Curiosity really could kill the cat suggests new psychology study30 March 2020
Curiosity can bias our decision making and promote risk taking, according to new research.
In a new paper published in Nature Human Nature on Monday 30 March, a team from the University of Reading and three Japanese Universities found that human participants were more likely to display risky behaviour when they were curious to find out trivial knowledge, even facing the risk of an electric shock.
The study took 122 volunteers in a series of experiments and asked them to take part in lottery games that variously rewarded them with food, to reveal the solutions to magic tricks, or answers to trivia questions. All participants were informed of the odds of winning, and that the risk of losing in the lotteries would result in them receiving an electric shock.
The team found that people who took part in the study were willing to gamble based on their curiosity, even when they could find themselves subject to the electric shock.
Dr Johnny Lau, the lead author of the paper from the University of Reading said:
"In classical mythology, Pandora could not resist the seductive power of curiosity. By opening the box, Pandora ended up facing disastrous consequences.”
“In realistic scenarios like our lottery games, it was interesting to observe how the people who took part were open to taking risks in order to satisfy their own curiosity. This parallels the behaviours we see in the desire for extrinsic incentives, such as food.”
Four experiments were carried out, with the first one examining whether the human desire for finding out the secrets to magic tricks is as strong in motivating the risk-taking behaviour as their hunger for food.
In a pair of neuroimaging experiments, the team used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to look at what parts of the brain were involved in the motivational force of curiosity and whether they were different to other types of reward. The researchers found that decisions driven by curiosity for trivial knowledge, as well as the natural hunger for food, share similar neural mechanisms in the striatum - parts of the dopamine system commonly associated with reward processing.
Prof Kou Muruyama from the School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences at the University of Reading said:
“We know that curiosity promotes knowledge acquisition, and this quest for knowledge might even motivate people to take actions that are seemingly irrational in our study.”
“It seems that curiosity really can kill the cat in this case”
Shared striatal activity in decisions to satisfy curiosity and hunger at the risk of electric shocks; Johnny King L Lau, Hiroki Ozono, Kei Kuratomi, Asuka Komiya, Kou Murayama; Nature Human Nature; DOI: 10.1038/s41562-020-0848-3
The following funding acknowledgements from the authors appear at the end of the paper:
- Jacobs Foundation
- Leverhulme Trust
- Marie Curie Career Integration Grant (CIG630680)
- JSPS KAKENHI (15H05401; 16H06406; 18H01102; and 18K18696)
- F. J. McGuigan Early Career Investigator Prize