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Curiosity – Why your life depends on it

Session 1 - Ian Leslie 2024

by Sam Leith @ OffGrid Sessions 2024

You can always tell the difference instantly, said Ian Leslie as he opened the first session of Offgrid day one: there’s a light behind the eyes of a curious person. And it was pondering the question of why there is a great divide between the curious and incurious that led Ian to work on his book Curious: The Desire to Know, and Why Your Future Depends on It. The “finger-wagging subtitle”, he joked – implying that unless you read his book you don’t have a future – is justified.

  To explain why, he quoted the futurist Kevin Kelly: “If you want an answer in the future, you will ask a machine. The role of humans will be to ask the question.” It’s a matter of supply and demand. With Google and ChatGPT, tech is flooding the market with answers. But “we’re not getting any better at writing the prompts”. Picasso, Ian said, put the same thing more stylsihly: “Computers are useless: they only give you answers.” That implies that curiosity – that asking the right questions — has never been more important. 

  So the question Ian set out to ask was: how do we get on the right side of the curiosity divide – and how to we stay there? Curiosity, he discovered, is little studied in psychology. As a phenomenon of mind it is partly cognitive, partly emotional, and partly instinctual – and so doesn’t fit neatly into the compartmentalised specialisms of academic psychology. Plus, it’s hard to measure. 

  But one big idea – minted by George Loewenstein – provides a way to think about it which, Ian said, can transform your way of looking at the world. That is the “curiosity gap”. If you know absolutely nothing about a subject, you’ll have no curiosity about it because there’s nothing to pique your interest. If you know everything about a subject, likewise, you’ll have no curiosity because there’s nothing to learn. Curiosity flourishes, then, in that gap. You can draw a bell-shaped graph with knowledge on the x-axis and curiosity on the y-axis.

  And there are two types of curiosity. 

  The first is “diversive curiosity”. This is one that storytellers understand instinctively. Take Agatha Christie: she gives you a certain amount of information – Colonel so-and-so has been murdered with some lead piping in the library. But she also leaves “this stonking big curiosity gap: you don’t know whodunnit”. That is what keeps you turning the pages. Diversive curiosity is about novelty, it’s impulsive, and it’s about getting the answer.

  But there’s another sort of curiosity: “epistemic curiosity”. This is “what happens to diversive curiosity when it grows up”. It’s about the accumulation of information over time. It’s a long-term, self-fuelling impulse where the more you know the more you want to  know, and when it bites you it’s “the best thing in the world”. The storytelling analogy is a good way of understanding it. When you finish an Agatha Christie, and you know whodunnit, you’re done with the book. When you finish The Great Gatsby, you’ll think: “I have all the information now, but I still don’t know what the fuck was going on.” You want to reread it. That’s why Gatsby is richer. And that’s the distinction, says Ian, between a puzzle and a mystery.

  Epistemic curiosity is longer–term, it’s more enduring – and it requires more effort because it requires you to explore with smarter and better questions. The physicist’s lifelong engagement with the mysteries of the universe would be an instance of epistemic curiosity. Epistemic curiosity produces a positive feedback loop: the more you know –> the more you realise you don’t know –> the more you want to know –> the more you know.

  And that sort of curiosity makes you smarter. Computers, notoriously, slow down when their memories are full; human beings, on the other hand, speed up when their memories are full. They make connections faster. As a practical instance, if you try memorising a string of sixteen random digits you’ll find it very hard. If the words “lucy in the sky with diamonds” flash up on Ian’s slide deck (he’s a nutter for the Beatles, is Ian) you’ll memorise it in a nanosecond. That, too, is a string of symbols – but your background knowledge fixes it immediately in your mind. 

  That’s why, Ian said, the idea that we won’t need to know things in the future because “we can Google everything” is “completely misguided”. That attitude will train our brains to become slower and slower. 

  Why, then, do people end up being incurious? There’s an adaptive reason for that. Children between the age of four and five ask 40,000 questions a year (“if you have kids, you’ll know that this can be very annoying”). That’s because unlike almost every other animal, we no longer occupy a specific ecological niche: humans’ special power is to adapt to anywhere (even a drizzly island in Essex) by using cultural knowledge. Accordingly, our have a much longer period of helplessness or dependence on their parents. 

  A baby horse isn’t long out of the womb, said Ian, showcasing his zoological expertise, before it’s “going to Starbucks and getting a mortgage”. Whereas human babies take the view: “you’re going to need to change my nappy and feed me till I work out what’s going on”.

  But when our infant instincts for asking questions subsides, curiosity goes down. It’s served its purpose, and as Michael Lewis wrote in Moneyball, “The older you get, the harder it is to take an interest in new things.”

  The same process – curiosity going down as the immediate environment is mastered and understood – takes place in adult life. You get a new job, and to start with you’ll be very interested in finding out all about the company and your colleagues. Once you figure out how to do your job, you’ll tend to become more complacent. 

  It also, sometimes fatally, afflicts institutions. Start-ups are curious and questing and adaptive. As they start to develop a schtick, and make money, they will settle into a groove… and do fine right until the world changes around them without their noticing, and another start up eats their lunch. Lots of industries are, said Ian, “stupid-making”.

  So is the Internet – at once the greatest tool for curiosity and the greatest tool for incuriosity ever invented. It is “a machine for making smart people smarter and stupid people stupider”. Because the better the machine gets at delivering the answers, the lazier the users get at asking the questions.

  So you need to follow the advice of Horace Walpole: “The secret of life is to be interested in one thing profoundly and a thousand things well”. Or, in business terms: be T-shaped. If you know your own field deeply, and show interest and curiosity in what your colleagues do, that will make you a better collaborator. 

Three key takeaways

1) Curiosity is situational

2) In an age of abundant answers, there’s an even greater premium on asking good questions

3) Curiosity is a muscle – use it or lose it.