Human curiosity is so strong that it often leads us toward potentially unpleasant outcomes with no apparent benefits, even when we have the chance to avoid these outcomes altogether, according to a new study published in the journal 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.
Prior research has found that curiosity often drives people to engage in miserable or high-risk 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 behavior stems from humans’ deep-seated desire to resolve uncertainty regardless of the harm it may bring.
To test this belief, the researchers conducted several experiments that exposed participants to a variety of potentially unpleasant outcomes.
In one experiment, 54 college student participants who had been invited to the lab came upon 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 to begin.
For some of the students, the pens were color coded according to whether or not they would deliver a shock — five shock pens had a red sticker and five non-shock pens had a green sticker — so that the students knew with certainty what would happen when they clicked each one.
Other students, however, came upon 10 pens labeled with yellow stickers. These participants 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 who were uncertain of each pen’s shock ability clicked noticeably more pens. Specifically, those who didn’t know what the outcome would be clicked an average of five pens, while those who knew the outcome clicked about one green pen and two red pens.
A second experiment, in which participants were shown 10 pens of each color, confirmed these findings. Once again, students clicked more of the uncertain outcome pens than the pens that were clearly marked red or green.
To determine whether the findings would remain 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.
In this experiment, students looked at a computer display of 48 buttons, each of which played a sound when clicked. For example, buttons labeled “nails” would play a sound of nails on a chalkboard, while buttons labeled “water” played a sound of running water. Buttons labeled “?” had an equal chance of playing either sound.
Participants who encountered mostly uncertain buttons clicked an average of 39 buttons, while those who saw mostly identified buttons clicked only about 28.
Interestingly, students who had 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. In another study, participants were presented with obscured online photos of unpleasant-looking insects — such as centipedes, cockroaches, and silverfish — and they could click on image to reveal the insect.
Once again, 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).
The results of these experiments make a significant point: While curiosity is often seen as a human blessing, it can certainly take us down wrong paths, making us feel worse overall. We often 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.