OPINION

Surprise! The emotion that's key to survival and learning

Decades ago, while living in the US, I recommended an Arizona friend of mine as a local attorney to assist an out-of-state lawyer. The Arizona attorney later told me that she had never been paid.

When I asked the out-of-state lawyer about paying her, he told me to come by his office when I was in town and he would give me cash. I told him no, send her a cheque.

Good move! It turned out the out-of-state lawyer was counterfeiting US money. I felt surprised when I learned that.

The local attorney never got paid, but at least she and I never got investigated by the Treasury Department for passing counterfeit money. The out-of-state lawyer ended up in a federal penitentiary.

Recently, I had a pleasant surprise. A woman I had not seen in decades contacted me and became a Facebook pal.

I learned about her life and her goals. I did my best to respond to her requests for advice about career development. I felt useful.

Developmental psychologists use signs of surprise to determine what babies know.

Here is a typical study: Psychologists show babies two of the same objects behind a screen a few times.

Then the researchers magically show the baby three of the objects behind the same screen.

Does the baby show surprise by looking longer this time?

If so, the baby may know that two objects are different from three objects.

Repeat the study with other babies, and the researchers have a meaningful finding.

Babies have surprises all the time because they do not know how things work.

If you see an infant dropping items intentionally while in a high chair, you are watching a child surprised that things always go down when she lets go.

Surprise is a common human emotion. Animals experience it too. Wear a rainbow wig the next time you go home and see if Kitty Cat looks surprised.

All emotions serve a purpose. Surprise helps us focus our attention on something that could be important - for survival or for learning.

I learned from my counterfeiting experience that not all people can be trusted.

And then, I learned from the contact from a person long lost to me that I sometimes make stronger connections than I even know.

What surprises have you had lately? What have you learned from them?

John Malouff is an Associate Professor at the School of Behavioural, Cognitive and Social Sciences, University of New England