Aren't You Dying to Know What This Story Is About? - Pacific Standard

Aren't You Dying to Know What This Story Is About?

Further adventures in human curiosity.
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The Fall, depicted in the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The Fall, depicted in the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Eve bit the apple, Pandora opened the box, and curiosity killed the ... hey, what's behind this ominous door?

Curiosity is a powerful force—one that supposedly led to the Fall, global positioning systems, and probably a few feline fatalities—but it's not entirely clear why humans are so curious. One might think that innate curiosity drives discovery, which in turn improves our chances of survival, or at least leads to better lives. While that's surely true, a new experiment suggests that curiosity does, in fact, have a dark side: Even when we have good reason to think curiosity could harm us, we humans still give in to our own proverbial apple.

"Why do humans, including scientists, seek information, including information about how to manipulate the human genome and how to develop new weapons of mass destruction?" marketing researchers Christopher Hsee and Bowen Ruan ask in Psychological Science. It isn't simply so we can make better decisions in the future—we seek all kinds of information that's pretty useless, except possibly as entertainment.

"Why do humans seek information?"

Hsee and Ruan wanted to know how far they could push that question: Could curiosity overwhelm us even when it had no entertainment value? To find out, they conducted four experiments in which participants had the option of satisfying their curiosity, which at best would produce a fairly neutral outcome, and at worst sting pretty bad—two of the experiments involved pens rigged to give their holders a 60-volt electric shock.

In one particularly horrifying experiment, 53 college students sat in front of computer screens, on which were 48 buttons labeled "nails," "water," or "?". When clicked, the first played the sound of fingernails being dragged across a chalkboard, while the second played the sound of water being poured into a jar. The "?" button played one or the other, though participants didn't know which. Some students had just four "?" buttons, while others had 44.

If curiosity served mainly to bring us some kind of benefit, Hsee and Ruan reasoned, then people shouldn't push too many "?" buttons, because the best outcome was listening to water pouring. Yet faced with greater uncertainty—44 "?" buttons—participants pushed 39 buttons on average. In the more certain situation—only four "?"s—the students pushed just 28 buttons, suggesting that people were willing to listen to an unpleasant sound for nothing more than curiosity's sake.

"We do not suggest that individuals should never satisfy their curiosity, and we realize that curiosity resolution can yield valuable knowledge," Hsee and Brown write, but "we also wish to make a contrarian point—curiosity resolution is not always beneficial." That's perhaps something physicist and Manhattan Project leader Robert Oppenheimer wished he'd thought about sooner.

Oh, and about Eve and the cat idioms and all that? Well, aren't you a little curious?

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Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.

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