Curiosity leads us to seek out unpleasant, painful outcomes

Curiosity, often seen as a motivator that helps humans make important discoveries, may lead us to choose potentially painful and unpleasant outcomes that have no apparent benefits, a new study has found.

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and University of Chicago hypothesised that curiosity stems from humans’ deep-seated desire to resolve uncertainty regardless of the harm it may bring.

To test this hypothesis, the researchers designed a series of experiments that exposed participants to a variety of particularly unpleasant outcomes.

In one study, 54 participants came to the lab and were shown electric-shock pens that were supposedly left over from a previous experiment.

They were told that they could click the pens to kill time while they waited for the “real” study task to begin.

For some of the participants, the pens were colour coded – five pens that would give a shock had a red sticker and five pens that would not shock had a green sticker.

Other participants, saw 10 pens and were told that some of the pens had batteries while others did not. In this case, the outcome of clicking each pen was uncertain.

Students in the uncertain condition clicked noticeably more pens. On average, those who did not know what the outcome would be clicked about five pens, while those who knew the outcome clicked about one green pen and two red pens.

To find out whether the findings would hold under other conditions and whether resolving curiosity would indeed make participants feel worse, the researchers designed another study involving exposure to pleasant and unpleasant sounds.

Participants saw a computer display of 48 buttons, each of which played a sound when clicked.

Buttons labelled “nails” would play a sound of nails on a chalkboard, buttons labelled “water” played a sound of running water, and buttons labelled “?” had an equal chance of playing either sound.

Students who saw mostly uncertain buttons clicked about 39 buttons, while those who saw mostly identified buttons clicked only about 28.

The results also showed that participants who clicked more buttons reported feeling worse afterwards, and those who faced mostly uncertain outcomes reported being less happy than those who faced mostly certain outcomes.

Researchers also suggest that asking people to predict the consequences of their choices might dampen the power of their curiosity.

Participants in an online study were presented with obscured pictures of unpleasant-looking insects and they could click on image to show the insect.

Participants faced with uncertain outcomes clicked on more pictures, but when they had to predict how they would feel about their choice first, they clicked on fewer pens.

The research was published in the journal Psychological Science.

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