanation it lowered surprise judgments relative to simply answering comprehension questions. Both experiments thus provide evidence on this less-explored explanation aspect of surprise, specifically showing that ease of explanation is a key factor in determining the level of surprise experienced.


Back to Table of Contents