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Why It's Better to Stay Curious Than to Make Assumptions

The first answer you think of is often wrong.

Key points

  • Curiosity has many benefits: It makes people think harder about problems and respond better to stress, for instance.
  • The fear of looking unintelligent, or blind trust in someone else, can dampen curiosity.
  • Confirmation bias and moralizing have a particularly detrimental effect on the ability to stay curious.
Source: Pixabay

Do you remember when you were a child—how big the world seemed and how curious you felt about it? Harvard Business School’s Francesca Gino explains the many research-proven benefits of maintaining this sense of curiosity.

It helps businesses to adapt and succeed. It helps us think longer and harder about a problem we face, reflecting on it from divergent perspectives. It makes us more logical and creative. It helps us respond better to stress and adversity. It improves listening and communication among groups.

Gino has found that when conditions encourage us to be more curious, that reduces our tendency to stereotype people. Asking questions that pique someone’s curiosity even appears to be a good way to get them to take more of an interest in scientific evidence.

Factors that discourage curiosity

While curiosity has some incredible benefits, asking questions isn’t always sexy — and hyper-confidence can be. Think of any controversial issue that you have a strong position on. Rather than being curious and asking questions to learn how other people came to believe the opposite of you, it can feel more exciting to lash out and put them in their place, can’t it?

“We know that punishing engages the brain’s motivational circuitry and there’s an immediately gratifying aspect to punishment. When you express outrage on Facebook or Twitter, not only do you get the immediate satisfaction of posting that but you also get repeated and amplified reinforcement of that behavior because people like what you say, they share it, they repost it—and it creates a highly self-reinforcing cycle,” explains neuroscientist Molly Crockett.

Studies by social psychologist William Brady and colleagues confirm that outraged tweets—one of the strongest forms of highly confident and emotionally contagious communication—get a lot more retweets.

More surprisingly though, some research suggests that we may trust in people who are confident even when we don’t support their views.

“Across five studies using a variety of contentious social issues, I found evidence that people trust others who demonstrate strong feelings about social issues, even when they disagree with or dislike them,” states researcher Julian Zlatev.

Source: Pixabay

Gino argues that in workplaces we stop ourselves from being curious and asking questions “because we fear we’ll be judged incompetent, indecisive, or unintelligent.” There’s more of an incentive to look smart and get things done quickly than there is to be inquisitive.

It can also be socially risky to ask questions about things your peer group or coworkers are certain about. The fear of being shunned if we come to believe something other than what our group accepts can lead us to groupthink. In many groups, people are silently going along with social norms that they secretly disagree with and know they don’t benefit from. This contributes to entrenched norms and ideologies even in fields that are supposed to be neutral and open to curiosity, like the sciences.

In short, there are plenty of factors in our lives discouraging curiosity.

Lack of curiosity and confirmation bias

Consider this: You notice that COVID-19 death tolls in poorer countries seem to be much lower than in richer countries. They are far lower than the best epidemiological models would predict based on other infectious diseases like malaria, typhoid, and HIV. Do you already feel like you know why this might be?

Many of us, if we’re being honest, will have to say “yes”—we start off with assumptions. Next, we tend to look for evidence that seems to back those assumptions up. Rather than acting like a child and exploring, we settle too early on a preferred theory and try to prove it right. This is confirmation bias at work. (For details and studies covering this important issue and its far-reaching impacts, see this chapter I wrote.)

Here’s what this looks like: A popular post by blogger Indi Samarajiva argues, “Poorer nations have done better than the rich because they had robust public health responses. Because they worked together. Because they reacted early. These are all lessons worth learning, but the West is unable to learn them because they’re simply too racist to see.”

Instead of staying with the question, “Why are there fewer deaths in poorer countries?” this approach—which is so common on issues of all types—assumes that the answer is obvious (that poorer countries had more robust public health responses). But what if we stayed curious instead?

For instance, we could ask, “Does it help our understanding to think of the world as just two teams: poor countries vs. rich countries? And is it true that the poorer countries reacted to COVID-19 early and with robust public health responses?” Samarajiva cites several countries such as Ghana, Rwanda, and Vietnam. Without a doubt, there were some impressive and positive things that happened in these places, and that deserves attention.

But if we do a bit more digging and try to disprove our initial assumption, we see that there were also some poorer countries like Tanzania using misinformation and COVID-19 denial and Burundi cracking down on human rights and applying other highly detrimental and politicized responses to the pandemic. So a surprisingly low number of COVID-19 deaths in Tanzania and Burundi can’t be explained by a robust public health response. There wasn’t one.

As is so often the case, if we look closer, what appears to be a simple pattern turns out to be complicated.

The effect of moral outrage on curiosity

There’s another all-too-common problem with Samarajiva’s point quoted above. It makes a strong moral judgment against anyone who disagrees (calling them too racist to see). This effectively shuts down further discussion and curiosity.

Note that we’re not considering here whether or not some media coverage was biased or condescending about the capacities of poorer countries to respond to COVID-19. That’s a separate issue we could get curious about. The point here is just to note the role that over-confident moralizing plays in reducing our curiosity and thus limiting all of the benefits that curiosity brings us.

Curiosity expands our thinking, moral outrage contracts it. There are times and places for each of these, but it’s worth considering a few different interpretations before settling on a negative one about the morality of your opponents. Once you look into the details, you’ll almost always find that your initial interpretation was missing important perspectives and evidence.

This approach of asking lots of questions and exploring the details was taken in a long piece by physician Siddhartha Mukherjee. Instead of limiting his thinking with a simple explanation, he broadened it. He talked to all sorts of experts from different countries who had relevant perspectives and hypotheses. He researched many possibilities without getting stuck on any of them.

In the end, Mukherjee’s article is both thorough and far from definitive. With issues like under-reporting of cases, intergenerational households, T-cells, and so much more being considered, his approach is full of complexity, just like our world. He offers rich insights into both how much work has been done to understand COVID-19 deaths, and how much there is that we still don’t know.

This way of thinking has been studied in the lab and found to lead to better quality disagreements. On most issues, then, you’ll be well-served if you can stay curious.

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