The feeling when suddenly something unexpected happens, which could be something bad. You have the immediate urge to find out what is going on.

You feel startled when suddenly something happens that you did not expect, and that may be important for your wellbeing1. For example, you think you are waiting at the bus stop alone, when suddenly someone appears behind you. Or you are driving in the countryside and suddenly there is a deer on the road.

Emotions range from rather complex constructions, such as guilt or indignation, to more rudimentary and simple responses, such as disgust and distress. Startle belongs to the latter category. It is a very short-lived emotion, it does not require a sequence of events unfolding over time, and the response is simple: finding out what is going on2. For this reason, some psychologists consider it almost as a reflex. Still, unlike a physical reflex (e.g., the knee-jerk response), startle does not reliably occur in response to a specific cue (e.g., a tap to the knee). If you are working alone at home, and suddenly someone is standing behind you, you are likely to be startled. However, if the same thing happens when you are working in an open office, you will probably not have this response. This shows that even in the split-second it takes to evoke the startle, an appraisal is made about the unexpectedness of the event, and what it may mean. The person standing behind you at home may be a housemate who silently came home, or an intruder.

Startle can be very contagious – like herd animals, if someone in our environment is startled, we immediately adopt this response, because the other person might be seeing something that we are not seeing. People who are startled have a tendency to immediately find out what is going on. This is characterized by wide-open eyes and a scanning of the environment.

In the comic, Murphy is talking to a colleague while he is waiting for some people to meet. While he talks about them in a less than flattering way, he doesn’t notice that they are coming up behind him.

Movie clips


Typical expressions


“What’s that?!”

Murphy's bad day

Comparisons with other emotions

Startle & Fear

Startle can seem like the more abrupt cousin of fear. Both are about concrete events that may be detrimental to your wellbeing in the near future. Although both deal with concrete events, an important difference is that in fear we already understand what the threat is. When you are startled, you are still finding out exactly what is happening and what it may mean to you. Because of this, the fear response is often to flee or hide, while the reaction to startle is to find out what is going on (in order to respond more appropriately immediately afterwards). Thus, if the startle is justified, it may well switch to fear.

Startle & Shock

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.

Sources and further reading