Expecting the unexpected: Violation of expectation shifts strategies toward information exploration

Hui Chen, Niya Yan, Ping Zhu, Brad Wyble, Baruch Eitam, Mowei Shen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


As our environment is frequently changing, it is common that our expectations are violated by unexpected stimuli or events, which leaves us uncertain about which pieces of information will be useful in the future. It is unclear how an expectation violation affects the subsequent control settings for processing of information. The current study directly addressed this issue by employing a double-surprise-trial paradigm based on the attribute amnesia task (Chen & Wyble, 2015a). In Experiment 1, participants were asked to report the location of a target letter presented among distractor digits on several trials and were then unexpectedly asked to report a different attribute (color or identity) of the target letter. In the next trial, participants were asked another unexpected question about the other attribute (identity or color respectively). The results show that, despite participants' poor performance in the first surprise trial, which replicated the attribute amnesia effect, their memory performance in the second surprise trial was dramatically improved, even when the probed attribute was different from that of the first surprise trial. This was also true in Experiment 2, where 15 trials were inserted between the two surprise trials. Experiment 3 further clarified that this effect is not triggered by the mere presence of a surprise test, but rather the violation of expectation about the nature of a surprise test. These results suggest the operation of an adaptive control mechanism that reduces the selectivity of processing in the face of unexpected events.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)513-522
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2019

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by grants from National Natural Science Foundation of China (31771201), Humanities and Social Sciences Foundation of the Ministry of Education of China (17YJA190001), and National Science Foundation for Distinguished Young Scholars of Zhejiang Province, China (LR19C090002) to Hui Chen, a grant from the Ministry of Science and Technology of the People's Republic of China (2016 YFE0130400) and grants (2017XZZX007-03, NSFC 61431015) to Mowei Shen, an Israeli BSF grant (2015299) to Baruch Eitam and Brad Wyble, an NSF grant (1734220) to Brad Wyble and an Israel Science Foundation grant 339/16 to Baruch Eitam.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019 American Psychological Association.


  • Attentional selection
  • Attribute amnesia
  • Expectation violation
  • Working memory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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