The Psychology of Curiosity: an introduction

“Curiosity is the most superficial of all the affections. It has an appearance of giddiness, restlessness, and anxiety (Edmund Burke – an Irish philosopher)”

Speaking of curiosity, people usually come up with the idiom curiosity killed the cat. Why does curiosity seem to be associated with such a negative connotation? Is this also a popular perception of our daily lives and in society? In this article, I shall walk you through the definition, main types of curiosity and how it varies among in individuals

1. Two main types of curiosity

Curiosity is a critical cognitive function that influences human’s behaviors. From a broader perspective, curiosity might be seen as a stepping stone for major developments in science, decision-making, and learning. According to Psychology iresearchnet, curiosity is “a motivational state involving the tendency to recognize and seek out novel and challenging experiences”. 

Since curiosity originates from the thirst for new knowledge, it differs from other positive emotions. For example, joyful feelings such as enjoyment and cheerfulness exist when an individual already has a clear picture with ample necessary information regarding the experience. Curiosity, on the other hand, occurs when someone feels the excitement of explorations with uncertainty, hesitation, and lack of information. 

Curiosity has been classified into two main types: perceptual curiosity (or cognitive curiosity) and epistemic curiosity (or sensory curiosity). The definition of these two types lies in the matters that one is curious about. Cognitive curiosity describes the desire for new information and knowledge, or in general, cognitive matters. 
Sensory curiosity expresses the yearning for new sensations and thrills. This type involves the exploration of novel physical experiences such as do something for a try, go for an adventure, pick up a new sport, etc.

“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”

Albert Einstein

2. State versus trait : the opposing theories on the origin of curiosity

The concept of curiosity is central to motivation. Whether curiosity emerges internally or externally remains a controversial debate. However, this leads to two distinguished classifications of curiosity types: state and trait. Both of the terms determine how and why humans get involved in curious behaviors

a. State curiosity is externally stimulated

When curiosity is used as a description of specific behaviors towards a stimulus, it is known as state curiosity.  This is a state of increased arousal response stimulated by an event or activity in which an individual gains nearly no essential information in advance. It is generally based on an external situation that evokes the curiosity-driven behaviors of an individual.

Suppose you happen to know one of your friends is intrigued by the universe and always asks several questions during the National Geographic Cosmos series, or your family members wonder about the wide-opening window from the neighbor’s house during wintertime. In these cases, state curiosity appears to be the most suitable description for these behaviors. 

2. Trait curiosity comes from internal urge to gain knowledge

The concept that curiosity resides from the inside is called trait curiosity. This relates to people who have a strong interest in acquiring novel knowledge and experience, simply for the sake of learning and self-discovery. For instance, if some of your classmates have the following characteristics: highly self-motivated by discovering theoretical knowledge, being curious and passionate about trying new sports or travelling to new, unknown places, we can say these people have trait curiosity.

3. Different individuals experience different levels of curiosity and the matters they are curious about


When people get older, both the types and degree of their curiosity will change. Human beings, at different ages, are curious about different matters. When we are a little kid, we often drive ourselves to a specific  goal: to understand something better at the moment. This explains why kids ask a lot of questions because they are curious about everything and want to know more about it. 

However, when we grow older, we realize life is much more complicated, and we tend to “extend” the initial question, from “why” to “what if”. We not only want to know about present matters but also want more information about the unknown events that are likely to occur in the near future. 

When ones get older, they tend to draw various possibilities; they yearn for anticipating or foreseeing future events for better preparation. The question “why” indicates a thirst for an answer, an explanation, or could be an initial step for a novel discovery. 

“What if” represents one or several possibilities generated from a fact, or a present event that an individual already knows. “What if” plays a vital role in activating the analysis phase in the process of seeking out new information. After “what if”, people tend to define advantages and disadvantages, solve the problem and compare the results. 

As ones grow older, they expand their scope of knowledge and interests. They look at life from different perspectives; hence their curious behaviors tend to change. The two questions “why” and “what if” tend to be combined and used in different circumstances to know and understand things better

4. The 4 components that power curiosity

Curiosity can be induced  by 4 main factors: novelty, complexity, uncertainty, conflict

Novelty indicates the newness, the unknown things compared to prior experience, learned knowledge, and expectations. For example, a 5-year-old kid reads an astronomy comic book. She realized there is a lot about the universe she did not know before, compared to what she learned at school. The more she reads, the more curious she is about the universe. Reading this astronomy book brought her novel experiences, which evokes her curiosity for the universe.

Complexity is a quality that represents the variety of components within the scope of understanding. The more diverse and challenging the components are, the higher level of complexity.

Uncertainty describes the insecure and doubtful feelings when facing an issue with little knowledge acquired. Uncertainty also displays the presence of multiple possibilities and outcomes with almost no knowledge gained.

Finally, conflict describes the presence of a contradiction between what you feel and what you want to do. For example, a conflict might occur when you find a dark place, and half of you want to enter to find out what it is on the inside, and the other half is getting scared of dark places and the urge to turn away.

The four factors that drive curiosity

5. High in curiosity might mean high in openness, yet low in neuroticism

A study by Furnham and Chamorro (2006) discussed the positive connection between curiosity and the five personality traits. In particular, individuals with high scores in openness tend to be more intellectually curious and have more comfortable attitudes and feelings towards novel or challenging activities.

However, research shows that curiosity has a negative relationship with neuroticism. Research by Renner (2007) indicated a negative correlation between curiosity and the control of anxiety. In other words, highly curious individuals are associated with low levels of anxiety. Curious people tend to take challenges in open attitudes and high readiness to confront unexpected risks. They do not seem to get anxious easily, thus being able to control their anxiety more effectively. 

6. Summary

Curiosity has occupied a vital position in the study of motivation, emotion, and cognition since the origins of psychology. To this day, several basic principles and concepts of curiosity continue to confound science. Yet the importance of curiosity in personal development and daily life activities is undeniable. 

Harnessing curiosity in real-life environments, such as in work and educational settings, plays a fundamental role in growing an individual’s ability and an organization’s overall achievements. Albeit certain pros and cons, stimulating curiosity helps nurture personal growth, strengthen social bonds, and sustain our motivation and sense of exploration.

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