Is curiosity good or bad?

"Curiosity killed the cat."

"Mind your own business."

Curiosity gets a bad rap these days.  "My curiosity is getting the better of me," someone might say.  And the exhortation to mind our own business reminds us that there are times we need to curb our curiosity. 

What about the saying, "Curiosity killed the cat"?  Apparently, this saying didn't originate from a real-life story of a cat getting into trouble for being too curious.  According to, the original expression was "Care killed the cat."  This expression can be traced all the way back to 1598, and it also appeared in one of Shakespeare's plays.  Interestingly, the word "care" as used here refers, not to concern for others, but to sorrow or anxiety.  And here we find the paradox.

Care vs. curiosity

A 1965 study found a negative relationship between curiosity and anxiety.Penney, R. K. (1965). _Reactive Curiosity and Manifest Anxiety in Children. Child Development, 36(3), 697._ doi:10.2307/1126915   Apparently care/anxiety and curiosity are polar opposites.  Not only does this flip the original meaning of the cat phrase on its head, but it gives us a clue as to the relationship of curiosity to one's well-being.

Disadvantages of curiosity

A more recent study observed, unsurprisingly, that unsatisfied curiosity can be disappointing.  They told two groups of people what they would expect to learn.  One group would get the answer quickly and the other had to wait.Noordewier, M. K., & van Dijk, E. (2015). Curiosity and time: from not knowing to almost knowing. Cognition and Emotion, 31(3), 411–421.   The study confirmed that people who have to wait longer to have their curiosity satisfied feel worse about it at first, but as they get closer to finding the answers they feel more positive about the situation.  So curiosity can put us in suspense.  It appears that people with strong curiosity are better able to handle the negative feelings that come from not knowing.

Unbridled curiosity has definite downsides.  Being too nosy can ruin relationships.  Not being able to bridle our curiosity can waste a lot of time.  In fact, media providers recognize the power of curiosity and make good use of it to keep us from changing the channel or to keep us scrolling social media posts.  The term "rabbit hole" is enough to remind us that sometimes our curiosity leads us much further than we would have intended.

Advantages of curiosity

I'll jump straight to my favorite reason: Curiosity is essential for a bright outlook on life.  A truly bright outlook, as I've pointed out before, is firmly based on reality.  Curiosity helps us develop a closer relationship with reality as it urges us to understand the people and the world around us.  Putting forth the effort to harness curiosity in positive ways can increase life satisfaction and make a person more well-rounded.  Constructive outlets for curiosity include learning about other cultures, learning a new language, learning to play a musical instrument, or virtually any other hobby that requires sustained attention.

The U.S. Department of Labor designated "lifelong learning" as one of their "personal effectiveness competencies" that are essential for all life roles.  Lifelong learning certainly requires curiosity.  In today's economy, this trait is becoming more and more important.

Experts in self-esteem list curiosity as one of the key ways to identify a person with healthy self-esteem.

Judson Brewer, a behavior change researcher, has helped people overcome anxiety by harnessing the power of curiosity.  By learning to express curiosity about the feelings and sensations associated with anxiety, his patients have been able to overcome their fears.

Along with IQ and emotional intelligence, curiosity has been linked with higher success academically and otherwise.Reactive curiosity has been defined as (1) a tendency to approach and explore relatively new stimulus situations, (2) a tendency to approach and explore incongruous, complex stimuli, and (3) a tendency to vary stimulation in the presence of frequently experienced stimulation - Harty, H., & Beall, D. (1984). _Toward the development of a children’s science curiosity measure. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 21(4), 425–436._ doi:10.1002/tea.3660210410

How to be more curious

As with anything, we need to be persuaded that an experience will be positive before we'll be motivated.  So take the time to think about yourself enjoying the benefits:

  1. A brighter outlook
  2. Greater satisfaction in life
  3. A better understanding of the world
  4. Becoming more versatile, more well-rounded
  5. Learning skills that will enrich your life
  6. Increasing your self-esteem
  7. Combating anxiety
  8. Being successful in life

Now, visualize yourself enjoying these benefits.  Then write it down where your future self can see it and be persuaded to value curiosity.

B. F. Skinner, American psychologist, once said, “When you run into something interesting, drop everything else and study it.”  Well, maybe not "everything" else, but if you drop passive, mindless activities that aren't contributing positively to your life, you won't regret it.  Curiosity gains momentum when you see the benefit of what you are learning.

Curiosity about others can be beneficial, especially if you express it in the right way.  Juicy gossip may be interesting, but if you begin to view each person as a treasure trove of stories and experiences, the gossip will have less appeal.  When you meet someone new, or even when you talk to someone you've known your whole life, ask them some questions about themselves, for example:

  • If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be?
  • What's something that really bugs you?
  • What would your ideal day look like?
  • Have you ever met someone who is famous?

Non-threatening questions such as these can teach us amazing things about other people.  We might discover something both have in common that we would have never imagined.

Curiosity also means being willing to admit we don't have all the answers.  Having the humility to ask questions can reap big dividends.

Let mysteries intrigue you

As the 2015 study referenced above points out, we often feel irritated if we have to wait to know something we've been promised to learn.  But this feeling can be overcome.  Interestingly, sometimes experiences are better if we have to wait for them.  Daniel Gilbert, whom I've quoted before, did a study involving showing people a movie.  Some people got to see the whole movie, but others didn't get to see the ending.  Which group would you expect to like the movie more?

But what we discovered was people who didn't see the end of the movie liked it more, thought about it for longer, were still engaged in it and still enjoying it, even hours or days later. They didn't see what happened to the last - the main character in the end, and so they kept wondering. Gosh, I wonder if he went to college or he became a football player. What an interesting thing to be thinking about and enjoying.Interview, NPR show Hidden Brain episode You vs. Future You; Or Why We're Bad At Predicting Our Own Happiness 

I can attest to this.  Years ago I was watching the movie Sky High with my kids at a drive-in theater.  At the climax of the movie, the school is falling out of the sky.  Just as it was about to hit the ground, something went wrong with the projector and we didn't get to see the rest that night.  (We got a voucher for another movie, so it wasn't really a loss.)  I ended up not seeing the end of the movie until it came out on DVD.  Guess what?  I liked the movie more before I got to see the ending, just like Daniel Gilbert would have predicted.

Curiosity knows no bounds

While there are some things it's better not to know, such as what it feels like to fall out of a building or to eat laundry detergent, in general, all of us can increase our curiosity.  Whether it's curiosity about our physical world, our emotions, our relationships, or our future, there are mysteries right below the surface, waiting to enrich our lives.