What is Curiosity

Humans tend to be inquisitive. We seek out information, and we crave closure to open situations. Contemporary society’s obsession with voyeurism is a clear demonstration of how nosy we really are. Realty TV and tabloid journalism pervade our airways and news coverage. These promiscuous genres of contemporary media get to the core of how endless our desire for information can be, even about the most useless data. But this inclination for voyeurism is not a construct of modern society; it has been with us forever. Humans seem to be hardwired for it. And as you shall see, it is a necessary character trait for survival.

Being inquisitive isn’t a bad thing as many like to believe or profess. But it does carry a stigma. Usually, when talking about curiosity, eventually someone will mention how it killed the cat. Instead, curiosity is the driving force of change that has led innovation throughout history. In essence, curiosity is the fuel for creativity. Like anything, without restraint, there are side effects. But without it, we would cease to exist.

The way curiosity works is that people continuously find holes or gaps in the usefulness of things or in what they perceive as their knowledge of surroundings. And from these holes or gaps, they strive to gain more information to close those apparent knowledge gaps.

What curiosity does is attract us to things that we find interesting. Superficially, curiosity is what we experience when we find something new. But while curiosity looks fairly simple on the surface, it is really “a deeper, more complex phenomenon that plays a critical role in the pursuit of a meaningful life.” (Kashdan, 2009, p. 3) It leads one to be more imaginative and it involves experimenting, searching and discovering.

Theories of Curiosity

Edmund Burke once wrote that “…curiosity is the most superficial of all the affections; it changes its object perpetually, it has an appetite which is very sharp, but very easily satisfied; and it has always an appearance of giddiness, restlessness, and anxiety.” (Burke, 1757, p. 42) Curiosity is indeed fleeting, yet at the same time, it can be quite intense. (Loewenstein, 1994, Vol 116, No. 1, p. 86) Envision yourself at dinner with friends in some local restaurant and noticing a large, disheveled man with stringy hair with his back to you in the next booth.  The interest you experience in imagining his facial features can be quite captivating.  But if this person were to leave and go out of site, the significance of this mystery would fade. As you have never met this person before, nor have you ever seen a likeness of him, there is no objective reason to support the fascination you had with this guy’s face.  But the mere fact that you can’t see a person’s face can make you curious.  What may be the strangest component of this type of situation is that if you were to finally see his face, a slight sense of disappointment would come over you.

Curiosity is capricious yet powerful. It motivates us to learn and it leads us to a more meaningful life. The paradoxical nature of curiosity confronted early theorists and let to difficulty in establishing a definition.  The difficulty lies in whether curiosity is something we enjoy and seek more of, or if it is something we want to avoid and therefore, seek to answer the questions it poses, making it go away. (Loewenstein, 1994, Vol 116, No. 1, p. 76)

The concept of curiosity is an old one though. Aristotle even commented in the first line of his principle work Metaphysics that “All men naturally desire to know.” (Aristotle, 350 B.C.E.) And the Roman philosopher Cicero said “So great is our innate love of learning and knowledge that no one can doubt that man’s nature is strongly attracted to these things without the incentive of any material gain.” (Cicero) During this time, curiosity was understood as something that came from within—a desire for knowledge, not a product of external gains such as money or other rewards. (Loewenstein, 1994, Vol 116, No. 1, p. 76) Curiosity has also been viewed as a passion. The phrases “passion for learning” and “longing for knowledge” are more toward this understanding. The motivational intensity being a grade higher when associated with passion.

We can categorize curiosity into two distinctive types:

Perceptual curiosity is stirred by an out-of-the-ordinary or novel stimulus. The focus of this particular type of curiosity is that which is perceived to be different. For example, if a parent sitting in the stands watching her son’s baseball game were to be engrossed in conversation with a friend sitting next to her, its doubtful she’d be paying attention to the game itself. But upon spying a quickly approaching object in her peripheral vision, she’d quickly switch her attention to that stimulus.  The speeding object could be either a runner rounding the bases, a hotdog vendor jogging down the steps, or a foul ball targeting her head. Perceptual curiosity like this can also be considered a warning system. As a result, that mom might see an exciting part of the game, buy a delicious hotdog or move her head to avoid a concussion. In the animal world, perceptual curiosity can serves as a warning system against predators. Or it can prevent us from twisting our ankle by spotting a hole in the sidewalk.

Epistemic Curiosity is mainly for humans and involves the desire to know. (Loewenstein, 1994, Vol 116, No. 1, p. 77) Epistemology is a branch of philosophy that studies the nature of knowledge. So this type of curiosity is information seeking or trying to find out something that one doesn’t already know. For this to happen, a perceived gap in knowledge has to be recognized. Epistemic curiosity doesn’t apply as readily to animals. Fish, for example, can’t exactly reflect on what they are doing, so they can’t consciously seek out information. Inspecting a room after seeing its door ajar could be an example of this. Not knowing why that door is open is the gap in knowledge.

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