We’re born with an insatiable appetite for new information. This hunger, which we call curiosity, is a universal trait, though people possess it in varying degrees and express it through different behaviors. Curiosity is widely considered a virtue, being closely linked to other traits we value: creativity, intellectual humility, and empathy. Curious students achieve at higher levels in school. Curious members of a group help create common ground. Recent scientific study has even linked the trait to more satisfying intimate relationships and greater perceived meaning in life.
Yet not all curiosity is created equally, something humans have long intuited. Its potential danger has deep roots in our myths and stories. Curiosity killed the cat, as the old saying goes. Eve’s hunger for knowledge led her to eat the fateful fruit. The Roman philosopher Cicero, who defined curiosity as “our innate love of learning,” theorized that it wasn’t the Siren’s sweet voices in The Odyssey that wrecked ships but rather “their professions of knowledge …it was the passion for learning that kept men rooted to the Sirens’ rocky shores.”
Recently, a quartet of researchers confirmed the hunch that not all types of curiosity lead to virtuous behavior, along with a number of other exciting discoveries. The team is made up of Daphna Shohamy and Ran Hassin of Columbia University, Thalia Wheatley of Dartmouth, and Jonathan Schooler of University of California Santa Barbara. With funding from the John Templeton Foundation, the researchers spent the last several years investigating the role of curiosity in learning, creativity, and social connection.