Curiosity takes Courage
“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. Underneath things we now take for granted, was a curiosity about something 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, 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 of the reasons that I can glean from the research literature for why 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. Perhaps you don’t need a research study to confirm that the feeling of uncertainty 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.
Curiosity opens you up.
What do I mean by “opens you up”? I mean that when we exercise our curiosity, we have to adopt a position that says there might be more to this than I can see. Maybe I don’t know everything that’s at play. There may be possibilities that I haven’t thought of yet. In the same way that the shriveled coffee bean is nothing more than a shriveled bean until someone responds to it with curiosity, there are possibilities around us (right now!) that we cannot see because we haven’t bothered to wonder about them.
When we look at the world with curiosity and wonder, there are possibilities—possibilities in the world and possibilities within us. It’s this liminal space, the space between what is and what could be, sparked by a twinge of curiosity, where I have so many times heard God speak. Instead of jumping to conclusions (“that person said that to me because they are a jerk!”), in my moment of curiosity (“I wonder what prompted that response?”) God can call me to more fully image him, responding in love, compassion, grace, and forgiveness. God can also call me to see myself more fully, calling me to responsibility for my role in that situation (“If someone spoke to me the way I spoke to them, I’d probably have said that too.”)
You see, in this, curiosity is risky. By definition, you don’t know. That means you also don’t know what you’ll find. In the example above, sometimes I find compassion for someone else and sometimes I find my own sin. Either way, I have found myself open to the finding when I orient toward the world and the people within it with curiosity.
I have a prayer that I regularly come back to. God, give me eyes to see and ears to hear. (See, as a context, Jeremiah 5:21, Matthew 13:15). When I pray this, what I’m asking is that God will orient me to wonder about the world in a way that reveals something I’ve never bothered to notice. This prayer is for me to attend to injustices I have lived beside for decades but never seen. To hear the suffering underneath the words spoken to me that have gone unnoticed. To look at the world not as I see it, but as Christ sees it. This, at its core, is an exercise in curiosity as it requires me to start with the conclusion that the world may not be as I believe it to be. I want to be open to God’s instruction, through his scripture, the Holy Spirit, and the fellowship of believers. I want to be open to this learning and, consistent with the research, I find that a posture of curiosity makes me open to this.
So what does this mean for you, this semester? I think that depends a great deal on what you are sure you’ve already figured out. So, in this space, I invite you to curiosity. In your classes. In your relationships. In your work. In your play. Ask questions. Allow yourself to wonder—not just about things, but about people. As we open ourselves up to the possibility that our initial ideas may be insufficient, incomplete, or—more profoundly—dead wrong, we open ourselves to awe and wonder about the world and God’s actions within it. You don’t need to rush to the answer; slow down, ask questions, and do the long work of wonder-in-search-of-understanding, the kind of understanding that opens new realms of curiosity, realms previously hidden. When we start with our foundation in Christ, the questions we ask invite him to lead us to new vistas where we can see his world—the world we study—more clearly. As I see it, this understanding, born from curiosity, informs our faithful presence in this world. It’s in that spirit that I come alongside you, sharing that I’m truly excited to see where your curiosity journey takes you.
I’d like to hear from you: How will you cultivate curiosity today?
This blog was incredibly insightful, Dr. Smith! It was especially interesting to me the lack of literature studying the neurobiological phenomena of curiosity because, as you mentioned, mere curiosity is responsible for many of the things we do and utilize on a daily basis (especially the coffee, speaking as a Master of Social Work student). For me, when I think about curiosity and being curious about certain things, it almost seems overwhelming. My brain is very ‘Type A’ and highly analytical, so the possibilities I can come up with about a certain topic are endless. I think for me, learning how to organize these thoughts and harness that curiosity positively can have a huge impact on the client’s I serve at my internship placement this year. I also really enjoyed the part where you brought up being curious about “what prompted that response” when communicating with others. For me as a social work student and interacting with at risk client’s in my placement, having that curiosity is vital to engaging in good practice. I think that harnessing my inner curiosity in that respect can truly help me maximize my potential as a positive resource for my clients.
Thank you for this comment, Kellie! I learn a lot from my clinically-minded colleagues about the value of curiosity about people. I find it a really valuable exercise to check my immediate reaction against other, viable reasons that I can only see if I pause long enough to be curious.
The insights in this post got me very motivated to find curiosity in every decision I make in my life. I agree when you mentioned uncertainty is linked with curiosity because I personally feel like I am being judged by the way I think about how something can work! There are many stories that used curiosity such as the creation of smartphones, electric cars, etc all because of curiosity. That motivates me to be more abstract in my thinking. Judgments will come and they will pass. But even if you have an idea that no one else thinks is good but you, Stick to it! I absolutely love the Blog. Amazing job Professor Smith.
Thank you so much, Joseph; I am glad that you found this insightful!
Greetings Dr. Smith,
The information about your research was one of the factors that caught my attention. According to a study you cited, people are less likely to answer if they don’t know something or are unsure. I was able to acknowledge that I fall into that category. I find it interesting that people avoid uncertainty by forming habits since they dislike the sense of anticipation. In a sense, the dread of experiencing trial and error is related to the idea of uncertainty and the correlation that we avoid because it makes us feel uncomfortable. Many people do not want to be incorrect, so they turn to their regular routines, which give them greater control and help them escape the sensation of uncertainty.
I also appreciated reading about the idea of our foundation in God and inquiry in your piece. As indicated, we need to start understanding by being curious; we don’t need to know the solution. Instead of being afraid of what will happen next or why we must build our foundation on our connection with Christ and trust in his process. We are curious by nature, and as we develop our relationship with God, we discover more about the opportunities he offers.
I love these comments, thank you so much for sharing. Personally, I find it (relatively) easy to be curious about information, but much harder to be curious about people. This is something I’m working on. My default interpretation (“he did that because he’s a jerk!”) provides a clear explanation, but really….do I know that? No. Curiosity will allow me to challenge my preconceptions in a way that opens me up to see the world as God sees.
This post was incredibly insightful. As you stated, people are less likely to answer if they do not know or are unsure. I fall under this category. Curiosity is a way for us to be vulnerable and admit we are uncertain. They are afraid of being incorrect and I identified as part of this. As you mentioned, curiosity can lead us to identify new things, new ways, or new meanings. It allows us to grow and it is risky but it is worth it. As a social work student, curiosity allows me to engage in good practice. When communicating with clients when I am not sure, I am growing. It is allowing me to help them and it is also allowing me to question what I thought I knew. Thank you Dr. Smith for an insightful post. I was able to identify myself in it and remind myself to be curious.
Thank you for this comment, Jessica! Especially when dealing with people – such as in a social work context – it’s so important that we slow down enough to practice compassionate curiosity about the “other” with the humble recognition that we might not know all that is relevant to know in a situation.
Greetings Dr. Smith!
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this blog post about the various aspects about curiosity, especially how beneficial it can be! While reading this, I immediately think of my tendency to “plan ahead”, and most times think of “worst-case-scenario” so that I am prepared for any and all situations. I would think this ties into the feeling of uncertainty and its negative connotation, rather than embracing curiosity and its message to slow down and ask more questions/be insightful.
With this, it makes sense to say that people are hesitant to embrace such a negative feeling, as you mentioned. However, I really appreciated how you painted curiosity in such a way where it seems as it will allow you to be a little more mindful. I especially liked how you talked about curiosity being similar to practicing empathy in some situations; rather than saying to yourself “why did they act like a dummy?”, it helps to ask yourself “I wonder what could have prompted that type of response?”. Not only would this be practicing some sort of empathy toward others, but it allows you to have a kinder thought process which could be personally beneficial when thinking to yourself. Not to mention it will allow you to be open-minded.
Thank you so much for sharing such an insightful post!
Hi Emi, thank you for sharing! Allowing yourself to foster curiosity in your life is definitely a great way to increase mindfulness and practice empathy!
Hello Dr. Smith!
I found this blog post really insightful and personal. Often times I found myself not digging deeper into life questions or life mysteries just on the basis because I don’t know what the outcomes could be or because I have no control over what I would find out. The ending application really did “open” my eyes to the possibilities and when we invite our questions and curiosities into our life we can develop a deeper understanding of who we are, what we are doing, and strengthen our foundation with Christ.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts Clare! I think that this is a wonderful reflection and highlights the fact that curiosity can be used as another tool to ask questions, grow and learn!