Why Curiosity Doesn’t Kill the Cat

Have you got a hungry mind?

Posted Oct 25, 2011

One of the most important things we do in life is to go to school. It may not have seemed like it at the time, when we fell asleep during our maths class or we failed to see the meaning in Jane Eyre. Nonetheless, school is much more than a place of boring numbers and books.

In school, we are for the first time systematically asked to demonstrate our ability and to master intellectual challenges. That is, we start to develop our minds. And based on our success in following the school curriculum, we make decisions for our later educational and professional engagements. Therefore, our academic performance—supposedly a proxy for the quality of our mind—becomes a gatekeeper to higher education and the labour market.

Our school grades, and later our vocational certificates and exam points, reflect individual differences in ability and zeal, i.e. what you can achieve and how much you work to achieve. Not surprisingly then, psychological studies have demonstrated that effort and ability explain about half of the variance in academic performance—but what's with the other half?

The answer may lie with a bridging construct, a trait that drives the application of both ability and effort: intellectual curiosity.

Surely, curiosity can refer to an ‘insatisfiable desire for knowing the actions and circumstances of neighbours', as David Hume put it. However, there is also a different kind of curiosity that refers to the hunger for knowledge; a tendency to engage in and to enjoy thinking; and a desire to solve and to be absorbed in intellectual problems. Think about sleeping beauty and how she couldn't resist learning to spin.

This so-called intellectual curiosity is related to both intelligence and effort. For one, more able individuals find it easier to seek novel information and engage in cognitively challenging matters. For the other, pursuing one's intellectual curiosity is also not without effort because the adaptation to new information and mastery of unfamiliar areas of knowledge requires a certain degree of zeal and hard work.

Together with Sophie von Stumm and Benedikt Hell we recently re-evaluated data from over 200 previous studies on ability, personality and academic performance, summarizing data from more than 50,000 students. We found that intellectual curiosity was a driving force in academic achievement. Specifically, the study showed that intellectual curiosity affected academic performance to the same extent as the personality trait Conscientiousness (a proxy for effort, albeit not a very good one), which is a well-established predictor of scholastic success. Moreover, the impact of the two personality traits—intellectual curiosity and Conscientiousness—on academic performance rivalled that of intelligence. That is, personality traits are core determinants of intellectual development and performance.

From this, we can learn three things:

Firstly, curiosity must be stimulated and encouraged throughout education. Children are naturally curious (ever heard the endless ‘why' questions?) but few people have insatiable curiosity that cannot be dulled and blunted by dogmatism. Educational settings that don't give space to free exploration and ‘why' questions, but solely dictate facts, easily suffocate a child's the spirit of wonder. Because curiosity is not only a trait but also a state, it is particularly important for schools and teachers to exploit their plentiful opportunities to induce and inspire curiosity in pupils and students. For one, curious students will perform better and for the other, students, who are intellectually stimulated, will more satisfied with their educational experience.

Secondly, curiosity might be considered in school and university admissions but also in professional recruitment. Curiosity is a marker of potential, and for more—for the development of potential. While an intelligent person will surely perform at a high level, the curious one will also strive to augment that level. Because intellectual curiosity incorporates intelligence, zeal, and the hunger for knowledge, it does not only affect academic and professional performance but will impact on individual development across the lifespan.

And finally, curiosity doesn't kill the cat. The hunger for knowledge is what differentiates good students form excellent ones; diligent performers from innovative developers; and it drives the development of our mind, even though it comes at a cost sometimes (sleeping beauty).


von Stumm, S., Hell, B., & Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2011). The hungry mind: Intellectual curiosity as third pillar of academic performance. Perspectives on Psychological Science, in press

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