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Which Type of Curiosity Seeker Are You?

New research provides clues into the personality traits that drive curiosity.

Key points

  • The drive for curiosity leads people to seek information even if it doesn't serve a practical purpose.
  • New personality research contrasts those whose curiosity is based on anxiety with those who are driven by the trait of openness.
  • Becoming a joyous explorer can help people expand and deepen their knowledge of the world.

When you stop and think about the number of times in your day that you seek information it’s quite likely that it's much higher than you might guess. You want a new way to cook chicken, are trying to plan an event dependent on the weather, or just had a question pop up in your mind about some little piece of trivia. If you enjoy quiz shows, you undoubtedly are continually feeding random pieces of information into your stockpile of knowledge. Information searches such as these can easily run into the hundreds in no time at all.

What Makes People Want New Information?

According to a new study by University of Melbourne's Hayley Jach and colleagues (2021), “Each day brings opportunities to learn new knowledge, but gaining information often comes at a cost of time, effort, or money.” Much of this information is what the authors call “noninstrumental,” in that it provides no clear benefit to the individual. So why do people go out of their way to seek this knowledge? Why do you need a “new” way to cook chicken when the old way is perfectly fine?

As proposed by the Australian authors, there are two types of personalities associated with information seeking. People who seek noninstrumental information, in this model, have personalities that are higher in the traits associated with curiosity. They enjoy situations in which they can engage in exploration, such as browsing the internet for random trivia or looking forward to their nightly dose of their favorite quiz show.

The second type of information-seekers do so because they’re trying to reduce a state of uncertainty. This second type should be higher in personality traits associated with anxiety because they find it unpleasant to have unanswered questions. Their need for information is based on a desire for safety.

This idea that anxiety drives the need for knowledge as a way to feel safe may be one that’s never occurred to you. It may surprise you, then, to know that a prior body of research implicates the role of anxiety as a way to reduce the uncertainty that “could signal a potential threat lurking in the environment.”

Think about a time when you spent much more time and effort than was reasonable to discover everything you could about a new job opportunity, including the education and background of the person who would be interviewing you. Going even further, you examined each and every possible route to get to the location or, if is online, you looked for new software or equipment to increase the odds that you would make a favorable impression. All of this fits in the need for information as a way to reduce anxiety which, for some people, becomes the sole or primary reason for their search for knowledge.

Openness vs. Neuroticism as the Cause of Curiosity

To test their model, the Australian author team conducted two online studies in which they correlated personality traits of openness/intellect, neuroticism, curiosity and uncertainty intolerance with the approach participants took in playing a simulated online trivia game. You can test your own personality according to the measures used in this study by rating yourself on items such as “Like to solve complex problems” (intellect), “Enjoy the beauty of nature” (openness), “Worry about things” (withdrawal), and “Get easily agitated” (volatility). Withdrawal and volatility are facets of neuroticism that Jach et al. believed would predict which participants would seek information to fulfill safety needs.

Tapping curiosity specifically, the researchers asked participants to rate themselves on items that assessed “joyous exploration,” or the positive aspect of need to know and “deprivation sensitivity” or the need to relieve uncertainty. To control for the fact that people higher in intellectual ability know more already, the authors also included a test tapping into general knowledge and problem-solving skills.

Turning now to the information seeking task, Jach et al. devised three types of problems: answering a trivia question, predicting the results of a coin toss, and guessing the meaning of a Chinese word. For the information-trivia task, participants could “pay” in a five-second time delay to find out the actual answer but receive no particular reward once they did. As an example of the trivia game, you would see a question on the screen such as “Which bird is the international symbol of happiness?” You would write in your answer (which is “bluebird”). However, if you didn’t know the answer and wanted to find out what it was, you would be able to choose to find out after a five-second wait. Then, you could "pay" an additional five seconds if you wanted bonus information which, in this case, is that “March 20 is the international day of happiness.”

For the coin toss, you’d choose heads or tails and then have the choice to pay five seconds to see the outcome; in either case, you’d receive a small payment (five pence) if you made the right choice (all participants were ensured the same payment). However, you wouldn’t know how much you made until the game was over, so the knowledge of whether your choice was right was noninstrumental. Wanting to know the outcome, though, could alleviate your anxiety if you didn’t want to wait to find out about the reward.

The ”exploration” pathway in this experimental paradigm was reflected by participants who chose to receive bonus information in the trivia game. The “safety” pathway was signified by participants choosing to find out the outcome of the coin toss, in that knowledge of this outcome could potentially inform their future choices. Participants also rated their enjoyment of the task and how intellectually stimulating they found it to be.

The findings supported the study’s underlying model in part; people higher in curiosity and openness/intellect were more likely to behave in congruence with the exploration pathway. By contrast, uncertainty intolerance, but not neuroticism, predicted information-seeking in the safety pathway reflected by the reward outcome task.

Can You Become More of a Joyous Explorer?

The Jach et al. study suggests that personality indeed influences the ways that people approach gaining knowledge of a noninstrumental nature. Although neuroticism wasn’t linked to the desire to learn the outcome of a coin toss, there was evidence that people who don’t enjoy uncertainty seek to know the answer of a binary outcome.

You can think of these differences in more real-life terms if you consider how you feel while watching your favorite sport. Do you spend the entire game wanting to know who wins, and focusing only on the outcome, or do you enjoy the features of the game itself, such as the athleticism of the players or, in an outdoor event, the sounds, lights, and smells?

The findings also suggest that seeking noninstrumental information isn’t just a waste of time or effort. The enjoyment of knowledge for the sake of knowledge not only can help improve certain aspects of your intellectual ability, such as learning new vocabulary words, but can also provide intrinsic satisfaction, that deep form of motivation that engages your sense of self. The reward outcome condition can be thought of as tapping extrinsic motivation, with its closed-end structure in which something happened or it didn’t.

To sum up, enjoying information for the sake of information appears to be a function of your personality. If you’re of the safety-seeking type, venturing out of your comfort zone to explore new ideas and knowledge may help provide a fuller sense of fulfillment as you learn to enjoy and perhaps savor uncertainty.

References

Jach, H. K., DeYoung, C. G., & Smillie, L. D. (2021). Why Do People Seek Information? The Role of Personality Traits and Situation Perception. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/xge0001109

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