Curiosity compels us to learn and to explore, which can lead to very positive outcomes. However, the tale of Pandora’s box suggests that curiosity can also lead to negative outcomes. There are many instances where people’s curiosity leads them to try a dangerous stunt or causes them to look when they should keep their heads down. Nearly every highway commuter knows that when there is an accident, people slow down to look. Sometimes they cause another accident.
A very interesting series of recent studies explored whether people’s curiosity would get the better of them. Participants were presented with pens that caused painful (but harmless) electric shocks, and some pens that did not, and were told that while they were waiting for a rating task, they could choose to click some of the pens to pass the time. In some conditions the pens were labeled as to which would shock and which wouldn’t. In other conditions, it was unknown which of the pens would shock.
The researchers found that the participants clicked more pens in the uncertain conditions, even though they were told that half of the pens would shock them. In other words, there was an effect reminiscent of Pandora’s box—even though the participants knew bad things could happen by clicking the pens (opening the box), they still did it. It is also interesting to note that in the certain condition, participants' curiosity still was strong because, on average, they clicked at least one shock and one no-shock pen—curious, it seems, to see what the shocks were like.
What are the implications of this study? It seems people have a natural curiosity that causes them to take risks, even when they are aware of the possible dangers. Examples include trying a potentially dangerous drug to see what happens, watching gruesome videos of accidents, surgeries, or executions—even though they realize that there are negative outcomes associated with satisfying their curiosity.
Hsee, C.K., & Ruan, B. (2016). The Pandora Effect: The Power and Peril of Curiosity. Psychological Science (published online March 21, 2016).
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