Curiosity is probably the single most powerful force behind our species’ scientific discoveries. It can drive us to explore and discover even if the outcome might be painful or harmful. But this need to discover and learn can also become a curse; a new study found that people are willing to face unpleasant outcomes with no apparent benefits just to sate their curiosity.
Previous research into curiosity found that it can drive humans to seek out miserable or risky experiences, such as viewing gruesome scenes or exploring dangerous terrain, in their search for information. Bowen Ruan and co-author Christopher Hsee from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business believe that our primal need to resolve uncertainty, regardless of personal harm or injury we might endure in the process, is the cornerstone upon which our curiosity is based.
So they designed a series of experiments exposing participants to several unpleasant outcomes, to see how far they would go to obtain a sense of certainty about their environment. In one of the studies, 54 college students were taken to a lab with electric shock pens supposedly left over from a previous experiment. They were told that they were free to pass the time by testing the pens while the experiment they were about to take part in was set up.
Some of the participants had color coded pens — red stickers for the five pens that would deliver a shock, and green stickers for the five that wouldn’t. Others however only had pens with yellow stickers, meaning they didn’t have any certainty what would happen if they clicked them. They were also told that only some of these pens still had working batteries, compounding their level of uncertainty. In the meantime, the team counted how many times each participant clicked each type of pen.
While they waited, students who knew the outcome clicked one green pen and two red ones on average. But those that had no clue what was going to happen clicked noticeably more, around five pens each.
For the second study, another group of students were shown 10 pens of each color. Here too students clicked the pens with uncertain outcomes more than those which were clearly identified as safe or shock-inducing.
“Just as curiosity drove Pandora to open the box despite being warned of its pernicious contents, curiosity can lure humans–like you and me–to seek information with predictably ominous consequences,” explains study author Bowen Ruan of the Wisconsin School of Business at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
For the third study, the researchers wanted to know how well their findings hold under different circumstances, and if satiating their curiosity would make participants feel worse. They designed a test involving exposure to both pleasant and unpleasant sound recordings. Participants had to choose between 48 buttons on a computer screen, each with a different sound recording attached to it. For example, the “nails” button would play a recording of nails on a chalkboard, buttons labeled “water” played a sound of running water, and buttons labeled “?” could play either sound.
On average, students who had to choose from mostly identified buttons clicked around 28 of them. In contrast, those who had mostly unidentified buttons clicked around 39 of them. Participants who clicked more also reported feeling worse at the end of the experiment. Those who had mostly uncertain buttons reported being less happy overall than those who faced mostly certain outcomes.
The team carried out a separate, online study in which participants were shown partially obscured pictures of unpleasant insects — centipedes, cockroaches, and silverfish for example — and were informed they could click the image to reveal the insect. As with the previous studies, participants clicked on more pictures, and felt worse overall, when faced with uncertain results.
But interestingly, when they were prompted to predict how they would feel about their choice first, their number of clicks went down (and they reported feeling happier overall). This suggests that predicting the consequences of your choice might dampen your curiosity.
So while curiosity is often seen as one of the more desirable human qualities, it can also be a curse. Many times our drive to seek information and satisfy our curiosity can become a huge risk.
“Curious people do not always perform consequentialist cost-benefit analyses and may be tempted to seek the missing information even when the outcome is expectedly harmful,” Ruan and Hsee write in their paper.
“We hope this research draws attention to the risk of information seeking in our epoch, the epoch of information,” Ruan concludes.
The full paper, titled “The Pandora Effect, The power and Peril of Curiosity” has been published online in the journal Psychological Science and can be read here.