I have a riddle for you. Ready?
A bus driver was heading down a street in a small town. He went right past a stop sign without stopping and turned left where there was a “no left turn” sign, ignoring a nearby cop car. Still, he didn’t break any traffic laws. Why not?
Sit tight and keep reading. The answer appears later in this article.
Are you squirming a little? Curiosity piqued? If you’re still reading to find out the answer to the riddle, you may exemplify a form of motivation identified in many psychology research findings, more recently a study led by Evan Polman, Ph.D., an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
William Arthur Ward eloquently defined curiosity as “the wick in the candle of learning.” In research, curiosity is often defined as the appetitive drive to learn the unknown, or the desire for closure.
Curiosity has long been known to be a powerful predictor of behavior. Advertising moguls have capitalized on this psychological phenomenon for decades to encourage consumerism (e.g., “…with a special mystery prize in every box!”). More recently, “clickbait” internet headlines appear on your screen that promise shocking deals or rumor reveal by first clicking on an ad.
What’s novel about Polman’s particular study’s results is not simply that curiosity can lead to a behavior such a buying or clicking, but that curiosity might be strong enough to mediate someone’s choice of a more healthy behavior over a more tempting, unhealthy behavior.
In this four-study series, researchers sought to understand the antecedents to an individual’s choices in two lab experiments and two field experiments. In particular, they focused on curiosity as a way to improve decision-making between “want” choices that offer gratification in the immediate moment and “should” choices, related to longer-term satisfaction and benefit.
In one of the field experiments, scientists approached 200 participants in a college library and offered them a choice between two kinds of fortune cookie desserts: one dipped in chocolate and toppings (less healthy, “want” option), and one plain (more healthy, “should” option). 100 of these participants were told that the plain, fortune cookie contained a fortune specifically about them and that the chocolate dipped cookie had no specialized message. The other half of participants served as the control group and received no information when offered the choice between the two. Researchers predicted that participants whose interest was piqued with a personalized fortune would choose the plain cookie, and they were right.
Most intriguing to the researchers was the strength of the curiosity effect in choosing the healthier fortune cookie. 80% of participants in the control group chose the chocolate-dipped cookie, while 20% chose the plain option. In the experimental group whose participants anticipated a personalized fortune in the plain cookie, the results were practically flipped. 71% of participants chose the plain cookie to receive their personalized message, while 29% chose the chocolate dipped fortune cookie.
In a second study, participants in a control group watched a magic trick and were then offered the choice between watching an intellectual “high-brow” movie clip versus an entertaining “low-brow” movie clip. 70% of control participants chose the low-brow entertaining clip, with the remaining 30% choosing the high-brow clip. In the experimental group, participants watched the same magic trick to start but their interest was piqued: they could see the magic trick revealed, but only if they chose the high-brow movie clip. The results matched the hypothesis, with a stronger effect than anticipated. Nearly 55% of experimental group participants, a far higher number than the control group, chose the high-brow clip.
Subsequent field experiments in the study series all supported curiosity as a possible motivator for healthier choices. By offering trivia teaser statements at the bottom of a stairwell and promising trivia answers along the stairwell, the frequency of stair-use (as opposed to elevator use) in a university building increased by 9.8% in just two weeks. In a different experiment, consumers purchased more fresh, healthy produce when curiosity was piqued with the promise of a riddle or joke punchline.
Perhaps choosing to read this article informed your awareness of daily choices, affecting your health for the better. And look, all it took to make the healthy choice of reading was piquing your curiosity with a riddle about a bus driver going through a stop sign. Ready for the answer? The bus driver was walking.
Curiosity is not the only means for stimulating healthy choices over less healthy temptations. Research on the practice of mindful attention, a form of selective attention, has also shown initial promise for inviting in wholesome life decisions and ignoring those that are less healthful as well.