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NOT ALL FOR SALE: curiosity is funny, scary, and effective!

NOT ALL FOR SALE: curiosity is funny, scary, and effective!
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Photo: Rodney Smith, «A.J. Looking Over Ivy-Coverd Wall» Harriman, New York, 1994


It is well-known that Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman raised great doubts about homo economicus’ capacity for rational behavior. Since then, the scientific and business communities have become increasingly interested in motivations that are beyond profit maximization.

Why do people in search of meaning in life suddenly leave prestigious positions? Why do we spend time on hobbies that don’t make money? Why can’t we deny ourselves the pleasure of solving puzzles and rebuses?




In the mid-twentieth century, scientist Harry Harlow experimented with rhesus macaques. He gave the monkeys various puzzles and observed their behavior. The macaques showed great interest, exploring and twisting the puzzles in their hands and playing with them.

Eventually, most of the monkeys found the correct solution to the problem and subsequently solved it within a minute. And everything was going great until Harlow began to encourage macaques that successfully coped with the puzzles.

When the animals were rewarded, they performed much worse, and their performance was much lower. The paradox was that when the macaques were motivated only by their own freely expressed curiosity, they were much more willing to solve the puzzles than they were «for a salary».

Although it would seem that it should have been much more rewarding and interesting for them to acquire additional benefits in the process. If macaques could speak, they would probably quote Albert Einstein: «I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious».




In the 70s of the last century, something similar to the motivational mechanisms of monkeys was discovered in humans by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan from the University of Rochester (USA). They created the self-determination theory. According to it, one of the main conditions of motivation is the feeling of being the initiator of your own actions.

In addition to the demand for autonomy, a person also has a need for competence and relationships with other people. That is, apart from the biologically dictated needs for food, safety, and continuation of the species, the motivating forces that determine human behavior are external (encouragement and punishment) and internal (pleasure from the process).

And Edward Deci found that the latter worked much better, while rewarding humans, as in the case of macaques, had a negative effect on the outcome.

In addition, in the late XX — early XXI century, it became clear that the system of external motivation, the famous principle of «carrot and stick», was becoming less and less compatible with many aspects of modern business.




In 1995, there were two competing virtual encyclopedias. The first one was created by Microsoft Corporation, which attracted considerable resources and the best professionals. The second one was called Wikipedia, and it was filled with content and edited by millions of people on a completely free basis.

In the 90s, not a single economic analyst would have dared to bet on this strange project carried out on a non-professional, free, and voluntary basis. However, in the 2000s, the world began to change dramatically, and people’s motivations began to transform.


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In this new world, Wikipedia significantly outperformed Microsoft’s initiative. Today, we already know a lot of business models that have achieved incredible success by harnessing the power of people’s voluntary activity. Wikipedia became a pioneer of open-source, open-access projects. It was followed by many companies such as Linux, Firefox, Apache, WordPress, and others.

Research on the motivation of participants has shown in detail that it is related to creative realization, which is achieved through the «flow state». Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who first described it, characterizes flow as a state close to Zen.

In this state, the unity of attention, motivation, and situation causes a feeling of happiness and contributes to optimal problem-solving. A Swedish study from 2010 found that pianists who entered flow had deeper breathing, slower heart rates, and even activated the facial muscles responsible for smiling.




Unlike Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Mellon G. Loewenstein of Carnegie University explained the reasons for people’s curiosity in a slightly different way. He created the «info-gap» theory. Its essence is that curiosity helps our brain to get rid of uncertainty that is very uncomfortable for it.

The urge to fill information gaps can be so great that people will make potentially disadvantageous and even harmful decisions. In one experiment, participants waiting for a real task were asked to examine stun pens.

In one group, participants knew that those with a red sticker were electrocuted and those with a green sticker were not. The second group, who all had yellow stickers, did not know which pens were battery-operated and electrocuted and which were battery-free and safe.

It turned out that people who were in a situation of uncertainty were much more likely to be curious and press the pens at risk of getting an electrocution.




Curiosity makes us happier, helps us create innovative business models, makes unexpected scientific discoveries, and solves creative problems. But it is also an endless source of scary and comical situations that people often get into because of it.

The first can be illustrated by any story about «blue beard», when a person looks into the «wrong» room, although quite aware of the negative consequences of this. Such stories abound in folklore, movies, and literature. But anecdotal situations are not uncommon.

Once the victim of his own curiosity was none other than the author of the theory of evolution, Charles Darwin. Darwin was a fanatical bug collector. In 1828, while walking around Cambridge, he discovered two beetles under the bark of a dead tree.

When both his hands were occupied with these insects, Darwin saw a third, very rare beetle, the Greater Crusader. There was no way to miss out on such good fortune.

Darwin thought of nothing better than to put one of the beetles in his mouth to grab the crusader with his free hand.

Sensing danger, the beetle in Darwin’s mouth released a toxic substance. As a result, the scientist had to spit out the beetle and drop the two that were in his hands.


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