Of all the traits you could develop, which one might have the biggest impact on your achievements?

Some studies and surveys have identified a single candidate above all. It happens to be correlated with higher performance across the board, in school, at work and for learning in general. Curious about this characteristic? If so, that’s good. I’ll explain.

One study from the University of Michigan looked at more than 6,000 kindergarteners. Children who rated high for this particular trait did better on math and reading assessments. This was true regardless of their socio-economic background, no matter if they were particularly attentive in class, or whether they were good at other classic measures like controlling impulses or delaying gratification.

For the book The Corner Office, 700 CEOs weighed in the qualities they see most often in those who succeed. Their number one pick? The same one that worked for the students.

The answer: curiosity.

We know that curiosity helps us to find solutions, come up with new ideas, pursue different paths and broaden our horizons.

It’s important to be curious, but what makes us curious in the first place?

That’s a vital question in marketing and communications. To move people to do anything, from adopting healthy habits to buying a certain brand, you need to do more than offer the right information and incentives. You also have to pique their curiosity, so that they dig in.

One recent study explored what it takes to nudge us to learn more.

It came from the University of California, Berkeley, and was published in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. If curiosity drives knowledge acquisition, then what drives curiosity?

The researchers conducted an experiment. They asked participants 100 trivia questions, covering a wide swath of topics. For example, what was the name of the first probe to send back pictures from Mars? (Viking.) Who was the first physician to record case histories of patients? (Hippocrates.) What’s the most shoplifted book? (Bible.) What band’s lead guitar player has amps with control knobs that go up to 11? (Spinal Tap.)

The number of answers that people got right wasn’t the test. This was.

First, each participant gave their best guesses to each trivia question, and also rated, on a scale of 1 to 7, how close they thought they were to being correct. On average, participants got 18 answers right out of 100. They were then shown the correct answers to the questions, but just for a few seconds each. Not enough to remember every answer. Then they were quizzed again.

Those who felt their initial best guess was close to the right answer tended to get the answer right the next time around. If people believed their guesses were farther off, they often still got the answer wrong (even though they had seen the right answer). To the researchers, this was key.

“It’s in vogue to talk about curiosity as a strategy to increase learning, but it’s unclear how to engage people’s curiosity,” said Celeste Kidd, an assistant professor of psychology at Berkeley, who was the study’s lead author. “Our study suggests it’s the uncertainty – when you think you know something and discover you don’t – that leads to the most curiosity and learning.”

When we’re communicating with others, we often want them to take some type of action or raise their awareness. Consider what they already know. Or think they know. Build on that. The next best thing to being certain is, most certainly, being a little uncertain.

As the Berkeley researchers concluded, realizing that we have a partial understanding of something stimulates our curiosity. We’re open to learning, to get it right. However, when we know next to nothing about something, our inquisitiveness can be squashed.

“Curiosity,” said Kidd, “is the gatekeeper of the knowledge we choose to absorb.”

By the way, remember that trivia question about the first Mars probe? NASA sent another one to Mars in November 2011. It landed in August 2012, and its original two-year mission has been extended indefinitely. The probe’s name is Curiosity.

Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on Twitter @StuartFoxmanconnect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at foxmancommunications.com. I would love to hear from you. More articles like this coming, with original posts every week about communications, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, etc., etc.

July 3, 2019


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