We’re born with an insatiable appetite for new information. This hunger, which we call curiosity, is a universal trait, though people possess it in varying degrees and express it through different behaviors. Curiosity is widely considered a virtue, being closely linked to other traits we value: creativity, intellectual humility, and empathy. Curious students achieve at higher levels in school. Curious members of a group help create common ground. Recent scientific study has even linked the trait to more satisfying intimate relationships and greater perceived meaning in life.
Yet not all curiosity is created equally, something humans have long intuited. Its potential danger has deep roots in our myths and stories. Curiosity killed the cat, as the old saying goes. Eve’s hunger for knowledge led her to eat the fateful fruit. The Roman philosopher Cicero, who defined curiosity as “our innate love of learning,” theorized that it wasn’t the Siren’s sweet voices in The Odyssey that wrecked ships but rather “their professions of knowledge . . . it was the passion for learning that kept men rooted to the Sirens’ rocky shores.”
Recently, a quartet of researchers confirmed the hunch that not all types of curiosity lead to virtuous behavior, along with a number of other exciting discoveries. The team is made up of Daphna Shohamy and Ran Hassin of Columbia University, Thalia Wheatley of Dartmouth, and Jonathan Schooler of the University of California Santa Barbara. With funding from the John Templeton Foundation, the researchers spent the last several years investigating the role of curiosity in learning, creativity, and social connection.
Curiosity’s two faces
“It’s important to emphasize that there are different kinds of curiosity,” says Schooler. Of these expressions, the team focused their research on two kinds: general-interest curiosity and deprivation curiosity. General-interest curiosity celebrates a lack of knowledge as an opportunity to gain more knowledge. People who exhibit this trait are motivated to learn for learning’s sake.
As Schooler puts it, general-interest curiosity takes “delight in the fact that we don’t know everything and that there’s so much wonderful information to graze out there.”
This expression stands in awe before mystery and accepts all that we do not—and cannot—know, which means it’s closely linked to intellectual humility.
Deprivation curiosity, on the other hand, functions in a utilitarian way. Rather than an exploratory desire to learn, it wants an answer to fill a gap in knowledge. Deprivation curiosity stems from an aversion to not knowing something; its motivation is to squelch the discomfort of uncertainty. Because deprivation curiosity clamors for information as a way to avoid unknowing, it’s linked to a lack of intellectual humility. This drive to find an answer isn’t always bad, says Schooler. “We do think it’s likely to be an important complement to general-interest curiosity. You can easily imagine that when Einstein was pursuing his passion for understanding relativity, he had a sense of, ‘I must get to the bottom of this—I won’t sleep until I do!’”
Because deprivation curiosity is linked to intellectual arrogance, it predicts other negative behaviors. “When you lack intellectual humility—when you feel like you need to know everything and you realize there’s something you don’t know—that leads to an uncomfortable gap.” In order to fill this gap and minimize discomfort, people tend to look for answers without discernment. For example, “we see them accepting fake news because they don’t like the feeling of uncertainty that maybe this [news] isn’t true,” Schooler says. In a similar way, deprivation curiosity can lead people to create false memories. When we seek an answer purely to avoid not knowing, in other words, we run the risk of accepting the wrong answer.
Cognitive scientist Thalia Wheatley studies curiosity’s role in relationships. The guiding question behind her research: Do more curious people connect in different ways than less curious people?
In a word, yes. As with intellectual humility, a person’s willingness to tolerate uncertainty plays a significant role. “What we find is that people who are stress-tolerant—who have a willingness to sit with uncertainty—are exploratory in their conversations,” says Wheatley. If you were to design a map indicating where curious people travel in conversation, the map would show them ranging further, diving deeper, and covering a broader spectrum of ideas. This kind of conversational exploration and openness is not only predicted by a higher stress tolerance but also by general-interest curiosity, or what Wheatley calls “joyous exploration.”
Conversational curiosity is a critical piece of what connects us to one another. When you consider your closest relationships, this isn’t all that surprising. We feel cared for when someone listens closely, asks questions, and generally exhibits a desire to know more about us. This kind of relational curiosity fosters intimacy between people even across disagreement. “This engagement with another mind—this actual curiosity about what someone else believes and a willingness to hear an alternate interpretation or explanation—is really important for connection,” she explains.
What is surprising is the team’s discovery that our brains actually change when we practice curiosity in social interactions. In one study, participants watched video clips while lying in a brain scanner. The short clips were played without context or sound, so viewers had to piece together what the scenes depicted. Participants then came together to talk about what they’d seen and to work out what took place in the clips. Once the group arrived at a shared understanding, they returned to the brain scanners and watched the clips again—this time through the lens of other viewers’ interpretations. Among participants who exhibited curiosity during the group conversation, the scanners showed a change in brain activity. The people who listened carefully and asked questions, who were willing to alter their perceptions based on others’ insights, later adapted their own brain activity to match that of group members.
Curiosity helped to literally change people’s minds and align neural activity within a group.
Wheatley’s study demonstrated that people who are curious about others’ points of view are more likely to create alignment in their group. In contrast, those who tend to dominate the conversation are neurally inflexible and prevent collective agreement. “[Curiosity] really creates common ground across brains, just by virtue of having the intellectual humility to say, ‘OK, I thought it was like this, but what do you think?’ And being willing to change your mind,” she says.
In a time of deep polarization and cultural divides, this discovery has particularly urgent and practical implications. The U.S. is experiencing a kind of divide that researchers call “intractable conflict,” in which people’s interactions with those who hold differing opinions become increasingly charged. Curiosity offers a way to defuse this charge, opening the possibility for deeper listening and more neural flexibility. It helps combat intellectual arrogance and discomfort with ambiguity.
Of course, the goal isn’t to get everyone to think the same way. In a group, Wheatley says, “You need these highly central people who are going to create common goals and common ground. But you also need people on the fringes, the quirky, independent voices that are going to cause new ideas to emerge.” But a willingness to listen, change your mind, and incorporate new perspectives could go a long way in bridging some of the conversational divides we face today.