Good and bad curiosity

Is curiosity good or bad? Depends whom you ask. If anything, for me curiosity is complex and inspiring. You may be curious enough to read here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Curiosity in reading

The first time we mention curiosity in our courses is when people start reading. Before reading something we urge our students to skim through the text very quickly, ask questions, build hypothesis and otherwise build up some curiosity. Otherwise, reading gets really boring and quite often we learn nothing.

Curiosity is also important for choosing reading materials. Forcing ourselves to read books that are important without being intrigued about the contents of these books is one of the greatest sins of modern education. At school, we learn to get grades, and only after completing the formal education we start learning for fun.

The fun of learning

Learning should be fun. Mammals are genetically curious because it improves survival rates.  Curious animals are more likely to find water in a drought, develop a new hunting technique when the regular pray disappears, run into a cover in case of disasters and otherwise survive and prosper. Predators learn by playing with their brothers and sisters and mocking a hunt on something which is not a traditional pray.

When we learn something new, dopamine is released in our brain making us feel better. Knowledge often improves our social status and personal safety as human beings. If there is something new which can be discovered, there is an internal hunger to discover it, which we call curiosity. And we are gluttonous to all sorts of food.

The burden of knowledge

Not all knowledge is equally beneficial. Just as we can develop eating disorders, our consumption of information can also be flawed. As children, we’re often compelled to eat food we dislike and absorb information we don’t enjoy, simply because they are deemed “good for us.” Under constant pressure, the joy of consumption can turn into aversion.

Certain types of information can be as harmful as certain kinds of food. For example, when Nietzsche declared that “God is dead,” it was followed by the turmoil of the First World War and widespread disillusionment. Similarly, Marxism sparked bloody revolutions that claimed tens of millions of lives.

To function effectively, we need a certain degree of naive optimism. An investor I know once interviewed a young entrepreneur but decided not to support him. The entrepreneur was knowledgeable, and his idea was solid, so we asked the investor for his reasoning. His response was enlightening: “As an entrepreneur, you need to believe you can change the world, which requires a degree of naive optimism. This guy knew too much for his own good; he was already disillusioned.”

Curiosity killed the cat

Well, Shakespeare said, “care killed a cat“. It is said that “a cat has nine lives,” yet care would wear them all out. Obsessive curiosity is dangerous. As long as we are curious about the myriads of things, we can live happy lives. If we care for something particular more than anything else, we might trade everything life has to offer for something quite useless…

Obsessive curiosity is older than the bible and pandora’s box. It is a part of our rebellious nature. Probably it is good for mankind since certain questions require obsessive investigation,  but not very good for the individuals involved.

We have very little control of this obsession. Some people get obsessive about their romantic partners, which ruins the romance.  Others venture into deadly places or try to steal state secrets. Being obsessed with a scientific mystery is still not very comfy, but usually not dangerous.

Dimensions of curiosity

Since there are different kinds of curiosity, I will quote some methodology from here:

5 dimensions of curiosity:
1. Joyous Exploration – this is the prototype of curiosity – the recognition and desire to seek out new knowledge and information, and the subsequent joy of learning and growing.
2. Deprivation Sensitivity – this dimension has a distinct emotional tone, with anxiety and tension being more prominent than joy – pondering abstract or complex ideas, trying to solve problems, and seeking to reduce gaps in knowledge.
3. Stress Tolerance – this dimension is about the willingness to embrace the doubt, confusion, anxiety, and other forms of distress that arise from exploring new, unexpected, complex, mysterious, or obscure events.
4. Social Curiosity – wanting to know what other people are thinking and doing by observing, talking, or listening in to conversations.
5. Thrill Seeking – the willingness to take physical, social, and financial risks to acquire varied, complex, and intense experiences.
4 types of curious people:
1. The Fascinated – high on all dimensions of curiosity, particularly Joyous Exploration
2. Problem Solvers – high on Deprivation Sensitivity, medium on other dimensions
3. Empathizers – high on Social Curiosity, medium on other dimensions
4. Avoiders – low on all dimensions, particularly Stress Tolerance

Trying things

While during the middle ages the ruling classes were afraid of “dark books” poisoning people with bad ideas, we already developed some sort of immunity. The amount of information we are bombarded with requires a lot of filtering. Once we stop filtering the information, we can be easily overloaded. So we make sure to be focused on the subjects we consider our core competence, and the resources we consider friendly.

The real danger nowadays is trying things. Most things we try are extremely addictive because otherwise, they would drown in the noises of our lives. It is OK to be curious about sports, dance, music, and science. Being addicted to fitness or meditation is not a bad thing. Addiction to sex, video games or culinary arts can be reframed into a healthy and positive lifestyle with an effort.  Something like electronic cigarettes is probably very dangerous, even if we do not have resources to support this claim.

Social curiosity is likely to cause depression, as life is less glamorous than its depiction. Thrill-seeking may ruin us one way or another.

Fascination vs avoidance

Most people are fascinated by some things, yet avoidant in other areas, which is perfectly fine. We need fascination and awe to live full and motivating life, to be creative and interesting. Fascination improves our chances to succeed at work and with romantic relationships.

At the same time, we need to focus, and avoidance in other areas allows us to stop the barrage of information and bad temptations. If avoidance or aversion is related to something we need in our work or daily life, the situation is not very good. When we are fascinated with something that is bad for us, the situation is simply dangerous.

Controlling the arousal

Fortunately, via a combination of visualization and self-talk, we can control the level of arousal. By asking questions, and imagining cool “what if” scenarios we increase the arousal. When imagining the worst outcomes and the most boring and trivial parts of the experience we reduce the arousal. It is even easier when we have role models. In most cases, none of the pyrotechnics is needed.

The easiest (but not the most potent) exercise is simply saying aloud the same phrase many times, gradually increasing or decreasing the level of our investment in what we say. Our mind will try to move in the same direction as our voice. In the same way, we can control the amount of confidence between a question and an answer.

Avoid shortcuts

We need our curiosity when reading books. It is very easy to use a book as a justification for the things we believe in. Anna read many books on memory. When the book does not particularly interest her, and I ask about the book she always answers “They say exactly what I am teaching. The only thing I take from the book is that I am right.” When I read through a piece I do not really like, I skim for the answers and miss all the good parts.

In fact, everybody needs to reread entire sections and articles more than once when we find out that our curiosity was misplaced.  The best parts of many pieces are not the bottom line, but the methodology, the supporting materials, the way a particular thought is formulated. We need to prime our mind with a different question, get curious and read again.

Being smart

Our natural curiosity can get us only up to some point. Then we need to control our curiosity systematically. We need to increase our avoidance with respect to dangerous things and things that burn our time, while we need to get fascinated with things that are healthy and help us grow.

fascinated by the nature

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