What Holds Us Back? 4 Things Holding Our Curiosity Hostage

We are often told to follow our passion.  Even if we determine our passion, some things hold us back from pursuing our natural sense of curiosity.  Curiosity has been called a sort of mental itch.  There are surprisingly few studies about curiosity because it is difficult to study.  Some people are more naturally curious than others. It can be important to have curiosity hardwired into us because it helps us grow and develop.  There are factors like stress, aging, drugs, genetics, etc. that could impact our level of curiosity.  Outside of medical issues or lack of financial capabilities, I have found four major things that hold people’s curiosity hostage including fear, the way things have always been done, parental/family/peer influence, and technology.


When discussing fear associated with pursuing curiosity, it might seem counter-intuitive because pursuing new things can make us feel good.  Science has demonstrated that when we pursue things that spark our curiosity, we receive a rush of dopamine, a neurotransmitter which influences many brain systems including cognition.  It is our reward for the experience. Curiosity can help us be happier and increase our level of empathy.  However, we also ignite cortisol.  A little cortisol can encourage curious behavior, but a lot of it can also create a back-away response.

The factor of time can impact the balance of positive and negatives outcomes associated with curiosity.  In a research study, people told they could watch a video.  Half of the group were told they could watch it after a minute and the other half after a 30-minute delay.  Both groups were curious about the content on the video; however, those who had to wait longer, had more negative feelings like discomfort, associated with their curiosity.

Motivation only works if you are not anxious about the result.  We must feel safe to increase our level of curiosity and creativity. Some researchers have worked on having people envision themselves in a motivated state.  As people become more curious, dopamine is released, which motivates us to learn more.  Therefore, the more curious you are, the more motivated you become to retain new knowledge and skills.  Some research has indicated that curiosity could mediate fears toward novel ideas.

The Way Things Have Always Been Done:

Another common reason people avoid curiosity is because they feel comfortable doing things the way they always have done them in the past.  In the business world, it is common for leaders to push for a fast solution.  This can force people to come up with tried and true ways.  However, it can limit curiosity and creativity.  We also tell ourselves that we do not have time to read and explore new ideas. However, as the world progresses and becomes more innovative, if we do not proactively seek out new information, we will not keep pace.  It is important to reward people for exploring new ideas and for asking questions.

In our personal lives, we might make job selections based on what we think is expected of us.  Perhaps our family has always been engineers, lawyers, doctors, etc.  It might be in our mind that we should pursue that same path. Perhaps we tell us ourselves that we must be good at something or something is meant to be because our lineage demonstrates that.

Parental, Family, and Peer Influence:

Social pressures can stifle our instincts to be curious.  Our families and friends could inadvertently put ideas in our heads that something is not appropriate or even bad because they fear the unknown.  Sometimes having a friend join in on a curious endeavor can help alleviate that tendency for them to talk badly about doing something or show judgment. Social media has caused a lot of people to only share things that will be “liked” by other people.  They might subconsciously worry that showing an interest in something other than the things that everyone else shows an interest in, could make them look bad.

It is a widely held belief that children are born curious and become discouraged throughout their formal education. Sir Ken Robin’s widely popular TED talk asks the question: Do Schools Kill Creativity? As we age, we are told to act certain ways, and that can stifle curiosity and creativity.  Certain classroom settings have been shown to stifle curiosity.  Teachers might inadvertently have directed their students in ways that pushed the curriculum but stopped a natural form of curiosity that might have led in a completely different direction. Researchers have even found that curiosity can be held back if opposite-sex siblings occupy the same room.

Younger generations have begun to feel even more pressure.  Research indicates that Millennials are the most-stressed generation, lack risk tolerance when it comes to financial decisions, and have less distress tolerance in the workplace.  Because they worry about what others think of them more than other generations, they are less likely to pose new ideas and speak up in meetings.


Technology has led to so many options from which to choose, all generations find it overwhelming to make choices.  As generations become more technology-dependent, some of their natural inclination to follow curiosity can be squelched.  If computers answer questions, some people do not see the need to find out the “why” behind the answers.  Technology might also be the thing that dissuades people from learning new things.  If learning something requires learning to use the technology to discover answers, people can feel overwhelmed.  Someone who might like to learn more about writing, but has little knowledge about computers and online documents, might not pursue their interest in writing due to the sheer number of steps required.

As artificial intelligence becomes more popular, we will have more devices doing more things for us.  To improve AI, scientists have used reinforcement learning methods.  It works similarly to how it does in humans.  They have learned to mimic the way brains learn and to seek positive rewards.  An AI’s world is not unlike the human world where there is a lot of random data received from observation.  They take that data and generate new information based on that data. If we define AI as “whatever computers can’t do yet,” we find that list of things is becoming shorter.  However, there are limits to what AI can do. Right now, too much curiosity can kill the bot’s productivity, if it forces too much on an intrinsic reward vs. an extrinsic one.  Just as with humans, if too much emphasis is placed on rewards for grades, they will work for that, rather than for the satisfaction of learning.

Overcoming some of the challenges associated with technology can include learning the basics of some of the programs required.  It is important to determine how technology has dampened interest in something.  The solution can be as easy as hiring someone to teach the basics or have others do some of the things that help set up the initial programs required to progress.


Curiosity is essential to motivation.  However, it is important to keep in mind that what motivates and rewards each person is different.  Some research has shown that people who believe they are motivated by money, are more curious about the things that come along with money like power and status.  Our brains get into an anticipatory state of what it would be like to have those things.  MRI scans have also shown that when we are curious about something, we have better recall of information. Studies have shown a strong link between curiosity and well-being.  While developing curiosity is usually a positive thing, it is important to recognize that anything can be overdone.  For example, curiosity to do something dangerous like experimenting with drugs can be harmful.

Many companies recognize curiosity is an important trait but fail to seek that trait in potential job candidates.  When interviewing, it can be important to consider character traits of successful employees.  When interviewing curious people, it becomes obvious because they will ask plenty of questions in the interview.

Stimulating curiosity is important for business because it leads to better performance and creativity.  In the working world, this can be looked at regarding specific curiosity to solve a specific problem or diversive curiosity about exploring more unfamiliar topics. Employers can help develop curiosity in employees by having them spend time early in the problem-solving process to generate more creative ideas, rather than to rely on their normal wheelhouse.  The first step toward developing curiosity is to get a baseline of their current level and to determine the things that hold them back.  Whether it is fear, the way things have always been done, parental/family/peer influence, technology, or some other factor, by recognizing that the reward for a healthy state of curiosity is worth overcoming a negative inner voice.  It is important also to note that what paralyzes us could be a combination of factors. For example, it might not necessarily be all fear or technology, but varying degrees of each area, that can impact us and keep us from reaching our full potential.


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