The limited reach of surprise: Evidence against effects of surprise on memory for preceding elements of an event

Aya Ben-Yakov*, Verity Smith, Richard Henson

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


When reflecting on the past, some of our strongest memories are for experiences that took us by surprise. Extensive research has backed this intuition that we are more likely to remember surprising moments than mundane ones. But what about the moments leading up to the surprise? Are we more likely to remember those as well? While surprise is a well-established modulator of memory, it is unknown whether memory for the entire event will be enhanced, or only for the surprising occurrence itself. We developed a novel paradigm utilising stop-motion films, depicting of a sequence of narrative events, in which specific occurrences could be replaced with surprising ones, while keeping the rest of the film unaltered. Using this design, we tested whether surprise exerts retroactive effects on memory, and specifically whether any potential effect would be confined to elements in the same event as the surprising occurrence. In a large cohort of participants (n = 340), we found strong evidence that surprise did not retroactively modulate memory, neither when participants were tested immediately after study nor when they were tested 24 hours later. We suggest two possible accounts for these findings: (1) that the components of an event are encoded as independent episodic elements (not as a cohesive unit), or (2) that surprise segments experience, sectioning off the preceding elements as a separate event.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)1053-1064
Number of pages12
JournalPsychonomic Bulletin and Review
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 2022
Externally publishedYes

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