Vázquez, Margarita
 Incorporated contributions
M. Vázquez (14/04/2010)
 Usage domain
transdisciplinary, cognition, epistemology 
 German Befremdem, Überraschung 

[Understandable but with some grammatical missteps]

Surprise can be intuitively characterized as an epistemic state caused by an unsatisfied expectation. In order to achieve a state of surprise, it is necessary to rely on a prior background of expectations and, moreover, those expectations are not met. It is even sufficient to have the implicit general expectation of finding nothing that attracts attention. The concept of regular surprise involves, therefore, the notion of expectations and something capable of causing the not satisfaction of those expectations (may be a fact, an information, etc.)

The ordinary concept of surprise admits of degree. There may be more or less surprise. This feature is very important. The intensity of a surprise is determined by the intensity with which expectations are not met.

Another important feature follows from the fact that subject's expectations change over time. The surprise is not an enduring state, can not be kept for long. More precisely, the ability to surprise is inversely proportional to the subject’s ability to become accustomed to new situations that create new expectations.

Part of the ordinary concept of surprise described above can be analyzed in terms of probabilities. If we use the probability space between 0 and 1 as a measure of the expectations that a subject may have regarding a state of affairs p, then we can represent the different states of surprise as follows: prob(p)=1 would represent an epistemic state in which p is not surprising (p is a “sure” event), prob(p)=0 would represent an epistemic state in which  p is a surprise result in maximum (p would be considered an event “impossible”) and 0<prob(p)<1 would represent all the remaining intermediate states of surprise.

The surprise thus becomes a part of a wider warning system that allows an individual to efficiently respond to changes in the environment. So, the surprise is an epistemic state closely related with our desires, emotions, preferences, etc. And ultimately it is linked with our action. Indeed, the surprise is a powerful generator of changes in our beliefs. But surprise can also generate very direct behavioural responses automatically, without requiring prior changes in belief systems. There is currently no detailed and complete analysis of the surprise, neither philosophical nor scientific, but there is no doubt that the surprise is in the heart of our cognitive capacities and practices.

The surprise has also been discussed in philosophy regarding the surprise exam paradox (known as the unexpected hanging paradox too) where the paradox comes to announce a surprise in a given period of time (for example, next week will be a surprise text).


  • DRETSKE, F.I. (1981). Knowledge and the flow of information. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 
  • HALL, N. (1999). How To Set A Surprise Exam. Mind, 108, 647-703.
  • SHANNON, C.E. & WEAVER, W. (1949). The Mathematical Theory of Communication. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. 
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M. Vázquez (14/04/2010)
[It corresponds with the first version of the article, which is now showed in the left column. It is edited in both English and Spanish]