Curiosity is a good thing, study finds
Psychology researchers say curiosity key to personal growth, level of intimacy
By PATRICIA DONOVAN
It might have killed the cat, but a new study by UB psychologists suggests that curiosity is very good for people.
Their study concludes that the degree to which people are curious actively influences their personal growth opportunities and the level of intimacy that develops when they meet someone new.
The study was conducted by Todd D. Kashdan and Paul Rose, both doctoral students in clinical and social psychology, and Frank Fincham, SUNY Distinguished Professor in the Department of Psychology.
It was reported in August to the Positive Psychology Summer Institute and to the 2001 Annual Positive Psychology Summit. Two related manuscripts are under review for publication in professional journals.
It is the first study to examine how curiosity affects the genesis of intimacy, and tests a new theory about how curiosity influences the growth of personal and interpersonal resources. The study also is the first to employ two new personality inventories developed by the research team to measure the levels of individuals' "trait" and "state" curiosity.
It found that highly curious individuals tend to experience more positive interpersonal outcomes than the less curious in different social contexts as a function of the way they process rewarding or "appetitive" stimuli during the relationship process.
For the purposes of the study, curiosity was conceptualized as a positive emotional-motivational system associated with the recognition, pursuit and self-regulation of novel and challenging experiences.
"Both the state and trait of curiosity promotes exposure to novel and challenging opportunities," says Kashdan, "which, in turn, are precursors to learning and personal growth, the development of intimacy and perhaps greater satisfaction and success in the interpersonal domain.
"One of the hypotheses in this study," he says, "is that the subjects' individual differences in trait and state curiosity would predict whether and how interpersonal closeness develops between strangers."
Ninety volunteer subjects45 males and 45 females, all UB studentscompleted two Curiosity Exploration Inventories (CEIs) developed by the researchers.
The first inventory was completed before the experiment began, and measured each subject's general tendency to actively seek novel and challenging information and experiences, and his or her propensity to enter a state of "flow"that is, to become deeply absorbed in activities. Kashdan says these measures indicate the extent to which each subject possessed the trait of curiosity.
The second inventory was completed by the subjects before and after they participated in the experiment. It measured each subject's immediate (and perhaps momentary) desire to seek new things and actively engage in the task at hand, an index of the subject's state of curiosity before and during the task.
Those interested in taking the inventories themselves can find them at www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~kashdan.
Subjects were assigned randomly to a male-female couple. The 45 couples then were selected randomly to be introduced into one of two experimental situations: one designed to generate interpersonal closeness or intimacy between the partners, and one set up to mimic a casual, small-talk situation.
The couples in the intimacy-provoking situation spent 45 minutes taking turns asking and answering, in a predetermined order, a set of questions provided for them, each question more probing than the last. The conditions were designed to elicit more and more personal and emotional self-disclosures.
The couples assigned to the "small talk" situation also were given a set of questions and took turns asking and answering them.
When the interactions ended, all subjects completed a series of self-reporting measures that assessed how close they felt to their partners.
Each subject also completed a series of measures that assessed the degree of attention he paid to his partner, the level of conversational involvement demonstrated and the degree to which each subject injected novel or playful subject matter into the conversations.
"We found an interaction between trait curiosity and the experimental condition," says Kashdan. Low-curiosity subjects experienced greater closeness in the intimacy-producing situation than in the small-talk condition. High-curiosity individuals, however, experienced high levels of closeness in both social contexts.
Among the specific results:
Subjects with high CEI scores directed more attention to their relational partners, capitalized on positive features of their personal interactions and were responsive to their partners' interests.
In both experimental situations, subjects with high CEI scores reported feeling significantly closer to their partners, and their partners reported feeling significantly closer to them, than did subjects with low CEI scores and their respective interaction partners.
On average, regardless of the experimental situation to which they were assigned, subjects with high CEI scores and their partners reported feelings of closeness equal to or above the midpoint (3.5) of a seven-point Likert attitude scale,
Subjects with low curiosity scores scored well below the scale's midpoint in the small-talk condition. They had relatively higher scores under intimacy conditions, but those scores were still lower than those reported by high-curiosity subjects.
Considering that their interaction was only 45-minutes long, the extent of closeness generated between high-curiosity individuals and their partners was surprising.
"In our study," says Kashdan, "individuals with high levels of curiosity exhibited approach and pleasure-seeking behaviors irrespective of their social context. This increased the likelihood of positive interpersonal outcomes, such as shared feelings of intimacy between strangers.
"This means curiosity is an important construct that appears to have relevance, not only to education and learning, but to the development of intimacy and, perhaps, greater satisfaction and success in the interpersonal domain," Kashdan says.