Why curiosity gets the better of us

Alice G. Walton | Aug 31, 2016

In Greek mythology, Pandora opened a jar and released all the evils of humanity. Research suggests that our curiosity continues to get us into trouble. 

“Curiosity is well recognized as a human blessing, facilitating learning, propelling discoveries, and enriching life,” says Chicago Booth’s Christopher K. Hsee. “Our research indicates that curiosity can also be a human curse, leading people to suffer predictably miserable consequences without apparent benefit other than resolving their curiosity.” 

Hsee and Bowen Ruan of the University of Wisconsin–Madison surmised that people facing a situation that was uncertain (and more often than not negative) would be more likely to investigate that situation than people facing a more certain situation.

To test this hypothesis, they observed college students in a lab who thought they were waiting for an experiment to begin. The researchers put some colored pens on the table and told the students the pens had been left from a previous experiment. 

The researchers told the students that green pens were innocuous, red pens would deliver an electric shock if clicked, and yellow pens might deliver a shock if clicked, but it wasn’t a sure thing. Some pens did generate electric shocks of approximately 60 volts. 

“Participants clicked more of the uncertain-shock pens than both the certain-shock pens and the certain-no-shock pens. Apparently, their desire to resolve the uncertainty (curiosity) led them to click those pens, and thereby exposed them to painful electric shocks,” the researchers write.  

The researchers replicated the results of the pen study in other studies that replaced electric shocks with disgusting pictures of insects and the excruciating noise of nails scratching on a chalkboard.

Our irresistible urge to know may lead us into unpleasant places, but opening the mythical jar won’t necessarily make us feel better. People who encountered uncertainty and acted to resolve it reported worse overall feelings than people in the “certain” camp.  

“Our research sheds light on why humans, including scientists, seek information such as how to manipulate the human genome and how to develop new weapons of mass destruction,” says Hsee. “The obvious reason for these activities is to benefit ourselves, e.g., to improve our health and our security. But is it also possible that humans pursue these activities just in order to satisfy our curiosity without sufficient attention to potential risks?”