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.

The Big Five’s Openness: A closer look

Openness to experience, or openness, is one of the five dimensions of the Big Five Personality Traits. It is used to identify and measure individual differences in personality. Openness measures how open-minded, creative, and insightful an individual is. High scorers are likely to be receptive, imaginary, and adventurous. Low scorers, on the other hand, are resistant to changes, enjoy having a routine, and prefer conventional practices.

  1. Sub traits of the openness domain

Each dimension of the Big Five Personality Traits comprises six different facets, or also known as sub traits. The sub traits of openness domain are:  

  • Imagination: the ability to visualize new ideas and concepts in mind from both external and internal sources.
  • Artistic interests: an inclination to discover or to learn about new things related to art.
  • Adventurousness: the tendency to  undertake things that involve risk and danger.
  • Emotionality: the quality or state of being emotional.
  • Intellect: the capacity to think, understand and acquire knowledge, especially complex issues.
  • Liberalism: an attitude of respecting and allowing different types of beliefs or behavior.
  1. Similarity in openness creates relationship compatibility

Openness plays a pivotal role in forming new social relationships. Research shows that people tend to gravitate to romantic relationships and friendships with people who have roughly the same level of openness as they do. Although this effect is not strong compared to several other factors that bring people together, studies cannot deny its importance and benefits. Because openness involves the willingness to consider different schools of thoughts and a relatively high level of receptivity, high scorers in this trait are more open to tolerate differences in opinions, beliefs, and behaviors.

People who score high in openness have fewer conflicts with others and are less likely to be prejudiced. They often claim to have more satisfying relationships and stronger bonds with friends and family members. Besides, they are able to develop new sources of interest across various aspects. This comes as a direct result of the three following attributes combined: good relationships with others, open to new ideas, and a strong sense of curiosity. Low scorers, on the other hand, experience more difficulties voicing their opinions or accepting others’. They could become either insecure expressing themselves, or conservative with new beliefs and opinions.

In romantic couples, relationship compatibility in openness can be clearly illustrated. Individuals with a higher level of adventurousness and receptivity are more likely to find a partner with similar traits. Because open-minded people enjoy developing new interests in various aspects, they might meet their perfect half in the journey of exploration. However, it should be highlighted that openness is not the only factor that contributes to maintaining a long-term happy relationship. Instead, it acts as a foundational stepping-stone for the relationship.

bigfive_openness_similarity
High similarity in openness level would create better compatibility

  1. High in openness correlates to high degrees of intelligence

There are several schools of thoughts about how the openness trait typically shows positive correlations with IQ test performance. Some suggested that it might reflect the expression of intelligence in personality, particularly in the openness domain[1]. Others showed that openness correlates more strongly with verbal intelligence than spatial intelligence[2]. Meanwhile, these two types of intelligence in others have been found to correlate roughly equally with openness while Bates and Shieles argued that openness enhances the effect of spatial intelligence on the acquisition of knowledge via verbal intelligence.

Besides, several conceptualizations of this trait have been further developed. One holds that openness is the expression of intelligence in personality. Another is that it reflects creativity. Third, and most recently, it has been conceptualized as a motivated cognitive flexibility that is linked to dopamine function.

In sum, these three conceptual models, plus the studies about the positive correlation between two types of intelligence (namely spatial intelligence and verbal intelligence) and openness, suggest that this personality trait should correlate to differing degrees with intelligence, creativity , and other measures of executive functioning.

  1. Parent’s openness have strong influence on the child’s personality

For people who have children, openness is expected to have a strong association with parenting styles. Parents who score low in this trait tend to impose rules and expect obedience. They are considered strict parents who are not very welcome to new opinions and do not tolerate the child’s objections. These might influence a child’s long-term behavior and in different ways. If the child appears to be an argumentative and antagonistic person, there would be a great number of conflicts and arguments between parents and children occurring frequently. From another perspective, if the child agrees to conform to the rules and obey his or her parents, there are two possible situations. First, the child only does so if his or her self-benefits are under the parents’ control. Second, the child might inherit this trait from his or her parents and turn into a strict parent when having children.

A high level of openness has explicitly related to positive features of parenting. Studies found that openness associates with parental support and less negative control. Parents, especially mothers, are encouraged to be more supportive and engaging in various developing stages of the child. Instead of being manipulative and critical, parents with a high score in openness are more open and receptive to new opinions. These parents often provide the child with privacy to establish mutual respect and give each other space for self-reflection. Therefore, the child also feels more comfortable expressing his or her thoughts and more willing to embrace new ideas. When this child becomes a parent in the future, he or she is more likely to inherit this positive maternal trait from his or her parents and become an open-minded parent.

  1. High scorers in openness tend to have higher aesthetic sensitivity

People scoring high in openness tend to be more open to the surrounding environment. Aesthetic experiences and surrounding neighborhoods become a joyful part of high scorers. Their levels of, what researchers call “aesthetic sensitivity” are higher, compared to those who rank low in the openness domain. High scorers enjoy sensory experiences including music, art, and splendid scenery. They also claim to have their feelings more absorbed and emotionally touched by these kinds of experiences.

On the contrary, less open-minded people seem to be less curious and emotionally responsive to the surrounding environment. They often do not pay attention to surrounding neighborhoods, thus having lower levels of aesthetic sensitivity. Besides, low scorers might feel uncomfortable or even struggling, when dealing with new changes in the surroundings. From their perspective, the surroundings are perfectly fine the way it is since their presence and there is no need for making or adding up new changes. Even when new changes have altered their surroundings, there is a strong urge inside of them wanting things to get back to the unchanged state.

One study looked at people’s reactions to viewing photographs of the space and the universe taken by the Hubble telescope. Participants with an originally high score in openness domain claim how profound and magnificent the pictures are. They also rate this experience special and emotionally touched. Meanwhile, low scorers in openness think nothing special in this experience, some even report to be boring and sterile.

These results show levels of openness positively correlate with aesthetic sensitivity. Those who rank high in this personality trait tend to have higher aesthetic sensitivity. This means they enjoy sensory experiences better and are more emotionally responsive to the surrounding neighborhoods. For low scorers, be prepared that everything will be changing to form a new order because this is an inevitable process to sustain life. So be comfortable, accepting, and adaptive to new changes and your levels of openness will improve.  

  1. People have lower openness as they become older

Differences in openness dimension have been observed across different groups by age, gender, and culture. Each category contains specific features that affect the variations of openness. A deep dive into each category will illustrate how openness varies and why it matters in our daily life.  

The level of openness is likely to vary throughout one’s lifespan. This trait declines in both males and females over time, a change that indicates less interest and curiosity in new adventures, in forming new relationships, and in accepting new ideas. A survey of more than 10.000 people in the United States found that senior participants claimed to have lower levels of openness (which is also true for extraversion and neuroticism), compared to junior respondents. This shows openness and age establish an inverse proportion, which means we tend to be less open-minded as we grow older.

  1. Recommendations for high scorers in openness

Openness allows one to be securely vulnerable and honest, which enables one to establish mutual trust and embrace emotional understanding. This helps to form a new structure of relationships and strengthen social bonds. People in this group are highly creative, adaptable, and adventurous.

So how can high scorers utilize their strengths to work and communicate better?

  • Besides creativity, one should also pay attention to practicality and feasibility
  • Get familiarized with factual concepts such as data and numbers
  • Concentrate energy in one topic or aspect at a time
  • High scorers may find it comfortable expressing themselves. Make sure to give your friends, co-workers, or family members space to express personally, emotionally, and mentally as well.

If you rank high in this domain, jobs that involve emotionality and creativity are more suitable for you:

  • Artist.
  • Content creator.
  • Graphic Designer.
  • Entrepreneur: if you are a creative person with a business mindset, plus a problem-solver, running a business might be appropriate for you.
  • Philosopher.
  • Lawyer.
  • Pilot.
    bigfiv_openness_officejob
    Office jobs with nine-to-five working hours might not be an ideal option for high scorers
  1. Recommendations for low scorers in openness

People belonging to this group prefer familiar and conventional practices and enjoy routine activities. They might have difficult times expressing their feelings and opinions. Similarly, they are not willing to consider or embrace new ideas from others.

So how can low scorers work and communicate in a better way?

  • Try to perceive and think a different angle
  • Understand others’ values and traditions from their points of view
  • Be more flexible and adaptive to changes and new ideas
  • Be comfortable and confident in self-expression

Jobs that generally require logical thinking or has a stable working environment are often suitable options for this group:

  • Banker
  • Financial Analyst
  • Auditor
  • Accountant
  • Contractor

If you are curious about your levels of openness, take the quiz and find out more.

References:

  1. Sub traits and careers for openness domain
  2. Openness and the gravitations towards equivalent relationships: Like attracts like
  3. High in openness correlates to high degrees of intelligence and
  4. Openness varies in different individual and social characteristics
  5. Gender differences in personality across the ten aspects of the Big Five

Common MBTI Misconceptions

1. Your functions’ percentages show how often you use them

mbti results enfp
Example of a test result from 16personalities.com

There are many free online MBTI tests out there and some of them, such as from 16personalities.com, offer results in percentage. So you may get something like 30% Thinking – 70% Feeling, 49% Intuition – 51% Sensing, etc.

So does the test mean you use your feeling about 70% of the time and thinking the rest? The answer is: that is not how thing works. I would say showing a percentage scale is misleading to the audience. Whether you are 90% or 51% feeling, you are still a feeling type. 

Your thinking and feeling are not created equal. If you prefer feeling, your feeling function receives most of the conscious energy in your waking moment. Meanwhile, the thinking directly opposing your darling feeling is “exiled” into the abyss of unconscious thoughts, turned into something childish and immature. A mature and conscious function are often more positive and forward-looking while an unconscious function play a supporting role, and often being egocentric and appear in negative tones.

For example, if you are an INFP (The Mediator) with dominant function of Introverted Feeling, you are pretty adept at feeling stuff such as empathizing with people, listening to your deepest conviction and aspiration. Your Extraverted Thinking, however, play a supporting role to help you organize your thoughts into action, turning your conviction into concrete results. However, especially under stress, your thinking has certain negativity. It is often perfectionistic and absolutist – classifying everything as black-and-white right or wrong morally.

The percentage may be helpful in showing how balanced a person is. Often as people grow older, they tend to move towards the centre of the scale. The inferior function, though diminished and distorted, is still of great importance to our psychological well-being. An INFP more balanced in thinking has mastered his feeling function enough to give more energy to extraverted thinking, which becomes more helpful and objective in its supporting role. 

Hence, as you can see, it does not make sense to say you are thinking 70% of the time because the polarity of function produces a strong conscious function on one hand and a distorted function on the other. They are just not of the same quality to compare quantitatively.

2. Judging means judgmental

man working using a laptop
Yes, Judging doesn’t mean judgmental

This dichotomy is probably the biggest pet peeve for people who have understood the functional stack. Judging is often regarded as a trait or function which causes a person to be more judgemental or more organized than their perceiving counterparts.

First of all, judging doesn’t mean judgemental. Judging and Perceiving are actually NOT psychological functions or traits. They simply point out how your other two dichotomies, thinking-feeling and intuitive-sensing, orientated. If you are a P, your Dominant Extraverted function is an Irrational or Perceiving function. Similarly, if you are J, your Dominant Extraverted function is a Judging or Rational function 

This is extremely confusing, I know. Irrational functions are Intuitive or Sensing, while Rational functions refer to either Thinking or Feeling. In short, rational functions prioritize the perception of the objects, result or expectations of results while irrational ones are process-oriented. If you are an INFP, your dominant extraverted function is Extraverted Intuition as compared to an INFJ who possesses a Judging extraverted function of Extraverted Feeling. These two types differ by one letter but actually have no functions in common!

3. Feeling is the same as emotion

There is a common stereotype that thinkers, especially INTJ or INTP, are emotionless robots functioning purely on facts and numbers. This is certainly not true. Thinkers feel emotions too. They get angry when people get their facts wrong or they feel insecure about not being competent in their skills. The bottom line, they have emotions just like any other human being.

Feeling in MBTI is a form of making judgements. Its chief concern is ethics and morality, which overlap with but are not the same with emotions. Instead of the materialistic and objective bent of the thinking-dominant counterparts, feelers care more about things like honor, harmony and aesthetic. Being thinking-dominant means favoring logical criterion over ethics, but not an absence of emotions.

It is also not right to say thinkers are more immoral or unethical. It is a matter of balance and flavor.  Morality can be subjective. An introverted feeler may be more likely to say that harming anyone innocent is wrong while an extroverted thinker would be more likely to agree to sacrifice individuals’s for the collective good.

4. Introverts are incapable of being talkative or gregarious

I often laugh when people label themselves as introverted extrovert or extroverted introvert.  I know you are proud of the fact that you have bravely conquered your fear of the crowd to become more outspoken (as most people do), but those terms do not make sense if you truly understand Jungian and MBTI theories.

boston terrier wearing unicorn pet costume
People love to think they are unicorns!

As mentioned before, being 51% introverted doesn’t mean you use extroversion about half the time. If the result is accurate, you are an introvert through and through. Your whole perspectives of life and judgement are mostly filtered through your dominant introverted function. Yes, being more balanced likely allows you to have more energy in the crowd when need to, but you are still an introvert inside. And if you think it is just a matter of inside or outside energy, you are missing the point.

Being an introvert doesn’t mean you are shy or anti-social all the time. Everyone can open up and be talkative with the right person or group of people. The fact that you are louder than your best friends do not make you an extrovert. Also, some introverts can actually have very large social circles, even if they maintain them through mostly one-on-one meetings. INFP is one example of an introverted type that can often make friend easily.

5. Your MBTI type can change

This is controversial and from what I know of, there has been no thorough research on people’s MBTI changes, whether through natural or deliberate causes. From my personal research and observation, one thing is clear: a person’s natural tendency is more pronounced when younger. As people get past the age of 25, they learn to be more balanced. 

Your type is like a natural psychological patterns imprinted in your mind since birth, like right arm versus left arm. You can certainly work over time to mess and reshape these patterns but to totally change your type to the opposite will likely require significant environmental stress and personal effort.

Carl Jung in his work also mentioned that, through his observation, a child will face significant stress if parental influence requires him to act against his natural tendency for a long period of time. The damage is only remedied as he is allowed to be himself again in adulthood.

If people claim each time they take the test the result is different, then it is more of a problem with the test itself for not being able to overcome self-test bias-ness. The questionnaires often give too much room for different semantic interpretations, resulting in fluctuating results.

A more recent work by Dario Nardi who scans people’s brains to detect MBTI patterns indeed discovered distinct patterns among different types. He identified preliminary 20+ areas in the brain responsible for these patterns. One can certainly change from being left to right-handed given enough willpower and practices, but brain patterns are way more complicated and not yet understood well. You can mess up the natural patterns, but it is unlikely that you can replicate another type’s brain patterns through sheer willpower.

Dario Nardi INFP ESTP
Brain scans of INFP and ESTP volunteers by Dario Nardi, showing distinct patterns

Do you have any questions or comments? Feel free to drop them below and I will be happy to discuss with you.