Tag Archives: knowledge

Would you be willing to take an electric shock in the name of curiosity? Science says yes, several actually

Curiosity is probably the single most powerful force behind our species’ scientific discoveries. It can drive us to explore and discover even if the outcome might be painful or harmful. But this need to discover and learn can also become a curse; a new study found that people are willing to face unpleasant outcomes with no apparent benefits just to sate their curiosity.

Curiosity; killer of cats and purveyor of great shots since the dawn of time.
Image credits flickr user Esin Üstün.

Previous research into curiosity found that it can drive humans to seek out miserable or risky experiences, such as viewing gruesome scenes or exploring dangerous terrain, in their search for information. Bowen Ruan and co-author Christopher Hsee from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business believe that our primal need to resolve uncertainty, regardless of personal harm or injury we might endure in the process, is the cornerstone upon which our curiosity is based.

So they designed a series of experiments exposing participants to several unpleasant outcomes, to see how far they would go to obtain a sense of certainty about their environment. In one of the studies, 54 college students were taken to a lab with electric shock pens supposedly left over from a previous experiment. They were told that they were free to pass the time by testing the pens while the experiment they were about to take part in was set up.

Image credits smartphotostock

Some of the participants had color coded pens — red stickers for the five pens that would deliver a shock, and green stickers for the five that wouldn’t. Others however only had pens with yellow stickers, meaning they didn’t have any certainty what would happen if they clicked them. They were also told that only some of these pens still had working batteries, compounding their level of uncertainty. In the meantime, the team counted how many times each participant clicked each type of pen.

While they waited, students who knew the outcome clicked one green pen and two red ones on average. But those that had no clue what was going to happen clicked noticeably more, around five pens each.

For the second study, another group of students were shown 10 pens of each color. Here too students clicked the pens with uncertain outcomes more than those which were clearly identified as safe or shock-inducing.

“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 of the Wisconsin School of Business at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

For the third study, the researchers wanted to know how well their findings hold under different circumstances, and if satiating their curiosity would make participants feel worse. They designed a test involving exposure to both pleasant and unpleasant sound recordings. Participants had to choose between 48 buttons on a computer screen, each with a different sound recording attached to it. For example, the “nails” button would play a recording of nails on a chalkboard, buttons labeled “water” played a sound of running water, and buttons labeled “?” could play either sound.

On average, students who had to choose from mostly identified buttons clicked around 28 of them. In contrast, those who had mostly unidentified buttons clicked around 39 of them. Participants who clicked more also reported feeling worse at the end of the experiment. Those who had mostly uncertain buttons reported being less happy overall than those who faced mostly certain outcomes.

The team carried out a separate, online study in which participants were shown partially obscured pictures of unpleasant insects — centipedes, cockroaches, and silverfish for example — and were informed they could click the image to reveal the insect. As with the previous studies, participants clicked on more pictures, and felt worse overall, when faced with uncertain results.

But interestingly, when they were prompted to predict how they would feel about their choice first, their number of clicks went down (and they reported feeling happier overall). This suggests that predicting the consequences of your choice might dampen your curiosity.

So while curiosity is often seen as one of the more desirable human qualities, it can also be a curse. Many times our drive to seek information and satisfy our curiosity can become a huge risk.

“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,” Ruan and Hsee write in their paper.

“We hope this research draws attention to the risk of information seeking in our epoch, the epoch of information,” Ruan concludes.

The full paper, titled “The Pandora Effect, The power and Peril of Curiosity” has been published online in the journal Psychological Science and can be read here.

Having access to the Internet changes the way you think

The Internet is a wonderful and wonderfully powerful place. Just think about it, if your parents needed an article to show their college friends that nah-i’m-totally-right-and-you’re-not (it’s a big part of college life) they had to go looking in a library — you have access to almost all of human knowledge with just a few key strokes.

Or a few minute’s walk.
Image via wikimedia

But it turns out that having such pervasive access to information may actually make us rely less on the knowledge we already have, altering how we think, found University of Waterloo Professor of Psychology Evan F. Risko in a recent study published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition..

For the study, 100 participants were asked a series of general-knowledge questions (such as naming the capital of France.) For the first half of the test participants didn’t have access to the Internet, and would indicate whether they knew the answer or not. In the second half, they had Internet access and were required to look up the answers they reported they didn’t know.

In the end, the team found that when the subjects had access to the web they were 5 percent more likely to report they didn’t know an answer, and in some contexts, they reported feeling as though they knew less compared to the ones without access.

“With the ubiquity of the Internet, we are almost constantly connected to large amounts of information. And when that data is within reach, people seem less likely to rely on their own knowledge,” said Professor Risko, Canada Research Chair in Embodied and Embedded Cognition.

The team believes that giving people access to the internet might make it seem less acceptable to them to say that they know something but be incorrect. Another theory they considered is that people were more likely to say they didn’t know the answer because looking it up on the web gave them an opportunity to confirm their knowledge or satiate their curiosity, both highly rewarding processes.

“Our results suggest that access to the Internet affects the decisions we make about what we know and don’t know,” said Risko. “We hope this research contributes to our growing understanding of how easy access to massive amounts of information can influence our thinking and behaviour.”

Professor Risko says he plans to further the research in this area by investigating the factors that lead to individuals’ reduced willingness to respond when they have access to the web.

Common knowledge makes people more cooperative

Common knowledge impacts how likely we are to collaborate with one another. Image via Wiki Commons.

It seems quite intuitive, but scientists have officially proved it – sharing common knowledge with someone makes you more likely to cooperate with him. This provides valuable insight into how altruism works, and how groups can cooperate towards a common goal.

There have been plenty of studies into altruism, but fewer have studied its lesser known “cousin” – mutual cooperation; that is, when people cooperate to help others, and themselves. To analyze this phenomenon, a group of researchers, including authors Steve Pinker (known for his advocacy of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind) designed four games, which involved 1,033 people. The games involved giving subjects various pieces of information, from private to common. The common information was literally broadcasted over a loudspeaker. Each person was then asked to make a set of decisions, each with varying costs and rewards, choosing to work alone or with other volunteers.

Image via GreenBiz.

What researchers observed was that  when people have common knowledge, and they know that they have this common knowledge, are much more likely to cooperate with one another. Especially if the information they have is private (like if they know a secret):

“Because it may be costly to engage in a coordinated activity when no one else does so, attempts to coordinate can be risky when it is unclear what other people will do,” the paper explains. “If one protester shows up he gets shot, but if a million show up they may send the dictator packing.”

Indeed, this finding has many ramifications, from understanding how social media can affect users, to more deep social action and interaction. The implications vary greatly, from the big and extraordinary, to the small and ordinary; for example, this behavior can overthrow dictators, but is also responsible for something as mundane as blushing:

“The acute discomfort in blushing,” the study suggests, “resides largely in the knowledge that the blusher knows he or she is blushing, knows that an onlooker knows it, that the onlooker knows that the blusher knows that the onlooker knows, and so on.”

Another researcher from the team, Kyle Thomas, emphasizes the importance of this finding:

“Common knowledge provides a unifying framework to understand a whole lot of otherwise odd and seemingly disconnected phenomena in human social life.” According to Thomas, people often either try to create common knowledge for a specific aim, like “using Twitter to incite protests in Egypt,” or to avoid it, as when a family doesn’t discuss “‘the elephant in the room’ like the problematic drunk uncle that no one wants to confront.”

It’s not yet clear why this type of behavior occurs, but it likely has evolutionary roots. The researchers haven’t directly tackled the cause, but they theorize in the paper:

“Human cognition may have been shaped by natural selection to solve coordination problems. If game theorists are correct that common knowledge is needed for coordination, then humans might have cognitive mechanisms for recognizing it.”

Journal Reference:  Kyle A.; DeScioli, Peter; Haque, Omar Sultan; Pinker, Steven. The Psychology of Coordination and Common KnowledgeJournal of Personality and Social Psychology, Aug 11 , 2014, No Pagination Specified.