Mental Models: Surprise (Good & Bad)



How might this apply to great teams and cultures?

When what happens is not what I expect, I have to rethink my understanding of the world. Spontaneous awards that reinforce the company values, or making a usually-difficult interaction unusually-easy makes a fantastic delighter.

How might this apply to your business?

Maybe it’s through fun editorials, a link to an amusing video, or a compliment. Perhaps it’s an “Easter egg” such as a coupon, virtual gift or humorous image that’s hidden within your site. Even the satisfaction of discovering connection or solving a mental puzzle can help form a favorable and memorable impression.


How can you add surprise and delight? Do you intend these surprises?Nice surprises lead to exchange: Nice surprises will predispose the other person towards you, setting up the exchange effect. Make them feel good and they'll be happy to return the favor. You can create nice surprises by:

  • Promising them something, then giving them more than promised.

  • Not promising them anything, just giving them something pleasant.

  • Praising them.

Neutral surprises lead to interest. You can intrigue people by being, saying or doing something different. A neutral surprise can be an effective hook that pulls people in, leaving them wanting more. You can create neutral surprises by:

  • Being different from other people.

  • Being different from how you normally are.

  • Being different from what they expect.

See Also

Surprise, Pattern Recognition, Humor Effect, Gifting, Appropriate Challenges

Bad Surprises


How might this apply to great teams and cultures?

If the other person is surprised, it should be because you want them to be. It should be because you have a pretty good idea as to how they are going to react to the surprise.

  • Surprise causes learning: When our forecast does not meet reality, we may be surprised this time, but we won't be caught out next time! So we change our forecasting to account for the new things we have learned about how the world works.

  • Surprise causes inner change: When we change our forecasting, we seldom do it by changing the actual process. Instead, we change such things as our models of how the world works, and our beliefs about ourselves and other people.

  • Surprise causes denial: 'Well, I'm not surprised!' is a common retort by people to whom all kinds of surprisingly different things happen. A simple way we avoid embarrassment is to pretend that we are not surprised and that we had expected the surprising event to happen after all. The danger of denial is that we are so good at it that we convince ourselves that we were not surprised and hence don't change!

How might this apply to your business?

Human nature has a tendency to put aside unpleasant realities in favor of more palatable or convenient narratives. We ignore the obvious at a certain moment because we simply don't want to confront it. It is the unconscious calculus to avoid pain. Denial allows us to live in a convenient world we create as long as it lasts. However, we, no doubt, fail when we deny hard truths in front of us.Denial is simultaneously the safe and the wrong way to handle a problem. Denial is a process over which we sometimes can exercise some measure of control. When we're not in control, it is denial. Our sense of urgency might be easily blunted by the business upturn. We might miss the strategic inflection point by denying the needs from the market.


We can arm ourselves against denial through self-knowledge, openness to criticism, receptivity to facts and perspectives that challenge our own. With our own efforts, we can improve our ability to perceive the danger of denying. There are no mature markets, only tired marketers. How can you better manage expectations and reality for others?Managing expectations means:

  • Understand what their current expectations are.

  • Understand how they predict the future, including their mental models and beliefs around the area of interest.

  • Subtly guiding their expectations.

  • Creating a reality that is different from what they expect.

Bad surprises move people.  Bad surprises can be used to shake people out of complacency. When they are clinging to their current comfortable position and refusing to see another point of view, a short shock can be effective at awakening them from their slumbers. Use bad surprises with care, because they rebound on you. A fight reaction can easily get out of control and a flight reaction can make them run away from you. Play the bearer of bad news, but beware of being that bad news.You can create bad surprises by:

  • Telling them they cannot have what they want.

  • Shouting at them (when you are normally timid).

  • Telling them the awful truth.

See Also

Surprise, Pattern Recognition, Humor Effect, Gifting, Appropriate Challenges


In the whirl of our day-to-day interactions, it’s all too easy to forget the nuances that distinguish great teams, great cultures, and great products/services.

Mental Model Flash Cards bring together insights from psychology into an easy reference and brainstorming tool. Each card describes one insight into human behavior and suggests ways to apply this to your teams as well as the design of your products and services.