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Why do we like expected surprises?

Why do we like expected surprises?


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The ambiguity effect says that we try to avoid uncertain outcomes. Still, many products are selling well excactly because they give uncertain outcomes. One example is Kinder Eggs, and many similar candies oys. Some shops also get rid og their spare products by selling them in 'surprise bags'.

Why do people like buying products with uncertain outcomes, if the ambiguity effect is true?


There is no ambiguity as such with respect to expectations in those examples. When you buy a Kinder Egg, you know up front you won't know what's in there. In other words, it's perfectly unambiguous that you don't know what to expect from a Kinder Egg.


5. How To

Many advertising writers say if your headline starts with “how to,” it can’t be bad. Probably, this is thanks to everyone’s wish to be smarter.

At the same time, people don’t really want information. What they really want is some sense of predictability and order in their lives. Everyone wants control over their world. That’s why they seek out secrets, tips, rules, hints, laws, and systems that promise to provide order and make better sense of things.

Some examples of great headlines using this trick are:

Hey, this is going to be something I can do. (From Gigaom)

I don’t know how useful it is, but when this how-to article is spread out before my eyes, reading it is irresistible. (From TheBlaze)


The Psychology of Power

To revist this article, visit My Profile, then View saved stories.

To revist this article, visit My Profile, then View saved stories.

I've got a short essay this weekend in the Wall Street Journal on the dismal psychology of power:

When CEO Mark Hurd resigned from Hewlett-Packard last week in light of ethics violations, many people expressed surprise. Mr. Hurd, after all, was known as an unusually effective and straight-laced executive.

But the public shouldn't have been so shocked. From prostitution scandals to corruption allegations to the steady drumbeat of charges against corporate executives and world-class athletes, it seems that the headlines are filled with the latest misstep of someone in a position of power. This isn't just anecdotal: Surveys of organizations find that the vast majority of rude and inappropriate behaviors, such as the shouting of profanities, come from the offices of those with the most authority.

Psychologists refer to this as the paradox of power. The very traits that helped leaders accumulate control in the first place all but disappear once they rise to power. Instead of being polite, honest and outgoing, they become impulsive, reckless and rude. In some cases, these new habits can help a leader be more decisive and single-minded, or more likely to make choices that will be profitable regardless of their popularity. One recent study found that overconfident CEOs were more likely to pursue innovation and take their companies in new technological directions. Unchecked, however, these instincts can lead to a big fall.

But first, the good news.

A few years ago, Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, began interviewing freshmen at a large dorm on the Berkeley campus. He gave them free pizza and a survey, which asked them to provide their first impressions of every other student in the dorm. Mr. Keltner returned at the end of the school year with the same survey and more free pizza. According to the survey, the students at the top of the social hierarchy—they were the most "powerful" and respected—were also the most considerate and outgoing, and scored highest on measures of agreeableness and extroversion. In other words, the nice guys finished first.

This result isn't unique to Berkeley undergrads. Other studies have found similar results in the military, corporations and politics. "People give authority to people that they genuinely like," says Mr. Keltner.

Of course, these scientific findings contradict the cliché of power, which is that the only way to rise to the top is to engage in self-serving and morally dubious behavior. In "The Prince," a treatise on the art of politics, the 16th century Italian philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli insisted that compassion got in the way of eminence. If a leader has to choose between being feared or being loved, Machiavelli insisted that the leader should always go with fear. Love is overrated.

That may not be the best advice. Another study conducted by Mr. Keltner and Cameron Anderson, a professor at the Haas School of Business, measured "Machiavellian" tendencies, such as the willingness to spread malicious gossip, in a group of sorority sisters. It turned out that the Machiavellian sorority members were quickly identified by the group and isolated. Nobody liked them, and so they never became powerful.

There is something deeply uplifting about this research. It's reassuring to think that the surest way to accumulate power is to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. In recent years, this theme has even been extended to non-human primates, such as chimpanzees. Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University, has observed that the size and strength of male chimps is an extremely poor predictor of which animals will dominate the troop. Instead, the ability to forge social connections and engage in "diplomacy" is often much more important.

Now for the bad news, which concerns what happens when all those nice guys actually get in power. While a little compassion might help us climb the social ladder, once we're at the top we end up morphing into a very different kind of beast.

"It's an incredibly consistent effect," Mr. Keltner says. "When you give people power, they basically start acting like fools. They flirt inappropriately, tease in a hostile fashion, and become totally impulsive." Mr. Keltner compares the feeling of power to brain damage, noting that people with lots of authority tend to behave like neurological patients with a damaged orbito-frontal lobe, a brain area that's crucial for empathy and decision-making. Even the most virtuous people can be undone by the corner office.

Why does power lead people to flirt with interns and solicit bribes and fudge financial documents? According to psychologists, one of the main problems with authority is that it makes us less sympathetic to the concerns and emotions of others. For instance, several studies have found that people in positions of authority are more likely to rely on stereotypes and generalizations when judging other people. They also spend much less time making eye contact, at least when a person without power is talking.

Consider a recent study led by Adam Galinsky, a psychologist at Northwestern University. Mr. Galinsky and colleagues began by asking subjects to either describe an experience in which they had lots of power or a time when they felt utterly powerless. Then the psychologists asked the subjects to draw the letter E on their foreheads. Those primed with feelings of power were much more likely to draw the letter backwards, at least when seen by another person. Mr. Galinsky argues that this effect is triggered by the myopia of power, which makes it much harder to imagine the world from the perspective of someone else. We draw the letter backwards because we don't care about the viewpoint of others.

At its worst, power can turn us into hypocrites. In a 2009 study, Mr. Galinsky asked subjects to think about either an experience of power or powerlessness. The students were then divided into two groups. The first group was told to rate, on a nine-point scale, the moral seriousness of misreporting travel expenses at work. The second group was asked to participate in a game of dice, in which the results of the dice determined the number of lottery tickets each student received. A higher roll led to more tickets.

Participants in the high-power group considered the misreporting of travel expenses to be a significantly worse offense. However, the game of dice produced a completely contradictory result. In this instance, people in the high-power group reported, on average, a statistically improbable result, with an average dice score that was 20% above that expected by random chance. (The powerless group, in contrast, reported only slightly elevated dice results.) This strongly suggests that they were lying about their actual scores, fudging the numbers to get a few extra tickets.

Although people almost always know the right thing to do—cheating is wrong—their sense of power makes it easier to rationalize away the ethical lapse. For instance, when the psychologists asked the subjects (in both low- and high-power conditions) how they would judge an individual who drove too fast when late for an appointment, people in the high-power group consistently said it was worse when others committed those crimes than when they did themselves. In other words, the feeling of eminence led people to conclude that they had a good reason for speeding—they're*important *people, with important things to do—but that everyone else should follow the posted signs.

There's more over at the WSJ, if you're interested in how power distorts our response to advertisements, or why power only corrupts absolutely when we think no one else is watching.


What to Expect When You’re Expecting Gender-Reveal Backlash

The gender reveal that Jonathan Reilly orchestrated for his first baby didn’t go perfectly. In 2016, he had his mother-in-law secretly write down the baby’s sex and order balloons from a party-supply store. The plan was for the balloons, which were all blue, to stay hidden in a bag from Reilly and his wife until the couple hosted a party. The balloons would appear and reveal that the baby was a boy. But the store put them in a clear bag. Reilly inadvertently saw them before the party even began.

The experience was in part what inspired Reilly and his wife, Tori, to start their own gender-reveal company. Called Poof There It Is, its website promises to help people “create their dream reveal” with items like footballs, cannons, and smoke bombs that spit out clouds of fuchsia or teal. The company often works directly with a mother’s obstetrician, so no one at a party knows the result till the big ka-boom.

In recent years, Reilly’s business has picked up as gender reveals have become a viral phenomenon, with countless videos and pictures of exploding whatnots and gleeful couples posted to social media. Reilly says Poof There It Is now plays a part in about 200 gender reveals each day. The most popular products, he says, are the ones that create a monsoon of confetti: “Everyone wants to capture that moment of the confetti raining down. The dad is always running around and screaming and yelling, so you want something that flutters longer.”

Reilly acknowledges that the parties might not be for everyone—and, indeed, gender reveals have suffered fierce backlash for conflating gender with sex and enforcing rigid cultural norms. But Reilly is among the defenders who argue that the new tradition is about more than whether a baby will grow up to be a square-jawed macho man or a dainty lady. They’re meant to celebrate the mother, he says. In fact, some researchers agree with that assessment—and say the discussions around gender in America today might have helped bring about the tradition’s rise in the first place.

We had nigh reached gender-reveal saturation before the backlash came. As gender-reveal parties became more popular, each subsequent proud parent seemed to want to out-do the others. A restaurant introduced “gender reveal lasagna”—complete with pink or blue ricotta—which was immediately decried as “a nightmare” and “not okay.” When one man used an alligator he owned in a gender reveal, one person wished the creature would have bitten his hand. Most recently, a gender reveal that involved a hippo at a Texas zoo chomping down on a watermelon was deemed “the worst” reveal ever by one Twitter user.

To be sure, some of the responses are understandable. Some couples have moved on from blue and pink to more cringeworthy themes like “guns or glitter,” committing more firmly to gender stereotypes. Critics point out that the parties leave too little room for intersex or third-gender people, and that they trap babies in a pink-or-blue binary before they’re even born. Some of the talk among the gender-reveal entrepreneurs also isn’t going to earn them a Ph.D. in feminist theory anytime soon. “What are the two things a little girl dreams of?” Reilly asked me rhetorically at one point. “Getting married and having kids.” (I, for one, never dreamed of either.)

On top of that, some gender reveals are outright dangerous: One in the Arizona desert last year sparked a wildfire that caused $8 million in damage. And they can carry a whiff of tacky social-media performance. The point is a “surprise,” but is there really any doubt the parents would be happy with either gender? In fact, the only people allowed to show disappointment are the couples’ existing children, as evidenced by the many gender-reveal videos in which a young boy bursts into tears at the sight of pink cake or balloons.

Despite all this, the myriad ways gender reveals are practiced do undermine some of these critiques—and show that the reveals can be meant for more than social-media fame. Some gender reveals are wrapped into a baby shower, meaning parents bring gender-neutral gifts to the party. And some people who have had gender reveals say social-media sharing helps spread the word to family members who live far away. Elizabeth Clarke, a mom of four in Wichita Falls, Texas, had a friend wrap a large box and fill it with helium balloons for the gender reveal of her youngest daughter. Clarke and her husband Facetimed all the faraway grandparents, aunts, and uncles, then opened the box. In this case, her older children were the ones who wanted to do the reveal.

With their colorful bombast and collectivism, gender reveals can feel like a new twist on an ancient ritual. And this ritual might be more for the mother’s benefit than the baby’s. Rituals are often created for times of enormous stress, says Nick Hobson, a psychologist and consultant who studies rituals. Take wintertime, whose depressing dreariness we zhuzh up with candles and presents during the holidays. Similarly, “pregnancy and labor is basically an exercise in managing massive amounts of stress and uncertainty,” Hobson says. Gender reveals lend structure and order to the chaos, helping parents manage their stress. You don’t know how your delivery is going to go, but you know one thing: It’s a girl, and everyone was so happy to hear it.

Florence Pasche Guignard, a religious-studies instructor at Ryerson University, watched hundreds of videos of gender reveals for her 2015 study on the topic, “A Gendered Bun in the Oven.” She notes that there is otherwise a stark lack of pregnancy-related rituals in North American culture. A baby might get baptized and christened, but pregnant women mostly get told not to drink wine or eat soft cheese. They’re frequently advised to buy baby stuff and read baby books—for the good of the baby. Gender-reveal products can certainly play into that industry by giving women even more stuff to buy, but a special ceremony to celebrate the pregnancy itself also can help fill that void.

Gender reveals can offer some parents a way to “re-enchant pregnancy,” Guignard told me. Most importantly, she writes, they fulfill the ‘‘very American cultural imperative of fun.” (This is perhaps why academics don’t get invited to many parties.)

It makes sense that a new ritual devised for pregnancy would be full of balloons and cake, rather than prayers and blessings. That’s in keeping with the trajectory of modern American society, in which atheists are one of the fastest-growing religious groups. “As society becomes more secular, we do turn to more nonreligious rituals,” says Dimitris Xygalatas, an anthropologist and cognitive scientist at the University of Connecticut.

It also makes sense that gender would be a part of this new ritual. The elements that get wrapped into rituals tend to reflect whatever’s already swirling around a culture. Communities near water, for instance, develop water-related rituals, notes Michael Norton, a psychologist at Harvard Business School. Right now, he points out, gender is a hot topic in American culture. In recent years, the concept of masculinity has been dissected and debated, the rights of transgender people have been especially jeopardized, and parenting blogs have cautioned against calling girls “my little princess.”

Part of the pushback against gender reveals might even arise because it’s common for people to rebel against new rituals. “The first time you go to your in-laws’ for Thanksgiving, you’re horrified because they’re doing it wrong,” Norton says. Nevertheless, gender reveals show no obvious signs of decline. Clarke, the mom of four, told me, “I really don’t care what other people think or say about it.” As Andrew Lester, who runs Gender Reveal Celebrations, sees it, if you don’t like it, don’t do it. “I’m not gonna try to convince you,” he says.

Reilly, from Poof There It Is, didn’t give up after that first, imperfect gender reveal. His wife is currently pregnant with her third, and recently the couple did get their dream celebration. As a drone hovered overhead filming, the party’s guests fired 100 handheld tube “cannons” that rained down blue-dyed cornstarch and confetti, a modern fanfare heralding a prince.


What Did You Expect? It Makes a Difference

MY father recently had his second knee operation in a year. The first time, things went poorly. His rehabilitation was difficult and months later, he still could not walk well or, even more important to him, play tennis.

He had the operation a few weeks ago, and he’s already doing much better. Different doctor, different outcome. And perhaps, most significantly, different expectations.

“The first surgeon just raised my expectations unrealistically,” my father said. “He told me that in a few weeks I would be out on the tennis court.”

Knowing what to expect colors so much of our life’s experiences, often more so than the experience itself. If we expect to pay $21,000 for a car, $20,000 seems like a deal. If we expect to pay $19,000, it seems like highway robbery. Either way, the car is still $20,000.

I started thinking about how we manage expectations after my father’s operation and after a friend, Amy, told me she recently had her cancerous thyroid removed. The cancer was contained, but one of her vocal cords was paralyzed.

She wasn’t warned about this, but has since learned it is a common side effect of such an operation and can last up to a year. It makes talking, eating and drinking difficult.

“It’s not what I bargained for,” Amy said. “I’m grateful to be alive, but if I had just known, I would have been more prepared before and afterwards.”

While both the examples I’ve offered happen to be medical, how we manage expectations applies to everything, from dating to job searches to what presents we’re going to get for our birthdays.

“It’s so central to our lives,” said David Rock, author of “Your Brain at Work” (HarperCollins, 2009).

There are two sides of expectations — what we expect from others and what we expect from ourselves. And how we manage those expectations is critical to how we view our experiences and pursue our goals.

Mr. Rock, who is also director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, which aims to improve leadership through applying the latest research on the brain, says there is a physiological reason we are disappointed when life does not meet our expectations. The neurotransmitter dopamine is released in our brain — and makes us feel good — when something positive happens.

Take an event as mundane as crossing the street. We push the button and expect the light to change in maybe 30 seconds. If it takes five seconds, “there’s a pleasant release of dopamine, and a general feeling of well-being,” he said, even if it’s only fleeting.

The downside is that when our expectations are not met — let’s say it takes a minute for the light to change — our negative feelings are much stronger than the good feelings we get when expectations are exceeded.

Which is a real shame. As Mr. Rock explains it, “If we expect to get x and we get x, there’s a slight rise in dopamine. If we expect to get x and we get 2x, there’s a greater rise. But if we expect to get x and get 0.9x, then we get a much bigger drop.”

“When we don’t hit our expectations,” he added, “our brain doesn’t just get slightly unhappy, it sends out a message of danger or threat.” That suggests that the cliché “hope for the best but expect the worst” has a lot of truth.

But not always. “The takeaway message,” Mr. Rock said, “is to be adaptive.”

Understanding what is in your control and what is not is crucial in managing expectations. As a job hunter, say, you may know it is tough to find a position in these economic times, and you cannot do anything about that. You can have unreasonable expectations at two extremes: an expectation of being hired quickly or an assumption that you will never work again.

Or you can do what you can control: research the job market thoroughly, make contacts and apply for positions that you qualify for. Then, expect something in the middle: you will find a job at some point.

A good analogy is sports. You do not expect to ski flawlessly the first time you try. But you should not expect to fail miserably either, or you will never get off the chair lift.

Another important factor in managing expectations is knowledge.

“I think whenever possible, do research,” said Susan Keane Baker, author of “Managing Patient Expectations” (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1998). Write down what you hear and refer back to it, because in many situations, “we listen to what’s important to us and disregard what we don’t think is important.” But we don’t always know what will prove to be essential in the future.

Ms. Baker offers a useful tool: a “decision guide” developed by the University of Ottawa that includes a detailed questionnaire to help weigh the pros and cons of any type of decision you may be in the process of making.

Considering choices as carefully as you can and arming yourself with answers (from reliable sources, not from aimlessly trolling the Internet) is the best way to set realistic expectations, she said.

But what about when you are selling yourself to someone else — in a job interview, say, or as a political candidate? Should you lower expectations so you end up surprising others by exceeding them?

That, of course, is the strategy we see many candidates use during election time, adamantly clinging to underdog status so that any success seems a surprise.

Much, of course, depends on the situation, according to René Lindstäedt, senior lecturer in the Department of Government at the University of Essex in England.

Mr. Lindstäedt, a co-author of a paper on managing expectations that appeared in The Journal of Theoretical Politics this month, said, for example, that you dared not undersell yourself in the current job market because employers were overwhelmed by too many candidates looking for too few jobs. You’ll just be ignored. But in a healthier job market, or in a situation in which there are few highly qualified candidates for many jobs, odds are you have a greater chance of being asked in for an interview and tryout. Then, he said, it makes sense to lower expectations just a bit and then pleasantly surprise people by performing better than expected.

The trick is to reassure a prospective employer or voter that you are the best person for the job, while at the same time not overpromising. And that is a fine line to walk.

Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford University, said we had to differentiate between having low expectations for things like the weather or buying a car versus expectations or standards about ourselves.

“Having low expectations for yourself is a recipe for feeling good about yourself at any particular moment, but not getting anywhere,” Professor Dweck said. “A good teacher sets really high expectations, but lets a student think he can reach them. That’s most motivating for students.”

I like the way the psychologist Mary Grogan writes about expectations on the Web site Mindfood.com

“Setting high expectations may be a good strategy, if you can also allow the experience to be different from what you imagine,” she writes. “Often in clinical work, I ask clients what it means about them if their expectations aren’t met. A sense of not being good enough is the common answer.”

She added, “It is having flexibility in our expectations and being willing to change track without self-blame that has been shown to increase well-being.”

So as we can see, there is no template for managing expectations. It seems as if it is best to have low expectations of things out of our control, realistic expectations of things we can control to some degree and high expectations of ourselves.


April Fools' Day! Why People Love Pranks

Do you spend April 1 in a state of skeptical wariness? Do you scrutinize all news headlines and personal interactions for signs of someone wanting to pull one over on you?

If so, you may have a case of (perfectly justified) sugrophobia, or fear of being duped. The question is, why do we have an entire holiday devoted to duping others? What's so funny, after all, about convincing radio listeners that gravity's effect will be lessened at a certain time, or running a fake news story about spaghetti trees, to name two famous April Fools' hoaxes?

Pranks have not been thoroughly studied, though researchers have found that people find being tricked a very aversive experience. Prank-based humor can be cruel or kind, loved or hated, but it's anything but simple. [6 of the Best Science-Themed April Fools' Jokes]

Pranks "combine a whole bunch of theories, potentially, of laughter," said Cynthia Gendrich, a professor of acting and directing at Wake Forest University who teaches a seminar on why people laugh. Superiority, surprise and the humorous relief of tension probably all play roles, she said.

Part of the gang

The precursors to April Fools' Day may date back to the silly spring festivals of the ancient Romans or to practical jokers of the Middle Ages. Whatever the origins, pranks can have their perks. Gentle teasing and pranking can serve as a kind of social glue, sociologists and psychologists say.

The late sociologist Harold Garfinkel, of UCLA, wrote about "degradation ceremonies," forms of hazing designed to put a person in his or her place, but also tie a group together. For example, imagine the camaraderie of a group of soldiers going through boot camp together. In typical hazing ceremonies, the pranks flow from the top: Older fraternity brothers use permanent ink to doodle on passed-out pledges. Established employees tape the new guy's stapler to his desk. As long as these jokes aren't overtly harmful, they generally serve to mark a person as part of the group.

April Fools' Day upends these hierarchies and gives everyone the chance to play jester, sociologist Jonathan Wynn wrote in 2013 on the Everyday Sociology blog.

"April Fools' Day is like a pressure valve, a release, that then recalibrates things back into place," he wrote.

Release may be part of the humor inherent in pranks, Gendrich told Live Science. Many pranks involve a fair amount of planning and suspense, as the prankster anticipates the reaction of his or her mark.

"There's a whole theory that says that most of our social laughter has to do with expelling extra energy," Gendrich said. Setting up a prank builds tension, and the payoff is a release of that tension. Sometimes, just dreaming up a joke and imagining the reaction can be enough for a laugh, Gendrich said.

Multifaceted humor

Prank-based humor is also based on surprise. Philosopher Henri Bergson postulated that jokes turn men into machines, skewering their automatic behaviors.

Gendrich described an easily startled college friend who would scream and jump if surprised. The humor in scaring her was how automatic &mdash and out of proportion &mdash the reaction would be, Gendrich said.

Most people stop laughing when pranks turn harmful, Gendrich said, but pranking does have a dark side. Part of the humor in pranking may come from a sense of superiority the prankster feels after making someone else look foolish, she said. And pranks can certainly go too far, as examples of fraternity hazing turned deadly demonstrate.

A 2007 study in the journal the Review of General Psychology found that people do not like being duped &mdash though that research focused on the experience of being betrayed in an economic game, not on practical jokes. Interestingly, people who were duped showed signs of self-blame, wishing they'd played the game differently. The findings suggest that sugrophobia, or the fear of being duped, motivates people's behavior, the researchers wrote. ("Sugro" is Latin for "to suck," so sugrophobia is literally the "fear of being suckered.") The self-recrimination that comes with being duped may act as a warning not to trust so easily again. In that sense, April Fools' Day might be a nice annual reminder to keep one's guard up all year round.


Social Norms

As discussed previously, social roles are defined by a culture’s shared knowledge of what is expected behavior of an individual in a specific role. This shared knowledge comes from social norms. A social norm is a group’s expectation of what is appropriate and acceptable behavior for its members—how they are supposed to behave and think (Deutsch & Gerard, 1955 Berkowitz, 2004). How are we expected to act? What are we expected to talk about? What are we expected to wear? In our discussion of social roles we noted that colleges have social norms for students’ behavior in the role of student and workplaces have social norms for employees’ behaviors in the role of employee. Social norms are everywhere including in families, gangs, and on social media outlets. What are some social norms on Facebook?

Connect the Concepts: Tweens, Teens, and Social Norms

Figure 2. Young people struggle to become independent at the same time they are desperately trying to fit in with their peers. (credit: Monica Arellano-Ongpin)

My 11-year-old daughter, Jessica, recently told me she needed shorts and shirts for the summer, and that she wanted me to take her to a store at the mall that is popular with preteens and teens to buy them. I have noticed that many girls have clothes from that store, so I tried teasing her. I said, “All the shirts say ‘Aero’ on the front. If you are wearing a shirt like that and you have a substitute teacher, and the other girls are all wearing that type of shirt, won’t the substitute teacher think you are all named ‘Aero’?”

My daughter replied, in typical 11-year-old fashion, “Mom, you are not funny. Can we please go shopping?”

I tried a different tactic. I asked Jessica if having clothing from that particular store will make her popular. She replied, “No, it will not make me popular. It is what the popular kids wear. It will make me feel happier.” How can a label or name brand make someone feel happier? Think back to what you’ve learned about lifespan development. What is it about pre-teens and young teens that make them want to fit in (Figure 2)? Does this change over time? Think back to your high school experience, or look around your college campus. What is the main name brand clothing you see? What messages do we get from the media about how to fit in?


So why do we have these reactions?

Our relationship to recognition is complicated, and there is no one simple answer to why we respond the way we do. However, I observed that in most cases, what makes us uncomfortable is that compliments catch us by surprise.

In their book Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected, authors Tania Luna and LeeAnne Renninger define surprise as “an event or observation that is either unexpected (I didn’t see that coming!) or misexpected (That’s not what I thought was going to happen).” An unexpected situation — whether it is a pleasant compliment you weren’t prepared to receive or a bear you encounter while walking in the woods — triggers the same prehistoric sequences in our modern brains. This is called the “surprise sequence,” and it has four stages.

Simply put, when we’re surprised, we:

  • Stage 1: Momentarily freeze
  • Stage 2: Find an explanation for what is happening
  • Stage 3: Shift our perspective
  • Stage 4: Share our experience with other

Surprises often bring joy or excitement, and for some people, even emotionally pleasant news can be cognitively intense. (Stage 1: Freeze.) Their heart may start racing, their pupils may dilate, and their palms may sweat as their dopamine levels rise. I interviewed Tania Luna and LeeAnn Renninger to understand what happens to our emotions when these physiological changes get triggered. Luna explained, “This intense emotional experience can feel uncomfortable and destabilizing. And, as a result, some of us may want to shut it down so we can feel stable and get comfortable again.” Deflecting others’ praise by quickly blurting out one of the awkward responses above may be our unconscious way of trying to regain control in what feels like an emotionally vulnerable situation.

After the initial surprise, we start to look for answers. (Stage 2: Find.) We may try to understand “why” someone said what they did, and it can be confusing to reconcile if someone else’s positive view conflicts with our own (negative) view of ourselves. According to Luna and Renninger, this is confirmation bias: a tendency to seek information that confirms our views and ignore views that challenge them. So, when someone congratulates you on a great presentation that you think you bombed, it can feel jarring.

The interplay of surprise and self-image can make it harder to process the nice things we hear about ourselves. “People may divert praise as a way of protecting from future failure, disappointment, or rejection from others,” Denise Marigold, associate professor of social development at the University of Waterloo, Canada, told me. “The fear is that if I allow myself to let in a compliment, and feel good about it, and end up disappointing others or myself in the future, I risk taking a bigger bite out of my self-esteem.”

All this to say, many of us respond awkwardly to compliments as an unconscious act of self-protection. Unfortunately, this unconscious self-protection often robs us of human connection. It keeps us from letting in the kind words and gratitude of others.


Why we like what we like: A scientist’s surprising findings

Your genes, your germs, and your environment all may influence your tastes in food—as well as partners and politics.

There may be nothing more self-defining than our tastes. Whether in food, wine, romantic partners, or political candidates, our tastes represent our identity. So it made sense to me that my likes and dislikes were formed through careful deliberation and rational decision-making—that is, through choices where I wielded some control.

Then I became acquainted with Toxoplasma gondii. In my research at the Indiana University School of Medicine, I observed how the single-celled T. gondii parasite can change the behavior of the host it infects. It can make rats unafraid of cats, and some studies show that it may cause personality changes (such as increased anxiety) in humans.

These studies made me wonder if there are other things happening under our radar that could be shaping who we are, programming our likes and dislikes. As I dug into the scientific literature, I hit upon this astonishing and unsettling truth: Our actions are governed by hidden biological forces—which is to say that we have little or no control over our personal tastes. Our behaviors and preferences are profoundly influenced by our genetic makeup, by factors in our environment that affect our genes, and by other genes forced into our systems by the innumerable microbes that dwell inside us.

I realize that this sounds ridiculous. We’re taught that we can be whatever we want to be, do whatever we want to do. Intuitively, it feels like we pick and choose the foods we like, who we give our heart to, or which buttons we press in the voting booth. To suggest that we are just meat robots under the influence of unseen forces is crazy talk!

Several years ago I would have agreed. But after being grilled at one too many cookouts as to why I don’t like many of the vegetables that most people find enjoyable, I felt like something was wrong with me. I am green with envy watching people willingly eat things like broccoli, because if someone tries to pass it to me, my body recoils in horror. Why don’t I relish broccoli?

I wasn’t choosing to hate these vegetables, so I set out to learn what could explain my aversion. Luckily, science was on the case. Researchers have found that about 25 percent of people might hate broccoli for the same reason I do. These people—my people—are called supertasters. We have variations in genes that build our taste bud receptors. One of those genes, TAS2R38, recognizes bitter chemicals like thioureas, which are plentiful in broccoli. My DNA gives me taste bud receptors that register thiourea compounds as revoltingly bitter. This may be DNA’s way of deterring me from eating harmful plants. It’s clearly the reason that, as television’s Seinfeld character said of his frenemy Newman, I wouldn’t eat broccoli if it were deep fried in chocolate sauce.

Are you really just a pile of genes?

Technically, yes. But embedded within your genome, there are many potential versions of you. The person you see in the mirror is just one of them, fished out by the unique things you’ve been exposed to since conception. The new science of epigenetics is the study of how chemical changes made to DNA, or proteins that interact with DNA, can affect gene activity. DNA can be modified by environmental factors in ways that can profoundly affect development and behavior. Recently, it’s also been shown that the microbes in your body—aka your microbiome—can be a significant environmental factor that affects myriad behaviors, from overeating to depression. In sum, we are our genes—but our genes cannot be evaluated outside the context of our environment. Genes are the piano keys, but the environment plays the song. —BS

This explanation of why I hate broccoli is both vindicating and disturbing. I am relieved that my distaste for cruciferous vegetables is not my fault—I did not get to go gene shopping before I was conceived. But the relief soon turns to alarm as I wonder: What other things that define who I am are beyond my command? How much of me is really due to me?

How about my taste in women? Surely that must be under my control. Let’s start with the basics: Why am I attracted to women instead of men? This was not a conscious decision that I made while sitting on the beach one evening contemplating life I was born this way. The genetic components to human sexuality are still muddy, but it is clear that it’s not a choice.

Regardless of our sexual orientation, we seem to have an innate sense of the attributes we find desirable in a mate. Features such as a shapely mouth, sparkling eyes, and lush hair are widely appreciated as attractive. And studies show that more attractive people are likelier to get a job, make more money, find a mate—even be found “not guilty” if on trial.

Evolutionary psychologists remind us that at our core, virtually everything we do emerges from a subconscious urge to survive and reproduce our genes, or lend support to others (such as family) who carry genes like our own. They further postulate that many of the physical traits that we consider attractive are signs of physical health and fitness—in other words, good genes to let swim in our pool.

Science has also provided a little comfort as to why your amorous advances are sometimes spurned. A famous study had women sniffing the underarms of T-shirts worn by men and then ranking the odor. The more similar the men’s and women’s immune system genes were, the worse the T-shirt stank to the women. There is a sound evolutionary explanation for this: If parental immune genes are too similar, the offspring will not be as well equipped to fight pathogens. In this case, genes used odor receptors as a proxy to size up whether a potential mate’s DNA is a good match. Studies like this affirm that chemistry between people really is a thing. Perhaps we should not take another’s romantic disinterest personally but view it more like organ rejection.

Somewhat distressed at the level of control genes seem to exert over our choices in life, I investigated an area that I was sure would be impervious to the reach of DNA: our taste in political leaders. It’s easy to imagine genes playing a role in whether someone is right- or left-handed, but whether a person leans politically to the right or left? I thought not. Yet as unlikely as it seems, the votes are in, and DNA has scored another victory.

Scientists have uncovered distinct personality traits that tend to be associated with people on opposite ends of the political spectrum. In general, liberals tend to be more open-minded, creative, and novelty seeking conservatives tend to be more orderly and conventional, and to prefer stability. Identical twins separated at birth and raised in different environments typically find their political stances in agreement when reunited, suggesting a genetic component to our political compass. Several studies suggest that variations in our dopamine D4 receptor gene (DRD4) influence whether we vote red or blue. Dopamine is a key neurotransmitter in the brain, associated with our reward and pleasure center variations in DRD4 have been tied to novelty seeking and risktaking, behaviors more commonly associated with liberals.

Other research has shown that certain areas in the brain are different for liberals and conservatives, and this may affect how they respond to stressful stimuli. For example, conservatives tend to have a larger amygdala, the fear center of the brain, and have stronger physiological reactions to unpleasant photos or sounds. Considered together, these biological differences may partially explain why it’s so difficult for a liberal or conservative to get the other to “see the light.” You’re asking people not just to change their mind but also to resist their biology.

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg. The truth is, every human behavior—from addiction to attraction to anxiety—is tethered to a genetic anchor. This is not to say that we’re destined to be slaves of our DNA, however. DNA has built human beings a brain so magnificent that it has figured out DNA’s game. And with the advent of gene editing, we have become the first species capable of revising our genetic instructions.

Science has shown that you are not who you think you are. There are biological gremlins driving every action and personality trait that you assumed were of your own volition. This realization is disheartening at first, but knowledge is power. Knowing the molecular basis of our adverse behaviors should put us in a better position to curb or remedy them accepting that other people have little choice in how they came to be should engender more empathy and compassion. Perhaps, with the confidence that we are not in total control, we can resist the urge to praise or blame and seek understanding instead.


Surprise Is Still the Most Powerful Marketing Tool

Yelp provides an early-warning system for dining out, by helping us avoid bad restaurants and alerting us to must-try items at good ones. Facebook lets us investigate a potential romantic interest before the first date. Turn-by-turn instructions from Google Maps prevent us from ever getting lost.

The same thing is happening in marketing organizations. “Big Data” is the latest buzzword in our industry. Data-rich practices such as econometric modeling, analytics and copy-testing offer brand managers an alluring promise of precision and predictability. Pull lever X, out will pop Y as a result.

All this is good — mostly. These tools can certainly make our profession more efficient. But they also can make brands less exciting and surprising. With all of this information at our disposal, we risk robbing brands of opportunities for serendipity — the delightful surprises that happen when we least expect them, attracting the attention of consumers.

Pursuing innovations in “big data” is essential, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore the element of surprise, because surprise is still probably the most powerful marketing tool of all. Here’s why.

Surprise is addictive. Surprise is like crack for your brain. Scientists at Emory and Baylor used MRIs to measure changes in human brain activity in response to a sequence of pleasurable stimuli, using fruit juice and water. The patterns of juice and water squirts were either predictable or completely unpredictable. Contrary to the researchers’ expectations, the reward pathways in the brain responded most strongly to the unpredictable sequence of squirts. “The region lights up like a Christmas tree on the MRI,” said Dr. Read Montague, an associate professor of neuroscience at Baylor. “That suggests people are designed to crave the unexpected.” Birchbox, a subscription service that sends customers a box of mystery beauty products each month, and Phish, the rock band that never performs the same show twice, proves that entire business models can be built around this insight.

Surprise changes behavior.
Remember your psychology 101 class and the idea of cognitive dissonance? Surprise introduces us to new stimuli, which we must then reconcile with shifts in our beliefs and behavior. “It’s been known for a long time that it’s unexpected events, in particular, that drive learning,” says Wael Asaad, assistant professor of neurosurgery at Brown University. Thinking in terms of desired consumer behavior can unlock innovative strategies. When developing an advertising campaign we are often too focused on the question of “What do we need to say?” Instead, we should focus on the question of “What expectations do our customers and prospects hold, and how can we turn those on their head?”

Surprise is cheap. All it takes is a dime to make someone’s day. Psychologist Norbert Schwarz conducted a study in which a dime was placed near a copy machine. When the subjects who found the dime were surveyed shortly after their discovery, their overall satisfaction with life was substantially higher than the subjects who did not find a coin. Rather than attempt to beat the competition with epic production budgets and media plans, marketers should think about how to cram surprising brand stories into the smallest space possible. Consider how Virgin America infuses charm and creativity into everything from website downtime notifications to safety videos.

Surprise turbocharges emotions. Psychologist Robert Plutchik’s psychoevolutionary theory of emotion classifies our feelings into primary emotions, such as anger or fear, and more nuanced secondary emotions that combine these, like bittersweet (happiness + sadness) or guilt (happiness + fear). The interesting thing about surprise is that it appears to amplify whatever you’re feeling. When we’re surprised and angry, we’re outraged. Remember what happened when Netflix raised subscription prices without warning? Combine happiness with surprise, and you hit the upper register of the feeling-good scale. This helps explain why Zappos goes to such lengths to deliver shoes before they are promised, and why the word “delight” is almost always preceded by the words “surprise and.”

Surprise fuels passionate relationships. Whether it’s sending a a new lover flowers on a random Tuesday (“just because”), or sealing the deal with a memorable marriage proposal, romance is all about surprise. One experiment conducted among middle-aged married couples found that engaging in less common, but more “exciting” activities like skiing or dancing led to greater marriage satisfaction than pursuing activities that are more common and “pleasant,” like seeing a movie or cooking together. The same principles apply to business relationships. Marketers typically spend the bulk of their creative energy making themselves look attractive to potential customers. It’s easy to forget you need to look sexy and charming to your current ones to keep the spark alive.

As CMOs push their staffs and agencies to be faster, cheaper and more accountable, they also need to push the brand organization to be more surprising. Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be much in the way of academic research or enterprise-grade software to make this happen. It really comes down to a question of imagination and bravery. And, I suspect, it has something to do with being open to situations where you might be surprised yourself.


Why we like what we like: A scientist’s surprising findings

Your genes, your germs, and your environment all may influence your tastes in food—as well as partners and politics.

There may be nothing more self-defining than our tastes. Whether in food, wine, romantic partners, or political candidates, our tastes represent our identity. So it made sense to me that my likes and dislikes were formed through careful deliberation and rational decision-making—that is, through choices where I wielded some control.

Then I became acquainted with Toxoplasma gondii. In my research at the Indiana University School of Medicine, I observed how the single-celled T. gondii parasite can change the behavior of the host it infects. It can make rats unafraid of cats, and some studies show that it may cause personality changes (such as increased anxiety) in humans.

These studies made me wonder if there are other things happening under our radar that could be shaping who we are, programming our likes and dislikes. As I dug into the scientific literature, I hit upon this astonishing and unsettling truth: Our actions are governed by hidden biological forces—which is to say that we have little or no control over our personal tastes. Our behaviors and preferences are profoundly influenced by our genetic makeup, by factors in our environment that affect our genes, and by other genes forced into our systems by the innumerable microbes that dwell inside us.

I realize that this sounds ridiculous. We’re taught that we can be whatever we want to be, do whatever we want to do. Intuitively, it feels like we pick and choose the foods we like, who we give our heart to, or which buttons we press in the voting booth. To suggest that we are just meat robots under the influence of unseen forces is crazy talk!

Several years ago I would have agreed. But after being grilled at one too many cookouts as to why I don’t like many of the vegetables that most people find enjoyable, I felt like something was wrong with me. I am green with envy watching people willingly eat things like broccoli, because if someone tries to pass it to me, my body recoils in horror. Why don’t I relish broccoli?

I wasn’t choosing to hate these vegetables, so I set out to learn what could explain my aversion. Luckily, science was on the case. Researchers have found that about 25 percent of people might hate broccoli for the same reason I do. These people—my people—are called supertasters. We have variations in genes that build our taste bud receptors. One of those genes, TAS2R38, recognizes bitter chemicals like thioureas, which are plentiful in broccoli. My DNA gives me taste bud receptors that register thiourea compounds as revoltingly bitter. This may be DNA’s way of deterring me from eating harmful plants. It’s clearly the reason that, as television’s Seinfeld character said of his frenemy Newman, I wouldn’t eat broccoli if it were deep fried in chocolate sauce.

Are you really just a pile of genes?

Technically, yes. But embedded within your genome, there are many potential versions of you. The person you see in the mirror is just one of them, fished out by the unique things you’ve been exposed to since conception. The new science of epigenetics is the study of how chemical changes made to DNA, or proteins that interact with DNA, can affect gene activity. DNA can be modified by environmental factors in ways that can profoundly affect development and behavior. Recently, it’s also been shown that the microbes in your body—aka your microbiome—can be a significant environmental factor that affects myriad behaviors, from overeating to depression. In sum, we are our genes—but our genes cannot be evaluated outside the context of our environment. Genes are the piano keys, but the environment plays the song. —BS

This explanation of why I hate broccoli is both vindicating and disturbing. I am relieved that my distaste for cruciferous vegetables is not my fault—I did not get to go gene shopping before I was conceived. But the relief soon turns to alarm as I wonder: What other things that define who I am are beyond my command? How much of me is really due to me?

How about my taste in women? Surely that must be under my control. Let’s start with the basics: Why am I attracted to women instead of men? This was not a conscious decision that I made while sitting on the beach one evening contemplating life I was born this way. The genetic components to human sexuality are still muddy, but it is clear that it’s not a choice.

Regardless of our sexual orientation, we seem to have an innate sense of the attributes we find desirable in a mate. Features such as a shapely mouth, sparkling eyes, and lush hair are widely appreciated as attractive. And studies show that more attractive people are likelier to get a job, make more money, find a mate—even be found “not guilty” if on trial.

Evolutionary psychologists remind us that at our core, virtually everything we do emerges from a subconscious urge to survive and reproduce our genes, or lend support to others (such as family) who carry genes like our own. They further postulate that many of the physical traits that we consider attractive are signs of physical health and fitness—in other words, good genes to let swim in our pool.

Science has also provided a little comfort as to why your amorous advances are sometimes spurned. A famous study had women sniffing the underarms of T-shirts worn by men and then ranking the odor. The more similar the men’s and women’s immune system genes were, the worse the T-shirt stank to the women. There is a sound evolutionary explanation for this: If parental immune genes are too similar, the offspring will not be as well equipped to fight pathogens. In this case, genes used odor receptors as a proxy to size up whether a potential mate’s DNA is a good match. Studies like this affirm that chemistry between people really is a thing. Perhaps we should not take another’s romantic disinterest personally but view it more like organ rejection.

Somewhat distressed at the level of control genes seem to exert over our choices in life, I investigated an area that I was sure would be impervious to the reach of DNA: our taste in political leaders. It’s easy to imagine genes playing a role in whether someone is right- or left-handed, but whether a person leans politically to the right or left? I thought not. Yet as unlikely as it seems, the votes are in, and DNA has scored another victory.

Scientists have uncovered distinct personality traits that tend to be associated with people on opposite ends of the political spectrum. In general, liberals tend to be more open-minded, creative, and novelty seeking conservatives tend to be more orderly and conventional, and to prefer stability. Identical twins separated at birth and raised in different environments typically find their political stances in agreement when reunited, suggesting a genetic component to our political compass. Several studies suggest that variations in our dopamine D4 receptor gene (DRD4) influence whether we vote red or blue. Dopamine is a key neurotransmitter in the brain, associated with our reward and pleasure center variations in DRD4 have been tied to novelty seeking and risktaking, behaviors more commonly associated with liberals.

Other research has shown that certain areas in the brain are different for liberals and conservatives, and this may affect how they respond to stressful stimuli. For example, conservatives tend to have a larger amygdala, the fear center of the brain, and have stronger physiological reactions to unpleasant photos or sounds. Considered together, these biological differences may partially explain why it’s so difficult for a liberal or conservative to get the other to “see the light.” You’re asking people not just to change their mind but also to resist their biology.

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg. The truth is, every human behavior—from addiction to attraction to anxiety—is tethered to a genetic anchor. This is not to say that we’re destined to be slaves of our DNA, however. DNA has built human beings a brain so magnificent that it has figured out DNA’s game. And with the advent of gene editing, we have become the first species capable of revising our genetic instructions.

Science has shown that you are not who you think you are. There are biological gremlins driving every action and personality trait that you assumed were of your own volition. This realization is disheartening at first, but knowledge is power. Knowing the molecular basis of our adverse behaviors should put us in a better position to curb or remedy them accepting that other people have little choice in how they came to be should engender more empathy and compassion. Perhaps, with the confidence that we are not in total control, we can resist the urge to praise or blame and seek understanding instead.


So why do we have these reactions?

Our relationship to recognition is complicated, and there is no one simple answer to why we respond the way we do. However, I observed that in most cases, what makes us uncomfortable is that compliments catch us by surprise.

In their book Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected, authors Tania Luna and LeeAnne Renninger define surprise as “an event or observation that is either unexpected (I didn’t see that coming!) or misexpected (That’s not what I thought was going to happen).” An unexpected situation — whether it is a pleasant compliment you weren’t prepared to receive or a bear you encounter while walking in the woods — triggers the same prehistoric sequences in our modern brains. This is called the “surprise sequence,” and it has four stages.

Simply put, when we’re surprised, we:

  • Stage 1: Momentarily freeze
  • Stage 2: Find an explanation for what is happening
  • Stage 3: Shift our perspective
  • Stage 4: Share our experience with other

Surprises often bring joy or excitement, and for some people, even emotionally pleasant news can be cognitively intense. (Stage 1: Freeze.) Their heart may start racing, their pupils may dilate, and their palms may sweat as their dopamine levels rise. I interviewed Tania Luna and LeeAnn Renninger to understand what happens to our emotions when these physiological changes get triggered. Luna explained, “This intense emotional experience can feel uncomfortable and destabilizing. And, as a result, some of us may want to shut it down so we can feel stable and get comfortable again.” Deflecting others’ praise by quickly blurting out one of the awkward responses above may be our unconscious way of trying to regain control in what feels like an emotionally vulnerable situation.

After the initial surprise, we start to look for answers. (Stage 2: Find.) We may try to understand “why” someone said what they did, and it can be confusing to reconcile if someone else’s positive view conflicts with our own (negative) view of ourselves. According to Luna and Renninger, this is confirmation bias: a tendency to seek information that confirms our views and ignore views that challenge them. So, when someone congratulates you on a great presentation that you think you bombed, it can feel jarring.

The interplay of surprise and self-image can make it harder to process the nice things we hear about ourselves. “People may divert praise as a way of protecting from future failure, disappointment, or rejection from others,” Denise Marigold, associate professor of social development at the University of Waterloo, Canada, told me. “The fear is that if I allow myself to let in a compliment, and feel good about it, and end up disappointing others or myself in the future, I risk taking a bigger bite out of my self-esteem.”

All this to say, many of us respond awkwardly to compliments as an unconscious act of self-protection. Unfortunately, this unconscious self-protection often robs us of human connection. It keeps us from letting in the kind words and gratitude of others.


Social Norms

As discussed previously, social roles are defined by a culture’s shared knowledge of what is expected behavior of an individual in a specific role. This shared knowledge comes from social norms. A social norm is a group’s expectation of what is appropriate and acceptable behavior for its members—how they are supposed to behave and think (Deutsch & Gerard, 1955 Berkowitz, 2004). How are we expected to act? What are we expected to talk about? What are we expected to wear? In our discussion of social roles we noted that colleges have social norms for students’ behavior in the role of student and workplaces have social norms for employees’ behaviors in the role of employee. Social norms are everywhere including in families, gangs, and on social media outlets. What are some social norms on Facebook?

Connect the Concepts: Tweens, Teens, and Social Norms

Figure 2. Young people struggle to become independent at the same time they are desperately trying to fit in with their peers. (credit: Monica Arellano-Ongpin)

My 11-year-old daughter, Jessica, recently told me she needed shorts and shirts for the summer, and that she wanted me to take her to a store at the mall that is popular with preteens and teens to buy them. I have noticed that many girls have clothes from that store, so I tried teasing her. I said, “All the shirts say ‘Aero’ on the front. If you are wearing a shirt like that and you have a substitute teacher, and the other girls are all wearing that type of shirt, won’t the substitute teacher think you are all named ‘Aero’?”

My daughter replied, in typical 11-year-old fashion, “Mom, you are not funny. Can we please go shopping?”

I tried a different tactic. I asked Jessica if having clothing from that particular store will make her popular. She replied, “No, it will not make me popular. It is what the popular kids wear. It will make me feel happier.” How can a label or name brand make someone feel happier? Think back to what you’ve learned about lifespan development. What is it about pre-teens and young teens that make them want to fit in (Figure 2)? Does this change over time? Think back to your high school experience, or look around your college campus. What is the main name brand clothing you see? What messages do we get from the media about how to fit in?


What Did You Expect? It Makes a Difference

MY father recently had his second knee operation in a year. The first time, things went poorly. His rehabilitation was difficult and months later, he still could not walk well or, even more important to him, play tennis.

He had the operation a few weeks ago, and he’s already doing much better. Different doctor, different outcome. And perhaps, most significantly, different expectations.

“The first surgeon just raised my expectations unrealistically,” my father said. “He told me that in a few weeks I would be out on the tennis court.”

Knowing what to expect colors so much of our life’s experiences, often more so than the experience itself. If we expect to pay $21,000 for a car, $20,000 seems like a deal. If we expect to pay $19,000, it seems like highway robbery. Either way, the car is still $20,000.

I started thinking about how we manage expectations after my father’s operation and after a friend, Amy, told me she recently had her cancerous thyroid removed. The cancer was contained, but one of her vocal cords was paralyzed.

She wasn’t warned about this, but has since learned it is a common side effect of such an operation and can last up to a year. It makes talking, eating and drinking difficult.

“It’s not what I bargained for,” Amy said. “I’m grateful to be alive, but if I had just known, I would have been more prepared before and afterwards.”

While both the examples I’ve offered happen to be medical, how we manage expectations applies to everything, from dating to job searches to what presents we’re going to get for our birthdays.

“It’s so central to our lives,” said David Rock, author of “Your Brain at Work” (HarperCollins, 2009).

There are two sides of expectations — what we expect from others and what we expect from ourselves. And how we manage those expectations is critical to how we view our experiences and pursue our goals.

Mr. Rock, who is also director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, which aims to improve leadership through applying the latest research on the brain, says there is a physiological reason we are disappointed when life does not meet our expectations. The neurotransmitter dopamine is released in our brain — and makes us feel good — when something positive happens.

Take an event as mundane as crossing the street. We push the button and expect the light to change in maybe 30 seconds. If it takes five seconds, “there’s a pleasant release of dopamine, and a general feeling of well-being,” he said, even if it’s only fleeting.

The downside is that when our expectations are not met — let’s say it takes a minute for the light to change — our negative feelings are much stronger than the good feelings we get when expectations are exceeded.

Which is a real shame. As Mr. Rock explains it, “If we expect to get x and we get x, there’s a slight rise in dopamine. If we expect to get x and we get 2x, there’s a greater rise. But if we expect to get x and get 0.9x, then we get a much bigger drop.”

“When we don’t hit our expectations,” he added, “our brain doesn’t just get slightly unhappy, it sends out a message of danger or threat.” That suggests that the cliché “hope for the best but expect the worst” has a lot of truth.

But not always. “The takeaway message,” Mr. Rock said, “is to be adaptive.”

Understanding what is in your control and what is not is crucial in managing expectations. As a job hunter, say, you may know it is tough to find a position in these economic times, and you cannot do anything about that. You can have unreasonable expectations at two extremes: an expectation of being hired quickly or an assumption that you will never work again.

Or you can do what you can control: research the job market thoroughly, make contacts and apply for positions that you qualify for. Then, expect something in the middle: you will find a job at some point.

A good analogy is sports. You do not expect to ski flawlessly the first time you try. But you should not expect to fail miserably either, or you will never get off the chair lift.

Another important factor in managing expectations is knowledge.

“I think whenever possible, do research,” said Susan Keane Baker, author of “Managing Patient Expectations” (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1998). Write down what you hear and refer back to it, because in many situations, “we listen to what’s important to us and disregard what we don’t think is important.” But we don’t always know what will prove to be essential in the future.

Ms. Baker offers a useful tool: a “decision guide” developed by the University of Ottawa that includes a detailed questionnaire to help weigh the pros and cons of any type of decision you may be in the process of making.

Considering choices as carefully as you can and arming yourself with answers (from reliable sources, not from aimlessly trolling the Internet) is the best way to set realistic expectations, she said.

But what about when you are selling yourself to someone else — in a job interview, say, or as a political candidate? Should you lower expectations so you end up surprising others by exceeding them?

That, of course, is the strategy we see many candidates use during election time, adamantly clinging to underdog status so that any success seems a surprise.

Much, of course, depends on the situation, according to René Lindstäedt, senior lecturer in the Department of Government at the University of Essex in England.

Mr. Lindstäedt, a co-author of a paper on managing expectations that appeared in The Journal of Theoretical Politics this month, said, for example, that you dared not undersell yourself in the current job market because employers were overwhelmed by too many candidates looking for too few jobs. You’ll just be ignored. But in a healthier job market, or in a situation in which there are few highly qualified candidates for many jobs, odds are you have a greater chance of being asked in for an interview and tryout. Then, he said, it makes sense to lower expectations just a bit and then pleasantly surprise people by performing better than expected.

The trick is to reassure a prospective employer or voter that you are the best person for the job, while at the same time not overpromising. And that is a fine line to walk.

Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford University, said we had to differentiate between having low expectations for things like the weather or buying a car versus expectations or standards about ourselves.

“Having low expectations for yourself is a recipe for feeling good about yourself at any particular moment, but not getting anywhere,” Professor Dweck said. “A good teacher sets really high expectations, but lets a student think he can reach them. That’s most motivating for students.”

I like the way the psychologist Mary Grogan writes about expectations on the Web site Mindfood.com

“Setting high expectations may be a good strategy, if you can also allow the experience to be different from what you imagine,” she writes. “Often in clinical work, I ask clients what it means about them if their expectations aren’t met. A sense of not being good enough is the common answer.”

She added, “It is having flexibility in our expectations and being willing to change track without self-blame that has been shown to increase well-being.”

So as we can see, there is no template for managing expectations. It seems as if it is best to have low expectations of things out of our control, realistic expectations of things we can control to some degree and high expectations of ourselves.


The Psychology of Power

To revist this article, visit My Profile, then View saved stories.

To revist this article, visit My Profile, then View saved stories.

I've got a short essay this weekend in the Wall Street Journal on the dismal psychology of power:

When CEO Mark Hurd resigned from Hewlett-Packard last week in light of ethics violations, many people expressed surprise. Mr. Hurd, after all, was known as an unusually effective and straight-laced executive.

But the public shouldn't have been so shocked. From prostitution scandals to corruption allegations to the steady drumbeat of charges against corporate executives and world-class athletes, it seems that the headlines are filled with the latest misstep of someone in a position of power. This isn't just anecdotal: Surveys of organizations find that the vast majority of rude and inappropriate behaviors, such as the shouting of profanities, come from the offices of those with the most authority.

Psychologists refer to this as the paradox of power. The very traits that helped leaders accumulate control in the first place all but disappear once they rise to power. Instead of being polite, honest and outgoing, they become impulsive, reckless and rude. In some cases, these new habits can help a leader be more decisive and single-minded, or more likely to make choices that will be profitable regardless of their popularity. One recent study found that overconfident CEOs were more likely to pursue innovation and take their companies in new technological directions. Unchecked, however, these instincts can lead to a big fall.

But first, the good news.

A few years ago, Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, began interviewing freshmen at a large dorm on the Berkeley campus. He gave them free pizza and a survey, which asked them to provide their first impressions of every other student in the dorm. Mr. Keltner returned at the end of the school year with the same survey and more free pizza. According to the survey, the students at the top of the social hierarchy—they were the most "powerful" and respected—were also the most considerate and outgoing, and scored highest on measures of agreeableness and extroversion. In other words, the nice guys finished first.

This result isn't unique to Berkeley undergrads. Other studies have found similar results in the military, corporations and politics. "People give authority to people that they genuinely like," says Mr. Keltner.

Of course, these scientific findings contradict the cliché of power, which is that the only way to rise to the top is to engage in self-serving and morally dubious behavior. In "The Prince," a treatise on the art of politics, the 16th century Italian philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli insisted that compassion got in the way of eminence. If a leader has to choose between being feared or being loved, Machiavelli insisted that the leader should always go with fear. Love is overrated.

That may not be the best advice. Another study conducted by Mr. Keltner and Cameron Anderson, a professor at the Haas School of Business, measured "Machiavellian" tendencies, such as the willingness to spread malicious gossip, in a group of sorority sisters. It turned out that the Machiavellian sorority members were quickly identified by the group and isolated. Nobody liked them, and so they never became powerful.

There is something deeply uplifting about this research. It's reassuring to think that the surest way to accumulate power is to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. In recent years, this theme has even been extended to non-human primates, such as chimpanzees. Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University, has observed that the size and strength of male chimps is an extremely poor predictor of which animals will dominate the troop. Instead, the ability to forge social connections and engage in "diplomacy" is often much more important.

Now for the bad news, which concerns what happens when all those nice guys actually get in power. While a little compassion might help us climb the social ladder, once we're at the top we end up morphing into a very different kind of beast.

"It's an incredibly consistent effect," Mr. Keltner says. "When you give people power, they basically start acting like fools. They flirt inappropriately, tease in a hostile fashion, and become totally impulsive." Mr. Keltner compares the feeling of power to brain damage, noting that people with lots of authority tend to behave like neurological patients with a damaged orbito-frontal lobe, a brain area that's crucial for empathy and decision-making. Even the most virtuous people can be undone by the corner office.

Why does power lead people to flirt with interns and solicit bribes and fudge financial documents? According to psychologists, one of the main problems with authority is that it makes us less sympathetic to the concerns and emotions of others. For instance, several studies have found that people in positions of authority are more likely to rely on stereotypes and generalizations when judging other people. They also spend much less time making eye contact, at least when a person without power is talking.

Consider a recent study led by Adam Galinsky, a psychologist at Northwestern University. Mr. Galinsky and colleagues began by asking subjects to either describe an experience in which they had lots of power or a time when they felt utterly powerless. Then the psychologists asked the subjects to draw the letter E on their foreheads. Those primed with feelings of power were much more likely to draw the letter backwards, at least when seen by another person. Mr. Galinsky argues that this effect is triggered by the myopia of power, which makes it much harder to imagine the world from the perspective of someone else. We draw the letter backwards because we don't care about the viewpoint of others.

At its worst, power can turn us into hypocrites. In a 2009 study, Mr. Galinsky asked subjects to think about either an experience of power or powerlessness. The students were then divided into two groups. The first group was told to rate, on a nine-point scale, the moral seriousness of misreporting travel expenses at work. The second group was asked to participate in a game of dice, in which the results of the dice determined the number of lottery tickets each student received. A higher roll led to more tickets.

Participants in the high-power group considered the misreporting of travel expenses to be a significantly worse offense. However, the game of dice produced a completely contradictory result. In this instance, people in the high-power group reported, on average, a statistically improbable result, with an average dice score that was 20% above that expected by random chance. (The powerless group, in contrast, reported only slightly elevated dice results.) This strongly suggests that they were lying about their actual scores, fudging the numbers to get a few extra tickets.

Although people almost always know the right thing to do—cheating is wrong—their sense of power makes it easier to rationalize away the ethical lapse. For instance, when the psychologists asked the subjects (in both low- and high-power conditions) how they would judge an individual who drove too fast when late for an appointment, people in the high-power group consistently said it was worse when others committed those crimes than when they did themselves. In other words, the feeling of eminence led people to conclude that they had a good reason for speeding—they're*important *people, with important things to do—but that everyone else should follow the posted signs.

There's more over at the WSJ, if you're interested in how power distorts our response to advertisements, or why power only corrupts absolutely when we think no one else is watching.


What to Expect When You’re Expecting Gender-Reveal Backlash

The gender reveal that Jonathan Reilly orchestrated for his first baby didn’t go perfectly. In 2016, he had his mother-in-law secretly write down the baby’s sex and order balloons from a party-supply store. The plan was for the balloons, which were all blue, to stay hidden in a bag from Reilly and his wife until the couple hosted a party. The balloons would appear and reveal that the baby was a boy. But the store put them in a clear bag. Reilly inadvertently saw them before the party even began.

The experience was in part what inspired Reilly and his wife, Tori, to start their own gender-reveal company. Called Poof There It Is, its website promises to help people “create their dream reveal” with items like footballs, cannons, and smoke bombs that spit out clouds of fuchsia or teal. The company often works directly with a mother’s obstetrician, so no one at a party knows the result till the big ka-boom.

In recent years, Reilly’s business has picked up as gender reveals have become a viral phenomenon, with countless videos and pictures of exploding whatnots and gleeful couples posted to social media. Reilly says Poof There It Is now plays a part in about 200 gender reveals each day. The most popular products, he says, are the ones that create a monsoon of confetti: “Everyone wants to capture that moment of the confetti raining down. The dad is always running around and screaming and yelling, so you want something that flutters longer.”

Reilly acknowledges that the parties might not be for everyone—and, indeed, gender reveals have suffered fierce backlash for conflating gender with sex and enforcing rigid cultural norms. But Reilly is among the defenders who argue that the new tradition is about more than whether a baby will grow up to be a square-jawed macho man or a dainty lady. They’re meant to celebrate the mother, he says. In fact, some researchers agree with that assessment—and say the discussions around gender in America today might have helped bring about the tradition’s rise in the first place.

We had nigh reached gender-reveal saturation before the backlash came. As gender-reveal parties became more popular, each subsequent proud parent seemed to want to out-do the others. A restaurant introduced “gender reveal lasagna”—complete with pink or blue ricotta—which was immediately decried as “a nightmare” and “not okay.” When one man used an alligator he owned in a gender reveal, one person wished the creature would have bitten his hand. Most recently, a gender reveal that involved a hippo at a Texas zoo chomping down on a watermelon was deemed “the worst” reveal ever by one Twitter user.

To be sure, some of the responses are understandable. Some couples have moved on from blue and pink to more cringeworthy themes like “guns or glitter,” committing more firmly to gender stereotypes. Critics point out that the parties leave too little room for intersex or third-gender people, and that they trap babies in a pink-or-blue binary before they’re even born. Some of the talk among the gender-reveal entrepreneurs also isn’t going to earn them a Ph.D. in feminist theory anytime soon. “What are the two things a little girl dreams of?” Reilly asked me rhetorically at one point. “Getting married and having kids.” (I, for one, never dreamed of either.)

On top of that, some gender reveals are outright dangerous: One in the Arizona desert last year sparked a wildfire that caused $8 million in damage. And they can carry a whiff of tacky social-media performance. The point is a “surprise,” but is there really any doubt the parents would be happy with either gender? In fact, the only people allowed to show disappointment are the couples’ existing children, as evidenced by the many gender-reveal videos in which a young boy bursts into tears at the sight of pink cake or balloons.

Despite all this, the myriad ways gender reveals are practiced do undermine some of these critiques—and show that the reveals can be meant for more than social-media fame. Some gender reveals are wrapped into a baby shower, meaning parents bring gender-neutral gifts to the party. And some people who have had gender reveals say social-media sharing helps spread the word to family members who live far away. Elizabeth Clarke, a mom of four in Wichita Falls, Texas, had a friend wrap a large box and fill it with helium balloons for the gender reveal of her youngest daughter. Clarke and her husband Facetimed all the faraway grandparents, aunts, and uncles, then opened the box. In this case, her older children were the ones who wanted to do the reveal.

With their colorful bombast and collectivism, gender reveals can feel like a new twist on an ancient ritual. And this ritual might be more for the mother’s benefit than the baby’s. Rituals are often created for times of enormous stress, says Nick Hobson, a psychologist and consultant who studies rituals. Take wintertime, whose depressing dreariness we zhuzh up with candles and presents during the holidays. Similarly, “pregnancy and labor is basically an exercise in managing massive amounts of stress and uncertainty,” Hobson says. Gender reveals lend structure and order to the chaos, helping parents manage their stress. You don’t know how your delivery is going to go, but you know one thing: It’s a girl, and everyone was so happy to hear it.

Florence Pasche Guignard, a religious-studies instructor at Ryerson University, watched hundreds of videos of gender reveals for her 2015 study on the topic, “A Gendered Bun in the Oven.” She notes that there is otherwise a stark lack of pregnancy-related rituals in North American culture. A baby might get baptized and christened, but pregnant women mostly get told not to drink wine or eat soft cheese. They’re frequently advised to buy baby stuff and read baby books—for the good of the baby. Gender-reveal products can certainly play into that industry by giving women even more stuff to buy, but a special ceremony to celebrate the pregnancy itself also can help fill that void.

Gender reveals can offer some parents a way to “re-enchant pregnancy,” Guignard told me. Most importantly, she writes, they fulfill the ‘‘very American cultural imperative of fun.” (This is perhaps why academics don’t get invited to many parties.)

It makes sense that a new ritual devised for pregnancy would be full of balloons and cake, rather than prayers and blessings. That’s in keeping with the trajectory of modern American society, in which atheists are one of the fastest-growing religious groups. “As society becomes more secular, we do turn to more nonreligious rituals,” says Dimitris Xygalatas, an anthropologist and cognitive scientist at the University of Connecticut.

It also makes sense that gender would be a part of this new ritual. The elements that get wrapped into rituals tend to reflect whatever’s already swirling around a culture. Communities near water, for instance, develop water-related rituals, notes Michael Norton, a psychologist at Harvard Business School. Right now, he points out, gender is a hot topic in American culture. In recent years, the concept of masculinity has been dissected and debated, the rights of transgender people have been especially jeopardized, and parenting blogs have cautioned against calling girls “my little princess.”

Part of the pushback against gender reveals might even arise because it’s common for people to rebel against new rituals. “The first time you go to your in-laws’ for Thanksgiving, you’re horrified because they’re doing it wrong,” Norton says. Nevertheless, gender reveals show no obvious signs of decline. Clarke, the mom of four, told me, “I really don’t care what other people think or say about it.” As Andrew Lester, who runs Gender Reveal Celebrations, sees it, if you don’t like it, don’t do it. “I’m not gonna try to convince you,” he says.

Reilly, from Poof There It Is, didn’t give up after that first, imperfect gender reveal. His wife is currently pregnant with her third, and recently the couple did get their dream celebration. As a drone hovered overhead filming, the party’s guests fired 100 handheld tube “cannons” that rained down blue-dyed cornstarch and confetti, a modern fanfare heralding a prince.


Surprise Is Still the Most Powerful Marketing Tool

Yelp provides an early-warning system for dining out, by helping us avoid bad restaurants and alerting us to must-try items at good ones. Facebook lets us investigate a potential romantic interest before the first date. Turn-by-turn instructions from Google Maps prevent us from ever getting lost.

The same thing is happening in marketing organizations. “Big Data” is the latest buzzword in our industry. Data-rich practices such as econometric modeling, analytics and copy-testing offer brand managers an alluring promise of precision and predictability. Pull lever X, out will pop Y as a result.

All this is good — mostly. These tools can certainly make our profession more efficient. But they also can make brands less exciting and surprising. With all of this information at our disposal, we risk robbing brands of opportunities for serendipity — the delightful surprises that happen when we least expect them, attracting the attention of consumers.

Pursuing innovations in “big data” is essential, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore the element of surprise, because surprise is still probably the most powerful marketing tool of all. Here’s why.

Surprise is addictive. Surprise is like crack for your brain. Scientists at Emory and Baylor used MRIs to measure changes in human brain activity in response to a sequence of pleasurable stimuli, using fruit juice and water. The patterns of juice and water squirts were either predictable or completely unpredictable. Contrary to the researchers’ expectations, the reward pathways in the brain responded most strongly to the unpredictable sequence of squirts. “The region lights up like a Christmas tree on the MRI,” said Dr. Read Montague, an associate professor of neuroscience at Baylor. “That suggests people are designed to crave the unexpected.” Birchbox, a subscription service that sends customers a box of mystery beauty products each month, and Phish, the rock band that never performs the same show twice, proves that entire business models can be built around this insight.

Surprise changes behavior.
Remember your psychology 101 class and the idea of cognitive dissonance? Surprise introduces us to new stimuli, which we must then reconcile with shifts in our beliefs and behavior. “It’s been known for a long time that it’s unexpected events, in particular, that drive learning,” says Wael Asaad, assistant professor of neurosurgery at Brown University. Thinking in terms of desired consumer behavior can unlock innovative strategies. When developing an advertising campaign we are often too focused on the question of “What do we need to say?” Instead, we should focus on the question of “What expectations do our customers and prospects hold, and how can we turn those on their head?”

Surprise is cheap. All it takes is a dime to make someone’s day. Psychologist Norbert Schwarz conducted a study in which a dime was placed near a copy machine. When the subjects who found the dime were surveyed shortly after their discovery, their overall satisfaction with life was substantially higher than the subjects who did not find a coin. Rather than attempt to beat the competition with epic production budgets and media plans, marketers should think about how to cram surprising brand stories into the smallest space possible. Consider how Virgin America infuses charm and creativity into everything from website downtime notifications to safety videos.

Surprise turbocharges emotions. Psychologist Robert Plutchik’s psychoevolutionary theory of emotion classifies our feelings into primary emotions, such as anger or fear, and more nuanced secondary emotions that combine these, like bittersweet (happiness + sadness) or guilt (happiness + fear). The interesting thing about surprise is that it appears to amplify whatever you’re feeling. When we’re surprised and angry, we’re outraged. Remember what happened when Netflix raised subscription prices without warning? Combine happiness with surprise, and you hit the upper register of the feeling-good scale. This helps explain why Zappos goes to such lengths to deliver shoes before they are promised, and why the word “delight” is almost always preceded by the words “surprise and.”

Surprise fuels passionate relationships. Whether it’s sending a a new lover flowers on a random Tuesday (“just because”), or sealing the deal with a memorable marriage proposal, romance is all about surprise. One experiment conducted among middle-aged married couples found that engaging in less common, but more “exciting” activities like skiing or dancing led to greater marriage satisfaction than pursuing activities that are more common and “pleasant,” like seeing a movie or cooking together. The same principles apply to business relationships. Marketers typically spend the bulk of their creative energy making themselves look attractive to potential customers. It’s easy to forget you need to look sexy and charming to your current ones to keep the spark alive.

As CMOs push their staffs and agencies to be faster, cheaper and more accountable, they also need to push the brand organization to be more surprising. Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be much in the way of academic research or enterprise-grade software to make this happen. It really comes down to a question of imagination and bravery. And, I suspect, it has something to do with being open to situations where you might be surprised yourself.


April Fools' Day! Why People Love Pranks

Do you spend April 1 in a state of skeptical wariness? Do you scrutinize all news headlines and personal interactions for signs of someone wanting to pull one over on you?

If so, you may have a case of (perfectly justified) sugrophobia, or fear of being duped. The question is, why do we have an entire holiday devoted to duping others? What's so funny, after all, about convincing radio listeners that gravity's effect will be lessened at a certain time, or running a fake news story about spaghetti trees, to name two famous April Fools' hoaxes?

Pranks have not been thoroughly studied, though researchers have found that people find being tricked a very aversive experience. Prank-based humor can be cruel or kind, loved or hated, but it's anything but simple. [6 of the Best Science-Themed April Fools' Jokes]

Pranks "combine a whole bunch of theories, potentially, of laughter," said Cynthia Gendrich, a professor of acting and directing at Wake Forest University who teaches a seminar on why people laugh. Superiority, surprise and the humorous relief of tension probably all play roles, she said.

Part of the gang

The precursors to April Fools' Day may date back to the silly spring festivals of the ancient Romans or to practical jokers of the Middle Ages. Whatever the origins, pranks can have their perks. Gentle teasing and pranking can serve as a kind of social glue, sociologists and psychologists say.

The late sociologist Harold Garfinkel, of UCLA, wrote about "degradation ceremonies," forms of hazing designed to put a person in his or her place, but also tie a group together. For example, imagine the camaraderie of a group of soldiers going through boot camp together. In typical hazing ceremonies, the pranks flow from the top: Older fraternity brothers use permanent ink to doodle on passed-out pledges. Established employees tape the new guy's stapler to his desk. As long as these jokes aren't overtly harmful, they generally serve to mark a person as part of the group.

April Fools' Day upends these hierarchies and gives everyone the chance to play jester, sociologist Jonathan Wynn wrote in 2013 on the Everyday Sociology blog.

"April Fools' Day is like a pressure valve, a release, that then recalibrates things back into place," he wrote.

Release may be part of the humor inherent in pranks, Gendrich told Live Science. Many pranks involve a fair amount of planning and suspense, as the prankster anticipates the reaction of his or her mark.

"There's a whole theory that says that most of our social laughter has to do with expelling extra energy," Gendrich said. Setting up a prank builds tension, and the payoff is a release of that tension. Sometimes, just dreaming up a joke and imagining the reaction can be enough for a laugh, Gendrich said.

Multifaceted humor

Prank-based humor is also based on surprise. Philosopher Henri Bergson postulated that jokes turn men into machines, skewering their automatic behaviors.

Gendrich described an easily startled college friend who would scream and jump if surprised. The humor in scaring her was how automatic &mdash and out of proportion &mdash the reaction would be, Gendrich said.

Most people stop laughing when pranks turn harmful, Gendrich said, but pranking does have a dark side. Part of the humor in pranking may come from a sense of superiority the prankster feels after making someone else look foolish, she said. And pranks can certainly go too far, as examples of fraternity hazing turned deadly demonstrate.

A 2007 study in the journal the Review of General Psychology found that people do not like being duped &mdash though that research focused on the experience of being betrayed in an economic game, not on practical jokes. Interestingly, people who were duped showed signs of self-blame, wishing they'd played the game differently. The findings suggest that sugrophobia, or the fear of being duped, motivates people's behavior, the researchers wrote. ("Sugro" is Latin for "to suck," so sugrophobia is literally the "fear of being suckered.") The self-recrimination that comes with being duped may act as a warning not to trust so easily again. In that sense, April Fools' Day might be a nice annual reminder to keep one's guard up all year round.


5. How To

Many advertising writers say if your headline starts with “how to,” it can’t be bad. Probably, this is thanks to everyone’s wish to be smarter.

At the same time, people don’t really want information. What they really want is some sense of predictability and order in their lives. Everyone wants control over their world. That’s why they seek out secrets, tips, rules, hints, laws, and systems that promise to provide order and make better sense of things.

Some examples of great headlines using this trick are:

Hey, this is going to be something I can do. (From Gigaom)

I don’t know how useful it is, but when this how-to article is spread out before my eyes, reading it is irresistible. (From TheBlaze)



Comments:

  1. Roe

    I fully share her point of view. I think this is a great idea. I agree with you.

  2. Coilleach

    Probably is absent

  3. Oles

    Sorry for intervening, but you couldn't give a little more information.

  4. Tiernay

    Shiny

  5. Abeodan

    I apologize, but not fit enough. Maybe there are options?



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