How to stimulate curiosity
Curiosity is the engine of intellectual achievement—it's what drives us to keep learning, keep trying, keep pushing forward. But how does one generate curiosity, in oneself or others? George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, proposed an answer in a classic 1994 paper, "The Psychology of Curiosity."
Curiosity arises, Loewenstein wrote, "when attention becomes focused on a gap in one's knowledge. Such information gaps produce the feeling of deprivation labeled curiosity. The curious individual is motivated to obtain the missing information to reduce or eliminate the feeling of deprivation." Loewenstein's theory helps explain why curiosity is such a potent motivator: it's not only a mental state but also an emotion, a powerful feeling that impels us forward until we find the information that will fill in the gap in our knowledge.
Here, three practical ways to use information gaps to stimulate curiosity:
1. Start with the question.
Cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham notes that teachers—along with parents, managers, and leaders of all kinds—are often "so eager to get to the answer that we do not devote sufficient time to developing the question," Willingham writes in his book Why Don't Students Like School?
Yet it's the question that stimulates curiosity; being told an answer quells curiosity before it can even get going. Instead of starting with the answer, begin by posing for yourself and others a genuinely interesting question—one that opens an information gap.
2. Prime the pump.
In his 1994 paper, George Loewenstein noted that curiosity requires some initial knowledge. We're not curious about something we know absolutely nothing about. But as soon as we know even a little bit, our curiosity is piqued and we want to learn more. In fact, research shows that curiosity increases with knowledge: the more we know, the more we want to know. To get this process started, Loewenstein suggests, "prime the pump" with some intriguing but incomplete information.
3. Bring in communication.
Language teachers have long put a similar idea to use in exercises that open an information gap and then require learners to communicate with each other in order to fill it. For example, one student might be given a series of pictures illustrating the beginning of the story, while the student's partner is given a series of pictures showing how that same story ends. Only by speaking with each other (in the foreign language they are learning, of course) can the students fill in each others' information gaps.
This technique can be adapted to all kinds of settings: for example, colleagues from different departments could be asked to complete a task together, one that requires the identification of information gaps that the coworkers, with their different areas of expertise, must fill in for each other. Communication solves the problem—and leaves the participants curious to know more. Abstracts of the studies referenced here can be found on my blog.
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This Week's Brilliant Quote"People are often surprised when I tell them that I am a mathematician as well as a playwright. Some people seem to believe that the brain can hold only one kind of information, or that when one side is working the other has to be left empty for storage. If they are lucky, students graduating from high school will likely believe that they have only one or two talents and that the majority of subjects offered at school are either uninteresting or beyond their grasp. As a society we are living under a vast spell or illusion. We have effectively hypnotized ourselves, but not in a single performance. It has taken twelve or thirteen years of school to put us in a suggestive state so that we all believe more in our limitations than in our potential, and it is difficult for anyone to snap their fingers to break the trance."—John Mighton, The End of Ignorance