When I was little, maybe 7 or 8 years old, I remember reading a funny story. It was called ‘The White Elephant’. It goes like this:
Long long ago, in a faraway land, lived a hardworking gardener and his wife. One night, the gardener was walking back home from work, when he heard a rustle in the bushes. He hid and peered out from the bushes, and to his utter surprise, found a white elephant. The elephant silently grazed the grass for some time, and then took off flying towards the sky just before dawn.
Out of curiosity, the gardener ran and hung on to the elephant’s tail. A few moments later, he found himself in a strange garden. Everything in it was enormous — tomatoes, apples, cucumbers, you name it. The gardener gleefully started picking up some fruits and vegetables to take home. A few hours later, the white elephant reappeared and started going back to earth. Our man hung on to the tail and hurried home with the loot.
He told his wife about the adventure. She was unable to contain her excitement, so she told her friends about it. Somewhat in the spirit of fake news, the story spread and everyone demanded to go on this adventure. On a selected day, the whole village hid behind bushes. When the gardener ran to catch the elephant’s tail, the villagers followed him and formed a long chain, hanging on to each other’s legs.
It was all going well and the group was well on its way towards the garden until the last person could not contain their excitement any longer and asked the person above exactly how big a watermelon in this garden could be. The question was passed on and reached the gardener. He got annoyed and shouted, “they are THIS big”, opening up his hands wide. They all fell down.
I remember laughing a lot at this story. But unfortunately, as a behavioral scientist, I am now questioning the details. Why did the gardener have to hang on to the elephant’s tail? What made his story spread like fake news? Why was everyone dying to go on this adventure?
But it’s not just about this story. Why do we watch binge-watch cliffhangers? Why do we care if 2 random strangers ended up marrying each other on reality shows? Why does it matter if an iPhone X can be blended? (Spoiler alert: Yes – it can be blended into a fine powder)
To put it simply, we are all what Herbert Simon referred to in the title of his talk at Carnegie Mellon in 1992 – “The Cat that curiosity could not kill”.1
The curious case of curiosity
For many years, curiosity has baffled psychologists and philosophers alike. This is not surprising in itself, given that our curiosity goes as far back as the story of Eve taking a bite of the apple she was forbidden from touching and Pandora opening the box she was told not to open.
One of the earliest attempts at uncovering the underlying reasons behind curiosity was by William James in his 1890 publication, The Principles of Psychology.2 He identified two types of curiosity: one driven by emotions, and one driven by scientific wonder. Following this, several other attempts were made, and we now have a somewhat clearer understanding of what gets us curious and how we can sustain this.
Daniel Berlyne introduced us to the world of curiosity aroused by external stimuli with characteristics of novelty, uncertainty, and conflict. He also hypothesized on the level of stimulation — if the stimulation is too low, there will be no reason to explore, and if it is too high, it will result in anxiety.3 The right balance of stimulation is needed for exploration. This has been captured as the “zone of curiosity” by H.I. Day, a colleague of Berlyne.4