Curiosity is one of those traits that modern legend wants us to love. It’s the gift that drove Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, and it unlocked doors for Georgia O’Keeffe, Oprah Winfrey and Lady Gaga, allowing them to create wholly new material in a same-old, same-old world. While that’s reason enough to look for sources of boundless curiosity in our own lives, it’s worth considering a much older legend—the one about Pandora, whose curiosity uncorked all the evils and sorrows of humanity. Studies show that curiosity can be friend or foe. Here’s how to put curiosity in your corner as a powerful agent for life change.
Expand Your Curiosity and Make It Count
The art of seeking makes you receptive to a world of positive changes. Three simple tips can make it happen by helping you keep an open mind.
“Curiosity is an effective way to break away from what we think we know to find a new understanding of facts—a key skill for anyone hoping to make changes.”
Curiosity’s Ups and Downs
There’s no arguing that curiosity helps us learn. Our brains light up more when we’re highly curious, and we remember that information better than facts that are related to areas of lower curiosity, according to a study from the University of California at Davis. (The researchers discovered people’s areas of high and low curiosity by asking how curious they were to know the answers to trivia questions like “Who was president of the U.S. when Uncle Sam got a beard?*” and “What does the term dinosaur mean?**” )
But curiosity can lead you to poor decisions—it's why we force ourselves to watch scenes in horror movies that we know will terrify us. Curiosity can cause you to hurt yourself—even encourage you to give yourself shocks. Example: Participants in a recent study from the University of Wisconsin at Madison were told they were waiting for an experiment. To kill time, they could fiddle around with pens that administer painful electrical shocks when clicked. One group was given pens with red stickers, which they were warned would zap them, as well as green stickered pens, which wouldn’t. A second group got pens with yellow stickers, which the researchers said might or might not have batteries. Everyone who was ever a teenager can probably guess the outcome: The group with the yellow pens couldn't resist the temptation to find out which ones would hurt them, clicking on an average of five pens. Their curiosity about whether the pens might hurt them was strong enough to overcome their fear of the mild shock.
The bright side, says Evan Polman, Ph.D., who also researches curiosity at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, is that we can use curiosity to spur positive changes. Looking for ways to motivate people to take the stairs more, he and his team posted trivia questions on the first floor and the answers on the fourth. It increased stair use by 10 percent.
That led to a related experiment, offering students either a plain cookie, which the students were told contained a fortune that would teach them something about themselves, or a cookie dipped in chocolate and sprinkles that held a generic fortune. Curiosity trumped chocolate, with 71 percent wanting to know what was inside the plain-Jane cookie.
“Once a curiosity gap has been created, we want to close it,” he says, which explains all those click-bait headlines on the internet. He says you can use your curiosity to make healthier choices. “Let’s say there’s an episode of a TV show you want to watch. It can be pretty motivating to say, ‘I’m not going to watch it until after I go to the gym.’”
And in an era of increasingly polarized thinking about politics, curiosity is emerging as an effective way to break away from opinion and what we think we know to find a new understanding of facts—a key skill if you're looking to change your life. Researchers from Yale University dove into the intricacies of politically motivated reasoning, the growing tendency in our culture to selectively interpret facts in a way that supports what you already believe. Using scales that measured both scientific knowledge and scientific curiosity, the study reports that curiosity counteracts politically biased information processing and “promotes open-minded engagement with information that is contrary to individuals’ political predispositions.” So if changing your mind about things is the precursor to changing your life, curiosity is the key to opening your mind.
We Are All Naturally Curious
While it’s easy to imagine that some people, like inventors and artists, simply have larger reserves, curiosity is something we are all born with. “I’ve never met a toddler who isn’t curious,” says Kathy Taberner, co-author of The Power of Curiosity: How to have real conversations that create collaboration, innovation and understanding. “But in many of us, that curiosity gets stifled. I was taught as a girl that it was better to be seen and not heard and to keep questions to myself. But people—especially educators—are beginning to understand how important kids’ questions are.”
Taberner and her daughter, both executive coaches, started the Institute of Curiosity after realizing that what people found most valuable about coaching was learning new ways to listen to others. “The big insight for us was how much curiosity people had in their relationships. When people learn to listen and be curious about others, instead of assuming everyone else has the same perspective they do, it opens them up to possibilities in all aspects of life.”
Want to be more curious about the people—and the wider world—around you? Taberner, who opens her book with Albert Einstein’s famous quote—“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious”—believes that curiosity is what powers effective life changes, enabling us to make transitions from one job or relationship to the next. And she says three basic skills are all you need.
Three Ways to Tap Into Your Curiosity
Be present in conversations. As easy as it is to check email when you’re on the phone with someone or make mental lists when your spouse starts complaining about his work, “try to absorb what is going on,” Taberner suggests. “Notice their body language and tone of voice.” The payoff: Once we stop multitasking and genuinely listen, we get two rewards. The person we’ve listened to feels better about the conversation, feeling that he or she had your respect and your attention, Taberner says. And because we are fully in the moment, we can hear new information and ideas, and curiosity has a chance to kick in.
Choose how you want to listen. Sometimes, she says, we listen to others with a lens of judgment, evaluating what another person is saying as good or bad, useful or not useful. In some cases, we focus on the feelings of the person speaking. In others, we focus on our response to what’s being said. Or we might just focus on understanding the content of the conversation. Any of those choices can be appropriate. “The point is to be mindful, and decide how you want to listen. Sometimes we can be totally open, and hold a place of ambiguity,” she says. That can lead to life-changing insights. The payoff for fine-tuning your approach: Knowing the difference between a venting colleague and one who’s looking for true collaboration lets you save your curiosity for when it’s most likely to be useful.
Ask open questions. There’s a reason reporters often start with simple who, what, how, where, when and why questions. “We’re a society of tellers, and it’s not serving us very well. You’ll know it’s a good question if it can’t be answered yes or no,” she says. “‘Tell me more’ is an effective way to get people to open up.” The payoff: The more you learn, she says, the more likely you are to find your way to something unexpected, like an idea that can change your approach to a problem or way of thinking.
Taken together, these three skills result in stronger and more communicative relationships, which foster brainstorming, collaboration and support for life changes, Taberner says. “Curiosity is an enriching feeling,” adds Polman. “It helps people discover new things.”