The feeling when you realize that something very bad just happened. You didn’t think something like this was possible, and you don’t know what to think or do.

You experience shock when suddenly something bad happens, which you had not seen coming at all1. The most typical cause of shock is receiving bad news, for example, learning that you just got fired, hearing that an earthquake hit a nearby region, or coming home and finding out that your cat has been run over. Clearly, these pieces of news will also evoke other emotions, such as anger, fear, and sadness, respectively. In comparison to these emotions, shock is chiefly a reaction to something unexpected. You will only experience shock if you hadn’t foreseen the job loss, the natural disaster, or the death of your pet. If there were already announcements of cutbacks in your department, or premonitions of seismic activity in your region, the news of the actual events should not be (as) shocking as without those early warnings.

The experience of shock represents a sudden shift in your worldview: you thought your world was arranged in certain ways – having a secure job, believing that earthquakes will never hit this part of the world – and you now find that this view has to be changed instantly. This also makes you wonder which other beliefs that you held as self-evident might be wrong.

Typically, shock lasts a short time, firstly because the affected person gets used to the new event – in which case it is probably succeeded by other relevant emotions. As long as you have not been able to assimilate the new information into your worldview, it will feel as though you can’t think or function2. Secondly, shock is such an intense process, both in terms of experience and bodily arousal, that it would be dysfunctional to experience it for a long time. People who experience shock typically cease all their current activities and open their eyes and ears in an attempt to find out everything about the unexpected event.

In the comic, Murphy learns from his boss that his company, which he thought was doing well, is actually on the verge of bankruptcy. The news comes to him like a bolt from the blue.

Movie clips


Typical expressions

“How…? What…?”

“I can’t believe it!”

Murphy's bad day

Comparisons with other emotions

Shock & Confusion

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.

Shock & Startle

Startle and shock are both intense, short-lived emotional responses to unexpected events. There are a few important differences as well. If you are shocked, it means that you have already fully taken in the information that something bad has happened (although you haven’t quite been able to process it yet). When you are startled, on the other, hand, you don’t yet know what is going on – just that it may be something bad. Furthermore, startle is only experienced in relation to you or the people in your care, while shock can extend to any bad event that you did not expect.

Shock & Disappointment

Disappointment and shock can both occur at the moment that you find out about something bad, for example, when finding out you are not getting the promotion you wanted. The important difference is how unexpected it was that you did not get it. If you were certain that the promotion was yours, then you will be shocked to learn you did not get it. If you were however merely hoping or half-expecting that the promotion was coming your way, then you would feel disappointment. Furthermore, shock can also occur when something unexpected happens that is not linked to specific expectations or hopes. For instance, witnessing a car accident can evoke shock, but not disappointment, because you were not having specific expectations about this event.

Sources and further reading