Curiosity as a main driver of agility?

Curiosity by Eli Allan on Unsplash

Before we get started: The following four questions will be answered in the course of the text. They also familiarise you with the expected content of this blog post.

  1. What are the motives behind curiosity?
  2. How to foster curiosity?
  3. What positive effects can (chronic tendency to) curiosity have?
  4. Is curiosity a main driver of agility?

Definition

Although there is no generally accepted definition of curiosity in the literature and several variations exist³ ⁴, most scientists agree that curiosity is a motivation or desire to seek and learn new information by exploring new or unsafe environments⁶. However, in the existing literature on agility, or specifically in its definitions, curiosity is not given much attention.

Curiosity as motivation or desire to seek and learn new information by exploring new or unsafe environments⁶.

The motivation seems obvious. But what are the motives behind it?

Motives

People’s curiosity can be driven by heterogeneous motives.² This was tested in a task in which the test persons were presented with two lotteries that were equally relevant for their payouts. The lotteries differed both in terms of the average amount to be paid out (the reward) and in terms of the uncertainty about this amount. Participants were informed that one value would be drawn from each lottery and the sum of both values would be paid out. Although the participants could not influence their actual payouts, they could choose which lottery they could see the result of, while remaining uncertain about the result of the other lottery.

The aim of this study was to clarify whether people want to form precise beliefs about their overall outcome by choosing to view the lottery result with a high degree of uncertainty, or whether they are driven by the so-called “anticipatory benefit”, i.e. the desire to anticipate positive results while avoiding negative results. If the latter were the case, participants would show a preference for the results with high rewards, regardless of whether this reduces their uncertainty. The authors finally show that the participants’ behavior could be described as a mixture of motives related to the reduction of uncertainty and anticipatory benefits. Moreover, the strength of these two motives differed among individuals, and many participants showed a combination of both motives. Results from a different study show that targets associated with less uncertainty may be more attractive, suggesting that some people are driven mainly by the information that makes them feel good⁵.

Studies show that participants tend to be curious about future desired outcomes (gains) and to opt for them more often, preferring to remain unaware of future undesired outcomes (losses)¹. In this study, participants were willing to pay for expert knowledge when they expected to gain, and even willing to pay for ignorance when they expected to lose. A similar suggestion is that there is a preference for advanced information because such advanced information increases the degree of anticipation.

Reduction of uncertainty as well as anticipatory use as curiosity motives (or a mixture of both).

I am sure you know people who seem to be endlessly curious. You wonder why? Continue reading for a possible explanation.

Positive Feedback Loop

The chronic tendency to feel curiosity has lifelong effects on memory, general cognitive function, well-being, and physical health, both through behavioral changes and through changes in brain function or structure⁶. Curiosity also has many positive effects as we age. Feelings of curiosity have positive effects on memory, general cognitive functions, and well-being by activating the noradrenergic and dopaminergic system.

Sakaki et al. (2018) recognize the tendency that this adaptive function of curiosity during aging is supported by a positive feedback loop between curiosity and dopamine/noradrenaline, which amplifies the effects of curiosity over time. Thus, the dopaminergic system and the noradrenergic system are crucial in supporting one’s curiosity. If a person feels curious about uncertain stimuli or tends to feel curiosity and explore new environments, this increases their exposure to new or uncertain stimuli — which usually leads to an increased release of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain. These neuromodulators, in turn, have anti-inflammatory and anti-neurodegenerative effects that help individuals maintain their ability to sense curiosity and enhance their cognition, well-being, and physical health, which can further support their exploratory behavior.

The positive feedback loop also plays a crucial role in maintaining the brain’s anti-neurodegenerative mechanisms and in achieving successful and adaptive aging⁶.

Curiosity as a positive driver of cognition, well-being and (physical) health.

So hormones and their effects could stimulate “endless” curiosity. Let’s ask people without a professional background in fields of curiosity. What do employees in an agile working environment associate with it?

Study results

In a study by the author (please contact me if you have any questions), the participants showed different associations with curiosity in connection with agility. It was described as a desire to learn, try out and progress (in different ways) or as a driver of self-responsible action and creativity. This is of interest because these terms appear in many definitions of agility.

One of the experts interviewed addressed the curiosity motives² and noted that the first motive (solving uncertainty through curiosity) can be fulfilled in an agile context by the fact that it is an iterative way of working, in which getting better and learning is always the main focus. The second motive (verifying one’s own knowledge level/ benefit) can be fulfilled by using regular demos and prototypes as a basis to get feedback faster than in other working methods.

Business management methods to stimulate curiosity are particularly successful through events that give employees insights into projects of other employees, or through professional presentations of other employees or external speakers on different topics (if required, a more detailed article can be published here).

Desire to learn, Desire to try out, Desire to progress

Driver of self-responsible action and creativity

Let us now conclude by answering the initial questions based on the combination of scientific knowledge and experience of the study participants.

Questions to be answered

  1. What are the motives behind curiosity? Two main curiosity motives (1. reduction of uncertainty 2. anticipatory benefit).
  2. How to foster curiosity? Positive feedback loops increase curiosity (education methods could be based on this).
  3. What positive effects can curiosity have? Curiosity can be a positive driver of cognition, well-being, and (physical) health.
  4. Is curiosity a main driver of agility? See the conclusion below.

Conclusion for curiosity in the context of agility

It can be seen that curiosity is a cultural or company-specific rather than a main or general agility driver. However, if there is an entrepreneurial need for creative, innovative, and self-responsible employees, an environment along the employee journey can be fostered which is oriented towards the fulfillment of the curiosity motives and can ultimately favor a positive feedback loop.

How does your company encourage curiosity?

Literature

  1. Charpentier, C., Bromberg-Martin, E., & Sharot, T. (2018). Valuation of knowledge and ignorance in mesolimbic reward circuitry. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115 (31), S. E7255-E7264.
  2. Kobayashi, K., Ravaioli, S., Baranès, A., Woodford, M., & Gottlieb, J. (2019). Diverse motives for human curiosity. Nature Human Behaviour, 3, S. 587–595.
  3. Loewenstein, G. (1994). The psychology of curiosity: a review and reinterpretation. Psychological Bulletin, 116 (1), S. 75–98.
  4. Oudeyer, P., Gottlieb, J., & Lopes, M. (2016). Intrinsic motivation, curiosity, and learning. Progress in Brain Research, 229, S. 257–284.
  5. Roper, K., & Zentall, T. (1999). Observing behavior in pigeons: The effect of reinforcement probability and response cost using a symmetrical choice procedure. Learning and Motivation, 30, S. 201–220.
  6. Sakaki, M., Yagi, A., & Murayama, K. (2018). Curiosity in old age: A possible key to achieving adaptive aging. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 88, S. 106–116.

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