The Research on Curiosity: Status-Quo Thinking

I give a lot of presentations where I share a story about how status quo thinking can inhibit curiosity.  I would like to share that story here today because many organizations are held back by a culture that embraces going along with the way things have always been done.

Let me begin that story by explaining that investigators set up a hidden camera experiment to see how quickly people can go along with a group. A woman thought she was going for a simple eye exam, but unbeknownst to her, all of the people in the waiting room weren’t other patients – they were actors.  Every so often in the experiment, a bell would ring. Every time the bell rang, all the actors would stand up and then sit down. After just three times of hearing the bell, and without knowing why she was doing it, the woman stood up and sat down, conforming perfectly with the group.

Eventually, they called each of the “patients” away one by one to get their eyes examined. What would happen when the group was gone? Once everyone was out of the room, they continued ringing the bell and what do you think she did when she was all alone? [ding] She conformed to the rules of the group without them even being there.

Then, they introduced actual patients into the room who didn’t know the rules. When the bell went off, she stood up. A new patient asked her why she stood up. And she responded with “Everybody was doing it, so I thought I was supposed to.” What impact do you think that had on the new guy when the bell rang again? [ding] yes … they both stood up. As they allowed more unsuspecting patients into the room, they started to follow along and stand up every time the bell rang.

Slowly but surely, what began as a random rule for the woman had become a social rule for everyone in the waiting room. This internalized behavior is called social learning.  When we see others do a task, our brains will reward us for doing the same thing.  No one wants to be excluded.  Conformity is comfortable.

But going along to get along can create bad habits and stunt growth. And status quo thinking can lead to the downfall of organizations. When we do things only because they were always done a certain way, we don’t progress. We don’t look for other ways to approach problems or devise solutions.

We need to go beyond – to ask why? Why are we doing it this way? Why is this important? What area we striving to accomplish?

Curiosity is responsible for the most incredible things to change our world. You can go back to the Model T or ahead to self-driving cars and the foundation behind them is a passion for innovation. We know that leaders believe that they encourage curiosity and exploration, but the reality is only half of employees feel rewarded for it when they explore their curiosity.  If we want our organizations to generate innovative ideas, we must not only provide rewards, but determine how to help our employees and leaders develop the desire to explore.

My job is to be curious.  I ask questions and share knowledge for a living.  Whether I do it through my radio show, my research, my teaching, or my speaking, I obtain information to share, and that requires that I must first ask questions. I learn a lot from interviewing people.  What I found interesting was whether they were experts from Harvard, Stanford, billionaires, top CEOs, HR leaders, when I asked them what came first … curiosity or creativity, curiosity or motivation, etc., they all said curiosity comes first.

My goal today is to help all of you explore the value of curiosity and determine ways you can help overcome the things that hold you and your organizations back from developing it.

Curiosity is the spark that ignites the process that leads to the goal we hope to achieve.  If we look at an example outside of the workplace, it might make it easier to picture.  Think of a goal you might have like baking a cake.  If you were to mix the ingredients of eggs, milk, flour, etc. or in my case a cake mix because it is easier, and then put it into a pan and placed it into the oven, not much would happen if you didn’t turn on the oven.

In the workplace, if our end goal is being innovative and productive, we must consider what is the spark … or the oven.  It is when we ignite the spark of curiosity that we ignite motivation, drive, engagement, creativity, communication, and all the other soft skills that we hope to improve.  The problem is that most companies start with mixing the ingredients, when they should be starting by turning on the oven. When you start in the middle …  no one gets cake.

To learn more about curiosity, I delved into the research. You might be aware of some of the popular books that helped me with the foundation.  For example, Daniel Pink wrote Drive.  Who here has read that book?  It was great, right?  He also has a pretty popular TED Talk.  In it, he examined the puzzle of motivation. Traditional rewards like money and incentives aren’t always as effective as we think.  Organizations need to shift from basing decisions on people based on outdated and unexamined information and instead, focus on intrinsic motivation.

But where does that come from?  That is what I wanted to know.  What is the spark to that intrinsic motivation?  Everything kept coming back to curiosity.

I also examined Simon Sinek’s work regarding Finding your “Why”. Sinek emphasizes that people want to work for people who inspire them. “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.”  If organizations expect to hire people who are emotionally committed to the job, they need to understand the part of the brain that controls behavior.

The Max Plank Institute coined the term “curiosity gene” , which is present in people and animals. When the curiosity gene is activated, dopamine is released into our bodies, Dopamine is sometimes called the “reward molecule” because it makes us feel good. Curiosity triggers a satisfying, feel-good sensation that’s not dramatically different from eating chocolate, riding a rollercoaster or a taking a Zumba class.  Curiosity clearly rewards us.

One of the most important books regarding curiosity might just be Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset.  Her research found that people have either a fixed or a growth mindset. If their mindset is fixed, challenges are avoided and effort is seen as fruitless. If they have a growth mindset, they believe they can be developed and therefore it is worthwhile to pursue striving for improvement. Their brains literally light up with the potential of learning from the error.  How many of you work with people or for an organization who have shut themselves down to the potential of learning from errors?

There are many instruments out there that can measure levels of curiosity, but they don’t tell you what’s impeding it or how to improve it.

If curiosity is the spark, where did it go?  How do we find it?  Well, I researched that very thing and I’ll tell you how!