Sunday, April 11, 2010

Curious About Curiosity? How to Make People Curious

Do you know when and how you get curious about something? Why should you care? If you want to make other people pay attention to what you have to say, you better know how to hook & reel them in. And one of the most effective ways of keeping their attention is to make them curious.

So when do we get curious?

Common experience tells us that we get curious when we encounter something new, or surprising, or perplexing. But think of the times when you got intensely curious about some conversation between total strangers in the next table at a restaurant, or some secret your friend was withholding from you. Surely, these aren't new, surprising, or perplexing.

These and many more are instances when we feel intensely curious.

Is there a common theme underlying all these divers phenomena?

Do we say, "We get curious when we see something new, surprising, perplexing, strange, secretive, gossipy, hard to remember, etc.?"

That seems to be an awfully clunky and unsatisfactory answer.

Rest assured, there is an elegant answer. Once you know it, it becomes easy to predict what makes people curious, deliberately induce curiosity in people, and keep their attention.

Curious about curiosity now?

About time.

Carnegie Mellon Professor and psychologist George Loewenstein gives us the answer to the riddle in his excellent article, "The Psychology of Curiosity: Review and Reinterpretation" in the form of what he calls "the information-gap theory of curiosity."

The article can be found here.

Published in Psychological Bulletin, the article is unfortunately abstract, technical, and full of jargon, but the main arguments are not hard to follow.

In this article, Loewenstein combines past theories of curiosity and presents a more comprehensive one of his own that combines insights from Gestalt psychology, behavioral decision theory, and social psychology. I will skip over the interesting yet unnecessary historical review of the past theories and jump right into Loewenstein's theory.

In a nutshell, the information gap theory of curiosity states that we get curious when we become aware of a gap in our knowledge or understanding.  Such a gap induces the feeling of deprivation akin to hunger and motivates us to obtain the missing information to reduce or eliminate this feeling.

This means that there has to be some prior knowledge of the subject to have any kind of gap. For example, when your close friend says, "I have something important to tell you... but never mind," it drives us nuts. We want to know. "Why, what's up? Tell me!" we say.

What's going on here is that you know a lot about your close friend. Your friend telling you that she has something important to tell you shifts your attention to the fact that you don't know something about her; i.e. there's a gap in your knowledge.

But when there is no prior knowledge about something, we're less likely to get curious. Say someone tells you, "Did you know that Matsumoto is pregnant?" the chances are, if you don't know Matumoto, you won't be interested. "Who's Matsumoto?" "Some girl I know." "Oh." And the conversation trails off.

There are two implications of the theory.

The first is that our curiosity is commensurate with the ability of information to close a gap. This is pretty intuitive. For instance, your curiosity will be much greater right before you're given the last clue to finding out the murderer in a mystery novel than one of the first clues that don't fully close the gap.

The second implication is that curiosity increases with knowledge. This is because once you start learning about something, it's more likely that you'll focus on what you don't know than what you know. For example, if you know the capitals of only 3 of the 50 states, you'll probably say, "I only know 3 states." But if you know the capitals of the 47 states, you're more likely to say, "I don't know 3 states," thereby focusing on what you DON'T know. So when you know a lot about something, you tend to focus on gaps in your knowledge.

This theory predicts that information gaps are made salient by exposure to certain factors, which include, but not limited to:

1) The posing of a question or a puzzle (see the first paragraph of this post)
2) Exposure to a sequence of events with an anticipated but unknown resolution (e.g., who wins an athletic event or learn who is the murderer in a mystery novel)
3) The unexpected (e.g., "Did you know that dear are more dangerous than sharks?")
4) Possession of information by someone else (e.g. your friend's secret)
5) Past knowledge, or something we used to know but no longer available (e.g. something on the tip of the tongue)

So if you want to make people curious, tap into these factors and make them be aware of their gaps. If you suspect they don't know anything about what you're about to say, tell them something about the topic, just like mystery novels do.

Put a spotlight on their gaps and they'll be enthralled by whatever you do on the stage.

I've covered most of the material in the article but there are certain little things I've omitted, like why, if curiosity triggers the feeling of deprivation, we willingly put ourselves in curiosity-inducing situations like reading mystery novels, and why curiosity is so intense, transient, impulsive, and disappointing when satisfied. For these, please check out the article.


Unknown said...

I think even technical writers (or especially technical writers) should know how to use these techniques to captivate their readers. This would make certain scientific articles more accessible.

Taks said...

Hey man! Thanks for the comment. I've been mad busy writing and haven't had the time to update my blog...

James Cooney said...

Taks - Thanks for stopping by, but how tantalizing that you should tell me how closely our experiences overlap, and then withhold which schools you got into! Dish!

I've narrowed my choices to Florida and Vanderbilt. Exciting, exciting times.

Oh, and congratulations both on your acceptances and on finishing a draft of your novel back in January (on your birthday, no less?). I know how good that feels.

Anonymous said...

Great article! Thank you for fulfilling my information gap! :) Unfortunately though, the article no longer exists :(