Being curious ... is hard

Way back at the start of the year I set myself a one word resolution that I was going to live 2017 through the lens of curiosity.

Despite my best intentions, six months into this adventure, I am not quite where I would like to be. I am not the wise sage I envisioned. Nor am I more intelligent or a better listener. I don’t feel that I am any less judgmental or prejudiced and I have not yet learnt much new stuff, let alone discovered the meaning of existence. I haven’t even been bothered to investigate where that weird smell in the kitchen is coming from.  I am finding curiosity pretty hard.

Firstly, there’s just all this stuff out there that really doesn’t interest me. Like, not in the slightest. And as it turns out analysing our areas of anti-curiosity is extremely difficult, because our brain likes to rebel against thinking about things it habitually doesn’t think about.

A lot of this comes down to personal preference, naturally, however we do have the ability to work through this, get uncomfortable and reap benefits.

For example, many years ago I was pretty adamant that I really didn’t like rugby league. Lots of boof head men running after a ball, smashing into each other and then doing ridiculously silly things off the field. At the time though it appeared that rugby league was going to be something that would feature reasonably frequently in my routine, so I made a conscious effort to develop an interest. I got curious. I learnt about the game. I engaged in a long and arduous task of choosing a team to follow. I joined a footy tipping competition. I watched it on the tele and in the stadium.

And now, over a decade later, rugby league doesn’t have to be in my life. But it is and I love that it is! I’m still in the same footy tipping competition. For someone who likes to wear pretty dresses, I own way too much official NRL merchandise. And despite not ever having seen my team win a game live, I still make my way to the games when they’re playing close by in hope. I got curious about it. And now I love it.

That whole process took a bit of time. And what I’m finding now, is that if the passion to find out more about something isn’t coming easily to me – like really easily - my frustration will manifest in a feeling that I just don’t want to know. Or I don’t really care. So, I just give up. But what could I be missing out on? Is there something out there that might give me as much joy as seeing the Panthers being down by a zillion points at half time, only to win, two weeks in a row?

Secondly, I come with a bucketload of bias. And that makes curiosity hard too.

We all experience what is known as ‘confirmation bias’, the tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that confirms our pre-existing beliefs or hypotheses. It’s a type of cognitive bias and a systematic error of inductive reasoning. We display this bias when we gather or remember information selectively, or when we interpret things in a biased away. The effect is strongest for emotionally charged issues or for deeply entrenched beliefs. When we have to interpret ambiguous evidence we will usually interpret it to support our existing position.

In 1975, researchers at Stanford invited a group of undergraduate students to take part in a study about suicide. The students were presented with pairs of suicide notes. In each pair, one note had been composed by a random individual, the other by a person who had subsequently taken their life. The students were then asked to distinguish between the genuine notes and the fake ones.

Some students discovered that they had a genius for the task. Out of twenty-five pairs of notes, they correctly identified the real one twenty-four times. Others discovered that they were less good at the task. They identified the real note in only ten instances.

As is often the case with psychological studies, the whole setup was manipulated. Though half the notes were indeed genuine—they’d been obtained from the Los Angeles County coroner’s office—the scores were fictitious. The students who’d been told they were almost always right were, on average, no more discerning than those who had been told they were mostly wrong.

In the second phase of the study, the deception was revealed. The students were told that the real point of the experiment was to gauge their responses to thinking they were right or wrong. (This, it turned out, was also a deception.) Finally, the students were asked to estimate how many suicide notes they had actually categorized correctly, and how many they thought an average student would get right. At this point, something curious happened. The students in the high-score group said that they thought they had, in fact, done quite well—significantly better than the average student—even though, as they’d just been told, they had zero grounds for believing this. Conversely, those who’d been assigned to the low-score group said that they thought they had done significantly worse than the average student—a conclusion that was equally unfounded.

“Once formed,” the researchers observed dryly, “impressions are remarkably perseverant.”

Confirmation bias is one of the best catalogued forms of faulty thinking, with mountains of experiments conducted on it over the decades.

We see confirmation bias come up a lot when we’re engaging in social conversations. When we’re presented with someone else’s standpoint or argument or opinion and it’s different to our own, we’re really quite adept at spotting the weaknesses. Curiously, the position that I’m finding is that I’m most blind about the weaknesses of my own arguments.

Thirdly, I’m still an avoider at heart. And despite the amount of information available to us, we are even more likely to only seek out the information supporting our versions of reality. And ignore the stuff we don't want to engage with. 

Going into this challenge I thought that I’d be a seeker of all types of new information. But I reckon that there is heaps of stuff that I am actively avoiding just in case it affects my sense of well being in some way.

Like, climate change.

I have a massive blind spot when it comes to all things climate change. I am by all means not a denier. I’m certain it is happening. But if I let myself think too much about the potential of global warming and what this means in the next ten, fifty, one hundred years … well, then it’s panic stations. I start to feel incredibly insignificant, disillusioned and overwhelmed. And it’s hard to know what to do. This is a problem, because I reckon if I did know a bit more about it, I would compost more.

I think we’ve all got blind spots. I spoke to a friend about this and she mentioned she had to switch the channel on the news whenever a story came on about sexual assault. That was her blind spot.

Information avoidance might help in some cases and we all do this in several ways. But what I seem to be doing is avoiding information because it might be painful to receive, despite the information being something that could help me to make better decisions.

So, that’s my six-month curiosity update. To summarise, the only thing I have learnt from being more curious thus far, is how difficult I find being curious. And whilst identifying barriers is good, let's hope in the next six months there is a bit more cultivation of curiosity. 

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