Why are we curious? And how can we be more curious?

Herbert A Simon, the noted Economist, gave a talk at Carnegie Mellon University in 1992 which was titled “The Cat that Curiosity Couldn’t Kill.” It is a rather interesting (and slightly humorous) read into how and why scientists study things. He said that curiosity is not just the beginning of all science, it is also its end. But curiosity is not just something you need if you are a scientist. Nor is it a trait that only scientists can have. In fact, understanding the causes of curiosity can help you develop the trait of curiosity, and as a result, reap its benefits.

Curiosity leads to better academic performance

Psychological research does not have a clear consensus on what is curiosity and how it works, but one thing is definitely clear. Curiosity is a predictor of academic performance. In other words, curious students tend to perform better than students who aren’t particularly curious. Sophie von Stumm, Benedikt Hell and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic conducted a meta-analysis of a large number of experiments and came to the conclusion that “intellectual curiosity influenced academic performance to the same extent as intelligence.” If that is the case, how do we develop curiosity? To be able to answer that question, we must first look at what causes creativity.

What causes curiosity

There isn’t a consensus on the theoretical understanding of what causes curiosity. However, three primary strands of explanations can be discerned:

1. Novel things or situations stimulate curiosity

The first model that explains curiosity is that we become curious whenever we encounter new things. Behavioral Psychologists conducted experiments with dogs and rats where the animals would be exposed to a new environment or to new stimuli. The animal, would, as we might expect, react to it. Dogs would turn towards a sound, or rats would go around exploring new things. However, if the same stimuli were to be repeated a few times, the reactions would gradually reduce. The stimuli are no longer new. Similar studies were done with human beings where they were shown a series of slides on a screen. Each slide had two images. Each time the slide changed, the image on the left remained the same while the image on the right changed. The results revealed that with the passage of time people spent decreasing amounts of time viewing the image on the left. This shows that whenever we come across new things, we become curious about it.

2. Moderately difficult tasks or moderately complex information stimulates curiosity

This is also known as the information-gap hypothesis. According to this, we become curious about things on which we seem to lack information. One way to understand this is to think about jig-saw puzzles. We are extremely curious to find the missing pieces and complete the picture. So, according to this theory, whenever there is a task or piece of information about which we have some bit of information but not full information, we are curious about it. In other words, the task or the subject shouldn’t be too simple and it shouldn’t be too difficult. That is when we are the most curious.

3. Increasing progress in understanding leads to increased curiosity

This is an extension of the previous explanation, but with a slight modification. We can call this as the learning-progress hypothesis. This theory states that the brain is motivated to do things where its prediction or performance is always improving. For example, if you think about many computer games, you would often want to play it repeatedly and increase your scores. This is an example of where the brain is motivated if it sees a continuous increase in the score.

How can we use this information to develop curiosity?

By understanding the various factors or conditions that can cause curiosity, we can better understand how to stimulate and develop curiosity. For each of the explanations of curiosity, I propose one simple strategy:

  1. Learn about new things. If you are naturally curious about new things, encourage that habit of the mind. If you came across discussions about Bitcoin, read a book on it. If you come across an interesting idea, discuss it with others. Encourage your own curiosity by pursuing information and new things that excite you.
  2. Make tasks challenging, but not too difficult. In fact motivation theory suggests that the reason we are not motivated to do tasks often is because we are either not sufficiently challenged by it, or that we are overwhelmed by it. If what you are learning is too difficult, break it down into small simple components that are doable. If what you are learning is too simple, make it more challenging for yourself (maybe by setting a time limit).
  3. Aim for small wins. Setting out to learn all about Blockchain technology is not what you would call a small win. I would recommend just setting a target of undistracted learning for a set amount of time each day. If you decide to study blockchain technology for 30 minutes each day, and manage to do that, celebrate that small win. That is one great way to remind yourself that you are making progress and thereby keep feeding your creativity.

Exciting news!

Hey everyone!
I just wanted to quickly talk about a few things. I have been blogging everyday now for the past 29 weekdays (including Saturdays). This is something I am quite happy about. If you have been reading my articles, thank you so much! It really means a lot to me.

I had set myself a challenge to blog continuously for 30 weekdays, and tomorrow would be the last day. Encouraged by this, I have decided to do two things:

  1. Set up a self-hosted website with a personal domain (not subdomain – the WordPress thing).
  2. Start a weekly newsletter. Do expect further news from me on this regard. If not tomorrow, I will post about it shortly.

If you liked any specific article over the past 30 days, please do let me know. And if there are topics you would want me to talk about, do reach out. I would love to serve you better in the days to come by writing on things that you all care about.

Much love,
Jeyapaul Caleb

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