Humans are hard-wired for curiosity. From a toddler grasping at any object that comes into sight to the first shuttle to breach the Earth’s stratosphere, we are perpetually seeking to understand more about the world around us.
Curiosity has given us the capacity—the thirst even—to learn throughout our lives. Evolutionary theorists posit that this distinctly human trait developed to help us adapt at an unrivaled pace. Unsurprisingly, there is a scientific basis for this evolutionary drive: Research shows that when our curiosity is piqued, dopamine floods the brain, triggering the reward system and encouraging us to dig deeper into whichever pursuit we’re engaged in.
Beyond giving us an appetite for knowledge, though, curiosity may play a vital social role for this same physiological reason. Curiosity encourages positivity, engagement, and connection. Contemporary research suggests that curious people are more open to new social experiences, more willing to embrace uncertainty, and more capable of navigating difficult social situations.
So by taking a more inquisitive approach to our lives and our relationships, we may even be able to override social anxiety with curiosity to foster more fulfilling relationships and to deepen our existing ones.
Curiosity Can Foster Positive Emotions and Intimacy
It would seem to go without saying that curious people are more open to novel ideas and new experiences. In the field of psychology, this kind of openness refers to our drive to explore novel aspects of human experience, and the willingness to consider perspectives different from our own.
While openness is a state of mind, curiosity is a mode of action: it is openness applied. Curious people apply their exploratory attitude to their everyday lives. They view relationships and even casual social interactions as sources of novelty, and even opportunities for personal growth.
In a series of studies by psychologist Todd Kashdan, researchers found that curious people made stronger and more enjoyable connections with strangers than their less curious counterparts. Over the course of three studies, participants filled out questionnaires that measured curiosity and openness amongst other traits. Researchers then paired highly curious people with less curious ones and had them ask each other questions that escalated in intimacy. Not only did highly curious people connect more deeply with others and express more positive emotions in describing their experience, but the results suggested that they may be better at reading social cues.
So, what is the trick? How does curiosity rewire the brain for this kind of positivity and social intuitiveness?
The answer has to do with embracing uncertainty.
Embracing and Exploring Uncertainty
Kashdan based his experiments on previous research that suggested less curious people seek to avoid uncertainty. As you’ve probably experienced firsthand, relationship building—whether it be small talk with your neighbor or dating someone new—is riddled with uncertainty. So when faced with an unpredictable social situation—say, attending a party where they don’t know anyone—the less curious person may seek premature closure about others by making assumptions or relying on early impressions.
On the other hand, highly curious people can transform the inherent tension of new social situations into a desire to engage and explore. Instead of seeking to avoid the potential anxiety of such social interactions, they embrace it as an opportunity for self-expansion. Of course, the greater the number of social interactions a person engages in, the higher the likelihood of rejection. Yet research supports that, curious people are also less affected by rejection and less likely to react aggressively to negative social interactions.
But are we genetically determined to be curious or otherwise, averse to social risks? Can we train ourselves to override anxiety and instead practice openness?
While some people may be more innately curious than others, curiosity is a skill to be cultivated. And it is worth doing so because curiosity isn’t just beneficial to forging new relationships: it may be key to sustaining and enriching our existing ones.
How to Cultivate Curiosity and Deepen Your Relationships
Psychologists distinguish between two kinds of curiosity: perceptual and epistemic. The former describes the toddler’s kind of curiosity: a ceaseless exploration of new stimuli. Epistemic curiosity, on the other hand, has to do with seeking knowledge. As anthropologist Agustin Fuentes said of the latter, "Humans, in our distinctive lineage, went beyond simply tweaking nature to imagining and inventing whole new possibilities that emerge from that kind of curiosity.”
As we grow older, our perceptual curiosity naturally tends to diminish. We learn more about the world around us and no longer seek to test its limits. But we also fall into cognitive patterns and learned behaviors. While these patterns provide structure to our days, they can also limit our epistemic curiosity and preclude possibilities to explore the world outside of our “comfort zone.”
The simplest way to practice curiosity is to test the boundaries of your comfort zone. Those closest to us fall within this zone, but without a healthy dose of curiosity and exploration, even strong relationships can go stale. According to one study, most romantic relationships end, not because of finances or conflict, but because of boredom. On the other hand, partners are happier and feel closer after exploring novel, exciting experiences together.
When it comes to social interactions, you can shift your perspective to think of uncertainty as opportunity. Rather than try to avoid the tension that such situations produce—which can be both mentally and physically exhausting—apply that energy to engaging others. Ask open-ended questions, and actively listen to their answers with follow up questions. By showing interest, you will in turn pique their curiosity and their responses will go deeper than superficial small talk.
All curiosity wanes in the face of the familiar. A child discards a former “favorite” toy for a new shiny one, or the hobby that had intrigued you sits idly in the corner after a few weeks. Novelty wears off, but our curiosity doesn’t have to.
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Kashdan, T., & Roberts, J. (2005, March 30). Affective outcomes in superficial and intimate interactions: Roles of social anxiety and curiosity. Retrieved August 26, 2020, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0092656605000048
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