Merriam-Webster defines Surprise as,

: an unexpected event, piece of information, etc.

: an unexpected gift, party, etc.

: the feeling caused by something that is unexpected or unusual

Surprise, the emotion defined by its brevity, arises when something predicted does not happen as expected, or when something unexpected occurs. Surprise is neutral, just a recognition of the unexpected. But as we process the unexpected and understand the implications, the emotion of Surprise rapidly gives way to other emotions – Happiness if the event was gladly received, Fear if there is danger accompanying the event, or Anger if the event is upsetting.

Surprise brings us new information, as our mental model of the world is challenged and reality differs from the expected turn of events, or when completely unexpected events occur. Being forced to reassess our expectations leads to new learning as we are faced with our ignorance. We pay attention with our mind empty of other thoughts. Then, as we process the implications, other strong emotions – like [Happiness]((, Fear and Anger – flood our mind with feeling. This is why we remember a Surprise years after the event, and why advertisers use Surprise to aid advertising recall.

A Dramatic Surprise on a Quiet Square

Surprise is accompanied by distinctive facial expressions. When we are surprised, we open our eyes wide enough to show the whites, raise our eyebrows so high that they are curved, and open our mouth with our jaw dropped, lips and teeth parted. These distinctive expressions help us take in the maximum information and alert others that we are experiencing something unexpected.

Surprise is different from startle. Startle is a brief, reflex action that we feel even if we expect the event, e.g., the starting gun in a race, whereas a Surprise, by definition, is an unexpected event. Finally, when we are surprised, our eyes are open, but when we are startled, our eyes are tightly closed.

In the Caricature series of sketches, the artist shows someone turning the handle on a Jack-in-the-Box. We don’t know when and what will pop out of the box, and are surprised when it happens. The unpredictability and randomness of the top opening can be endlessly amusing for a child.


The emotion Surprise in the Caricature series of sketches.

The artist for Watercolors prepared a sketch showing a human hand opening the ribbon tied on a gift box. When we open the ribbon and take off the lid, we don’t know what to expect inside the box. When we see what is inside the gift box we first feel Surprise, and then, as we interpret the meaning of the object, another emotion like Happiness, Fear, Anger or Disgust, etc.


The emotion Surprise in the Watercolor series of sketches.