Curiosity: The Endless Pit of Discovery and Wonder

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Eleanor and her archeological team were digging near the Gobekli Tepe Temple ruins in 2005. Using the most advanced earth-penetrating drills, they had managed to dig a 50-meter-deep hole inside a cavern that was previously not on the map. There were inscriptions and symbols all over the cavern depicting a single-armed, 7-fingered warrior. Just as Eleanor’s assistant begins lowering himself into the hole, someone, something dry and abrasive, grabs onto his shoulder…

Did you feel something there? A little bit of curiosity, a little bit of intrigue?

Emotions behind Emotions

We think of emotions as the feeling we get when something happens. But if we zoom in, there are emotions behind the emotions. The layer beneath the basic “first-order” emotions determines our behavior in some precise way. Curiosity is in that layer beneath.

First-order emotions like sadness, joy, and fear alter our behavior automatically. Fear indicates avoidance, sadness indicates accepting a loss and lowering the body’s energy expenditure, joy indicates a reward, and disgust indicates a threat to life by disease.

Second-order emotions like curiosity, agency, familiarity, beliefs, confusion, and doubt – alter our behavior with a deliberate effort to create knowledge. They are called epistemic feelings. So, beliefs let you understand the world. Curiosity lets you explore the world. Confusion and doubt let you gain clarity. Familiarity gives the confidence to interact. Agency lets you modify the world with your decisions, etc. All of these epistemic feelings are about knowledge. Epistemic means “related to knowledge.

Epistemic feelings are the emotions that will make you auto-complete that incomplete story I started with.

Curiosity

Curiosity is an epistemic feeling that drives us to seek and explore instinctively. It comes before motivation. Curiosity, in fact, is the reason people are motivated to seek more information.

Epistemic feelings are necessary for meta-cognition – thinking about thinking. It’s what gives us self-reflection, deep insights, creative insights, values, belief systems, judgments, and appreciation for experiences.

A moderately curious person would use the tools to get work done instead of offloading it to someone else for a lot more money. All epistemic feelings can make us more independent and more DIY. I’m not even joking – our civilization is built on discovery and exploration because someone was curious to find out what’s out there.

Visionaries have traditionally found such opportunities. The Internet’s creation, the laptop, the smartphone, the fridge… most technologies had some pioneers who thought differently, beyond the obvious. They got curious to find better solutions.

D. E. Berlyne[1], an influential psychologist from the 1950s, said the human curiosity we see – epistemic curiosity – is far more than the “perceptual curiosity” that is seen in animals. Perceptual curiosity is also there in humans, but it hardly is enough to explain our behavior.

Imagine you are a cat. You are looking from a hidden vantage point on top of a low-rise water tank to figure out your environment full of houses, fences, and odd staircases. Meeeooooww. That is perceptual curiosity. You are simulating the environment in your brain. You are making judgments about how you would move through it. Perceptual curiosity is the intent to seek new knowledge by perceiving the world. Transform back into a human now. Epistemic curiosity now looks at how the environment was built and what different things can happen in it. Is there a hidden area that I can’t see? What can I expect there?

The epistemic curiosity we see is, again, of 2 types.

Jordan Litman and his colleagues[2], all 21st-century psychologists, say we have an interest-focused curiosity and a deprivation-focused curiosity. Interest-focused curiosity is a path toward new knowledge because there is more to know, more to find out, and more to play with. Deprivation-focused curiosity is a path to reduce a problem state. That is the curiosity to find creative solutions and improve the status quo.

  • Interest curiosity is to discover and explore, regardless of an opportunity to explore. So if there is none, people are curious to find out how they can know more. If there is an opportunity, people will take it right away. People explore art out of interest curiosity. They try new foods out of interest curiosity.
  • Deprivation curiosity is the real hard-hitting deal that governs most businesses and lives. Everyone has problems of some kind that need solving. Some people don’t solve them, and others try to solve everyone else’s problems. People invented the fork out of deprivation curiosity. Companies made mobile-first content out of deprivation curiosity because mobile behavior was not aligned with desktop behavior. Airconditioning technology comes from deprivation curiosity.

Necessity is the mother of all invention. It’s deprivation curiosity that executes the idea. A known problem fuels deprivation curiosity. A belief there is more information to gain fuels interest curiosity. Both work together.

To stay on topic, I’ll use the metaphor of a map again. Transform into a pirate now. You find a broken, torn map full of holes and illegible scribbles. Interest curiosity is finding what’s at the border of the map. It is to find out if the map is a part of a larger map or not. Deprivation curiosity is finding out what was present in the missing parts in between, what’s underneath the scribbles.

Need for Cognitive Closure

That burning desire to know more has a special case – the need for cognitive closure. Exactly the feel you get to WANT to know what happens in the story I told you.

Need for cognitive closure[3]is a tendency to gain information to have conclusions and definite answers. It’s a preference for order and structure along with a discomfort with ambiguity. For example, visiting multiple doctors to get the same diagnosis is a need for cognitive closure. When doctors do not give the same diagnosis, the need for cognitive closure is unmet. Then, the person continues seeking cognitive closure till there is one definite answer.

More commonly in slang lang, the need for cognitive closure is called having “completion issues” and is often described as OCD tendencies. But let’s stick to the precise idea – the need for cognitive closure is a tendency to gain more information to arrive at a definite conclusion. It stems from a low tolerance for uncertainty and incompleteness.

If I were high on the need for cognitive closure personality trait, I would not have 60 half-developed articles in my drafts folder. I’d be uncomfortable with that level of incompleteness, and, one by one, I’d finish developing my thoughts for all.

Like people are curious, they are also uncertainty-averse. They don’t want to stay in the unknown. When choosing what movie to watch during a Saturday night chill sesh, my friends and I would go to the depths of the internet to find out how the movie is. It would take an hour. That’s typically 65% of the entire movie’s runtime. This is all to ensure that there is a “reward” for taking a risk.

When uncertainty is high, the reward is unknown. And the motivation to know more about what the reward is is strong. It looks like curiosity, but it’s really a low tolerance for uncertainty that seems like misguided curiosity. Rationally, trying out the movie is enough. But suppose it is bad halfway through, and you are certain the movie has no payoff; the need for cognitive closure is battling you – to complete the movie and find a conclusion for how you spent that time.

The need for cognitive closure is a direct motivator. If it appears like motivation through curiosity, nothing really changes. You still get the outcome of curiosity – you gain more information and clarity. But, a need for cognitive closure is not as pure as curiosity. Curiosity is literally about finding out more – it’s a thirst that needs quenching. While the need for closure is more about accepting any kind of information that somehow gives a sense of completion, order, or certainty – it’s an aversion to incompleteness.


Making sense of the world

There is a genius observation from researchers who studied how we make sense of the world – a process they termed “sense-making.” The idea is that we constantly monitor what we know, what we don’t know, and how we interpret what is happening around us. That gap between what we know and what we don’t makes it difficult to interpret everything around us. When it is just moderately difficult, curiosity emerges. When that gap is huge, we get boredom.

First, let’s look at sense-making. Let’s say you want to buy the new iPhone 15. You love the look, the brand, and the prestige of having one. Your decision is made intuitively. When you actually buy it, and someone asks – why did you buy it? – what do you say? You might just say, “It’s such a good phone; it takes great pictures and lasts for a day.”

Now, introspect – was that true? Or was the iPhone a very quick decision you made because you knew it couldn’t be bad and you didn’t have to spend time thinking about it? The difference between why you bought and what you tell as the story of why you bought is a sense-making process. It’s how you explain and rationalize your decisions.

In principle, sense-making is a mental process of giving explanations for your experiences that you find believable and satisfying. Literally, sense-making is how we make sense of our experiences.

A sense-making perspective ties 3 independent mental states together[4] – curiosity, boredom, and flow. Curiosity is the self-motivated drive to seek more information. People get curious to extend their knowledge and feel the “reward” of knowledge. It emerges when you have to make MORE sense of what you already know or fill knowledge gaps for a better understanding of what you don’t know. Boredom, on the other hand, is the absence of sense-making in the present moment. Boredom comes when the current moment or information presented to you makes far LESS sense than what you felt before that moment. That’s why a movie documentary about a topic you have no idea about gets boring because the story doesn’t make sense to you.

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The psychological “flow state” is the opposite of both boredom and curiosity. Flow is an intense state of concentration and involvement with some activity with the highest levels of sense and meaning. However, unlike in curiosity, there is no concern about making sense of one’s gaps in knowledge. And unlike in boredom, there is no discomfort about how little sense something makes.

For a second, forget about flow. That’s out of context for now, but you can read more about it here.

Knowledge just outside your current limits of understanding fuels curioisty. Knowledge far outside your boundary can feel meaningless and no curiosity emerges.

When the gap between your existing knowledge and what you don’t know is small, your sense-making process rises to fill that gap. If the gap is huge, your curiosity drops because what you don’t know is so out of reach that you don’t find it interesting or accessible. If the gap is small, curiosity rises to make sense of that gap and fill it.

Let’s simplify this even more.

Motivating others to be curious

As I said previously, curiosity is a second-order emotion, and it creates more motivation. It’s an emotion that makes you think more before acting, unlike the first-order emotions that first alter behavior and then make you think. By definition, people are motivated when they are curious. But what if we flip this? How do you motivate people to be curious?

Let’s say you know a little about space and planets. Someone tells you there is a star 500 times larger than the sun. Your curiosity is likely coming with astonishment because you can already make sense of space-related information, and a sun 500 times larger is within your grasping power. It is an unknown, but it is accessible because you already know a little bit. But you don’t know enough. Now you want to know more – you are showing interest curiosity.

So, to motivate people to feel curious about a topic, you have to give them something within their mental reach but that they don’t yet know. It has to be accessible enough for them to feel they can understand and learn more. At the end of that understanding, there is a reward. Filling that gap in knowledge is the reward. It is a sense of achievement and a state of more clarity. The reward is that the world makes a little more sense now.

If you want people to be curious, give them something exciting to know and then let them fill in their knowledge gap.
Get people to think – “Now I want to know how that happens”. Make it make sense to them.

The simplest context for curiosity is high exposure to a wide variety of everything. If you are exposed to different “gateways” for what you can understand, your brain will open some doors out of curiosity. In casual speaking, this is just being open-minded.

And if that is not possible, you linger on something for a long time until you suddenly notice something new about it. Today, I learned that the “alt” key on a keyboard stands for “alternate” because it alternates the function of some other keys. Lingered on it for decades, only to google it right now.

Another gateway to curiosity is language. If people don’t have the words to comprehend something, that something feels meaningless and “noisy”. This is a state called hypocognition – hypo = low, cognition = thinking. Naturally, without words as an access point, curiosity doesn’t even get a realistic opportunity. One of the least overwhelming ways to motivate people to feel curious is to give them a vocabulary so they can begin talking about a topic that has the potential to be curious.

One single takeaway for you – if you really are unmotivated and not curious – learn some new words, get exposed to a variety of random things, and linger on observing familiar things in your surroundings. There will be a spark.

Curiosity builds up when you are exposed to variety or you linger on something long enough.

P.S. As Eleanor’s assistant screams after being grabbed on the shoulder, someone taps on Eleanor’s back just seconds later. “Leave. Leave as soon as you can,” a local stutters. “Who are you?” asks Eleanor. “Leave and don’t come back,” warns the local. “Don’t wait here; the demon – Yedi Bicak – man with the 7 white sharp fingers will appear behind.” The assistant screams, his voice dampening as he falls into the hole.

P.P.S. Curiosity didn’t kill the cat. It just tapped on Eleanor’s assistant’s shoulder.

P.P.P.S. The assistant didn’t die. He just falls into the pit, ricocheting inside the hole as it narrows, and sees a bright blue and silver mineral formation that likely predates all civilization. He gathers himself to inspect it and is drawn to what looks like a fossilized tablet that looks like a screen, half embedded within the mineral, perhaps 14 by 3 inches.

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