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July 29, 2021

Curiosity can prompt dangerous behavior

By SABRINA CHEN | April 21, 2016

A recent study done by University of Wisconsin researchers suggests that our curiosity can lead us toward painful or unpleasant situations.

The study explains that even if we are able to avoid these situations completely, curiosity can serve as a powerful motivator to lead us to make otherwise unjustified decisions.

“Just as curiosity drove Pandora to open the box despite being warned of its pernicious contents, curiosity can lure humans — like you and me — to seek information with predictably ominous consequences,” Bowen Ruan, one of the study’s authors, said in a press release.

Ruan said that he had the idea for his study after looking over previous research that had shown that curiosity led people to seek miserable experiences. Examples of these unpleasant situations could include watching horrible scenes in a movie or exploring an area with dangerous terrain. Ruan then went on to predict that the curiosity causing people to act in these ways could be due to an inclination to resolve uncertainties without considering harm.

Ruan, along with co-author Christopher Hsee of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, tested this hypothesis by studying 54 college students in a shock study. The 54 volunteers were invited into a lab and shown electric-shock pens. The volunteers were told that these pens were left over from a previous experiment. In addition, the researchers told the volunteers that they were allowed to try out the pens and click them as they waited for the “actual” study to begin.

The participants were split into two groups. For one group, the pens were color-coded as red and green — red meaning that the pen would administer a shock and green meaning that the pen had no shock potential. Thus, all of these participants knew exactly which pens would deliver a shock. For the other group of participants, the pens were color-coded as yellow, which meant that some of these pens had batteries while others did not. Thus, the participants were uncertain of the outcome of clicking each pen.

Ruan and Hsee then analyzed the data from the two groups of participants and found that students who were in the yellow uncertain condition clicked significantly more pens, five on average, whereas those in the green and red condition typically clicked one green pen or two red pens.

From these data, Ruan and Hsee planned a second study to secure the validity of their hypothesis. In this study, the students were shown 10 pens of each color, and the results showed that students clicked more uncertain yellow pens than either red or green pens.

Ruan and Hsee then tested their hypothesis with a different set of conditions by designing a third study with sounds. Participants were given a display of 48 buttons which each played a different sound. There were buttons labeled “nails,” which would play the sound of nails on a chalkboard, as well as buttons labeled “water,” which played the sound of running water. A third set of buttons was labeled “?” and had an equal chance of playing either sound.

The results showed that students who saw mostly uncertain buttons clicked much more than students who saw “nails” or “water” buttons.

Taken together, these various studies seem to suggest that curiosity can drive the human mind toward unpleasant or unreasonable tasks.

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