Humility and Curiosity, Like Peanut Butter and Jelly


Whenever a new season of The Crown drops, Wikipedia searches for Queen Elizabeth and associated Royal family members increase by five-fold. A tsunami of google searches about Prince Philip, Prince Charles, Princess Diana, and specific historical circumstances washes over the internet. All of the sudden, millions of people are interested in long-forgotten events, such as the Great Smog of London.

Historical dramas offer entertainment, but they also stretch the truth, taking liberties with what really occurred for the sake of keeping eyeballs glued to the screen. When we watch a show about a historical event, one with which we are vaguely familiar, we tend to want to know more. Is this really how it happened? Our curiosity is activated and we go searching for answers. Historical dramas are perfect curiosity igniting machines. They give us just enough to wet our pallet, and the rest is up to us.

Enter: psychological research. The information gap theory of curiosity states that we need a little space between what we know and what we don’t to push us towards searching for more. This gap invites filling, and filling it is what curiosity is all about. We’re motivated to find an answer. But like the story of Goldilocks and the three bears, if the gap is too small or too large, it’s not worth our while.

There’s no quicker way to kill curiosity than to be overconfident. When you think you know everything, there’s no questions left to answer, no gaps to fill. In a study on confidence and curiosity, researchers from the University of Rochester found that the relationship resembled an inverted-U. If confidence in the information was too low, curiosity followed suit: the gap was too large, subjects didn’t know enough to kickstart the intellectual juices and the effort it’d take them to learn more seemed too great. This is what happens if you pick up a textbook on a subject you know nothing about. You have no information to prime your curiosity juices, perhaps you aren’t even aware that a gap that exists. It feels more like a never-ending abyss. If, on the other hand, confidence is too high, curiosity plummets. Why? Because there is no need to search for more, you know everything already, or so you tell yourself.

These same researchers found that curiosity was highest when subjects had some underlying knowledge about a subject, but also enough doubt and uncertainty where they weren’t quite sure. Basically, curiosity is in full effect at a Goldilocks middle point between perceived knowing and not knowing about a topic.

Herein lies why The Crown generates so many google searches. We’re all vaguely familiar with the Royal Family; we may even remember hearing or reading about some of the events that occurred in the show. We know there’s some truth to what we’re watching, but we aren’t entirely confident about what’s fact and what’s fiction. Curiosity is sparked, and the search for answers ensues.

The takeaway for life outside of historical TV shows is rather straightforward. First, the more breadth in your knowledge, the more potential you have for curiosity to strike. Knowing a little about a lot of things means that you have lots of gaps to fill. This is way intellectual breadth can be so powerful. It gives you all kinds of opportunities to go deep (and connect ideas from disparate domains). Secondly, if you want to be curious, then remember, if you are overconfident and think you know everything, you’ve eliminated the gap. You’ve killed curiosity. In particular, be careful as you gain expertise. It’s imperative that you keep your humility. Expertise brings confidence, but the only way you continue to grow is if you stay curious. The moment you think you know everything is the moment you’ve extinguished the flame.

— Steve

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