—— Without curiosity, says business psychologist and linguist Carl Naughton, we simply stop making progress. In this interview he reveals why curiosity is evolutionarily important, why it nevertheless has a poor reputation and why it is something like a scavenger hunt.


Mr. Naughton, what is curiosity?
———— I would describe it as a mixture of character and experience. How cur­ious
a person is depends on the environment they grew up in. So two people are never equally curious.
Why are we curious about things in the first place?
———— Curiosity is evolutionarily necessary and innate. If you don’t investigate your environment, you won’t thrive. Discovery, especially at a young age, is crucial for experiencing the world as understandable and controllable. There are essentially five dimensions to intellect­ual curiosity: joy of discovery, a desire to know more, social curiosity, thrill and tension tolerance.
Wait a minute, what is tension tolerance?
———— That’s something we exper­ience when we encounter something new and unknown. This shakes up the system, disturbing our balance. If you’re not tolerant of tension, you’re very cautious and don’t try out many new things. For instance, some people just start walking around when they get to a new city—even with the risk of getting lost or ending up in neighborhoods that may feel less welcoming. They trust that they will find their way around. Such people have a high tolerance for tension. People with a lower tension tolerance are more likely to avoid exploring and would prefer to be with a guided tour group.
So curious people are more eager to explore.
———— That’s just one aspect. Curiosity is also related to a fulfilling life: for instance, curious people have more positive social contacts, learn more easily and even live longer. A long-term study with subjects between 60 and 86 years of age, for example, showed that those who were more curious were significantly more likely to still be alive when the study concluded. Curiosity has also been shown to be more important for education than a high IQ alone. And at work, curiosity is related to a willingness to change, innovation, creativity and learning ability.
So are curious people automatically more successful?
———— They are definitely more creative. However, this is only true if it doesn’t conflict with the goal of also needing to be productive. The two don’t go together. Some companies have recognized this and give their employees free days that they can spend thinking only about creative solutions or new formats. This increases the innovative power within their companies.
Is curiosity alone enough? How do the ideas from those curious people become products?
———— Curiosity is the prerequisite for inventiveness. Whether or not someone is actually able to implement their ideas and use them to build a prototype or a finished product depends, in turn, on psychological capital, which is divided into four dimensions: confidence, self-efficacy, resilience and optimistic realism. Without faith in your own skills, the will to keep going when things go wrong and the ability to find alternatives, you won’t get an idea to take off. Take the young cancer researcher Jack Andraka, who developed a promising test for detecting pancreatic cancer. Despite this, 199 laboratories rejected his prototypes. He didn’t achieve success until number 200, which was at Johns Hopkins University. It later turned out that Andraka’s invention was 100 times more effective and considerably less expensive than conventional tests.

“Curiosity is the prerequisite for inventiveness.”

Dr. Carl Naughton
So curiosity in tandem with psychological capital is the secret to success?
———— For the most part, yes. Conscientiousness is also important. We know from cur­iosity research that curious people are usually more conscientious than others. This is because they really want to get to the bottom of things. In turn, conscientiousness is an important marker for good grades in school and a successful career.
Does curiosity also have anything to do with how old we are?
———— No. Anyone can be endlessly curious at any point of their life. At a very young age, in fact, there’s simply no way for us to manage without it. Curiosity’s purpose during this phase of life is to make sense of the world. During the oral stage, for instance, toddlers discover what things taste like and what shapes and consistencies they have. Then, as we get older, there are fewer and fewer things that are completely new or surprise us. At that point, curiosity is a mixture of personality and the conscious decision to want to discover new things.
So curiosity does decrease with age.
———— Some people are simply satisfied not knowing how or why something works. Or they think they’ve already figured out what’s relevant to them. Curiosity is a personality trait, and some have more of it than others. Of course there are also curiosity killers that paralyze creative processes. Variety amnesia, for instance. This arises in routines in which the same action is repeated over and over again. This can happen at work or among couples.
So you recommend changing partners more often?
———— That’s not necessary. It’s enough to get to know new facets of your partner. What’s important is asking each other questions. To find out about your partner’s less-familiar experiences or feelings. Or to enter into new contexts together.
What happens in our brains when we’re curious?
———— Curious people primarily show increased activity is the caudate nucleus regions in the brain. These areas are involved in “expected reward” processing. Researchers at the California Institute of Technology once made curiosity visible by giving subjects in an MRI scanner Trivial Pursuit-style quizzes. In the game, people often think they know an answer, but aren’t quite sure. After reading each question, participants were asked to guess the answer for themselves while rating how curious they were to know the correct answer. They were then shown the question again, along with the answer. The caudate regions were always the most active when the subjects weren’t certain about the answer: curiosity from a desire to know more.
Have we sapiens always been curious?
———— Yes, curiosity is what led us to develop smarter solutions. To develop spears with the weight perfectly distributed that differ hardly at all from those of today; not only to light fires, but to control fire; to hunt together to catch bigger prey. Curiosity is like a scavenger hunt for a better solution.
Despite this, curiosity doesn’t have the best reputation.
———— We’re all familiar with someone telling us not to be so curious or nosy. This kind of denigration of curiosity has been known since Antiquity. Icarus wanted to find out how close he could get to the sun, and of course he fell and crashed. When Acteon, out hunting, accidentally surprised the naked Diana bathing in a lake and took a closer look, his punishment was to be transformed into a stag and torn apart by his hounds. For a long time, curiosity wasn’t regarded as a desirable state of stimulated attention, but as laxness or a distraction. In Aristotle’s wri­tings, “thauma”—wondering about one’s own ignorance—is necessary knowledge, while curiosity is considered to be “periergia,” or morally questionable since it involves the desire to learn things that are none of one’s business. Abbot Bernhard of Clairvaux viewed curiosity as the beginning of all sin. It wasn’t until much later that curiosity’s bad reputation began to improve. John Locke’s treatise “Some Thoughts Concerning Education” of 1693 is considered a milestone in the “rebranding” of curiosity. In it, Locke shows what an excellent tool nature has given humankind in the form of curiosity.
Yet too much curiosity killed the cat.
———— That may hold true for thrill seeking; however, the most current research is devoted to how intellectual curiosity helps us cope in our unpredictable, highly changeable daily life. This is the curiosity we should nurture.
And what would happen if suddenly nobody was curious at all?
———— Not much at all. No one would try to develop vaccines, nobody would be interested in other people, not a soul would use any sort of media. Curiosity keeps us going, socially, economically and generally as a species.


Carl Naughton (portrait); Getty Images/Jens Schwarz/EyeEm (keyhole)