How Do You Craft a Formative Moment? The Answer is Literally a Surprise

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As a young teacher, I wondered if many of my students were unwittingly acting out suggestions given to them by authority figures during natural moments of high suggestibility.

Eureka! It’s just like hypnosis.

This sudden realization led me through a Ph.D. dissertation (Rousell, 1991), to a university position, and three decades of research on how formative moments occur.

The story below illustrates a common event that parallels the hypnotic process. Cathy, now a graduate student and veteran teacher, recalled a profound moment that dramatically shifted her mindset and beliefs about herself.

Cathy’s faith in her capability had plunged considerably by the time she reached the fourth grade. She felt like the dumb kid in class. Efforts to excel only reminded her that she was a failure. She discounted occasional successes by attributing them to luck, not ability. She felt hopeless, avoiding any effort, afraid that attempts on her part would only confirm her feelings of inadequacy.

A life-changing event occurred while playing Monopoly with her favorite uncle. He casually asked Cathy how she was doing in school. She burst into tears. She described how she felt dumb and frustrated with school. She wondered if she would ever add up to anything worthwhile. Her uncle then told her something that she would remember vividly for the rest of her life. He said, “Someone who struggles so hard with learning will make a great teacher. Discouraged students need a teacher like you.” This simple statement stunned Cathy, instantly changing her mind-set.

It doesn’t necessarily follow that those who struggle at school will become good teachers, but the comment did spur Cathy on, and that’s the central issue. Cathy retrospectively noted that she, her parents, teachers, and friends probably hadn’t noticed a conspicuous change in her behavior, but her private world transformed profoundly. Before that event, school aroused feelings of weakness and incompetence; it now awakened a sense of challenge. Schoolwork changed from an unattainable task to an ordained rocky pathway on her journey to become a teacher.

Something triggered a moment of high susceptibility to suggestion whereby Cathy automatically and unconsciously accepted her uncle’s assertion that she’d be a great teacher.

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This became a self-affirming mindset that colored her view of herself and her experiences. What was it about this ordinary event that created such a profound effect?

My graduate program led me to study hypnotic susceptibility as a major factor. My studies concluded that the conditions for hypnosis are regularly and substantially present in events such as those experienced by Cathy. I thus needed to generate a thorough cognitive and neurological model to explain how and why these spontaneous transformative events take place. Hypnosis was my initial explanatory model but it proved unsatisfactory because teachers don’t really hypnotize their students. Importantly though, I discovered that all of us experience natural spikes in susceptibility to a suggestion that are similar to the heightened suggestibility induced in hypnosis. During these moments, we may profoundly change a mindset that in turn generates a dramatic shift in a belief. This is what happened to Cathy. Current cognitive models explain how and why these events occur.

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The cognitive processing of strong emotional events typically occurs outside our conscious awareness and rational processing. In the book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman (2011) dichotomizes our cognitive mechanisms into two systems he names System One (quick and automatic) and System Two (slow and effortful). Regarding surprise, he states, “Surprise then activates and orients your attention: you will search your memory for a story that makes sense of the surprising event.” He describes how impressions made by System One during surprising events often turn into your beliefs that in turn become the source of the impulses for the voluntary actions made by System Two. In Cathy’s case, her uncle’s comment stunned her; she accepted the literal message without rationally disputing it. If she hadn’t been stunned, her I’m-not-good-at-school mindset would probably have dismissed her uncle’s comment as sweet, but empty, praise from a loving uncle.

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Our brain evolved to adapt to expected regularities, and to focus on events that surprise us (Itti & Baldi, 2009). Surprise suggests that something significant has happened. Our heart rate increases, attention becomes riveted, and adrenaline encodes subsequent interpretations with a neurological highlighter. Surprise is perhaps the most important causal precursor of belief change (Lorini & Castelranchi, 2007). The main effect of surprise is a revision. We must either revise our knowledge of the environment or our beliefs about ourselves. In Cathy’s case, her uncle’s surprising statement generated a revision impulse. His statement provided a positive frame for the instant accommodation of a new mindset. This new mindset triggered the activation of underground emotional machinery.

The emotional contribution to mindsets displays itself quite demonstrably in the framing effect (Goldberg, 2009). Think glass half full or glass half empty — approach or avoid. If Cathy feels weak at school, academic struggles are cognitively framed as glass half empty — avoid. Once Cathy reflexively accepts the comment, “Your struggles with learning will make you a great teacher,” academic struggles are now cognitively framed as glass half full — approach. It creates a positive emotional tag. Damasio (2003, 2010) refers to this as a “somatic marker.” Cathy then feels that working hard to overcome deficits is the tell-tale sign of a successful teacher. This half-full perspective or yes-I-can mindset triggers an optimistic outlook that in turn allocates more cognitive resources. A cascade of subsequent behavior thus generates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Cathy subsequently responds to learning struggles as engaging challenges.

Cathy’s new mindset trains and restructures her cognitive networks. The predictive mechanisms of the brain play a huge role in determining what we attend to and thus, what we perceive. In other words, Cathy used to attend to signals that affirmed her hopelessness. After her uncle’s comment, her cognitive mechanisms now prime her to attend to signals that affirm accomplishments through hard work. It becomes routinized. This is what we currently call a Growth Mindset.

Cathy’s uncle named some skill, disposition, or quality that was already present and then linked it to a forecast. He connected her current experience, “Students who struggle with learning,” to a desired result, “will make a great teacher.” I teach this simple structure to my pre-service teachers. The structure has two elements:

1 — Create an element of surprise with the content or the timing of the comment.

2 — Name a skill or disposition and express the result it will create.

The following example from a pre-service teacher illustrates both elements. Nevil is a very creative student. He plays music, acts, and draws pictures on all his assignments. He sometimes questions why we are doing a particular assignment, especially when there is a lot of writing involved. One day when he complained about a particular writing task, I told him, “Your ability to put creativity into everything you do should make this one a breeze!” The piece he turned in was very creative and by far the best writing I had seen from him.

I’m encouraged to see a new generation of teachers who are now aware of the fragile emotional state of their students and cognizant of a productive communication pattern. I’m also excited to teach a simple, yet powerful, mechanism for the intentional production of positive and resilient growth mindsets in our youth.

Damasio, A. (2003). Looking for Spinoza: Joy, sorrow, and the feeling brain. San Diego: Harcourt.

Damasio, A. (2010). Self comes to mind: Constructing the conscious brain. New York: Random House.

Goldberg, E. (2009). The new executive brain: Frontal lobes in a complex world. New York: Oxford.

Itti, L., & Baldi, P. F. (2009). Bayesian surprise attracts human attention. Vision Research, 49:12, June 2, 1295–1306.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Lorini, E., & Castelranchi, C. (2007, February 23). The cognitive structure of surprise: Looking for basic principles. Springer Science and Business Media. Retrieved 7/23/2013 from http://www.springerlink.com/content/e43w22t681450280/.

Rousell, M.A. (1991). Hypnotic conditions: Are they present in the elementary classroom? (Doctoral dissertation).Eugene, OR: University of Oregon.

Rousell, M.A. (2007). Sudden influence: How spontaneous events shape our lives. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Rousell, TEDxSalem, January 2019, Surprise: How YOur Brain Secretly Changes Your Beliefs https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K5O6mFWpgZo

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Michael Rousell, PhD

Written by

Psychologist, professor emeritus, and author of Sudden Influence: How Spontaneous Events Shape Our Lives. Studies instant belief formation.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the education system

Michael Rousell, PhD

Written by

Psychologist, professor emeritus, and author of Sudden Influence: How Spontaneous Events Shape Our Lives. Studies instant belief formation.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the education system

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