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Curiosity is dangerous

The human urge to know is a stronger urge than we thought

Source: pixabay.
Source: pixabay.

by Ronnie Jacobson, The article is published with the approval of Scientific American Israel and the Ort Israel network 28.08.2016

Why do people search for information about their ex-partners' new relationships, why do they read negative comments online, and why do they do other things that will undoubtedly hurt them? According to a study recently published in the journal Psychological Science, the reason is that humans have a deep need to dispel uncertainty. The new study reveals that the need to know is so strong that people prefer to satisfy their curiosity even when they have no doubt that the answer will hurt them.

Behavioral scientists at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and the Wisconsin School of Business conducted a series of four experiments in which they tested students' willingness to be exposed to negative stimuli to satisfy their curiosity. In one of the tests, each participant was shown a pile of pens, which according to the researcher were from a previous experiment. What was special about the pens? Half of them gave the user an electric shock when pressing their unlock buttons.

The researchers found out to 27 students which of the pens were electrified, while to 27 other students they only told them that some of the pens were electrified. When the students were left alone in a room, those who didn't know which pens would electrocute them tried more pens and got more shocks than the students who knew what would happen. Later, experiments were done that reproduced the same results using other stimuli, such as the sound of nails screeching on a board and photographs of disgusting insects.

The drive to discover is deeply embedded in humans, alongside basic drives for food and sex, he says Christopher Hesse from the University of Chicago, one of the authors of the article. Curiosity is often considered a positive instinct. It can lead to new scientific advances, for example, but sometimes this curiosity can have undesirable results. "The understanding that curiosity can lead us to actions that will cause us harm is a profound insight," says George Lowenstein, professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University and a pioneer in the field of curiosity research.

But you can resist the temptation of harmful curiosity. In the last experiment, it was found that when the researchers encouraged participants to imagine in advance how they would feel at the sight of an unpleasant image, the chances that they would choose to see such an image were smaller. These results suggest that early use of imagination to anticipate the outcomes of following the curiosity may help people determine whether they should bother doing so. "Thinking about the long-term results is essential to reducing the negative impact that curiosity can have," says Hsieh. In other words: don't read talkbacks.

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