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Curiosity: The Good, the Bad, and the Double-Edged Sword

Curiosity is a doubled-edged sword with many benefits, but also a dark side.

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Walt Disney once said, “We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we're curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” Former first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, described curiosity as "the most useful gift.” However, new research suggests that—although curiosity has many potent benefits—it is actually a double-edged sword with a potential dark side.

From the day we’re born, curiosity becomes a prime driving force that motivates us to explore unknown ideas and territories in search of answers and stimulation. Human beings have an innate desire to close the “curiosity gap” and solve riddles every day. As J.R.R. Tolkien describes in The Hobbit, "A box without hinges, key, or lid, yet golden treasure inside is hid . . . Still round the corner there may wait, a new road or a secret gate."

Even when being actively curious is not in your best interest, the quest to discover something new can be like an itch that must be scratched. As an example, we all know the feeling of being snagged by a "clickbait" title that coaxes you down a rabbit hole by clicking on a vapid website link that threatens to turn your brain into mush.

Masters of clickbait titles have a knack for creating a teaser that hits the sweet spot of just enough information to arouse a level of intrigue but leaves you wanting more. The only way to appease your curiosity is to take the bait and click on the link.

Unfortunately, clickbait titles often appeal to the lowest common denominator and make you feel like you’ve been duped, when the article fails to deliver any valuable goods. Anytime I'm a sucker for a tawdry clickbait title, I kick myself for wasting time and filling my head with gobbledygook. I'm sure you've experienced this feeling, too.

That said, as a science-based wellness writer, I’ll be the first to admit that I often try to conjure up titles that exploit the curiosity gap in an attempt to improve my reader's psychological and physical well-being. Oftentimes, I do so to pique curiosity when I know the subject matter is important from a public health perspective but not eye-catching or sexy from a general reader’s perspective.

Exploiting the "Curiosity Gap" Can Lead to Healthier Lifestyle Choices

Along these lines, a recent study by a team of researchers found that curiosity can be a highly effective way to entice people into making smarter and healthier lifestyle choices. This new research was presented today at the 2016 APA annual convention of the American Psychological Association in Denver, Colorado.

In a statement describing his latest study, "Using Curiosity to Increase the Choice of Should Options," which was presented in Denver today, Evan Polman, Ph.D., assistant professor of marketing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said,

"Our research shows that piquing people's curiosity can influence their choices by steering them away from tempting desires, like unhealthy foods or taking the elevator, and toward less tempting, but healthier options, such as buying more fresh produce or taking the stairs."

Polman believes the curiosity gap can be used to entice people to engage in healthier behaviors, such as being more physically active and eating healthier foods. I agree.

To explore the positive potential of exploiting the curiosity gap, Polman and his colleagues conducted a series of four experiments that were designed to test how piquing curiosity affected the choices that people made. In each of the four studies, arousing curiosity resulted in noticeable behavior modifications.

For example, in one of the experiments, Polman et al. increased the number of participants who chose to watch what was described as “a high-brow, intellectual video clip” by promising that they would reveal the secret behind a magic trick at the end of the clip.

The results of the field studies on curiosity were particularly compelling to Polman. In one field study, the researchers created a 10 percent increase in the use of stairs in a university building by posting trivia questions near the elevators and posting the answers in the stairwell. In another, they increased the purchase of fresh produce by placing a joke on the placard describing the fruit or vegetable and printing the punchline on the bag’s closures.

Polman was surprised by the degree that exploiting the curiosity gap could motivate people to unwittingly make healthier lifestyle choices. He concluded,

"Evidently, people really have a need for closure when something has piqued their curiosity. They want the information that fills the curiosity gap, and they will go to great lengths to get it.

Our results suggest that using interventions based on curiosity gaps has the potential to increase participation in desired behaviors for which people often lack motivation. It also provides new evidence that curiosity-based interventions come at an incredibly small cost and could help steer people toward a variety of positive actions."

Curiosity Killed the Cat...And Can Lead to Perilous Decision Making

On the dark side of the curiosity gap, lies the power of your inquiring mind to lead you to make decisions that ultimately result in painful and unpleasant outcomes, with no apparent benefits. Another recent study found that people are often driven by an uncontrollable urge to act on their curious tendencies, even when it's not in their best interest. Thrill-seeking is often fueled by this type of curiosity.

The April 2016 study on the dark side of curiosity, "The Pandora Effect: The Power and Peril of Curiosity,” was published in the journal Psychological Science.

The researchers of this study coined the term “The Pandora Effect” to describe doing regrettable things that are driven by unbridled curiosity. As an example, “rubbernecking” (which describes turning your head to gawk at a car crash as you drive past the accident) is a perfect example of this phenomenon.

Study author Bowen Ruan of the Wisconsin School of Business at the University of Wisconsin-Madison described their terminology in a statement, “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.”

Previous research has illuminated the mind-boggling ability of curiosity to drive people to seek out potentially miserable experiences, such as watching gory movie scenes or exploring dangerous, life-threatening types of terrain.

For this study, Ruan and co-author Christopher Hsee from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business hypothesized that maladaptive types of curiosity stem from humans' deep-seated and unquenchable desire to resolve uncertainty within the curiosity gap, regardless of potential harm.

To test this hypothesis, they designed a series of experiments that exposed curious participants to a variety of unpleasant outcomes. For example, one study had college students come to the lab, where they were shown electric-shock pens that were supposedly left over from a previous experiment. Then, participants were told that they could click the pens to kill time while they waited for the "real" study task to begin.

For one group of participants, the pens were color-coded according to whether they would deliver a shock—the five pens that would shock had a red sticker, and the five pens that wouldn't shock had a green sticker. This meant the students knew with certainty what would happen when they clicked a given pen.

Other participants, however, saw 10 pens that all had yellow stickers and were told that some of the pens had batteries that would give them a shock while others didn't. In this case, the outcome of clicking each pen and receiving a shock was uncertain.

The results of the experiment were clear. Students in the uncertain condition became more curious and clicked noticeably more pens. On average, those who didn't know what the outcome would be clicked about five pens. Those who knew the outcome clicked about one green pen and two red pens.

A second study, in which students were shown 10 pens of each color, confirmed these results. Once again, students clicked more of the uncertain outcome pens than the pens that were clearly identified as giving you a shock.

Conclusions: Curiosity Can Be Both a Blessing and a Curse

Together, the findings from these various experiments make an important point about the pros and cons of trying to close the curiosity gap. Universally, curiosity tends to be seen as a blessing—but, it can also be a curse. All too often, we seek out information or misguided adventures to satisfy our curiosity without considering the consequences of doing so.

"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 conclude in their paper.

On the bright side, understanding that curiosity has a dark side could help you modify your behavior and curb potentially self-destructive pursuits driven by the innate urge to close the curiosity gap. This research suggests that you can make better decisions if you stop and consider whether your decision making is being driven by curiosity. And, if closing the curiosity gap will have positive or negative outcomes.

Hopefully, these findings will inspire you to exploit the curiosity gap in a way that leads to healthier lifestyle choices and other positive outcomes—while finding ways to resist the temptation to be overcome by curiosity when it's not in your best interest.

© 2016 Christopher Bergland. All rights reserved.

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