For over 20 years, I have been studying curiosity. I didn’t plan to be a curiosity researcher. I entered graduate school in 1998 to study how panic attacks emerge. Upon interviewing people suffering from panic disorder I became less interested in what led them to panic and instead intrigued by their unmet desires. An impending fear of panic attacks led them to avoid certain situations, people, and objects. Asked about these feared situations, they responded with regret. The pain of unfulfilled, residual curiosity.
Still wondering whether they missed an opportunity with the attractive guy carrying the little black book with his poems in at the back of the classroom…which they never attended again…
Still wondering how Nirvana would have sounded on stage, their one chance before Kurt Cobain died…
To my surprise, only a small number of researchers studied curiosity when I started graduate school, and how excessive anxiety impedes human lust for the new. I switched my focus in the first semester. In my very first graduate school course, the title of my literature review paper was “A multidimensional model of curiosity.” It was a promise to integrate the isolated strands of research on curiosity into a single model. It took a few iterations before I kept that promise.
In 2004, as a graduate student, my colleagues and I created The Curiosity and Exploration Inventory. This paper has been cited over 500 times, describing two dimensions of curiosity. Curiosity is about recognizing and seeking out new information and experiences, a dimension that we referred to as Exploration. The problem was with the second dimension that we referred to as Absorption — the tendency to be fully engaged in activities such that attention is focused and time moves slower. This happens when we are curious, but also when listening deeply to an Explosions in the Sky concert with eyes shut, or when slowly chewing a 007 sushi roll. You could be feeling confusion, joy, craving, or awe, and not necessarily curiosity. Please stop using this scale. It sucks. I listed it as one of my 5 least favorite publications.
In 2009, we created a second version of the scale with two curiosity dimensions — the motivation to seek out knowledge and new experiences (Stretching) and a willingness to embrace the uncertain and unpredictable nature of everyday life (Embracing). This is still a useful scale for measuring a slice of curiosity, which happens to be the largest, influential slice. The slice that happens to match common definitions and use of curiosity.
During the same year, I wrote a book for the general public titled Curious? A book that captured fundamental discoveries about what curiosity is and the underappreciated, broad, downstream influences. As a greater number of scientists started studying curiosity, additional discoveries emerged. For instance, my research team initiated new studies on the dark side of curiosity and how close friends and strangers view curious people (download it here), how curiosity breeds intimacy (download it here), how curiosity might serve as an antidote to aggression (download it here), and an intriguing study of how curiosity boots well-being upon making progress toward one’s goals (a paper that has been relatively ignored — download it here).
Finally, six years later, I delivered on the promise I made in my first semester of graduate school to capture the full bandwidth of curiosity. Meet The Five-Dimensional Curiosity Scale (download it here).
Upon collecting data from a nationally representative sample of 508 adults, and then 403 adults online, and then another nationally representative sample of 3,000 adults, we uncovered 5 dimensions of curiosity:
1. Joyous Exploration — this is the prototype of curiosity — the recognition and desire to seek out new knowledge and information, and the subsequent joy of learning and growing.
2. Deprivation Sensitivity — this dimension has a distinct emotional tone, with anxiety and tension being more prominent than joy — pondering abstract or complex ideas, trying to solve problems, and seeking to reduce gaps in knowledge.
3. Stress Tolerance — this dimension is about the willingness to embrace the doubt, confusion, anxiety, and other forms of distress that arise from exploring new, unexpected, complex, mysterious, or obscure events.
4. Social Curiosity — wanting to know what other people are thinking and doing by observing, talking, or listening in to conversations.
5. Thrill Seeking — the willingness to take physical, social, and financial risks to acquire varied, complex, and intense experiences.
It is time to stop using my Curiosity and Exploration Inventory and if you only want to capture the first dimension of curiosity in this new model, you can still use the Curiosity and Exploration Inventory-II. I ask that you consider the new, improved, comprehensive Five-Dimensional Curiosity Scale. If not, you will be missing central elements of curiosity.
And upon treating these dimensions as part of a single profile, we found evidence for 4 types of curious people:
1. The Fascinated — high on all dimensions of curiosity, particularly Joyous Exploration
2. Problem Solvers — high on Deprivation Sensitivity, medium on other dimensions
3. Empathizers — high on Social Curiosity, medium on other dimensions
4. Avoiders — low on all dimensions, particularly Stress Tolerance
Curiosity is far more sophisticated than descriptions in scientific articles, business books, and media stories. Only by better appreciating this sophistication can we do justice in cultivating curiosity in ourselves, the organizations we work in, and the schools dedicated to raising the next generation.
Download all the details of this research and our new measure by clicking below:
Kashdan, T.B., Stiksma, M.C.,Disabato, D., McKnight, P.E., Bekier, J., Kaji, J., & Lazarus, R. (in press). The five-dimensional curiosity scale: Capturing the bandwidth of curiosity and identifying four unique subgroups of curious people. Journal of Research in Personality
Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a public speaker, psychologist, professor of psychology and senior scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University. His latest book is The upside of your dark side: Why being your whole self — not just your “good” self — drives success and fulfillment. For more, visit: toddkashdan.com