California State University, Northridge

Curiosity and Exploration

By Susan Edelman
(spring 1997)

What makes people curious? Why do individuals explore the unknown? The research in these areas is inconclusive and often contradictory. Are curiosity and exploration motivations or drives? Can curiosity and exploration be operationally defined independent of one another? Motivation is defined as the arousal, direction and persistence of behavior (Franken, 1994); an internal state or condition that activates behavior and gives it direction; desire or want, that energizes and directs goal-oriented behavior; the influence of needs and desires on the intensity and direction of behavior. Drive is defined as a basic or instinctive need; a vigorous effort toward a goal; to cause and guide the movement.

Curiosity is defined as a need, thirst or desire for knowledge. The concept of curiosity is central to motivation. The term can be used as both a description of a specific behavior as well as a hypothetical construct to explain the same behavior. Berlyne (1960) believes that curiosity is a motivational prerequisite for exploratory behavior. The term curiosity is used both as a description of a specific behavior as well as a hypothetical construct to explain the same behavior. Exploration refers to all activities concerned with gathering information about the environment. This leads to the conflict and question of whether exploratory behavior should be defined in terms of the movements that an animal or human performs while exploring or in terms of the goal or purpose of the behavior observed. A clear distinction between these two may not always be possible.

What exactly are curiosity and exploration? Loewenstein (1994) points out four central issues of curiosity: definition and dimensionally, cause, voluntary exposure to curiosity, and situational determinants. He adds a fifth issue of superficiality and intensity since he states that curiosity can arise, change focus or end abruptly. Loewenstein believes that despite its transience, curiosity can be a powerful motivational force. "Curiosity often produces impulse behavior and attempts at self control" (Loewenstein, 1994). Just look at the stories of Pandora and Eve, in which curiosity causes people to expose themselves knowingly to terrible consequences. Langevin (1971) has conducted research in the area of curiosity and classifies measures of curiosity into two categories. First, curiosity is viewed as a motivational state and measured with behavioral indices. Second, he conceptualizes curiosity as a personality trait that is assessed by personality measures. It has been suggested that curiosity is not a unitary construct. At the conceptual level there are numerous definitions of curiosity which tend to encompass a broad range of characteristics. For Fowler (1965), boredom is one prerequisite or motivation for curiosity (exploration).

Curiosity and exploration are difficult to define independently when looking at them from a psychological perspective, the concepts motivation and drive come into play and become intertwined. The underlying problem in using and defining (scientifically and socially) is the circularity of the terms.

Roget's Thesaurus says that the absence of curiosity is boredom, ennui, satiety, take no interest, mind one's own business, uninquisitive.

Historical Overview of Curiosity & Exploration

The earliest discussions of curiosity were conducted by philosophers and religious thinkers and centered on the question of curiosity's moral status rather then on its psychological underpinnings. Cicero referred to curiosity as a "passion for learning" and argued that the story of Ulysses and the Sirens was really a parable about curiosity. Several forms of curiosity related behavior such as search behavior, movement toward an unknown object and asking questions are included in the area of motivational psychology, however, curiosity does not fit well into the conceptual framework developed along the traditional pathways of behavioral sciences. Firstly, the conception of an intrinsically motivated behavioral system, which cannot be linked to a reducible drive raises serious questions about motivational psychology since the 1950's. The idea of curiosity was rediscovered when laboratory researchers wondered about the maze activities of the lab rat when none of the drive states such as thirst or hunger were aroused. Secondly, Wohlwill (1981) states that the curiosity phenomena cannot be investigated without reference to the natural environment of an individual. Before 1950 curiosity was seen in the light of its social function, for example: the eagerness or greed to get to know something new for the sake of newness, and in early psychological literature the term curiosity had a negative connotation. The scientific term "curiosity" is more neutral.

The most basic problem that has occupied curiosity researchers and theorists is the underlying cause of curiosity. Is curiosity a primary or secondary drive? A primary drive is inborn or innate whereas a secondary drive is learned or acquired. The research is inconclusive. If secondary, from what more basic drive or motive does it derive? Older theories oriented toward instinct and drive concepts. The defining feature is that curiosity produces and unpleasant sensation (usually labeled arousal) that is reduced by exploratory behavior.

William James (1890) pointed out two kinds of curiosity. He emphasized the biological function of curiosity as a mechanism of instinct driven behavior that serves in approaching new objects. Approach and exploration are described as being characteristic forms of behavior. The second kind of curiosity pointed out by James is "scientific curiosity" and "metaphysical wonder" with which "the practical instinctive root has probably nothing to do" rather "the philosophical brain responds to an inconsistency or a gap in its knowledge".

In the psychoanalytical literature Freud views curiosity as a derivative of the sex drive. The partial impulse of looking motivates the child's great interest in all things and all events that have to do with sexuality. Whereas the looking impulse and curiosity are primarily sexual in origin, the child's exploratory interest and desire for knowledge can be considered to be a by product of cognitive development. Due to social pressure, sexual exploration is later abandoned.

Blarer (1951) states that the inhibition of curiosity may result in different forms of pathological behavior, such as depression, and higher levels of sensation-seeking or thrill seeking behavior. Blarer proposed curiosity to be intrinsic to the individuals perceptions and world experiences and thus Blarer is the basis for the intrinsic motivation viewpoint in curiosity theory.

Theoretical Conceptions of Curiosity & Exploration

The postulation of an independent exploratory drive is based on the observation of the exploratory activities of animals in situations where there were no external stimuli to satisfy homeostatic drives (water or food). Nissen (1930) experimented with rats and defines exploratory behavior in two ways 1. as an inborn exploratory drive 2. that curiosity is a secondary or learned drive acquired through classical conditioning. Originally, Berlyne (1954a, 1960) thought that the aversive and drive-reducing effect of deviations of the arousal potential from the individual's optimum level as the underlying mechanism of curiosity. Since then, Berlyne has come to believe that curiosity is externally stimulated, and that the curiosity drive is aroused by external stimuli specifically stimulus conflict. This encompasses complexity, novelty and surprise. Berlyne believed that in the short term, stimulus change and novelty is accompanied by physiological change. However, over longer periods of time, investigating behaviors are not accompanied by readily identifiable physiological changes. Berlyne also holds that exploratory behavior serves to maintain or attain a medium to optimal activation level for the organism. In all cases where exploration takes place, arousal or desire is reduced.

Fiske and Maddi (1961) hold a medium arousal level model and differentiate between the terms arousal and activation. They define arousal as "diverse manifestations of activation, such as muscle tone, heart rate, and increased sensitivity for stimuli". Their definition of activation is "the state of a catalytic and energizing mechanism in the central nervous system".

McReynolds bases his theories of exploratory behavior on animal experiments. Motivational aspects of exploratory behavior, for example: a living being is active in order to receive new perceptual information from its environment, as well as adaptive aspects, for example: a living being is in a situation of stimuli that it must regulate and adapt to. Fowler's (1965) boredom-based perspective interprets curiosity as a homeostatic drive (internally stimulated) since the curiosity drive seems to be both evoked and satisfied by the same stimuli. He attacked Berlyne by noting the inherent contradiction in the view that the curiosity drive was both evoked and satisfied by the same stimuli. Theorists that believe that curiosity is externally stimulated were "forced to ascribe both drive-eliciting and reinforcing properties to the same stimuli- namely the novel stimuli for which the animal responded" (Fowler, 1965). Fowler observed animals producing the exploration- initiating response before, rather than after, exposure to the stimulus.

Hunt (1963) states that curiosity refers to a "motivation inherent in information processing" this means that curiosity is a mixture of cognition and motivation. The main principle, which is equally as important as the drive reduction hypothesis is the establishment and maintenance of an optimal amount of incongruence. Incongruence determines the strength, direction and affective qualities of behavior.

Drive Theories

Drive theories differ on whether they view curiosity as a primary or secondary drive. Some research has shown that unsatisfied curiosity tends to intensify over some interval as do other drives such as hunger and thirst.

Curiosity has a motivated force that is stimulated internally (boredom) or by external stimuli. However, Hebb (1955) believes that curiosity seeking behavior poses a paradox for drive based accounts of curiosity. "Drive is not simply a state the decrease of which is rewarding. At high levels the reduction of drive is rewarding, but at low levels, an increase may be rewarding" (Hebb, 1955).

What is the role of homeostatic drives to curiosity? Harlow states that exploration is an example of human motivation that is independent from homeostatic drives. Harlow's nonhomeostatic intrinsic drive theory has been attacked by drive and learning theorists. Kreitler and Kreitler (1976) have changed positions from the basic assumption of drive theory to a more cognitive process in the development of exploratory behavior.

Curiosity & Culture

There is evidence for cross-cultural similarities in exploratory behavior (Dragun, 1981). However, cultures generally vary both in attitudes towards exploration and information seeking as well as in the range of situations allowing the expression of the various manifestations of exploration and curiosity , this is especially true for the sensation-seeking motive. Zuckerman (1994) defines sensation seeking as "the seeking of varied, novel, complex and intense sensations and experiences, and the willingness to take physical, social, legal, and financial risks for the sake of such experiences."

Berlyne also conducted research on cross cultural comparisons in the area of curiosity. His findings conclude that there is a high similarity of demand characteristics of stimuli in two cultures of widely differing historical antecedents and technological development. Also, different cultures form various geographical regions show evidence for cross-cultural similarities in exploratory behavior. More research is needed to study curiosity behavior in its own cultural context to gain a better understanding of the functional relationships between various environmental and social facilitators and inhibitors of curiosity in a given society.

Some Thoughts

There are varying points of view when it comes to theoretically conceptualizing curiosity and exploration. Research findings seem to be dependent on the theoretical orientation of the theorist and the emphasis lies on internal or external stimulus conditions, primary-inborn or secondary-acquired drives, and homeostatic-biogenetic versus nonhomeostatic-psychological motivations.

This is a difficult topic to conceptualize because of the circular nature of the terms and the contradiction and inconclusiveness of the research. Curiosity, exploration, motivation and drive are defined, described, explained and operationally defined in terms of one another, and thus become embedded and intertwined.

World Wide Web Resources

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