Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on it (Review)

One day as I was clicking through Amazon, the site recommended a book with the word Curious across a black cover with an owl beneath. Naturally, I was curious: A whole book on curiosity? How much is there to say? About 45 seconds later, I was reading it. It was a fun read, peppered with stories, descriptions of research, and historical anecdotes. It was filled with rich quotes, by the author and many others that have written about the topic over centuries, and I’ll let those quotes drive this review.

curious

A Taxonomy of Curiosity

Curiosity is not just one thing. Ian Leslie describes three types of curiosity, distinguished by the contexts in which they arise and the behaviors they encourage us to seek out.

Diversive curiosity is an attraction to things that are novel. I imagine a dog on a walk, pausing to inspect every seemingly new patch of dirt, trash, or fire hydrant. Humans show a lot of diversive curiosity too, like when we scroll through a Twitter feed or flip the TV channels 30 times in a minute. It’s not just a low-level type of curiosity, but instead is a starting point that drives us to seek out new experiences and people and paves the way for two deeper types of curiosity.

Epistemic curiosity manifests when diversive curiosity is honed as a quest for knowledge or understanding. It is “deeper, more disciplined, and effortful” than diversive curiosity, a desire to understand how the world works. Psychologists use the term Need For Cognition (NFC) as a measure of intellectual curiosity. People with a high NFC thrive on and enjoy intellectual challenges, while those low in NFC prefer their mental lives to be as straightforward as possible.

Empathic curiosity is the drive to understand the thoughts and feelings of others, which we can attain by learning to put ourselves in others’ shoes.

A History of Curiosity

Leslie takes us through curiosity’s ups and downs over the past centuries: in some eras, it was looked down upon, and little innovation took place during those times. In other times, for example during the Renaissance, empathic and epistemic curiosity became widely popular, and culture exploded. Cities, too, promote the explosion of curiosity: “The city was a serendipity generator.”

Even now, public opinion of curiosity is a mixed bag: we still repeat warnings of Adam and Eve’s curiosity, we parrot the phrase, “curiosity killed the cat,” use the word curious when we actually mean that someone is weird, and emphasize practical job skills in education over all else. At the same time, there’s a market for books like this one, lauding the trait and going so far as to claim that “your life depends on it.”

How does the Internet fit into society’s curiosity? On the one hand, we have an incredible amount of information literally at our fingertips. Naturally curious people can have a field day, and many do. But people who are lower in NFC can use the internet to stunt the development of their curiosity… which many also do. Who/what/when/where questions can usually be answered by typing a pithy phrase into Google, clicking on the first search result without reading about it, and scanning a sentence or two of the web page. This type of information-seeking is not effortful, and therefore doesn’t engage the processes at work when we truly exercise curiosity. Leslie comes back to this theme often: while the Internet has amazing potential for expanding our horizons and allowing us to share ideas faster than ever, if we’re not careful, it can also squash our curiosity, much to society’s detriment.

Metaphors for curiosity

Puzzle vs. Mystery: Leslie attributes this distinction to security and intelligence expert Gregory Treverton. Some problems are puzzles:

they have definite answers… are orderly; they have a beginning and an eng. Once the missing information is found, it’s not a puzzle anymore. The frustration you felt when you were searching for the answer is replaced by satisfaction. Mysteries are murkier, less neat. They pose questions that can’t be answered definitively, because the answers often depend on a highly complex and interrelated set of factors, both known and unknown… Puzzles tend to be how many or where questions; mysteries are more likely to be why or how.

He uses the question “where is Osama bin Laden?” as an example of a puzzle. Its mystery equivalent might be “how does Osama bin Laden think?” Similarly, reading a mystery novel is also a puzzle, because once you get to the end, you know who did what, and the problem is solved. Reading a novel like The Great Gatsby, on the other hand, is a mystery, because it leaves you thinking about questions that don’t have definite answers, like the true nature of the American dream.

Leslie encourages people to “forage like a foxhog.” This idea, credited to the Greek poet Archilochus, is that “‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.'” The hybrid foxhog is the compromise to the question of whether we should strive to become generally knowledgable people or aim to become experts in very specific areas. The foxhog does both of these, resulting in knowledge that can be considered “T-shaped”: The top of the T is surface knowledge, and foxhogs have a lot of it. The other part of the T is its slender, lengthy spine. Foxhogs also possess tall Ts, because they have intense knowledge about at least one area. In other words, “curious learners go deep, and they go wide.” As a side note, robust, healthy Ts are precisely the goal of a PhD program, designed to make you smart in a way that will be conducive to having happy hour drinks with many people (academics) while becoming so knowledgable about your own field (or subfield, or sub-subfield…) that sometimes you have to teach your advisor what you’re doing.

The Malleability of Curiosity

Leslie emphasizes that “a person’s curiosity is more state than trait.” That means that although we are born with varying degrees of innate NFC, curiosity is highly influenced by our surroundings.

Questions are crucial. They’re tools through which we learn incredible amounts of information about the world.While asking questions may seem like a very basic ability, it actually requires a few important skills: you have to know that there are things you don’t know, you have to be able to imagine that there are different possibilities for the things you don’t know, and you have to recognize that other people are sources of information. A kid between the ages of 2 and 5 will ask roughly 40,000 explanatory questions. And when kids are spoken to by adults who ask questions themselves, the kids begin to ask more. The moral of that story is that asking kids questions gets them to also ask questions, which helps them not only learn about the world, but also to learn that inquiring about the world is a fruitful behavior.

The Importance of Curiosity

Curiosity fosters innovation. Computers are now smarter than humans at many tasks, but computers aren’t curious. For this reason, Leslie writes:

The truly curious will be increasingly in demand. Employers are looking for people who can do more than follow procedures competently or respond to requests, who have a strong, intrinsic desire to learn, solve problems, and ask penetrating questions. They may be difficult to manage at times, there individuals, for their interests and enthusiasms can take them along unpredictable paths, and they don’t respond well to being told what to think. But for the most part, they are worth the difficulty.

Why can curious people innovate better than non-curious ones or better than computers? Curious people are “the ones most likely to make creative connections between different fields, of the kind that lead to new ideas.”

Angela Duckworth is well-known for popularizing the concept of grit: “the ability to deal with failure, overcome setbacks, and focus on long-term goals.” Grit has been demonstrated to be an incredible predictor of success in many areas of life. I once heard two professors talking about the most successful grad students as those who have grit, and their conversation plays through my head on a weekly basis, if not more often. Grit and curiosity go hand in hand. If you’re curious, you just keep learning and exploring, even once you’ve learned what you set out to know. If you’re gritty, you just keep going, even when obstacles arise and the goal you’re pursuing becomes more difficult.

To be curious, you have to know things. One way of thinking about curiosity, attributed to George Loewenstein, is that there’s an information gap: you know some things about a topic, and then realize that you don’t know everything, but that you can learn more. This creates an awesome cycle: the more you learn, the more you want to learn.

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