Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Luna & Renninger, Surprise

Type “tilt” or “skew” into the Google search bar and be prepared to be surprised. What happens (if you’re observant) is unexpected.

Tania Luna and Leeann Renninger have written an engaging introduction to an under-researched psychological phenomenon—Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected (Perigree/Penguin, 2015). Part analysis, part self-help, the book is a worthwhile quick read.

Anyone who invests or trades is faced with surprises, both upside and downside. Too much surprise—“brought on by change, uncertainty, and ambiguity”—“triggers anxiety: a vague mixture of fear and dread. It is the sensation of our brains working overtime to predict the future.” (p. 33) And so anxious investors listen to financial forecasters and fortune-tellers, trying to get a peek into the future. They want to reduce the element of surprise.

At the other end of the spectrum lies a lack of surprise, which triggers hypostress, “the near opposite of anxiety, … the stress of understimulation. … It’s boredom.” (p. 33)

We want to be in control, to avoid surprise. And we have more tools to give at least the semblance of control—cell phones, air-conditioners, better models for predicting the weather, big data algorithms to figure out our wants and needs. But change is happening rapidly. “Our future is increasingly unpredictable.” And so we seesaw between anxiety in the face of unpredictability and boredom as we try to get rid of surprise by controlling the future with routines and safety nets.

The authors discuss ways to deal more constructively with surprise. One of my favorites is “cool is the enemy of growth.” Here’s a brief excerpt: “Before age six, kids use the word surprise almost exclusively to describe positive events. As we get older, surprise takes on a more negative connotation. Why? One reason is that surprise makes us vulnerable, and as we get older, we associate vulnerability with embarrassment and shame. We internalize all those moments in which we looked foolish. And we take note of the times we looked pretty darn cool. We like those times. At some point, we decide to avoid feeling foolish and aim for cool instead. That’s when the trouble begins.” (pp. 63-64) Another reason that the most creative people are often described as childlike.

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