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Subscription Boxes and Why We Love to Be Surprised

BY: Aimee Algas Alker | Dec 27, 2018

As a mom, I was confounded by the proliferation of blind bag toys and wondered just why are kids so into them? I didn’t have to wonder for long. Grownups have our own version of blind bags: subscription boxes.

With subscription boxes, we don’t choose what we get; instead we allow someone else to do that for us. Of course, the argument could be made that we’re leaving the task to someone with better knowledge or taste—a cigar connoisseur, a fashionista, or a golf aficionado—to curate high-quality goods.

But does that also answer the question as to why some offices still organize Secret Santas? Or many families plan White Elephant gift exchanges? Why are scratch-off lottery cards so popular?

And why do so many vendors, including Groupon itself offer mystery boxes—and why do people buy them?

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Is It the Journey?

We’re a society of results: we want answers. We want instant gratification—push a button and it’s yours.

But we also seek the opposite. Cliffhanger TV shows, such as Breaking Bad and LOST and Making a Murderer, see fans flocking to message boards and water coolers to discuss their theories. The term “SPOILER ALERT” was born to keep people in the dark about plot twists. Some sports fans avoid social media until they can get home to watch the big game that’s waiting on their DVR.

Why would any of this be necessary if all we want are the answers? We can go back to that quote by Gabor Maté that I paraphrased in an article on blind bag toys:

The ego doesn’t want things; it wants to want things.

What is it we’re looking for exactly? Is it the wish fulfilled, or is it the making of the wish? Is it the longing that we love?

According to neuroscientists, surprises seem to activate the pleasure centers of our brains. And it’s not about how pleasurable that surprise is but its “unexpectedness,” says an article in Scientific American. Other studies show that unexpected events, whether good or bad, activate our brain’s dopamine centers—the chemical source of pleasure—and bring a sparkle, a dynamism to our lives that we crave.

So it stands to reason that we’d create these opportunities for surprise in our daily lives ourselves, by signing up for a subscription box, or blocking all mention of the Chicago Bears from our newsfeeds.

We don’t just love surprise—we thrive on it.

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