Nav: Home

Curiosity leads us to seek out unpleasant, painful outcomes

April 08, 2016

Curiosity is a powerful motivator, leading us to make important discoveries and explore the unknown. But new research shows that our curiosity is sometimes so powerful that it leads us to choose potentially painful and unpleasant outcomes that have no apparent benefits, even when we have the ability to avoid these outcomes altogether.

The findings are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

"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," explains study author Bowen Ruan of the Wisconsin School of Business at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Previous research had shown that curiosity drives people to seek out miserable experiences, including watching horrible scenes and exploring dangerous terrain. Ruan and co-author Christopher Hsee at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business hypothesized that this curiosity stems from humans' deep-seated desire to resolve uncertainty regardless of the harm it may bring.

To test this hypothesis, the researchers designed a series of experiments that exposed participants to a variety of particularly unpleasant outcomes.

In one study, 54 college student participants came to the lab and were shown electric-shock pens that were supposedly left over from a previous experiment; they were told that they could click the pens to kill time while they waited for the "real" study task to begin.

For some of the participants, the pens were color coded according to whether they would deliver a shock--five pens that would shock had a red sticker and five pens that wouldn't shock had a green sticker--meaning that the students knew with certainty what would happen when they clicked a given pen.

Other participants, however, saw 10 pens that all bore yellow stickers and were told that some of the pens had batteries while others didn't. In this case, the outcome of clicking each pen was uncertain.

The results were clear: Students in the uncertain condition clicked noticeably more pens. On average, those who didn't know what the outcome would be clicked about five pens, while those who knew the outcome clicked about one green pen and two red pens.

A second study, in which students were shown 10 pens of each color, confirmed these results. Once again, students clicked more of the uncertain outcome pens than the pens that were clearly identified.

To find out whether the findings would hold under other conditions and whether resolving curiosity would indeed make participants feel worse, the researchers designed a third study involving exposure to pleasant and unpleasant sounds. Participants saw a computer display of 48 buttons, each of which played a sound when clicked. Buttons labeled "nails" would play a sound of nails on a chalkboard, buttons labeled "water" played a sound of running water, and buttons labeled "?" had an equal chance of playing either sound.

On average, students who saw mostly uncertain buttons clicked about 39 buttons, while those who saw mostly identified buttons clicked only about 28.

Interestingly, the results also showed that participants who clicked more buttons reported feeling worse afterward, and those who faced mostly uncertain outcomes reported being less happy than those who faced mostly certain outcomes.

Additional findings suggest that asking people to predict the consequences of their choices might dampen the power of their curiosity. Participants in an online study were presented with obscured pictures of unpleasant-looking insects--such as centipedes, cockroaches, and silverfish--and they could click on image to reveal the insect.

As in the previous studies, participants faced with uncertain outcomes clicked on more pictures (and felt worse overall); but when they had to predict how they would feel about their choice first, they clicked on relatively fewer pens (and felt happier overall).

Together, the findings from this series of simple experiments make a big point: While curiosity is often seen as a human blessing, it can also be a human curse. Many times, we seek out information to satisfy our curiosity without considering what will happen when we do.

"Curious people do not always perform consequentialist cost-benefit analyses and may be tempted to seek the missing information even when the outcome is expectedly harmful," Ruan and Hsee write in their paper.

"We hope this research draws attention to the risk of information seeking in our epoch, the epoch of information," Ruan concludes.
-end-
For more information about this study, please contact: Bowen Ruan at bruan@wisc.edu.

The article press release abstract is available online: http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2016/03/21/0956797616631733.abstract

For a copy of the article "The Pandora Effect: The Power and Peril of Curiosity" and access to other Psychological Science research findings, please contact Anna Mikulak at 202-293-9300 or amikulak@psychologicalscience.org.

Association for Psychological Science

Related Curiosity Articles:

NASA's Curiosity rover finds clues to chilly ancient Mars buried in rocks
By studying the chemical elements on Mars today -- including carbon and oxygen -- scientists can work backwards to piece together the history of a planet that once had the conditions necessary to support life.
Study: Organic molecules discovered by Curiosity Rover consistent with early life on Mars
Organic compounds called thiophenes are found on Earth in coal, crude oil and oddly enough, in white truffles, the mushroom beloved by epicureans and wild pigs.
Developing a technique to study past Martian climate
Joanna Clark , a University of Houston doctoral student has received a $285,000 grant from NASA to develop a technique that could one day be used to better understand past climate conditions on Mars.
With Mars methane mystery unsolved, curiosity serves scientists a new one: Oxygen
For the first time in the history of space exploration, scientists have measured the seasonal changes in the gases that fill the air directly above the surface of Gale Crater on Mars.
A curiosity-driven genetic discovery that should impact cancer treatments
A team of geneticists with a desire to understand the inner workings of genes implicated in cellular identity has discovered new biological targets that may help devise alternative therapies for cancers that are becoming resistant to existing drugs.
Quenching scientific curiosity with single-molecule imaging
New experimental insights allow researchers to probe protein-DNA interactions with greater precision.
How information is like snacks, money, and drugs -- to your brain
A new study by researchers at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business has found that information acts on the brain's dopamine-producing reward system in the same way as money or food.
What we think we know -- but might not -- pushes us to learn more
Our doubts about what we think we know pique our curiosity and motivate us to learn more, according to new research from the University of California, Berkeley.
Curiosity's first attempt at gravimetry advances martian geology
By cleverly repurposing a device onboard Curiosity normally used to detect the rover's movements on Mars to measure slight variations in gravitational fields instead, researchers have refined the understanding of how Gale crater and the mountain at its center formed.
New research uses Curiosity rover to measure gravity on Mars
A team of researchers repurposed navigational sensors aboard NASA's Curiosity rover, enabling the scientists to measure gravity on the lower slopes of Mount Sharp, a peak that rises from the center of Gale Crater.
More Curiosity News and Curiosity Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

TED Radio Wow-er
School's out, but many kids–and their parents–are still stuck at home. Let's keep learning together. Special guest Guy Raz joins Manoush for an hour packed with TED science lessons for everyone.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#565 The Great Wide Indoors
We're all spending a bit more time indoors this summer than we probably figured. But did you ever stop to think about why the places we live and work as designed the way they are? And how they could be designed better? We're talking with Emily Anthes about her new book "The Great Indoors: The Surprising Science of how Buildings Shape our Behavior, Health and Happiness".
Now Playing: Radiolab

The Third. A TED Talk.
Jad gives a TED talk about his life as a journalist and how Radiolab has evolved over the years. Here's how TED described it:How do you end a story? Host of Radiolab Jad Abumrad tells how his search for an answer led him home to the mountains of Tennessee, where he met an unexpected teacher: Dolly Parton.Jad Nicholas Abumrad is a Lebanese-American radio host, composer and producer. He is the founder of the syndicated public radio program Radiolab, which is broadcast on over 600 radio stations nationwide and is downloaded more than 120 million times a year as a podcast. He also created More Perfect, a podcast that tells the stories behind the Supreme Court's most famous decisions. And most recently, Dolly Parton's America, a nine-episode podcast exploring the life and times of the iconic country music star. Abumrad has received three Peabody Awards and was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2011.