This expression about cats and curiosity has remained, perhaps because, in many organisations, questioning can be perceived as attacking the status quo or challenging authority. History has revealed orthodoxy can be unkind to those who oppose it. This is reflected in old fables such as The Emperor’s New Clothes3, where everyone shares a common lie for fear of consequence. In this fable, it is finally the most curious, a child, who exclaims, “The Emperor is naked, he has no clothes!” And, suddenly, everyone feels free to admit their shared view of the world is flawed.
In ancient times, curiosity was the poor cousin of wonder. Wonder brought humility; whereas, curiosity was mischievous. Aristotle wrote curiosity is mostly a witless and aimless prying into things of no concern to us. In contrast, wonder is the root of true inquiry and the beginning of the love of wisdom (philosophy)4. There appears to be one significant difference between the two concepts: awe. Wonder sees the unknown and is amazed; curiosity takes that wonder and asks, “How does it work” and “How can we do it better?”
We are all born with an insatiable curiosity. An essential aspect of learning is asking why. As we age, this curiosity may become more focused with questions such as “How can we improve?”, “What is a different perspective?” or “Where can we get more information?” These questions fuel a lifelong journey of learning and discovery.
Curiosity has been defined as a need, thirst or desire for knowledge. It is central to personal motivation5, which is defined as the arousal, direction and persistence of behaviour6. Curiosity is a motivational prerequisite for exploratory behaviour7. At the core of curiosity are three components: learning, exploration and immersion8. Guo, Zhang, and Zhai describe this as a sensory curiosity (a focus on emotional experience), epistemic curiosity (a focus on the desire to gain new knowledge) and perceptual curiosity (a focus on what data is seen and heard)9.
The tantalising information gap
Curiosity tantalises us. It gives us the energy to pursue knowledge we do not have. In Greek mythology10, this is perhaps best illustrated by the story of Tantalus who, for his crimes, faced the punishment in Hades of having food and drink always in front of him, but every time he reached out for sustenance, the items moved slightly out of his grasp. Thus, the word “tantalise” conveys a sense of being teased by the unobtainable.
There is an unsettling cognitive dissonance that exists in being tantalised by the hope of something just out of one’s reach. This curiosity is an opportunity to test taken-for-granted assumptions and, therefore, to become aware of a gap in personal knowledge or skills. Lowenstein’s information gap theory asserts that “curiosity happens when we feel a gap in our knowledge”. To alleviate feelings of deprivation (i.e., missing out), Lowenstein11 found the intensity of curiosity is linked to the likelihood of being able to fill this information gap. We work hard attempting to solve a puzzle until we can see what the image may be. Lowenstein also discovered we are more curious about knowledge gaps in areas we already know about. In other words, if we have a 7/10 knowledge of cats, we are more likely to want to fill in the gap than if we only had 1/10 knowledge of cats. In this way, curiosity is seen to enhance learning when knowledge gaps are posed as questions, puzzles, dilemmas and cases12.
Given this, curiosity may increase the learner’s motivation to think more often and more intently about the subject under consideration, resulting in “deeper” learning rather than merely skimming and doing the bare minimum to get by13. This enhanced learning is brought about by a desire to resolve the dissonance often induced by curiosity14.
These information gaps need to be manageable for students, and educators, therefore, should be acutely aware of what those gaps are for their students. Lowenstein’s15 research suggests that, when the information gap is small, curiosity is heightened. This is consistent with the view presented by Litman et al.: “When we know nothing, we aren’t curious at all. We have nowhere to begin, and therefore no curiosity to drive us to acquire the knowledge.”16 Litman et al. identified a “tip of the tongue” phenomenon, explaining we are “most curious when we feel the need to recall something that we are close to remembering.”17 On the other hand, when we already know something, our curiosity has been satiated and our desire for learning diminishes. In this way, curiosity is so personally motivating because it has very little to do with what we feel we “have to do”, and a lot to do with what “we want to do”. This reinforces the idea that regular “check-ins” with learners to assess their current knowledge is essential in keeping curiosity alive.18 Otherwise, it may slip into one of two extremes: not enough information gap equals boredom; and too much information gap equals a sense of being overwhelmed.
The advantages of curious learning at work
When we are curious at work we are more resourceful. We ask more questions such as: “what can I do to be better?” or “Are there different ways I can solve this problem?” Consequently, we naturally come up with interesting and innovative ideas. In this way, the following occurs:
- Curiosity quickly builds rapport, trust and relationship quality.19
- Curiosity lures us out of our comfort zone. The unknown is not as scary when curiosity enables us to peek into the darkness and, while we know there will be surprises, our fear is overpowered by our curiosity as a result of our desire to discover something new.
- Curiosity helps us to frame difficult discussions in a friendly manner—for example, stating “I’m curious about why you did it that way” is easier (and will likely be better received) than stating “Why did you do it like that?”
- Curiosity advances empathy in people helpers (e.g., doctors, nurses, psychologists, and pastors)20, as it helps us appreciate people’s personal circumstances and perspectives.
- Curiosity improves workplace learning and increases job performance.21
- Curiosity allows us to be more solution-focused. It helps us explore possibilities and see things from different perspectives. For example, asking “How can I improve that?” leads to innovation and new ways of facing the future.
- Curiosity helps improve our enjoyment of life and satisfaction with living.22
- Curiosity helps us find peace. When we are willing to stand in someone else’s shoes, we can better understand the perspectives of others in a way that diminishes conflict and misunderstandings.
- Curiosity builds resilience and helps us manage change. Furthermore, it focuses us on the adventure of what might be ahead rather than on a fear of the unknown.
- Curiosity can enhance self-awareness—the key to personal learning. When we feel free to look within and to be vulnerable, honest, and willing to question who we really are and what truly motivates us, we are then ready to learn and grow.
Curiosity is a resource for peak performance. It is a powerful motivator for learning, innovation and productivity. Great leaders are challenged to inspire curiosity in their teams to develop emerging leaders who will produce great results for their business.
Copyright © 2020 The Colloquium Group.
This is an adapted excerpt from the upcoming book: Savouring Life: The Leader’s Journey to Peak Performance By Stephen Smith, Murray Bingham, Catherine Kleemann, Anna Reznik and Carol Salvadori.