New research from the University of Illinois says that surprises are the perfect recipe for influencing social change. According to this study, “Surprise, Recipes for Surprise, and Social Influence,” surprises make for memorable, stimulating experiences, but they also prompt people to change their thoughts and even influence them to take certain actions.

Jeffrey Loewenstein, lead author and a professor of business administration at the Gies College of Business at Illinois, explained these far-reaching effects of surprises to NeuroscienceNews: “There are plenty of people who think of surprise as an emotional expression. You can easily imagine the facial expression of someone who is experiencing surprise. But surprise not only generates the emotional reaction, it also is a push to learn, and an experience that people get excited to share with others. Put those things together and surprise becomes a powerful tool for social influence.”

Think about it: any time something crazy or unexpected happens, you want to tell your friends about it. Say the book you’re reading had a crazy twist and surprising ending—you’ll probably want to share this with someone. And you might even recommend the book to them so they can experience it for themselves. Similarly, say something out of the ordinary happens at work. Are you going to keep this to yourself? Probably not. It’s likely you’ll go home and tell your boyfriend or girlfriend about it.

“A big twist is a surprise, because it’s something you didn’t expect. It can also be a powerful emotional experience. And when you learn something that really connects with you, there’s this interest in sharing it with other people,” Loewenstein explained. “We know from prior research that if a story generates a powerful emotional reaction like awe, anger, disgust, or amazement, it’s more likely to be shared than if it’s more of a neutral or technical piece. Surprise has the same benefit as other strong emotional experiences.”

Furthermore, one can utilize the element of surprise as a tool and for their benefit. “As a communicator, you can create surprise. It seems counterintuitive, because surprise seems like it ought to be a random occurrence, but you can plan surprises,” says Loewenstein. Doing so will help you garner attention—which is hard to do in this day and age, considering the “information-rich environment” we live in—and then it is up to you to maintain that attention. Presenting your audience with new information after that initial surprise can do the trick, according to Loewenstein.

University of Illinois (2018, April 1). Surprise Can Be an Agent of Social Change. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved April 1, 2018 from

Loewenstein, J. (2018, February 7). Surprise, Recipes for Surprise, and Social Influence. Topics in Cognitive Science. Retrieved April 4, 2018 from