Curiosity Thrilled the Cat
Friday, January 21, 2011
Why curiosity is the unsung virtue of the free enterprise system.
As legislators struggle to stimulate the economy, proponents of activist government continue to debate their free-market counterparts over which system will lead to long-term prosperity. But this debate has another dimension: a clash of two opposing cultures, with correspondingly different values and virtues. For example, columnist George Will has commented on “the decadent dependence that the welfare state encourages” and the conservative virtues of self-reliance and personal responsibility. American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks writes that “free enterprise is an expression of the core values of a large majority of Americans,” including personal liberty, individual opportunity, and entrepreneurship. These virtues—independence, productivity, and self-responsibility—are those commonly associated with the free market.
But the free market promotes another virtue that is rarely mentioned: curiosity. In 2004, psychologists Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson created an index of 24 character strengths, such as kindness, wisdom, and gratitude; based on their research, curiosity was one of the top five most closely linked to fulfillment and happiness. Psychologist Todd Kashdan’s recent book Curious? summarizes his and others’ research on curiosity and argues that curiosity is a vital but underappreciated element in a fulfilling life. According to Paul Silvia, associate professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, the field of curiosity and interest is now undergoing a “renaissance.” Psychologists are doing research on curiosity and its connections to emotions and creativity, among other areas, that could shape our understanding of personal and professional success.
With this in mind, shouldn’t we all be curious about curiosity?
The Curious Mindset
Curiosity was one of the top five most closely linked to fulfillment and happiness.
While everyone may know what curiosity feels like, psychologists are closely examining the role curiosity plays in life and its relation to other psychological traits. Kashdan, an associate professor of psychology at George Mason University who began studying curiosity in 2000, defines curiosity as “recognizing, embracing, and seeking out knowledge and new experiences.” Recognizing new experiences entails being open to them rather than traveling through life on autopilot, with eyes closed and mind shut off. Seeking out new experiences means not just being open to them, but actively looking for them—not just trying an exotic dish served at a dinner party, but making it at home. Embracing novelty means being comfortable with the uncertainty and ambiguity that we almost always find in the new and different. For example, when encountering different beliefs, we can fairly evaluate them only if we can tolerate the temporary uncertainty of questioning our own views.
Curiosity can thus take many forms. We can be curious about unknown or familiar things, such as a spouse of 30 years. We can be curious about inherently intriguing things—a 1960s Thunderbird whizzing down the street—or try to stimulate curiosity in everyday things. Curiosity can be pleasant or frustrating, the difference between exploring a new city and trying to remember that word on the tip of our tongue. And curiosity can be momentary, as in learning a new board game, or tied to our long-term values, like when we direct our curiosity toward the passionate pursuit of a career or a cherished loved one. In Kashdan’s view, this latter type of curiosity is more effective at creating long-term fulfillment.
Kashdan defines curiosity as ‘recognizing, embracing, and seeking out knowledge and new experiences.’
Curiosity is closely related to what psychologists call “interest,” which is usually described as a momentary state, in contrast to curiosity as a character trait. Silvia, author of Exploring the Psychology of Interest, calls interest “the emotion that gets people out of bed.” Like Kashdan, he sees interest or curiosity as a counterbalance to feelings of anxiety. Kashdan and Silvia believe that human beings have evolved both traits because of their survival value: while anxiety helped our ancestors stay alert to danger and avoid predators, curiosity and interest spurred them to discover new food sources, shelter, and other prehistoric goodies. Today, however, many of us opt to forgo new experiences in the name of familiarity and security, avoiding the anxiety of the unknown.
“Often people slant towards worrying a lot and trying to avoid contact with their anxiety and the inevitable pain of going through life,” says Kashdan. “They’re not actually doing things to try and grow as a person.”
But in neglecting curiosity, we are missing out on a wide range of benefits. Studies show that curiosity may keep our brains active and help develop new neural connections, reducing our risk for diseases like Alzheimer’s. Curiosity correlates with better social relationships, whether with strangers, friends, or romantic partners. Curious people also report finding more meaning and purpose in their lives.
But beyond these benefits, curiosity seems to be a vital trait for success in the market.
The Free Market Demands Curiosity
Curious employees. Competition to get and keep jobs favors those who are curious about new knowledge and opportunities. Prospective employees must first be curious about themselves—introspecting and identifying their own strengths, weaknesses, skills, and interests—and then direct their curiosity toward career possibilities. This way, they will be able to match their particular set of assets to one of the many available jobs, or carve out a new career. More occupations are always emerging—think of the search engine optimization expert or the wave of “green” jobs—because curious people look beyond the options in front of them. Once they secure a job, employees succeed when they are curious about their job tasks and open to learning new skills. This is especially true in today’s market, where employers have their pick among swarms of willing and motivated jobseekers.
While anxiety helped our ancestors stay alert to danger and avoid predators, curiosity and interest spurred them to discover new food sources, shelter, and other prehistoric goodies.
In June 2010, Cornell University’s Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies held a working group called “HR’s Role in Business Innovation.” The attendees—human-resources executives from companies such as Cisco, Google, and Aetna—examined how to drive innovation within organizations. “Curious employees are more likely to ask why something is done in a particular way, challenge the status quo, and connect ideas and technologies that hadn’t been connected before,” the working group concluded. “Fostering curiosity at work is a key way to stir the innovation pot.”
Curious employers. Similarly, competition among companies favors employers, and particularly entrepreneurs, who not only seek novelty but are comfortable with uncertainty. In The Innovator’s Dilemma, packed with data on the evolution of several industries, Clayton M. Christensen shows that successful companies anticipate and start developing new products before mainstream consumer demand exists. In targeting as-yet-undeveloped markets, however, these companies cannot use standard tools like opinion surveys that reduce uncertainty; they simply cannot know which consumers will be interested and which product features they will want. Because established companies are so entrenched in traditional methods and driven by mainstream markets, it is often startups that succeed and pioneer new products. For example, in 1995, three years after the introduction of the innovative 1.8-inch disk drive—now used in many MP3 players and small notebook computers—new companies controlled 98 percent of a $130 million market. As Christensen explains, managers creating new products must implement “plans for learning and discovery” and recognize “the uncertainties of a developing market” rather than trying to achieve certainty about an unknowable future.
Curiosity correlates with better social relationships, whether with strangers, friends, or romantic partners.
Kashdan, who has led curiosity workshops at companies, echoes this call. Noticing a lack of creativity in business, he advocates more open-ended brainstorming, rather than looking to the past to understand which products will sell and where the major markets are. “It’s the idea of starting anew as opposed to constantly using our stereotypes, our old habits and templates, in trying to figure out how to innovate in the future,” he explains. “The one constant we know is everything is changing—people’s preferences are changing, the world is changing, the speed of technology and information transfer is changing—so we have to be comfortable with change and purposely looking for ways to shake things up.”
Overall, the market is fundamentally dynamic, and its future depends on the individual choices of millions of people. No matter how much information we seek, uncertainty will remain—and it will favor those curious people who can recognize and adapt to it.
Curious consumers. Advertisers also understand the power of curiosity. As Silvia notes, “People talk about the attention economy. Essentially, they’re talking about the interest or curiosity economy.” In fighting for “mindshare” or bits of our time and attention, modern advertisers try to pique our curiosity and reel us in. Some ads for Palantir, a company that makes data-analysis software for government, feature just the company’s intriguing name and logo, in the hope that passersby will Google the name to find out more.
Once they secure a job, employees succeed when they are curious about their job tasks and open to learning new skills.
“When you study curiosity, you definitely believe in the old adage that supply creates demand,” Silvia adds; new products create demand simply because part of us hungers for the new. And this actually makes sense, given the evolutionary view of curiosity. Because we also have a tendency for anxiety—for avoiding the potential risks that come with the uncertainty of the new—we may not realize or seek out (that is, demand) new products without some prodding from advertisers. Under this view, advertising is partly designed to stimulate our curiosity so it can overcome any anxiety about the unknown.
Besides advertising, the abundance of choice in the free market also encourages us to be curious about our options; the most successful consumers seek out information to find the best and most affordable products. Many services have sprung up to help us in this quest, such as Yelp.com, which catalogs reviews and information about everything from restaurants to car dealerships to churches. More generally, the phenomena of user recommendations and automatically generated suggestions—meant to stimulate more spending—encourage curiosity by allowing us to safely explore new but related items. Inputting song titles into the online service Pandora, for example, generates playlists of similar but often unfamiliar music.
‘Curious employees are more likely to ask why something is done in a particular way, challenge the status quo, and connect ideas and technologies that hadn’t been connected before.’
Of course, many people decry the abundance of choice in the modern world. One of the most vocal critics is Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, who cites evidence that more choice produces paralysis or leads to less satisfaction because we always wonder whether another option might have been better. Schwartz ultimately favors redistribution of wealth to decrease the choices of those with “too much” choice and to increase the choices of the poor.
Schwartz’s view implies that the curiosity and effort required of consumers in the free market leads to unhappiness. But even if this is empirically true of many people, the solution is not necessarily redistribution. Allowing legislators to decide how much choice is “enough” assumes that there is some ideal level of choice for everyone and that it can be identified—which Schwartz himself explicitly denies, commenting in a TED video that “there’s some magical amount [of choice], I don’t know what it is.” One solution, instead, is to encourage consumers to change their mindsets, so they recognize that having more choice leads to objectively better outcomes and they revel in the independence and self-responsibility that choice entails.
The market also generates solutions to some of the problems identified by Schwartz. The grocery store Trader Joe’s achieved wild success in part because it eschews the “super” market model of stocking as many products for consumers as possible. Trader Joe’s features a more limited selection, appealing to those consumers Schwartz described that become paralyzed by too much choice.
Life Under Regulation
In more controlled economies, featuring larger governments, curiosity is not a prime virtue. State ownership of industries reduces the number of available jobs, closing off career opportunities. By prohibiting private competition, the state also decreases incentives for organizations to adapt and improve. A 2002 study of international airlines in about 40 countries found that privately owned airlines have higher profit levels and employee productivity than public airlines, with “mixed” airlines falling somewhere in the middle. And when organizations are not constantly improving, their employees have little incentive to be curious and increase their knowledge and skills. The same occurs, to a lesser degree, when extensive regulations prohibit certain types of business activities.
Because established companies are so entrenched in traditional methods and driven by mainstream markets, it is often startups that succeed and pioneer new products.
Employers, too, are discouraged from being curious. Subject to high taxation, entrepreneurs have fewer incentives to innovate in new and uncertain fields. Because taxes must be deducted from expected profits, they will choose not to invest in some products that would be viable in a free-market economy. Big-government culture thus promotes not exploration of the new, but sticking to the tried-and-true—not curiosity and growth, but security.
Heavy-handed governments also stunt the curiosity of consumers. With the government banning or regulating certain products—taxing unhealthy foods or dictating what health insurance to purchase—consumers have less choice and thus less need to seek out information. Supporters of such policies would not necessarily regard this as a problem, claiming that many people do not have the time or desire to gather information and make informed choices. More broadly, they also argue that liberal policies in general—such as welfare, Medicaid, and job security laws—remove the risks and anxiety of life. On the surface, this may seem like a worthy goal; in fact, we may be hardwired to desire security and safety. But if Kashdan, Silvia, and others are right, we attain security at the expense of curiosity, and thus at the expense of a key contributor to happiness.
Market forces are often derided as cold and inhuman. But in fact, the free market—and the curiosity it encourages—calls upon what is uniquely human within us. While animals have instincts, human beings possess the capacity of choice, and fully exercising that choice requires a curious mind that is open to new knowledge, opportunities, and experiences.
Kira Newman is an editorial assistant at the American Enterprise Institute.
FURTHER READING: Newman also investigated “What’s the Big Idea?” in innovation history, while Scott Shane explores “Small Businesses and Big Unintended Consequences.” Michael Barone says “Down with Big Government, Big Business, Big Labor,” and Arthur Brooks explains why “The Secret to Human Happiness Is Earned Success.”
Image by Rob Green/Bergman Group.