• Josh

How Surprised and How Upset

I’ve been playing a little game for the last few years, which I call “How Surprised and How Upset.” The game begins with me asking the following:


On a scale of 0-10 how surprised would you be, and on a scale of 0-10 how upset would you be, if [...]


Or, to abbreviate the setup:


How Surprised and How Upset: [...]


...and then I describe some scenario. The scenarios can be anything, weird or mundane or anything in-between:

  • How Surprised and How Upset: You find a $100 bill on the ground right now. (My answer: 4 Surprised, 0 Upset)

  • HSaHU: You wake up tomorrow in a mud puddle with no memory of how you got there. (6 Surprised, 7 Upset)

  • HSaHU: The restaurant mixed up your order. (1 Surprised, 1 Upset (unless I'm really hungry, in which case 2 or 3 Upset))

  • HSaHU: The moon really is made of green cheese. (See below.)

It’s fun, try it! It’s a solid conversation-stimulation game, because people will strongly disagree about how surprising or upsetting a single event might be, and also because people like to try to justify their gut reactions and it’s interesting to observe. Also, it’s fun to see people update (or not!) their initial answer when you give different context to the same question.


Take the moon/green cheese example above. My gut reaction is that I’d be very surprised, maybe a 9 or 10, but not very upset, maybe only a 1 or 2. This, because it means I’ve been wrong about a very basic scientific fact my whole life, but it doesn’t really affect my habits or behaviors at all. But on further consideration, maybe I would be very upset about this realization; it means people have been lying to me my whole life! Or if not, it means almost everyone in the world is deceived by a plausible-sounding story about the moon forming from space debris, which is equally upsetting. What else am I wrong about that, just like the moon’s composition, I had high confidence about? Maybe it’s more like a 7 or 8 Upset.


It’s not a perfect system, of course. “Upset” captures a range of emotions, from sadness to anger to frustration to embarrassment and more, making it hard to compare all on one scale. Furthermore, the Upset and Surprised scales aren’t really independent; I think things that are more surprising may be more likely to be upsetting, because of the level of deception or confusion that would be involved (e.g. the moon example). My wife helpfully points out on the other hand that there are cases where you’d be very upset but not very surprised, like if your pack-a-day-smoker mother contracts lung disease; you probably saw it coming or at least were not very surprised about it, but that doesn’t make it less upsetting when it happens. (I might give this example a Surprised/Upset = 3/8.) And certainly you can think of examples where you’d be very surprised but not upset at all (e.g. finding a million dollars cash in the park (8/2)). Still, I think there's some correlation here overall.


Another important issue with the game is that the scales aren’t the same for different people. But worse, the scales (as they appear in terms of gut-reactions) aren’t the same for the same person on different days. I have more to say about both scales, and I've even attempted to standardize them by giving examples for each number to calibrate against; I will write about this in the near future.


In the meantime, try the game! Stump your friends with clever scenarios! Field test your own reactions to things that haven’t happened yet, and imagine how surprising / upsetting they might be to you if they occurred!

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