Positive surprise

The feeling when you realize something good or nice just happened, which you did not expect. You need a moment to take in the good news.

We experience positive surprise in response to a desirable event that violates an active or explicit expectation. For example, you may be pleasantly surprised when your partner comes home a few days earlier from a work trip to be with you (you expected that she would prioritize the work trip over spending time with you), or when the seeds you planted a month ago have suddenly sprouted (you had given up on them). Positive surprise can also be evoked by events that violate an implicit expectation. For example, you can be pleasantly surprised when you come home to a surprise party (you simply never considered this could happen to you).

Most emotions are experienced as having a clear-cut valence (they feel either good or bad), but this is not the case for surprise. Some psychologists believe that the feeling of surprise is per se hedonically neutral1), whereas others argue that surprise is a short-lived, mildly negative emotional response to an unexpected event that precedes other affective states (positive, such as fascination and amusement, or negative, such as annoyance and disappointment).

According to the latter theory, people generally do not enjoy surprises, because surprising events are incongruent with what we know, and hence disrupt the predictability of the world as we know it. This is why surprise initially feels neutral or slightly unpleasant. Once we realize that the event in itself is desirable, we experience it as pleasant, and the arousal of the surprise amplifies the joy of the desirable event. Hence, surprise may contribute to more intense positive experiences through emotion amplification, which can explain why –for example– a surprise visit of a friend may result in greater joy than a planned get together2.

This typology considers ‘positive surprise’ as a positive emotion, opposite to startle, which corresponds to ‘negative surprise’. One of the reasons why we tend to associate the word ‘surprise’ with a positive valence is that in everyday conversation the most frequently used phrases involving this word typically imply something positive, for example, ‘surprise party’, or ‘buying a surprise’2.

When surprised, we typically widen our eyes, open our mouth, and raise our eyebrows. Systematic studies have also found some similarities between the facial expressions of surprise and those of terror, horror, pain, or disgust, which are all distinctly negative experiences2.

Because this emotion captivates us and urges us to focus our attention on the unexpected object or event, surprise has been extensively explored in fields like economics, marketing, art, and design.

Movie clips


Typical expressions

“You don’t say?”
“Nice seeing you here.”

Sources and further reading