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Curiosity compels us to make some pretty terrible decisions, study finds

Curiosity might not have killed the cat, but it sure isn’t helping.

JOSH HRALA
8 APR 2016
 

Common life advice states that you should strive to keep your curiosity alive. After all, curiosity is what keeps us, as a species, moving into the future.

But sometimes curiosity gets the better of us. In fact, according to a new study by researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, curiosity often leads us to make decisions that we know will end with poor, unpleasant and sometimes downright painful outcomes. What does that actually mean, though? Well, it’s probably best to answer that with an example.

 

Remember ‘Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans’ from the Harry Potter books and movies? If not, they were jelly beans that had every flavour imaginable from strawberry to boogers. The catch was that you never knew what you were going to get. Jelly Belly actually made a version of these beans and people across the world ate them up, literally, despite the fact that most of the time it was unpleasant.

According to the team, this is because we throw caution to the wind when curiosity takes over.

"Just as curiosity drove Pandora to open the box despite being warned of its pernicious contents, curiosity can lure humans - like you and me - to seek information with predictably ominous consequences," said one of the researchers, Bowen Ruan

The team’s work started by examining previous curiosity studies that showed how often the impulse drew people to seek out these upsetting experiences. With that in mind, the team set out to test this theory.

Their initial hypothesis was that "this curiosity stems from humans’ deep-seated desire to resolve uncertainty regardless of the harm it may bring".

To test this idea, the team did a whole bunch of experiments. The first featured 54 student participants who were shown electric-shock pens that they could mess with while they waited for the 'real study' to begin. Some of the participants had pens that were marked with red and green stickers that indicated which ones shocked while the others had pens marked with only yellow stickers, making it unclear which pens would shock. 

 

After leaving the students in a room to shock themselves for a little bit, the team found that the uncertain group clicked way more pens in general. However, the participants with the marked pens often chose the shock pens over the non-shock pens. In both cases, the students expected a painful outcome but ignored the warning signs because of curiosity. 

In another experiment, the team had participants look at a computer screen with 48 buttons. Each of these buttons played a certain sound ranging from something pleasant like a song, to nails on a chalkboard. Mixed in with these labelled sounds were mystery buttons marked with a question mark.

"On average, students who saw mostly mysterious options clicked about 39 buttons, while those who saw mostly identified buttons clicked only about 28," the team writes in a release. 

To make matters worse, the 'more curious people' reported that they felt worse after following their curiosity than those who went with more certain choices.

In the end, the team concluded that while curiosity is an important human trait, it’s also sort of a flaw, because we are curious to a fault sometimes. 

You can read the team’s full report in Psychological Science.

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