What is surprise?


Surprise is one of the seven universal emotions and arises when we encounter sudden and unexpected sounds or movements. As the briefest of the universal emotions, its function is to focus our attention on determining what is happening and whether or not it is dangerous.


Feeling surprise


Some emotion scholars do not consider surprise to be an emotion because they say it is neither pleasant nor unpleasant, claiming that all emotions must be one or the other. Many emotions experts, including Dr. Paul Ekman, disagree with this stance, noting that surprise feels like an emotion to most people; in the moment or two before we figure out what is occurring, before we switch to another emotion or no emotion, surprise itself can feel good or bad.


Duration of surprise

Surprise is the briefest of all the emotions, lasting a few seconds at most. Other emotions can be very brief, but they can also endure much longer, whereas surprise has a fixed, limited duration.


What follows surprise

Within seconds, surprise passes as we figure out what is happening. From there, surprise may merge into fear, amusement, relief, anger, disgust, and so forth depending upon what it was that surprised us. It may also be followed by no emotion at all if we determine that the surprising event was of no consequence to us.


What surprises us?


The universal triggers for surprise are sudden and unexpected occurrences. 


Common surprise triggers:

  • Loud sounds (e.g., a balloon popping or a car backfiring)
  • Unexpected movements (e.g., someone sneaking up on you or throwing a ball at you without warning)

The difference between startle and surprise

Whereas surprise is an emotion, startle is a physical reflex. Startle has an even more constrained timing than surprise: the startle expression becomes apparent in 1/4 of second and it’s over in 1/2 second. While being told about a surprise beforehand can eliminate feeling surprise, no one can inhibit the startle reaction. Being warned that you will be startled by a loud noise may reduce, but won’t eliminate, its expression. Conversely, you can't be surprised if you know what's going to happen.


Startle also shows an exact opposite expression as the surprise expression. In startle, our eyes are closed tightly, brows lower, and our lips are stretched tensely.

In surprise, our eyes are wide open, eyebrows are raised, and jaws drop open.


Recognizing surprise


Facial expression of surprise

Fear and surprise are two of the most commonly confused facial expressions because they are shown in the same key features: eyebrows, eyes, and mouth. In surprise, the eyebrows are raised but show more curve than seen in fear. The upper eyelids and jaws are also more relaxed when expressing surprise.


Vocal expression of surprise

There is often an audible gasp- a quick, momentary intake of breath with surprise.


Sensations of surprise

Sensations include a general sense of attentiveness.


Posture of surprise

Moving the head, bringing the hands up to shield the face, and/or stepping backwards away from surprising object.


The function of surprise


The function of surprise is to focus our attention so we can determine what is happening and whether we are in danger or not.


Responding to surprise

Some people never want to be surprised, even if it is by a positive event. They tell people never to surprise them. Others love being surprised; they deliberately leave many things unplanned so that they can often experience the unexpected. They seek experiences in which it is likely they will be surprised.


Additional Resources


Learn to recognize and respond to the emotional expressions of others with our online micro expressions training tools to increase your ability to detect deception and catch subtle emotional cues.


Expand your knowledge of emotional skills and competencies with in-person workshops offered through Paul Ekman International.


Delve into personal exploration and transformation with Cultivating Emotional Balance.


Build your emotional vocabulary with the Atlas of Emotions, a free, interactive learning tool created by Drs. Paul and Eve Ekman at the request of the Dalai Lama.


Read Dr. Ekman’s guide to emotions, the best-seller Emotions Revealed.


Introduce the world of emotions to children in a fun way with Dr. Ekman's official guide to Disney•Pixar's Inside Out.