What is Curiosity?

The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity. -  Dorothy Parker 

Understanding curiosity is the first step to becoming more curious - and realising all the great benefits this can deliver

Curiosity: What is it?

Curiosity – put very simply, is the urge to find out more.

It’s the ‘knowledge emotion’. We may find ourselves attracted to things that are new, strange, or don’t quite fit. They raise questions we want to know the answers to.

The realisation that there are gaps in our knowledge can also give rise to curiosity. Especially if we really like order in our internal ‘mental maps’ of knowledge: we will want to expand them and make them more coherent. 

It can take an equal measure of attraction to new information and desire for a coherent internal map, to strike the right balance for optimal curiosity. - This can be helped by your sense making power

Children are great teachers of curiosity. So many things are new to them, and they are free to explore without the constraints that adults have. Curiosity though, is an important motivator across the whole life span. It is a great example of ‘intrinsic motivation’; genuine curiosity occurs without an external reward. Neurological studies have shown that being curious about something, makes us feel good in the same way that anticipating an ice cream might, for example.  

Other researchers found that when something makes us curious, we’re not only more likely to remember information we find out about this, but information that we find out about anything we learn when we’re already in a state of curiosity. Even things we weren’t curious about to begin with. Being curious makes us better investigators, team players, sense makers and problem solvers, which is critical to all professions and ways of working. 

Curiosity is important for systems thinking - seeing the whole as well as the parts, finding out as much as possible about a specific problem or challenge before rushing to solutions. Curiosity helps us understand the problems we face - so we’re better placed to solve them. 

In spite of these fascinating features, curiosity is still in the early stages of being researched. 

Am I Curious?

Some of us are naturally more inquisitive than others – and have curiosity built into us like a personality trait. We don’t take things at face value or accept what we’re told without explanations or looking deeper. We might find ourselves challenging those around us about their assumptions, playing ‘devil’s advocate’, or looking at everything from multiple angles before deciding what we believe. Curiosity is also understood to be an important trait of a creative personality.  (What feedback have you had from others about your levels of curiosity?).

Whether or not this is like you, we can all experience curiosity as a state of being, and challenge ourselves to extend our ‘mental maps’ by being open to new information as well as committing to learning from it.  

Did Curiosity Kill The Cat? 

Certain down-sides to being too curious have been observed by scientists and anthropologists. We’ve noted some of the main ideas, so that we have a fuller picture of what we’re dealing with. 

Socially, you can risk appearing nosey, or breaking boundaries others are comfortable with if your curiosity takes you too far. Online, you may be vulnerable to ‘clickbait’ and psychological exploitation, if you are manipulated by information that appears new and intriguingly jarring. In terms of potentially dangerous risk taking, a scientific experiment called ‘The Pandora Effect’ showed how ‘curious people can tend to seek missing information, even when the outcome is expectedly harmful’.

In spite of these negatives, we still think that curiosity is a good thing to encourage. As long as we are aware of the potential down-sides of too much curiosity in the wrong contexts, it can be the opener to the whole world - and not only Pandora’s Box.

Curiosity Drives Learning… 

Curiosity often comes at the beginning of a learning journey, and it can make a big difference to the end result if we’ve spent enough time with our curiosity in the beginning, allowing it to lead us to new information or a different way of seeing.  

Barriers to Curiosity

There are two important ways that we can find ourselves held back from being curious.

  • One is negative self-focussed feelings such as shame or social anxiety, which can inhibit exploration and asking questions. We might simply be shy, we might be afraid of sounding foolish or ignorant through asking questions, or we may have been discouraged from asking questions in the past and perhaps even punished for this. Feeling low can also have a negative effect on curiosity; when our tendency is to protect ourselves and retreat instead into what is familiar. All of these things can make us passive rather than curious. We find ourselves needing to get braver.
  • The other major barrier to curiosity is feeling and believing that we already have the information we need. This can be very subtle and hard to detect in ourselves, because we need to make continuous judgements in our daily lives in order to navigate our surroundings. So we might not notice that some of those micro-judgements will be forming patterns of assumptions and rigid behaviour that can prevent us from learning new information. It is easier to lean on what we already know. We may also find it unnerving to open up to the possibility that the outside world is different to what we previously thought; making exploring feel insecure. All of these things can make us closed or presumptuous about reality, rather than curious. We find ourselves needing to open our minds a little more.  

Becoming More Curious… 

The good news is that there are ways to help unlock some of these patterns and release new levels of curiosity in ourselves, with a little time and practice. If we are able to strike a good balance between empowering our natural attraction to new and strange things, and our desire to understand how they fit with the rest of our ‘mental map’ (even if this means doing the hard work of revising the original map), we will probably be making the most of what curiosity can bring.  

There are various strategies for this that you might find helpful as you progress through your learning journey. We call them Paths.  

Your Learning Journal 

Something highly recommended as you’re travelling this journey, is keeping a journal. Whether a paper journal, a scrapbook or a virtual space to record your thoughts and experiences chronologically; this provides a crucial reflective tool for you to clarify thoughts through creative expression, prompt and remind yourself of important learning, and track your progress as you look back on it. This will be a space for recording your responses to questions or Paths you encounter here, but it may also include much of your own ad-libbing and anything else that is helpful to you. 

You’ll notice pointers along the way to encourage and remind on the use of your journal; but this can take whatever form you like.


Go Deeper

Next Step

Why Could Curiosity Be Good For You?