Predictability to Surprise 

Day 188 Week 27 Q3 Saturday, July 8, 2023

We are each many people, especially in terms of what is of interest to us and captures our attention at different points in the day and in the different parts of our lives. Thursdays nights and Sunday mornings may have very different expectations. We can appreciate a range of inputs, and when what happens is outside of that range, we may completely disengage. What is acceptable in an improvisational jazz jam versus in a marriage is probably not the same. Neither is static, and both engage in different ways at different moments. 

When two people play tennis, and one of them can never return the serve of the other, there is no game to be played. If an improviser attends a concert and can predict every single note that every person plays, it will probably not engage them as much as if there were some variation. On the other hand, if there is too much variation, then that too will be dismissed. 

In order to be engaged by a work of art, a conversation, a profession or anything, there is a range between what can be predicted and what is a surprise. I think this engagement window can be described by the notion of the ratio of predictability to surprise. Too much prediction can become boring, and we may tune out. Too much surprise and we may not be able to get any traction and tune out.   But between these two extremes, it is possible to have an emotionally engaging tennis match, concert or conversation.

My engagement window will likely differ from yours regarding how much surprise we each want and how much predictability  \we each want. Not only do different people have differing engagement requirements, but during the course of a day, changing internal energy levels and external contexts all modify this range.

Emotional engagement tends to dominate intellectual engagement for most of the human race. And what engages different populations is extremely time-varying depending on the domain. Fashions change more rapidly than architecture. It takes more time to make a building than a dress.  The space between two notes in a jazz solo is much less than between submitting a grant proposal and getting an answer. All of these have some sort of expectations associated with them, and when an optimal predictability-to-surprise ratio exists, so will engagement.

If someone sends you a two-line text and you respond with fifty lines of response, it will not likely be read as quickly as if your response was between two words and two paragraphs. A lot of projection goes on about what is appropriate, as these are all time-varying and audience-varying and are impacted by many other contextual parameters.

Think about the ratio needed for emotional engagement the next time you create something for someone.