What is surprise?

Image from Pixabay

Rethink Speech makes use of funny, surprising demonstrations to help you unlearn commonly held false beliefs about the nature of speech and how it works.

To get the most out of these demonstrations, it is worth addressing a question you may not have thought about explicitly yet: What is surprise?

Surprise comes when expectations are violated

Now sometimes, things happen that we simply could never have expected. In those cases, it is completely reasonable to be surprised!

But sometimes we get surprised by fairly familiar events. In those cases, it can be a good idea to turn away from the surprising events and look instead at the expectations that made them unexpected.

Sometimes we don’t even realise we have expectations, but if we experience surprise, it suggests we do. And sometimes it’s not genuinely unexpectable events that create surprise, but wrong expectations. That’s why surprise is so useful – it tells us we have expectations that we might not be aware of otherwise.

So why is that useful?

Well, what are expectations? They are really predictions based on what we think we know about something. If our predictions are wrong, it suggests that what we think we know might not be as reliable as we thought it was.

It ain't what you don't know that gets intro trouble; it's for sure just so
A lot of people ‘know for sure’ that this quote originates from Mark Twain – but evidently that ‘just ain’t so’.

If humour and surprise show us we are making inaccurate predictions, we get the opportunity to examine those predictions, and revise the ‘knowledge’ (assumptions or false beliefs) they were based on.

But surprise is only useful if you make use of it!

If we just laugh, say ‘amazing’, and move on, we don’t really benefit from the opportunity surprise offers us to uncover false beliefs.

To make use of surprise, we have to take the opportunity to have a look at the expectations or presuppositions that were violated – and ask a few questions about them. Were the expectations reasonable? Is there something we need to unlearn here?

This module offers you a number of humorous experiences, and encourages you to ask a couple of questions about each one

Here’s the questions:

  1. What expectations about speech are violated in creating the humour or surprise here? Are those expectations valid and justified?
  2. If I put aside those expectations, what does experiencing the demonstration tell me about speech and how it works?