Study Finds that Curiosity Is Key to Personal Growth in Many Spheres, Including Intimate Relationships

Release Date: December 16, 2002 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- It might have killed the cat but a new study by psychologists at the University at Buffalo 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 at UB, and Frank Fincham, SUNY Distinguished Professor in the UB Department of Psychology and a highly published author in the study of interpersonal functioning and relationships.

It was reported in August to the Positive Psychology Summer Institute in Wilmington, Delaware, and to the 2001 Annual Positive Psychology Summit, Washington, D.C. Two related manuscripts currently 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 individual's "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.

"These results," said Kashdan, "may be important to studies of intrinsic motivation in the classroom and workplace, the role of curiosity in continuing education on personal growth, investigations into whether self-motivating activities mitigate risk factors for distress, and whether engaging curiosity in public communications will make messages more effective."

The research is related to the field of "positive psychology," Kashdan's specialty. Rather than focusing on pathological behavior such as the way conflicts arise, positive psychology attempts to understand how people cultivate positive subjective experiences, optimal functioning, personal strengths and positive institutions.

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 subjects -- 45 males and 45 females, all UB students -- completed two Curiosity Exploration Inventories (CEIs) developed by the researchers.

The first inventory was completed before the experiment began, and measured each subject's a) general tendency to actively seek novel and challenging information and experiences, and b) 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 and/or reading the original research can find them at

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. Questions included:

__For what in your life do you feel most grateful?

__If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future, or anything else, what would you want to know?

__If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know.

The couples assigned to the "small talk" situation were also given a set of questions and took turns asking and answering them. "Small talk" questions included:

__When was the last time you walked for more than an hour? Describe where you went and what you saw.

__ What is the best TV show you've seen in the past month that your partner hasn't seen? Tell your partner about it.

__ Where did you go to high school? What was your high school like?

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.

Says Kashdan, "We found an interaction between trait curiosity and the experimental condition. 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."

The specific results were as follows:

__Subjects with high CEI scores directed more attention to their relational partners, capitalized on positive features of their personal interactions, self-generated interest and fun by being playful, were responsive to their partners' interests, contributed novel ideas and topics to the conversation.

__ 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. They all reported feelings of closeness above the conceptual midpoint even when comparing their feelings to other relationships in their life.

__During the potentially boring small-talk encounters, those with high CEI scores, reported using "approach" behaviors like wit and questioning their partners to liven up conversations, transforming them into more interesting encounters.

"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."

Kasdan says, "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."

He said studies of curiosity could add a new and important dimension to research into creativity, humor, aesthetic appreciation and interpersonal relationships conducted in the fields of clinical, educational and industrial psychology.

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