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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