What do you think is behind that door? This kind of question is at the root of many popular horror stories because it tickles our curiosity. We pay for our movie ticket expecting to be scared out of our pants, so we know there cannot be anything good in the other room. And yet, we can’t help but want to see. We’ll cover our eyes if we have to. Just open the door.
Curiosity is an important feature in human psychology. It motivates us to learn and turns us into excitable explorers. Naturally, it is also a guiding principle behind science. Without curiosity, we lose interest in the activities that fuel progress in everyday life. And that level of apathy can be a nasty threat and alarm bell: it forms one of the primary diagnostic criteria for clinical depression.
When you think of curiosity as an impulse to explore, you easily see it in other animals. Anyone with a cat or dog will regularly notice their pet sniffing at new objects in the room. Exploration is a fundamental part of life because it drives animals to find healthier environments and better resources. There is always a tradeoff between exploration and exploitation. Exploration is risky, because in searching for better environments, we need to leave the safety of the environment we have already found. On most days, we may be happy exploiting our current comforts: in my case, the sofa, laptop, and television. But on other days, our curiosity will drive us to see what else the world has to offer.
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Many of our important behavioral drives are innate. For example, we are born with impulses that tell us how to eat and breathe. Regardless of how curious we are about the world, we will know how to digest a hamburger and adjust our breathing during exercise. But certain aspects of the world are unstable and differ depending on where you find yourself. There cannot be a genetic program for building a 1000-foot skyscraper or developing a digital computer. In our evolutionary environment, these did not exist, and they offered no immediate advantage for survival. It is our innate capacity to learn, and be curious enough to learn, that allows us to achieve such dramatic feats which are characteristic of the human species. Importantly, our curiosity often has one primary target: information. When we are curious, information is a reward in itself.
We seek information to reduce our uncertainty about the world and resolve gaps in our knowledge. As I’ve previously described when talking about tip of the tongue feelings, the problems that makes us most curious are often those that are already within our scope of broader knowledge, rather than those that are totally alien to us. Most of us are not particularly turned on by someone describing the details of cellular mechanics during the transmission of action potentials. But practically all of us are turned on by someone telling us they’ve found the solution to immortality.
We are most curious when we can clearly see the gap in our knowledge, understand why it’s important, and know how a specific piece of information will patch over it. This is one of the big challenges for educators. When a maths teacher ignores a child who asks “why should I care about algebra?”, they miss an opportunity to stimulate a critical and productive sense of curiosity. When we are curious to learn a piece of information, we activate areas of our brain typically involved in anticipating rewards like the caudate nucleus. In that state, everybody wants to learn.
As I hinted at earlier when talking about the risks involved in exploration, we may occasionally be too curious for our own good. In a fun 2016 study, researchers put a bunch of prank pens that delivered electric shocks on a table in front of participants. They told the participants that the pens were from a previous study and were not relevant for their particular experiment, but that they were free to play with the pens while waiting for their own experiment to begin. In reality, the actual purpose of the study was to see what participants did with the pens.
There were a total of 30 pens on the table, each with a colored sticker to communicate how likely the pens were to deliver shocks when clicked. The participants were told that the 10 red pens were certain to shock if clicked, while the 10 green pens had their batteries removed and could deliver no shocks at all. But there were also 10 orange pens. As clearly explained to participants, only 5 of these pens could deliver shocks and the other 5 were safe. So the orange pens introduced uncertainty in a bid to make the participants curious.
The researchers found that people were more likely to click an orange pen than any other pen. If the participants simply wanted to test how painful the shocks were, then you would expect them to choose the red pens. But the orange pens were the most tempting. The additional curiosity of finding out which orange pens were dangerous boosted the intrigue of this self-imposed macabre game. Sometimes, our curiosity makes us do pointless or even stupid things, as the short clip below from the animated comedy Family Guy demonstrates.
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At this moment, the most curiosity-arousing stories in the news are related to politics. All of the major outlets are plastered wall to wall with text about what the Republicans did yesterday and what the Democrats will do today. What could drive the overwhelming curiosity for this type of news? Politics is such a common interest that everyone is likely to have a strong opinion about it. A conversation on politics is therefore likely to be controversial, and could make us angry, happy, or surprised. But who cares about the specifics? It’s the anticipation itself that makes us curious. So we read, we formulate opinions, and we find someone who will listen to them. I’ve been to social occasions with rules like “no talk about politics”. But it rarely takes long for the host to give up on enforcing that rule. People can’t stop themselves engaging with conversational topics as eventful as politics. We are just too damn curious.
Our curiosity drives us to learn. Researchers can have a good time exploiting this drive using prank pens, but for the most part, our natural curiosity has a deeply important function. It pushes us to solve new problems that propel ourselves, and occasionally the rest of humanity, forward. We frequently struggle to find the motivation to finish a task on our to-do list. The same tasks that were exciting a year ago lose their charm and become just another boring activity to get through.
If we can inject a renewed sense of curiosity into dull tasks, by arousing a desire to absorb new information, then we introduce a motivating reward. I read a lot of research papers, and it quickly becomes a tedious activity. So I’ve taken to crafting each paper into a story that I can tell a friend about, wondering what kind of reaction I can elicit from them. It’s similar to the incentive that attracts us to politics: social communication. This simple twist multiplies my curiosity in reading a boring paper and gives some life to an otherwise monotonous task. All I need to ask is “hmm, what will Steve think when I tell him about this?”. Admittedly, this strategy may also lose its allure before long. But then I’ll find another way to make myself curious.
We can all take on the challenge of making our lives more interesting. But it may be prudent to remember that curiosity can be both prey and predator. When it’s the prey, you hunt it down by finding the answers to productive questions that improve your life. But when it’s the predator, as it is with prank pens and risky social conversations, run in the opposite direction as fast as you can.