Curiosity and confusion

What is curiosity?  How can it be stimulated and sustained?

Recently, I read again George Loewenstein's classic paper "The Psychology of Curiosity: A Review and Reinterpretation."  He quotes Edmund Burke, who I quote in greater length:


THE FIRST and the simplest emotion which we discover in the human mind, is Curiosity. By curiosity, I mean whatever desire we have for, or whatever pleasure we take in, novelty. We see children perpetually running from place to place, to hunt out something new: they catch with great eagerness, and with very little choice, at whatever comes before them; their attention is engaged by everything, because everything has, in that stage of life, the charm of novelty to recommend it. But as those things, which engage us merely by their novelty, cannot attach us for any length of time, curiosity is the most superficial of all the affections; it changes its object perpetually, it has an appetite which is very sharp, but very easily satisfied; and it has always an appearance of giddiness, restlessness, and anxiety. Curiosity, from its nature, is a very active principle; it quickly runs over the greatest part of its objects, and soon exhausts the variety which is commonly to be met with in nature; the same things make frequent returns, and they return with less and less of any agreeable effect. In short, the occurrences of life, by the time we come to know it a little, would be incapable of affecting the mind with any other sensations than those of loathing and weariness, if many things were not adapted to affect the mind by means of other powers besides novelty in them, and of other passions besides curiosity in ourselves. These powers and passions shall be considered in their place. But whatever these powers are, or upon what principle soever they affect the mind, it is absolutely necessary that they should not be exerted in those things which a daily and vulgar use have brought into a stale unaffecting familiarity. Some degree of novelty must be one of the materials in every instrument which works upon the mind; and curiosity blends itself more or less with all our passions.

- Edmund Burke (1729–1797).  On the Sublime and Beautiful. The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.


For me, curiosity is a process by which I continuously attempt to drain a vast reservoir of confusion which at an equal rate fills with new questions and nagging thoughts.  But as I learn and try new things I find that the quality of the confusion improves.  I ask better questions.  I see new patterns.  I make new connections.  I am motivated by a sense of wonder.

Loewenstein is the Herbert A. Simon Professor of Economics and Psychology at CMU.  He is a behavioral economist working on a diverse set of problems, particularly in the area of intertemporal choice.  He is a very curious person.

Loewenstein's proposed theory of curiosity is based in part by his view that curiosity is a reference-point phenomenon.  Imagine if I think that you have a bit more information than I do about an area of mutual interest.  That bit of information may become something which in intensely motivating for me to find out because my dissatisfaction with my current state of knowledge depends on the discrepancy between my goal of knowing what you know and being aware of what I know.

Curiosity is stimulated in many ways, both voluntary and involuntary.  We read a story to the end to find out what happens.  But there must be something that inhibits our merely paging to the end of the book to find that the butler did it.  We read because the process of reading is rewarding - we enjoy the sustained joys of curiosity much as we savor a well-prepared meal.

There are practical applications of diving deeply into the cognitive science of curiosity.  How can software be created that will carry users through the first stages adoption?  Can a sense of curiosity be created that will overcome the frustration of needing to learn its features and operations?  What of MOOCs that have dramatic drop-out rates - can a process be created that encourages students to remain through the entire course?  What of virtual reality experiences, particularly for educating prospective customers about real products - how can the sales experience draw people in and encourage exploration and adoption?