Curiosity
Curiosity can be both a blessing and a curseMislav Marohnić/Flickr

Even when they know it can end badly, humans often appear unable to resist their curious nature. Being too curious sometimes leads them to take inconsiderate risks, which they could otherwise have avoided by thinking about the consequences of their acts, scientists have said.

Consider the mythical example of Pandora's box. "Just as curiosity drove Pandora to open the box despite being warned of its pernicious contents, curiosity can lure humans – like you and me – to seek information with predictably ominous consequences," explains study author Bowen Ruan.

Previous studies have shown people seek out miserable experiences, such as watching horrible scenes or exploring dangerous landscapes, in order to satisfy their curiosity. This latest study, published in the journal Psychological Science, investigates what powers people's curiosity, and what makes them more inclined to make negative decisions. The authors' hypothesis is that humans have a deep desire to resolve uncertainty, regardless of the harm it may bring.

Electric shock

The scientists recruited 54 college students and divided them into two groups. The participants were told to wait in a room before the "real" study began. They were invited to use pens, supposedly left from previous experiments.

For the first group of students, the pens were colour-coded. They were told those with green stickers would give them electric shocks, while those with red stickers would not. The second group students was also given pens, and also told some would give them electric shocks, but this time, no colour was there to help them. Therefore, unlike for the first group, the outcome of clicking each pen was uncertain.

The scientists were soon given confirmation that when faced with uncertainty, people tend to be more curious even if they know it can bring them pain. Students in the second group clicked five pens on average, while those who knew the outcome clicked about one green electric pen and two red non-electric pens.

Another experiment, under different conditions confirmed this tendency to make potentially harmful decisions to resolve an uncertainty. This time, participants had to click on buttons and heard an unpleasant noise (nails on a chalkboard) or a pleasant one (water running). Some buttons clearly indicated the noise that they would hear, but some did not. On average, more "uncertain" buttons were clicked.

Stopping people from being too curious

The study concludes by pointing out an interesting way to dampen people's curiosity: when asked to predict the consequences of their choices and therefore to reflect on them, fewer people seemed to click the "uncertain" pens or the buttons.

Curiosity can be a blessing, but it may also be a curse. People who choose to ignore the consequences of their actions may discover this at their own costs. "Curious people do not always perform consequentialist cost-benefit analyses and may be tempted to seek the missing information even when the outcome is expectedly harmful," the scientists write.

Thinking in advance about what will happen when we are too curious can reduce most of curiosity's negative effects.