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Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it can help us

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On TV and online, sensational headlines grab our attention: "You'll Be Shocked What Happened Next!" or "17 Secrets Cruise Ship Workers Don't Want You to Know." These clickbait headlines work because we want to satisfy our curiosity, so we watch, or click.

But that inquisitiveness can also be used to make better decisions. Piquing curiosity steers individuals toward healthier and smarter choices, such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or watching an educational film, according to a study presented this month at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association.

"There are many things we know we should be doing, but temptation gets in the way," says study coauthor Evan Polman, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "Curiosity is a very powerful force" that can help us overcome those short-term temptations, he says.


Polman and colleagues conducted four experiments on how curiosity might affect decision-making. In the laboratory, they asked volunteers to pick between a plain fortune cookie and one dipped in chocolate and sprinkles. Eighty percent of participants opted for the latter, until the researchers informed them that the fortune inside the plain cookie disclosed a personal detail the team knew about the volunteer. Eager to find out what the researchers knew, now 71 percent of the participants reached for the plain cookie.

Another group of volunteers was asked to watch a magic trick, and then choose between watching a "dull, but educational" film clip or an "empty, but highly entertaining" clip. Once again, the majority chose the fun, indulgent option, unless they were given the option to learn the secret of the magic trick if they watched the educational clip. Their curiosity stoked, the majority opted for the educational option.

Next, the team showed that curiosity encourages people to make healthier decisions in everyday life. They increased the use of stairs in a building by 9.8 percent by posting trivia questions near the elevators and promising answers in the stairwell. And they increased fruit and vegetable purchases at a grocery store by 10 percent by putting placards with jokes near the produce and printing the punch lines on bag closures.


The study did not measure whether exploiting curiosity will work over a long period of time — would you keep gravitating toward cucumbers to read a joke, or would you get bored with the gimmick? But Polman suspects it would be possible to keep people's curiosity engaged by changing the content or type of activity used to provoke it.

Polman admits marketers and the media can use curiosity to nudge consumers toward negative choices, as with clickbait. But when used in the right way, appealing to our natural inquisitiveness might help us choose what we should do, rather than what we want to do.

So, what do you call a boomerang that does not come back? Go take a walk around the block (no cheating!) and get back to me.