The Power of Surprises

I believe that there are two types of people in the world: Those who like surprises, and those who don’t.

Of course, there are some grey areas. I like very few surprises, but I’m delighted by a Slurpee or cookie showing up at my desk unannounced. And there are people who generally love surprises who have their caveats as well.

However, in general, I think the division is true.

This came to mind when I read a synopsis of a really interesting study the other day about the power of surprises. From what I understand, participants in the study were given an unremovable wristband that could deliver two types of electric shocks: One that was very strong, and the other that was about half as strong.

The participants were given a choice: They could receive the power shock right then and there, or they could wear the wristband for the next 24 hours and receive the less powerful shock as a surprise, completely without warning.

You can vote in the poll below to say what you would do, but I’ll go ahead and tell you: Most of you would choose the powerful shock right now rather than face the uncertainty of not knowing when the weaker future shock will arrive. It’s human nature to grab control wherever and whenever we can, lest we not have control in the future.

I find this really interesting, considering that in my more informal surveying, I’d say that more than 50% of people would say that they love surprises. And yet the data doesn’t add up. Perhaps it works the other way in reverse: What if I told you that you could either have something you love–say, a warm chocolate chip cookie–right now, or you could have two warm chocolate chip cookies sometime in the next 24 hours, but you can’t control when or where they’d appear out of thin air. Would you rather have the certainty of the cookie right now while you’re salivating over it, or face the possible inconvenience of the cookie arriving later when it’s not a good time or you’re not in the mood for cookies?

Either way, if you’re in a relationship, I think it’s a good idea to clearly communicate your surprise preferences to your partner. Food, birthday parties, gifts, sex, appearances…go through every category of surprises and be abundantly clear. That gives them the freedom to show their love for you through surprises every now and then, but only in the ways that will truly delight you.

Because, if the stats tell the truth, most types of surprises don’t delight you at all! Who knew? (I did.)