The Science of Curiosity

The thrill of curiosity can motivate us to learn—or it can send us hurtling into rabbit holes and habit loops. Dr. Judson Brewer breaks down what this inner drive has to do with shifting our most ingrained habits.

Illustration by Edmon de Haro

Curiosity—our drive for information—can induce a pleasant state or an aversive state. In 2006, the psychologists Jordan Litman and Paul Silvia identified the two main “flavors” of curiosity: I-curiosity and D-curiosity. The I in I-curiosity stands for interest, the pleasurable aspects of the hunger for knowledge, while the D in D-curiosity stands for deprivation, the idea that if we have a gap in information, we go into a restless, unpleasant, need-to-know state.

Deprivation curiosity is driven by a lack of information, often a specific piece of information. For example, if you are in a meeting or out to dinner, and you feel or hear a text come into your phone, you might notice that suddenly it is really hard to pay attention because not knowing what the text says makes you restless, causing your body temperature to rise. It’s as though your phone starts burning a hole in your purse or your pocket. That fire of uncertainty is put out when you check your phone to see who texted you or read what the message says. The relief of the negative state, the itching of the scratch, is in itself rewarding. That’s why TV shows have…