AstonishmentMy test of least astonishment is based on applying the Principle of Least Astonishment in broader context. Wikipedia outlines a meaning for the principle framed by user/audience expectations, and points out that an understanding of the user/audience itself is required to ensure least astonishment.  Specifically, when experiencing anything, be it a user interface to a smartphone application, an interaction with your doctor, your bank, or your insurance company, evaluate your level of astonishment at the user experience, the result or the outcome.

Good Astonishment

As astonishment is a reaction of overpowering wonder or surprise, please don’t be confused by good astonishment. Most certainly, surprise and overpowering wonder can be good. A surprise birthday party or the overpowering wonder and delight one experiences at the birth of their first child, are good examples of good astonishment.

Applied to Reality

The principle and the test of least astonishment is an examination of the reality one is experiencing. In that examination one uses their mind, to apply ethics, logic and values to weigh truth or avoid being duped or fooled. In decision making, the test can help weigh the value of input.

The Test of Least Astonishment

I like to use the test in everyday life, as a litmus test. If what one hears does not astonish, and the laws of physics and logic suggest that it’s possible, then it stands to reason that it may be the truth. However, if what one hears is astonishing (overwhelmingly unbelievable due to a reaction of wonder and surprise), then doubt it, but with an open mind, ask more questions.

More Questions

More Questions lead to three possible outcomes. First More questions can expand your mind, and increase your personal experience-data-set in terms of knowledge and other people’s logic and thought processes.  This is a very good outcome. Second you get to dialogue and exchange with another person or group in order to learn more about each other and compromise.  Third, you may avoid a bad situation should you have actually uncovered something is not true, and fails the test of least astonishment un-recoverably.

More to Ponder

The point of the Test of Least Astonishment applied to Reality is not to doubt everything, but to take your own audience into account as you are more effective, and can achieve more successful outcomes when you don’t to astonish others. The test of least astonishment argues the case for clarity in communication, both in telling, and in listening (and asking questions). And, in the end, consciously and unconsciously using the test is a good path to compromise, and outcomes that pass the test of least astonishment with other observers – including social media and the front page of the New York Times.

Next time you are communicating something that is new to your audience, consider how they will be applying the test of least astonishment to what you are sharing. If the risk is high, relate your message to your audience – it will shorten the time to a better outcome.


I first learned about the Principle of Least Astonishment as a software guy – in developing user interfaces to match user expectations, or as we used to say – “get the software out of the user’s way.” As I grew into management and executive roles, I started to see the application of  the principle, but the real application came from a former CEO of mine who used it during a private equity turn-around we worked on. John Gibson assembled the ethics, logic and values in a unique way, and lived decisions accordingly. Some of those decisions were not even so fun or popular, but using the Test of Least Astonishment, as he called it, ensured the right outcome.

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