What is curiosity? Is it a drive, an emotion, a behavior, or some combination? Curiosity researchers sometimes measure it as a temporary state, sometimes as an enduring trait. Theories of curiosity link it to arousal, and even anxiety, to sensation seeking, but also to information seeking.

In short, there seems to be no consensus on either what curiosity is, or how to measure it. But there is wide agreement on at least one thing: curiosity is a natural part of being a child. This certainly matches our commonsense intuitions. Children seek out every opportunity to discover new things. They explore their surroundings. They ask “Why?” and “How come?” repeatedly. They seem to do all of this with unlimited energy and no regard for danger, or, for that matter, the needs of busy, tired parents.

Given the tangle of definitions, we start with a question: Is there any principled way of characterizing the curiosity of young children? Does children’s curiosity teach us anything we could apply to our own lives?

1. Be curious about information, not novelty

Four is a glorious age. Old enough to run around, open doors, and, at 3.3 feet reach most of the low kitchen cabinets. Four-year-olds are fully social beings – they can take the perspective of others, have genuine conversations with adults and other children, and show kindness, generosity, and empathy.  Some of the “boundary testing” of the 2’s and 3’s is over, and a four-year-old child can get to the business of learning new things in earnest.

Curiosity motivates them to gather information. For example, four-year-olds understand that the principles of cause and effect govern the world, yet they don’t know in detail what all of those causal principles are. Laura Schulz and her colleagues at MIT have conducted experiments that elegantly show that, time and again, four year olds will forgo seeking novelty in favor of persistence, provided there is something about causality still to be learned.

And they don’t play haphazardly.  They test out new ideas, creating new things to do with old materials: How else can I use this object? What else does this contraption do?

Only when a causal principle is discovered do they move on to the next, newer thing. On an unconscious level, they are monitoring “information gaps” rather than novelty. This type of curiosity is scientific.  It is also creative.

2. Have curiosity without fear

Learning involves taking risks. It seems like the older we get, the more the emotions that surround learning are ones of hesitancy, and even fear. What if I don’t understand? What if all of this effort is wasted, leading nowhere? What if I fail, and what if someone finds out?

Young children’s learning is not subject to these nagging fears.  One indication of this is that children’s curiosity cannot be explained away by temperament.  There are bold, adventurous kids.  There are shy, hesitant kids.  But all of them, faced with the possibility of learning something new, are curious.

Each child finds her own way to satisfy her curiosity: she might venture out on her own; she might ask her mother questions; she might take a friend or sibling along for comfort. The beauty of learning (and of development) is that there are almost always multiple pathways towards the same end.

There is no cause for fear when parents are nurturing, environments are safe, and learning is encouraged. There is no cause for fear, too, if you have not yet internalized evaluations of character that lead you to play it safe (“not good at swimming” or “such a good reader”). So, sadly, we also understand that, when these basic conditions are not met, even very young children can be held back by fear

3. Take one step at a time

If we look at what captures children’s curiosity the most, we see the developmental psychologists’ favorite “U-shaped curve.” To a young child, the most interesting things are just moderately unusual or new, somewhat but not too different from what she already understands. Not so familiar, but not so far removed that it cannot be situated properly in relation to the familiar.

This is another, more subtle explanation for why children’s curiosity is immune to fear.  It lives in the safe middle distance between what is known and what is unknown. These are not risky leaps; they are small steps, taken one at a time.

4. Don’t just look forward, look around

Curiosity isn’t just for preschoolers. Babies, who cannot yet grasp objects in their hands, let alone crawl or walk, already show curiosity in both the direction and length of their attention.  They look towards what is moderately surprising over what is familiar. They don’t just sense. They search.

When they grow a bit, babies coordinate attention with exploration. In a recent study, Aimee Stahl and Lisa Feigenson from John’s Hopkins University showed 11-month-old babies a toy that either violated a physical law (defying gravity, for example) or a toy that looked the same but behaved in an expected way.  Later, the infants could choose to explore either the original toy, or a brand new toy.

They chose the same toy only when it violated the physical law. And they played around with the violation.  When they saw an object that seemed to float rather than fall, they dropped the object over and over again. When they saw an object that seemed to pass through a solid wall, they banged the object against the table over and over again.

So even babies remain persistently curious about familiar things when there is still something to be learned.  Like preschoolers, they explore to learn about the world.  And it all starts by looking around.

5. Ask questions

It may seem that from the time children can ask questions, a faucet turns on that won’t turn off.  The endless repetition of “Why…?” seems to be a clever plot devised to drive a parent crazy.  But, despite what we might think at our least patient moments, these questions have a purpose. Like play and like looking around, they are aimed at satisfying a curiosity to learn.

Brandy Frazier, Susan Gelman and Henry Wellman at the University of Michigan looked at conversations between parents and children ages two to four.  They found that questions stop when children receive a good explanation, but persist when they don’t. Asking questions, for young children, is a form of conversational curiosity.

Children also direct questions appropriately to people who know. Melissa Koenig at the University of Minnesota and her colleagues have shown that 3- and 4-year-old children prefer to ask for information from someone who is usually right about things, not someone who is usually wrong.  They prefer the explanations of an expert to non-expert.

Children understand that knowledge lives in the minds of others, and they actively seek it out to when they need it. Importantly, when they are allowed to seek information actively, rather than receiving what happens to be given, they are more likely to retain what they learn.

6. Make learning new things more important than getting new stuff

In a recent study, Eva Rafetseder and Joseph Perner at the University of Salzburgh gave four-year-olds a choice to open up one of two boxes.  Both had candy inside.  Children chose a box, got some candy, then were asked to rate how they felt. Happy, of course.

Then they got to see what was in the other box, and the other box had much more candy. Adults and older children in a comparable situation feel regret – they report feeling worse after discovering that choosing the other box would have yielded more.

But four year olds don’t.  And it isn’t that they don’t understand the difference in quantity – they do.  It also isn’t because they don’t understand that they would have been even happier with more – they do.  And it isn’t that they don’t understand that it was their choice and they could have chosen the other box – they do.

By any measure, four-year-olds understand the situation perfectly well. So why don’t they experience regret?

If children’s choices are motivated chiefly by curiosity, then this phenomenon makes sense. Getting candy is fantastic, but the desire to know what is in each box may be more immediately important.  So, for four-year-olds, this task is a win/win – you get candy, and you also get to satisfy your curiosity about both boxes.

Relatedly, young children do not have enough experience – or enough of a coherent sense of themselves – to have formed strong preferences.  As they getting older these preferences develop, and the choice to act out of curiosity competes with the choice to obtain the objects of your desires.

But as long as the intrinsic reward of learning things outweighs the extrinsic reward of getting things, there are no regrets.

Concluding thoughts: Intellectual virtues are moral virtues

Last winter my family was on vacation in Costa Rica with friends. Much of our trip was spent driving in our rented car around windy, unmarked roads. We got lost.  A lot.

Our car came with a GPS. Still, each time we got lost, my friend rolled down the window and asked for directions. She had long chats in Spanish with whoever would stop to help.  We soon found the directions to be, well, less than effective. We were given descriptions of corner grocery stores, old trees, farm fences, even a reference to a group of wandering chickens.

So what if we didn’t get to our destination by the most direct route? People were kind, no one refused to help us, and conversations wandered to how our lovely children were enjoying themselves. These encounters gave me insight into Costa Rican cultural attitudes and values. My Spanish improved through the motivation to understand them. And, I found new reasons to admire my friend and travel companion; her openness, and her sense of adventure. All opportunities I would have missed had we relied on a GPS to get us around.

What if we abandon our GPS for a while? What if we let our actions be guided by curiosity rather than our preferences, internal frameworks, and maps?

Curiosity breeds open-mindedness.  Children discover things when they explore objects in new ways, but they also discover things when they approach new people; when they play with other children who don’t look like them, or talk like them, or do things same way as they do.

If we persist in our quest for information, or allow our attention to wander, or ask questions to which we don’t yet know the answers, we are allowing for the possibility of opening up our world. Maybe we will learn something we did not expect or set out to learn.  Maybe we will share experiences with people who are different from us. And as we do, perhaps we end up, through our curiosity, better people.

Discussion Questions:

1)    Does this description of children’s curiosity seem particularly special or different from later-developing curiosity? For example, does the risk-seeking (or sensation seeking) tendency of adolescence parallel the curiosity of babies and young children, or is it something quite different?

2)    What role does (or should) curiosity play in education?

3)    What is the trade-off (if any) between curiosity and the increasing refinement of existing knowledge and skills?

4)    Is curiosity related (necessarily or at all) to sociability and social openness?

5)    Is childlike curiosity something we can retain, or are we bound to lose it as we get older?

6)    As mentioned, we have some indication about conditions under which young children can lose their natural curiosity too early. Are their good ways to help them to regain it?

Discussion Summary

As young children, we are driven to learn about the world around us.  In my original post, I presented some examples showing how vital curiosity is for early learning.  I tried to argue that young children’s curiosity explains both persistent and exploratory behaviors. It influences how they observe, play, ask questions, and respond emotionally.

As we get older, does learning – and curiosity as a motivation for learning – lose importance?  The discussion comments suggest that it does not. It’s true that those of you who are drawn to this question, and especially those who commented on the post, might be a special, select group.  But I suspect that most of us have not stopped being curious, or trying to learn new things.  Maybe most of our time is spent living (and surviving) on the knowledge and skills that we already have.  Maybe the things that we are curious about change profoundly. But development doesn’t end at age five, so learning must to play a role in our lives at every age.

Several posts asked, and answered, the question of how to maintain curiosity throughout life in a healthy, balanced way.  One remarked that education might “kill” curiosity, but then showed how that curiosity could be rediscovered later in life. Another wondered about the role of parents in broadening children’s curiosity as they become teenagers and begin to settle into habits of their own.  Another brought up potential downsides of being too curious, and therefore not committing to learning any one thing deeply.  Several of the comments mentioned, rightly, the difficulty of identifying information seeking as distinct from sensation seeking, risk seeking, or general interest.

These complications raised in discussion show how, as we get older, curiosity competes with a host of other motivations.   As we age we gain knowledge, skills, and autonomy. We develop personal preferences.  We begin to focus on planning out and achieving goals. We seek pleasure and avoid displeasure.  In the process, we seem to loose our childlike openness to things off of our beaten path.

While working on this piece, I was reminded of a teacher of mine who advocated learning one new thing every day.  I started to wonder, do I really do this? I’m lucky to be in a profession that encourages learning new things, asking questions, and making use of my curiosity for the good of others. Even so, many days go by routines – wake up, coffee, kids to school, work, exercise, dinner, bedtime, repeat. So, after writing this and participating in this discussion, I’m resolved to insert one “what if?” or “I wonder” or “why does..?” into each day, and see what happens.

New Big Questions:

  1. How can we maintain curiosity throughout life in a healthy, balanced way?
  2. Is learning a moral virtue?

10 Responses

  1. d.w.young1984 says:

    Generally, our education system kills the natural curiosity of children by attempting to force them to be curious how and when we think they should be curious.  But curiosity must be allowed to lead the way for the fruits of curiosity to grow.  Generally, this means that we have to allow children, and ourselves, to pursue understanding in what may well seem like a haphazard and unsystematic way.  What children’s curiosity can teach us is that pursuing it is what motivates learning most effectively and killing it through forced and rigid educational systems not only hinders curiosity, it damages the creative process that leads to greater understanding and potential genius.  Nietzsche thought Nature was to blame for the slow growth of genius within society.  In reality, it is us and our educational systems that kill what is constantly attempting to grow despite the inhibitory state we continue to foster.    

    I have always had a strong interest in physics but I have never enjoyed any physics course I have taken so everything I have learned has been on my own, very haphazardly over the course of the last few decades and my understanding has come mostly in fits and starts.  However, recently, for reasons that I cannot begin to explain, I was swept away with a very curious desire to understand the problems of physics.  I was not trying to understand what was known, or what is believed to be known, I was actually trying to figure out the answers, as unlikely as that was to happen.  It would have been easy to say to myself, “this is silly, why am I wasting my time trying to solve these problems with no background in physics…”  But I was curious and I was learning along the way, so why should I allow fear of being wrong keep me from pursuing it.  By following that curious drive, I very quickly acquired a very good conceptual understanding of all the major elements of modern physics, not because I was trying to but because I was trying to solve the same problems physicists are trying to solve.  To do so I needed the information that physicists have acquired; I needed to understand where there were still gaps in knowledge, and where assumed knowledge is based on assumptions rather than clear and certain evidence and understanding.  By following the path curiosity was creating I was able to understand what is presently believed in physics with a degree of ease I had never experienced when I was supposed to learn the same material for a class.  Moreover, that curiosity was leading me to challenge existing ideas, if only in my own silly world, to come up with a better way of looking at the problems physics is seeking to solve.  It was fascinating to approach the learning process this way, as opposed to how the subject of physics is presented in a classroom setting where students are only allowed to think curiously if they do not disagree with what has come before – though it is what has come before that has likely created the problems that remain to be solved.  Of course, my ‘solution’ to the problems are probably far from solutions, but along the way I learned more quickly, easily, and thoroughly than I could ever have learned in a classroom setting because at every step of the process my curiousity was what led me to seek knowledge and consequently, I was motivated to acquire it. When I learned this way, I was not simply being told this or that is true and do not deviate from the program.  I could learn and question at the same time and the ability to question – to repeatedly ask “why” like the child – is what kept my curiosity piqued for understanding what is presently known and believed.  I suspect this is true for everyone, but from the moment we were sent to school, we were not longer allowed to be curious and we have forgetton how to ask “why?”  

    We cannot create automotons through a rigid process of learning then expect those automatons, no matter how intellectually brilliant they might be, to be creative and curious in their problem solving.  I am not pretending it would be an easy process or that I have the practical solutions to the educational problems our rigid systems have created but it needs more than a tweak here and there.  Our educational systems were generally created in a time when most people could not read, or write, or add and subtract.  Our system has worked to improve this problem, but it continues to teach using the same methods that were necessary to cure that problem, rather than finding new methods that encourage creativity and genius rather than continuing to focus on the intellectual nuts and bolts, and assuming that genius is simply rare.  The reality is that we make it rare.        

    • Tamar Kushnir says:

      Thanks for sharing these thoughts.  I think is an important to ask how we could allow for, to borrow your words “pursu[it of] understanding in what may well seem like a haphazard and unsystematic way” even in educational settings. Through research with very young children we’ve learned that what looks haphazard may actually have a deep purpose. Even if the purpose isn’t apparent to an outside observer, or, for that matter, to the learner. This certainly doesn’t have to end just because childhood ends – as your example nicely illustrates.

      I’ve also had my ups and downs with education. There were times when it interfered with my ability to learn and pursue my passions. There were other times, though, when a good teacher would really engage me and make me even more curious about something I never thought I was interested in.

      I agree that there are systemic problems in cultivating curiosity through education, and I am sympathetic to the idea that “we make it rare.”  I (like you) don’t pretend to have answers. But, it is worth noting that, without the teacher who taught you how to read, or to understand equations, or to access a database or a library, you could not be curious in the ways that you describe above. To turn a child’s curiosity for playing with toys into an adult’s curiosity for physics, we have to support teachers to give children the tools to learn, and the space to use them.

  2. Gamy the says:

    Thank you for a very interesting essay.  I have a question about my two teenage boys.  They are 13 and 15 and all they are interested is the virtual world of their computers.  They don’t have the curiosity you talk about.  How can I get them to care about novelty that isn’t virtual?  

    Also, you seem to be arguing the children are naturally curious.  Does thatran they do not have a choice about what to find interesting?  I ask because I really hope there is a way to help my kids make better choices.

    • Tamar Kushnir says:

      I’ll take the second question first. It’s a great one. What is it that drives our individual curiosity? For example: Give three kids the same set of legos, and some instructions. One of them follows the instructions to the letter, and builds to the specifications. The other child ignores the instructions and just builds whatever she wants – maybe it looks like the picture on the box, maybe it doesn’t. The third child just arranges the legos on the floor in a pattern – rainbow order, height order, or something like that.

      Are these play choices based on fixed, individual differences? Are they stable, do they change with time and experience? And, back to your concerns, is there anything we as parents can do to shape the choices our children make?

      I believe – based on both anecdotal and scientific evidence – that children have different interests. But also, these are not necessarily fixed.  In my last comment, I already alluded to one thing that could make a difference – the influence of a passionate teacher, or (in your case) a parent.

      Personally, I take my kids outside (on a hike, or to the beach, or just for a scenic drive) when I have had enough of watching them play minecraft. They complain a lot at first, but they soon settle in and enjoy it. After all, mommy is in charge, so what choice do they have?

      If you can get them away and get them to try something different, even for a little while, perhaps an interest will grow where one wasn’t there before. I have heard so many stories of people talking about how they now (as adults) enjoy those things that their parents “forced” them to do as children.


      • George Gantz says:

        Well said.  When my boys where young teens, we were fortunate to have access to a small but vibrant Boy Scout Troop – the outdoor acitivies, the time engaged in play and learning new things with friends – along with strong parental support (I served as an adult leader) – kept things intersting enough to keep them involved.  Yes, they still had plenty of game time but I believe getting outdoors keeps the body, mind and spirit open.  

        I would add that video games are intensely stimulating and goal directed – and therefore have very high and potentially addictive attractiveness to adolescent boys.  Finding ways to drag them away for periods of time through bribery or parental fiat, and helping to enforce healthy habits (homework first; mandatory breaks; game time limits and game off periods; …) is a critically important and challenging task for parents.

  3. emily says:

    I strongly agree with your argument that curiosity is a very desirable trait with numerous associated advantages. I believe that being a curious person myself has been very beneficial in my development as a student and person. I am unafraid of asking questions in class and of stepping out of my comfort zone to foster an interest. I have even developed unexpected passions for subjects and places that I never would have had without my curious and probing nature. My positive experiences related my curiosity have always led me to believe that being curious is definitely a good thing.


    However, I wonder if having so much curiosity could ever be disadvantageous? In your article, you mentioned that children seize every opportunity afforded to them to discover new things “with unlimited energy and no regard for danger.” Do you think there comes a point where fostering one’s curiosity could indeed lead to danger and do more harm than good? What about the college students who are curious about so many diverse subjects so that they try a handful of majors before selecting the one they actually want to pursue and then are left with only a limited amount of time to fulfill their requirements? Or what about the adolescents who inappropriately experiment with drugs and alcohol out of their curiosity about these substances, thereby putting their health, school performance, and well-being at risk?

    Do you think that these forms of curiosity in adolescence and early adulthood are the result of being extremely curious children who were freely and consistently allowed to pursue their curiosity? How do we teach children at a young age that curiosity must only be pursued in appropriate and healthy ways to ensure that children do not in fact encounter danger? I nevertheless recognize the extremely beneficial nature of curiosity, but am curious about how we can maximize curiosity’s positive effects and prevent curiosity’s potentially negative effects.

    • Tamar Kushnir says:

      These questions touch on a topic which I think warrants a big question of it’s own. I have a similar question at the end of my post, mostly because I’m curious about the answer too.  Are the curiosity of young children and the curiosity of teens (especially as they are deciding to enage in risky behavior)  different or the same, and/or does one lead to the other?

      One way to answer this question would be to look at consistency in personality indeces which are related to curiosity (such as the “openness to experience” dimension of the Big 5) accross development. While I do know of research that shows such consistency from adolesence to adulthood, I’m not sure if there is any research that extends these effects down to younger children.

      Another would be to assess both intellectual curiosity and risky behavior in individuals to see if they are related. I am not aware of attempts to do this directly, but it’s worth digging around to find out. However, there is some research by Scott Barry Kaufmann and his collegues which might be relevant. In their studies of adults, intellect and openess predict different types of creativity.  It’s perhaps speculative, but let’s assume for a moment that their measures of intellect tap into one type of curiosity – information-seeking, which is characteristic of young children and curious adults like yourself – and their measures of openness tap into the other – risk-seeking or sensation-seeking. If this is the case, then these two different types of curiosity are not, in, fact, related.

      So now on to your second question – can we “maximize curiosity’s positive effects and prevent curiosity’s potentially negative effects?” If intellectual curiosity and sensation-seeking are not the same, then is it possible to envision a way that we can encourage one and discourage the other?

      As if this isn’t complicated enough, here’s an additional complication. Who gets to determine what are the “positive” effects of curiosity and what are the “negative”? Let’s start with an example based on your self description. Being naturally curious, you wanted to study everything. Maybe this means you had trouble choosing a major, or selecting a job or internship, or any number of related decisions. Maybe this meant that you didn’t find your path as quickly as some. Does this count as a negative effect of your curiosity? Perhaps by some standards it does.

      But there might be other standards by which your indecision/curiosity had benefits. The choice you made to take longer before narrowing your focus might have led to a deeper level of committment once you found it. It might even have lead to innovation – something interdisciplinary, creative, or new.  No one who specialized early could have done this.

      Do you feel that you can balance your natural curiosity with the ability to pursue things deeply with discipline and focus?  If so, then there seems to be no harm in letting it take you where it may. If we are too quick to evaluate the “appropriate” level of curiosity (either in ourselves, or in children) we might easily miss opportunities to be surprised by where it takes us.


  4. emfeds says:

    I am convinced that curiosity is a good thing for childrean, and that adults too can benefit from opening themselves up to being more curious.  But you seem to be arguing that curiosity is a virtue, and I’m curious as to what, exactly, makes curiosity into a virtue?  Do you simply mean it is a good thing to have, and that’s what makes curiosity virtuous?  Or is your argument that there is scientific evidence of something deeper in children that deserves the label ‘virtue’, and that in adults too there is a similarily “deep trait” that too deserves such a label?  Thanks!

  5. George Gantz says:

    Tamar – Thanks for your excellent essay.  I was interested in your brief reference to “moral virtue” in the context of childhood development.  The four-year old stage seems to be ideal – having mastered (for the most part) the powerful impulses of our two-year old selves – and not yet being captured by the allure of extrinsic rewards so important to our adult selves –  the child is focused on knowledge, learning and doing for its own sake!  High moral virtue indeed…

    So marvelous that evolutionary biology has so finely tuned the human development process.  We observe great wisdom appear spontaneously and unselfconciously in small children.  Would that all the great adult minds paid more attention!  As phrased in Matthew 18:3: “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdon of heaven.”

  6. Shaun O'Grady says:

    Hi Tamar, thank you for posting this excellent article! It has really helped my conceptualization of curiosity.  I would like to take a moment to thank you and your team at Cornell for the fascinating contributions you all have made to developmental science and social cognition!

    I am wondering to what extent you view general interest and curiosity as the same or similar.  For example, is a child’s interest in specific types of categories, like trains, dinosaurs or horses, the same as the curiosity felt when trying to figure out the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ that pervade a young child’s incessant inquisitions?   I know some theorists have made a contrast between the two constructs but to me the distinction is not that clear cut. 

    Is a child’s curiosity guided by his or her own prior knowledge or the reward that comes from autonomous exploration?  I suppose the simple answer is both, but if this is the case, what cognitive mechanism could account for general interest (blind exploration) as well as systematic curiosity (hypothesis-based exploration)?