The feeling when you get information that does not make sense to you, leaving you uncertain what to do with it.

You feel confused when you receive information that you cannot match with what you already know or believe to be true1. For example, when someone you don’t know approaches you at a party and starts talking to you as if they have known you for years, or when you accidentally turned two pages of a novel at once and don’t understand the apparent jump in the story.

Information comes to us in a constant stream. Any new piece of information that is worthy of notice is compared to what we already know. For example, we know that cities are arranged into streets and blocks, and that city maps contain a scaled representation of this arrangement, so when you visit a new city and find a map, even though the contents of this map is new information, you can easily connect its existence and logic to what you already know. However, when you would come across a map of your own town and find that the streets are arranged in a way completely different from how you know it to be, you will likely feel confused. This can feel like the mental equivalent of trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. The confusion will sustain until you are able to find a solution to this mismatch, for example, when you find out that the map is a depiction of your town a hundred years ago, or that it is part of an art project intended to set you off on the wrong foot.

Apart from this type of explicit mismatch, in which new information actively opposes something you held to be true, you can also get confused when you simply cannot match the new information to anything you already know. For example, if everyone is raving about an art piece and you don’t see what is so special about it, you can feel confused and wonder what you might have missed.

When people are confused, there are likely to be three outcomes: they hold on to their current beliefs and dismiss the new piece of information; they assimilate the new piece of information and overwrite the old one; or they find a way to hold both beliefs without conflict. Paradoxes are examples of the latter: at first, they seem to contain two opposing pieces of information, but upon scrutiny, the opposition was only apparent.

People who are confused tend to momentarily stop their actions and frown, look slightly downwards or touch their forehead, which all express that they need a moment to make the mental match or reject one of the pieces of information2.

In the comic, Murphy is confused when he was expecting all his colleagues to be in their office prior to his presentation, but finds the room deserted.

Movie clips


Typical expressions


“I don’t understand…”

Murphy's bad day

Comparisons with other emotions

Confusion & Doubt

Confusion and doubt are often mentioned together, and do often co-occur. For example, imagine you are at the first day of your new job, and you haven’t been instructed what to do yet. You may feel confused about what is going on, and in doubt what you should do. But this already shows the difference between the two: confusion is about information, doubt is about decisions. When your inability to make a decision is caused by a lack or mismatch of information, you likely feel both doubt and confusion. However, you can also feel doubt without confusion when the possible choices are quite clear. For example, when you have to choose between refilling the parking meter and running the risk to get a ticket, you are in doubt, but not confused about anything. Similarly, you can feel confused without doubt when you don’t understand information, but there is no choice involved. For example, when you are trying to follow the explanation of a complicated math problem.

Confusion & Shock

Confusion and shock both involve that you are overwhelmed by some new information that you are trying to process. The most important difference is that the shocking news is overwhelming because it is so bad and so different from what you knew or expected. The confusing news, on the other hand, is overwhelming simply because you don’t understand it. So the mental processing in confusion entails that you are figuring out which piece of information is true and how it fits your existing knowledge, while in shock it involves coping with the meaning and consequences of the bad news.

Sources and further reading