The “they” I am referring to are authorities, institutions and government leaders. I wish they could see that curiosity could be the value that transforms the world. A person who is a seeker of truth, won’t find it without being deeply curious. It’s the value that will keep you looking even after you suspect you’ve found the answer. What if all of our societal challenges could simply be solved by approaching life with a sense of curious wonder?
I think they could.
There is even evidence that those who approach life with a higher degree of curiosity, are more immune to partisan thinking. I don’t find this surprising, but I love this research because it backs up the idea that curiosity can unite us and enable us to find mutually beneficial solutions. It allows us to uncover what is true, underneath all of our individual differences.
The study I am referring to is by Dan Kahan, and it specifically looked at “science-curious” folks and found that Republicans and Democrats who knew a lot about science were polarized on hot-button questions. They were confident that what they knew supported what they thought. But that trend went away when participants were sorted by their “science-curiosity” scores instead of their “science-knowledge” scores.
The “science-curious” were more likely to seek out information even when it conflicted with their (or their groups) previously held beliefs. They kept on looking, even after they thought they found the answer. In other words, they led with curiosity, not with the desire to hold their ground or protect their ideological identity.
This is an approach to life that our leaders and institutions should be guided by. What we don’t know should be just as important as what we do know. That approach goes against the way that authorities and the experts they employ, have typically operated.
Even though critical thinking is taught by educational institutions as a valuable life skill and a prerequisite for sane and intelligent thinking, curiosity is still treated as a threat to those who want to arrive at a certain outcome. Agenda driven institutions want to sway us, rather than provide us with all the facts that will let us come to our own conclusions.
As anyone who has been a teenager can tell you, being forced to act or change your behavior, often causes you to dig your heels in deeper. In fact, there is a theory that was formulated to explain the unpleasant feeling that is triggered when we feel that another is trying to control our behavior or limit our freedom. It’s called the Reactance Theory, and it aims to explain why we often feel the urge to do the opposite of what we are told to do. Rebellion can be an effort to regain a sense of control when we are faced with a situation where we feel our control slipping away- a situation like a pandemic.
Being told what to do, without being given clear information as to the pros and cons of the different options you might choose, is a recipe for rebellion. It is the reason that authoritarian style parenting creates out-of-control kids. It is the reason that abstinence-only sex education doesn’t work either.
Humans are by nature curious and they want to have answers to their questions and feel empowered to make choices that make sense to them. When they don’t have those options, they rebel. They become even more distrustful of those who push them.
In Ian Leslie’s book Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It, he has this to say about curiosity:
“Curiosity assumes that all rules are provisional, subject to the laceration of a smart question nobody has yet thought to ask. It disdains the approved pathways, preferring diversion, unplanned excursion, impulsive left turns. In short, curiosity is deviant. Pursuing it is liable to bring you into conflict with authority at some point, as everyone from Galileo to Charles Darwin to Steve Jobs could have attested.”
So curiosity is both deviant and THE way to uncover the truth. It is productive rebellion. Dissenting voices need to be heard whether they are right or wrong because all explorations lead to truth in an agenda-free environment. When it is suspected that information or opinions are being hidden or curiosity is being stifled, trust is eroded and disdain soars.
Our approach to public health favors conformity over curiosity and doesn’t trust in the public’s ability to make good decisions. Because of that, choice data, options, and nuances about what we do and don’t know are left out of the dominant narrative because it is believed that we might question what we are being told to do. But what if a history of a lack of transparency and nuanced honesty is actually what is causing many to rebel against the recommended path? That would mean that the plan is backfiring.
What if mandates are just serving to activate the Reactance Theory?
Imagine a world where we believed that our public health institutions had curiosity as a core value? A world where, like the study I referenced earlier, the leaders were seeking out information even when it conflicted with their previously held beliefs. What if they tried to prove themselves wrong?
Another thing curiosity can do is counteract the effect of Identity-Protective Cognition; AKA disregarding the truth to protect one’s identity.
It is a term coined by Dan Kahan that refers to the tendency to “avoid dissonance and estrangement from valued groups by subconsciously resisting factual information that threatens their defining values.” If we ALL put the value of curiosity and truth-seeking over the value of protecting our idea of who we are, the loss of that identity would not be such a fearful proposition. Group boundaries would start to overlap, so the fear of estrangement would not be such a powerful motivator.
The world would be very different if we all lived life with a sense of wonder and curiosity. Just imagine a world where seeking truth didn’t cause estrangement and it was pursued even in the face of profit-loss, even when it means having to say “I was wrong.” No agenda, no bottom line, just curiosity.
We might trust them then. And they might trust us too.