Why does curiosity feel so hard?
After all, curiosity is a natural and important part of being human. “Curiosity is a basic element of our cognition,” write Kidd and Hayden in the first line of their abstract for their paper The Psychology and Neuroscience of Curiosity. So many of the things we now take for granted came about because someone had curiosity about what they observed. (I mean, who thought “I should pluck this green bean from this coffee plant, grind it up and soak it in some hot water for a nice start to my morning?”) Ultimately, Kidd and Hayden argue that despite the pervasiveness of curiosity, it’s not well studied, nor is there a clear, comprehensive theory that might explain how and why it operates as it does in human life. Given that other research has supported the conclusion that curiosity is meaningful in the development of scientific thinking and important in effective problem solving, this seems like a significant absence in the literature. This absence is especially noteworthy given that curiosity seems to have more than just an instrumental function, with scholars arguing that curiosity is a moral imperative and a key intellectual virtue.
So, again I ask the question: if curiosity is developmentally natural and so important, why does it feel so hard? Am I the only one who feels like I have to actively work to cultivate a spirit of curiosity?
One reason curiosity can feel hard is because of its association with uncertainty. Curiosity is (or can be) a response to uncertainty which, on its own, can be difficult to deal with. For example, a research study found that people are least likely to respond with curiosity when they have no idea about something or when they are certain about something. Consider this with the finding that uncertainty about outcomes increases curiosity…and decreases happiness. You probably don’t need a research study to tell you that feeling uncertain can be unpleasant. So, as we might expect, we adopt habits to reduce the unpleasant feelings of uncertainty. What are these habits? Certainty!
The Dunning-Kruger effect is one of my favorites on this topic of overconfidence and certainty (check out this great 5-minute explainer video). The punchline is that if we think we’ve got things all figured out—whether consciously, unconsciously, or by a failure to intentionally examine ourselves—we squelch our chance of exercising curiosity. I want to share why I think this is a really big deal.