The Neglected Virtue of Curiosity

Cu­ri­os­ity is the most su­perfi­cial of all the af­fec­tions; it changes its ob­jects per­pet­u­ally; it has an ap­petite which is sharp, but very eas­ily satis­fied; and it has always an ap­pear­ance of gid­di­ness, restless­ness and anx­iety.

- Ed­mund Burke, A Philo­soph­i­cal En­quiry into the Ori­gin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful

Cu­ri­os­ity is the first virtue: “[a] burn­ing itch to know is higher than a solemn vow to pur­sue truth.” Yet I find sur­pris­ingly lit­tle ma­te­rial about cu­ri­os­ity on Less Wrong. Sure, An­naSala­mon shows us how to use cu­ri­os­ity, luke­prog pon­ders what cu­ri­os­ity looks like, Eliz­a­beth dis­cusses the limits of cu­ri­os­ity, and Eliezer_Yud­kowsky offers the med­i­ta­tion on cu­ri­os­ity. But we have never been pro­vided with an overview of the sci­ence of cu­ri­os­ity, as has been done for pro­cras­ti­na­tion, mo­ti­va­tion, and hap­piness, for in­stance. Per­haps most Less Wrongers score high on cu­ri­os­ity already, so there hasn’t been much need to study it. But I of­ten wish I were more cu­ri­ous. Some of you may, too. For the rest, what fol­lows is a jour­ney back to the ba­sics of ra­tio­nal­ity.

What is cu­ri­os­ity, and how can we be­come more cu­ri­ous?

Cu­ri­os­ity: what?

We have all felt that burn­ing itch to know on at least some oc­ca­sions. It leads us to ask ques­tions,1 ma­nipu­late in­ter­est­ing ob­jects,2 and con­tinue do­ing challeng­ing tasks.3 Kash­dan and Fin­cham (2004) define cu­ri­os­ity as “the vo­li­tional recog­ni­tion, pur­suit, and self-reg­u­la­tion of novel and challeng­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties (re­flect­ing in­trin­sic val­ues and in­ter­ests)”. Loewen­stein (2000) also em­pha­sizes the fact that cu­ri­os­ity oc­curs in the ab­sence of an ex­trin­sic re­ward. All the­o­ries of cu­ri­os­ity agree that its short term func­tion is to learn and ex­plore. In the longer term, cu­ri­os­ity aids us in build­ing knowl­edge and com­pe­tence.4 When cu­ri­ous, we en­ter a state of flow, and be­come im­mersed in what­ever it is we are do­ing.5

Re­searchers dis­t­in­guish be­tween state cu­ri­os­ity and trait cu­ri­os­ity. State cu­ri­os­ity is evoked by ex­ter­nal situ­a­tions. Why is the sky blue? How does quan­tum lev­i­ta­tion work? Trait cu­ri­os­ity on the other hand is a char­ac­ter­is­tic that peo­ple pos­sess to vary­ing de­grees. Some­one with high trait cu­ri­os­ity seeks out com­plex­ity, nov­elty, con­flict, and un­cer­tainty.6 7

Cu­ri­os­ity can be mea­sured across sev­eral di­men­sions (Kash­dan, 2009):

  • In­ten­sity. How strong is that burn­ing itch to know?

  • Fre­quency. How of­ten do you feel it?

  • Dura­bil­ity. How long does it last?

  • Breadth. How many top­ics evoke it?

  • Depth. Does the itch re­main as you learn more about a topic?

It has been sug­gested that trait cu­ri­os­ity sim­ply mea­sures the fre­quency and in­ten­sity of state cu­ri­os­ity.8

I sus­pect many of you are par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in epistemic cu­ri­os­ity. Epistemic cu­ri­os­ity mea­sures our de­sire for knowl­edge and un­der­stand­ing, rather than, say, our de­sire to ex­plore new cul­tures or meet new peo­ple. This no­tion is closely re­lated to other psy­cholog­i­cal con­structs such as need for cog­ni­tion, typ­i­cal in­tel­lec­tual en­gage­ment and open­ness for ideas, and some have ar­gued that there isn’t enough ev­i­dence for treat­ing them as sep­a­rate things.9 With that in mind, it might be worth ex­am­in­ing the liter­a­ture on these no­tions closer as well.

Early in our lives, cu­ri­os­ity will typ­i­cally in­crease, only to start de­creas­ing later. One study found that, on av­er­age, cu­ri­os­ity in­creases from age 12 un­til peo­ple at­tend col­lege.10 By the age of 30, cu­ri­os­ity typ­i­cally starts to de­cline. But some peo­ple man­age to re­tain their cu­ri­os­ity even as they grow older. One study fol­lowed a group of men and women from col­lege age un­til later adult­hood. Those that were iden­ti­fied as very cu­ri­ous later in life had many char­ac­ter­is­tics in com­mon: rich emo­tional lives with both pos­i­tive and nega­tive feel­ings, ac­tively search­ing for mean­ing in life, don’t ex­pe­rience them­selves as be­ing re­stricted by so­cial norms, and chose ca­reers that gave them op­por­tu­ni­ties to be in­de­pen­dent and cre­ative.11 More broadly, cu­ri­os­ity is cor­re­lated with the Big Five trait of Open­ness.12

The Benefits of Curiosity

Much re­search makes it plau­si­ble that cu­ri­os­ity is in fact the first virtue. It has a wide ar­ray of benefits, not only re­lated to ra­tio­nal­ity or in­tel­li­gence.13 One study found that it ac­counts for roughly 10% of the var­i­ance in achieve­ment and perfor­mance out­comes.14 In par­tic­u­lar, stud­ies in­di­cate that cu­ri­os­ity is use­ful for the fol­low­ing:

  • Health. Cu­ri­ous peo­ple are more likely to live longer, and less likely to de­velop Alzheimer’s dis­ease, for ex­am­ple.15

  • In­tel­li­gence. Be­ing cu­ri­ous at an early age is a good pre­dic­tor of in­tel­li­gence later in life, even when ini­tial in­tel­li­gence is taken into ac­count.16

  • Mean­ing and pur­pose in life. Cu­ri­ous peo­ple are more likely to de­velop in­ter­ests, hob­bies, and pas­sions, which typ­i­cally in­crease feel­ings of pur­pose.17

  • So­cial re­la­tion­ships. Cu­ri­ous peo­ple re­port more satis­fy­ing re­la­tion­ships, and are also more prone to de­velop new re­la­tion­ships with strangers.18

  • Hap­piness. In­creased cu­ri­os­ity is as­so­ci­ated with a mod­er­ate in­crease in hap­piness and well-be­ing.19 A lack of cu­ri­os­ity has also been linked to nega­tive emo­tions, such as de­pres­sion.20

Begin­ning in the mid-70s, re­searchers have spent much effort at­tempt­ing to mea­sure cu­ri­os­ity. Un­for­tu­nately, at­tempts to cross-val­i­date such mea­sures have usu­ally pro­duced low in­ter­cor­re­la­tions (Loewen­stein 1994).

Luck­ily for those who wish they were more cu­ri­ous, cu­ri­os­ity is a malle­able psy­cholog­i­cal state. It is very much in­fluenced by so­cial con­texts, and other in­di­vi­d­ual differ­ences.21 Rel­ish the good news of situ­a­tion­ist psy­chol­ogy!

Cu­ri­os­ity: how?

Cu­ri­os­ity, it seems, is a big deal. So what can we do to be­come more cu­ri­ous? Kash­dan and Fin­cham (2004) fo­cus on three fac­tors cor­re­lated with cu­ri­os­ity: au­ton­omy, com­pe­tence, and re­lat­ed­ness.

Au­ton­omy. Peo­ple are more task cu­ri­ous when given more choice,22 and when given more in­for­ma­tion and en­courage­ment.23 On the other hand, threats, pun­ish­ment, nega­tive feed­back and surveillance all have nega­tive effects on task cu­ri­os­ity. A meta-anal­y­sis found that the same goes for ex­ter­nal re­wards, though the effect was more ro­bust for in­ter­est­ing, com­pared to bor­ing tasks.24

Com­pe­tence. Events that make in­di­vi­d­u­als be­lieve they can in­ter­act effec­tively with the en­vi­ron­ment (per­ceived com­pe­tence) or that give them the de­sire to do so (com­pe­tence val­u­a­tion), will lead to en­hanced cu­ri­os­ity.25 Sincere praise in­creases both per­ceived com­pe­tence and com­pe­tence val­u­a­tion, and could there­fore be a use­ful way of in­creas­ing cu­ri­os­ity.26

Re­lat­ed­ness. Feel­ings of re­lat­ed­ness—feel­ing con­nected to oth­ers, and be­liev­ing your emo­tional ex­pe­riences are ac­knowl­edged—also ap­pear to in­crease cu­ri­os­ity.27 In par­tic­u­lar, re­lat­ed­ness has been shown to im­prove both cu­ri­os­ity and perfor­mance in ath­letic,28 aca­demic29 and work con­texts.30 Feel­ing com­fortable and safe also en­courages cu­ri­os­ity.31

Based on these three fac­tors, Kash­dan and Fin­cham (2004, p. 490) pro­pose a table of em­piri­cally-in­formed “cu­ri­os­ity in­ter­ven­tions”. Th­ese include

  • Create tasks that cap­i­tal­ize on nov­elty, com­plex­ity, am­bi­guity, va­ri­ety, and sur­prise.

  • Pur­posely place in­di­vi­d­u­als in con­texts that are dis­crepant with their ex­pe­rience, skills, and per­son­al­ity.

  • Create tasks that can be con­ducted in­de­pen­dently.

  • Allow op­por­tu­ni­ties for play.

  • Create tasks that are per­son­ally mean­ingful.

  • Create challenges that match or slightly ex­ceed cur­rent skills.

  • Create en­joy­able group based ac­tivi­ties.

Un­for­tu­nately, most stud­ies on cu­ri­os­ity have fo­cused on nar­row ar­eas, and so the breadth of cu­ri­os­ity has not been well-ex­am­ined. Fac­tors that cor­re­late with cu­ri­os­ity in one do­main may not do so in oth­ers.32 The study of cu­ri­os­ity is still in its in­fancy, and most of these in­ter­ven­tions re­main to be ex­per­i­men­tally tested. But as of to­day, these might be the best tools available.

That was a sum­mary of what we know about cu­ri­os­ity. Now go out and ex­plore!


1Evans (1971) found that ask­ing lots of ques­tions is cor­re­lated with one of three scales of the ‘On­tario Test of In­trin­sic Mo­ti­va­tion’. Peters (1978) re­ports that stu­dents with high trait cu­ri­os­ity asked more ques­tions when their in­struc­tor was per­ceived as non-threat­en­ing. If, on the other hand, the in­struc­tor was per­ceived as threat­en­ing, no differ­ence was found be­tween stu­dents with high trait cu­ri­os­ity and those with low trait cu­ri­os­ity.

2Reeve and Nix (1997) found, among other things, that hand speed while perform­ing a puz­zle task cor­re­lated with self-re­ported in­trin­sic mo­ti­va­tion.

3See San­sone and Smith (2000) for a review

4Kash­dan and Silvia (2009)

5Cu­ri­os­ity is closely re­lated to in­ter­est and in­trin­sic mo­ti­va­tion (Kash­dan and Fin­cham 2004), and con­se­quently there is a con­sid­er­able over­lap be­tween the study of these phe­nom­ena. Many re­searchers treat these terms in­ter­change­ably.

6Kash­dan and Fin­cham (2004). Loewen­stein (1994) raises some doubts about the use­ful­ness of dis­t­in­guish­ing be­tween state cu­ri­os­ity and trait cu­ri­os­ity.

7See Lit­man and Silvia (2006) for an overview of ways to mea­sure trait cu­ri­os­ity. Like many other psy­cholog­i­cal traits, cu­ri­os­ity is mostly mea­sured through ques­tion­naires. Begin­ning in the mid-70s, re­searchers de­vel­oped many differ­ent ways of mea­sur­ing cu­ri­os­ity. Un­for­tu­nately, at­tempts to cross-val­i­date such mea­sures have typ­i­cally pro­duced low in­ter­cor­re­la­tions (Loewen­stein 1994)

8Silvia (2008)

9Mus­sel (2010)

10McCrae et al (2002)

11Kash­dan (2009)

12McCrae (1996)

13Cu­ri­os­ity also ap­pears to be cor­re­lated with some nega­tive things. Green (1990) linked it with an in­creased prob­a­bil­ity of al­co­hol use. Kolko and Kazin (1989) found the same for ar­son.

14Schiefele, Krapp and Win­teler (1992)

15Swan and Carmelli (1996)

16Raine et al (2002)

17Kash­dan and Ste­ger (2007)

18Kash­dan et al (2011), Kash­dan and Roberts (2004)

19Br­dar and Kash­dan (2010), Gal­lagher and Lopez (2007)

20Ro­drigue, Ol­son, and Markley (1987)

21Kash­dan and Fin­cham (2004)

22Cor­dova and Lep­per (1996)

23Black and Deci (2000)

24Deci, Koest­ner and Ryan (1999)

25Cury et al (2002), Elliot et al (2000)

26Deci, Koest­ner and Ryan (1999)

27Mikulincer and Shaver (2003)

28Grolnick and Ryan (1989)

29Hazan and Shaver (1990)

30Smoll et al (1993)

31Kash­dan, Rose and Fin­cham (2004)

32Kash­dan and Fin­cham (2004)


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Swan and Carmelli (1996). Cu­ri­os­ity and mor­tal­ity in ag­ing adults: A 5-year fol­low-up of the Western Col­lab­o­ra­tive Group Study. Psy­chol­ogy and Aging 11(3):449-453