Is Curiosity Fleeting, or Worse?

| May 5, 2019
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An interesting combination.

From an evolutionary perspective, there is a clear reason why animals would seek out information: it can be vital to their survival and reproduction… Another possibility is that evolutionary pressures have made information intrinsically rewarding. – From HuffPost

For educators with an interest in enhancing the truthiness of society, the present is a good time for reflection on gaps between our shared myths and the truth. I’m particularly worried about the negative effects of a myth close to the heart of educators: the idea that humans are naturally curious.

Curiosity is certainly valuable. The article Curiosity is Fleeting, but Teachable by Bryan Goodwin is a nice overview of the relevance of a discussion about curiosity to educators. He summarizes recent research:

A recent meta-analysis concluded that together, effort and curiosity have as much influence on student success as intelligence does (von Stumm, Hell, & Chamorro-Premuzic, 2011). Other studies have linked curiosity to better job performance (Reio & Wiswell, 2000); greater life satisfaction and meaning (Kashdan & Steger, 2007); and even longer lives (Swan & Carmelli, 1996).

But perhaps more troublingly:

The longer children stay in school, the less curiosity they tend to demonstrate (Englehard & Monsaas, 1988).

In short, psychological research suggests that while humans start life as seemingly curious, environmental influences diminish or enhance it. I think this suggests that we are minimally curious, which should be thought of as closer to information-seeking rather than knowledge-seeking. Information-seeking behavior seems highly related to or plodding around the globe with a focus on survival and reproduction (as imaginatively conveyed in the advertisement for “Love Potions and Snake Oil”), and may have become part of our nature through the process of natural selection. More information, more survival. Can the same be said for curiosity?

If there is nothing natural about curiosity, then it is a mistake to think that children (or people of any age) are going to be motivated by it. Students might ask about understanding and knowledge: what’s in it for us?

I think the answer has to be, “better tools.” Curiosity, imagination, and understanding are closely linked in the history of tool-making. Approaching curiosity as a learned behavior is a good step toward designing pedagogy to inspire imagination and motivate the process of understanding.