Law and Order SVU: How Curiosity Killed the Cat

Everyone did a great job on their chalk talks this past week and I can’t wait to see our completed research projects at our poster presentation!

One talk that particularly interested me was Eleanor’s description of her research on curiosity. Beginning with her description of curiosity as a demand that needed to be satiated, much like hunger, I was hooked. I’d never thought to describe curiosity in that way, but it does make sense. Have you ever had that gnawing feeling inside you when you asked yourself, “What if I …”? Whether you’re curious to see what bungee jumping feels like or what all the soda flavors taste like together in the same cup, you have this impulse inside you inspiring you to just try it and satisfy your curiosity.

Eleanor’s research revolves around cognitive tests with humans where art videos are drawn on a computer screen until they form a recognizable shape. Her central question is whether the level of autonomy participants had in guessing what the shape was determined their level of curiosity, and hypothesizes that this correlation will vary among people with more free or more risk-averse personalities. In the “organic” condition, participants could make an unlimited amount of guesses as to what the shape was. In the “when” condition, time autonomy was removed: the participants were prompted at prescribed times to make a guess. In the “when and what” condition, not only was their time autonomy removed, they weren’t even allowed to make their own guess and were given a guess by the experimenter! Sounds like an unhappy dictatorship to me, and it makes sense that the participants in the “when and what” condition will probably have the lowest levels of curiosity. She hypothesizes that people who identify as more risk-averse will have higher levels of curiosity in the “when” condition than the “organic” condition, but for people who identify as more free and open, the result will be the opposite. I suppose if you’re averse to risk, having to choose when to make a guess can be scary and dampen how much you actually want to make a guess to satisfy your curiosity. What if you guess too early, and risk being WRONG? But if you’re more free and easygoing, why would you want to be constrained by someone else deciding when you need to make a guess? You’re a strong independent woman!

I’ve never really thought about what category of people I fall into, but I suppose I’d consider myself more risk-averse. Having someone else decide what times I should be guessing makes me feel more comfortable: if the experimenters decided that this is a good time to guess, then clearly I should have a better idea of what the shape is at this point, and I’d be more confident making a guess. You learn something new about yourself every day, all thanks to cognitive neuroscience! Thank you Eleanor for sharing your fascinating research and I can’t wait to see where your project takes you!

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