The Surprise Project

Graphic showing a seated person conducting a remove video meeting with two other figures.


Social Anxiety Disorder is a significant fear of social situations. This may include social interactions (e.g., having a conversation, meeting unfamiliar people), being observed (e.g., eating or drinking), and performing in front of others (e.g., giving a speech).’ (DSM-5). This anxiety occurs in almost every social context and is disproportionate to the actual risk posed in the social situation. Individuals avoid social interaction for fear of negative evaluation from others (such as shame, embarrassment, humiliation, rejection, causing offence).

Research shows that cognitive therapy for social anxiety reduces social anxiety disorder. This project looks at the role of ‘surprise interventions’ in cognitive therapy for social anxiety disorder. A surprise intervention occurs when we alter negative social expectations with an unexpected positive social interaction.

We believe that ‘surprise interventions’ may be key to combatting social anxiety disorder in young people.

The Project

Prof. Ilina Singh (University of Oxford) and Prof. Argyris Stringaris (University College London) have received funding from the Wellcome Trust to conduct this project known as the ‘Surprise Project’.


In 2021, those aged 16 to 29 years were most likely to have some form of anxiety (28% likely) in the UK. In 2022/23, an average of 37.1% of women and 29.9% of men reported high levels of anxiety. Of those who self-identified as anxious, 40.5% of people experienced ‘medium’ or ‘high’ levels of anxiety.  One particularly common form of anxiety is social anxiety disorder. Social anxiety disorder causes significant distress for the individual as social situations pose an extreme threat. In turn, this impacts education (Alba Vilaplana-Pérez, 2021), employment opportunities and vulnerability to loneliness (Eres, 2021). 


The team at Oxford and UCL collaborates with the NeurOX YPAG so we have a better understanding of how young people experience social anxiety disorder and how best to treat it.


  • Produce experiments to test the impact of ‘surprise interventions’ on young people with social anxiety disorder
  • Produce experiments to discover whether self-focused attention plays a role in social anxiety disorder and if outward attention improves symptoms of social anxiety
  • Use philosophical approaches to better understand how young people experience social anxiety disorder.