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'Dark Curiosity' May Be Hurting You - Here's How to Tell and What to Do
dark curiosity

'Dark Curiosity' May Be Hurting You - Here's How to Tell and What to Do

All things have a shadow, and that includes the motivation to discover new things.

An accepted belief in self-development circles and spiritual practice is that curiosity is a universally good thing. Curiosity is associated with open-mindedness, the desire to seek knowledge, to develop self-understanding. It’s lauded as a childlike state that makes you receptive to the wonders of the world, not taking things for granted, but enquiring into the deeper meaning behind surface-level truths. Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron even says that “the best spiritual instruction” is: 

“When you wake up in the morning and say, 'I wonder what's going to happen today.' And then carry that kind of curiosity through your life.”

If there’s anything I’ve learned from over a decade of self-development and study into depth psychology, it’s this: everything has its shadow. As alchemist and philosopher Paracelsus famously stated: “the dose makes the poison.”

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Curiosity isn’t beyond this. A recent study in the Journal of Research in Personality claims that, in certain doses, being inquisitive can have negative effects. Yes, even curiosity has a dark side.

Here, we’ll break down the finer mechanics of curiosity, to better understand when it is useful, and when it can become a hindrance. Curious to find out more? Let’s dive in.

The Conventional View: Curiosity Is All-Good

beautiful lake view sunset

Before looking at its shadow, let’s first look at the standard view, that curiosity is a wholesome, positive quality. Curiosity is sometimes called the “joy of exploration,” an intrinsically motivated journey to discover new frontiers of knowledge. In psychological terms, this is epistemic curiosity, or the desire to learn new things. This applies as much to formal education as it does to the university of life. Curiosity opens the mind to new information, which develops understanding and challenges pre-existing beliefs. 

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Curiosity, in this respect, is the willingness to accept that you don’t know everything, that knowledge is ever-evolving and not fixed. It’s absolutely crucial to learning. But there are other benefits, too. The University of Berkeley identifies six lesser-known benefits of curiosity:

  • Curiosity helps us survive: through the process of learning about our environment and remaining vigilant, we develop new ways to adapt, heal, or prevent harm.
  • Curiosity links to happiness: numerous studies show a positive correlation between curiosity, and overall well-being, although this could be a chicken-and-egg scenario if happier people are more open to learning new things.
  • Curiosity makes us more successful: the desire to learn and explore relates to higher academic achievement and workplace success. It’s one thing to learn to pass exams, another to learn for the thrill of it.
  • Curiosity boosts empathy: when applied to relationships, curiosity is a gateway to understanding the people, and cultures, around you.
  • Curiosity improves relationships: an extension of the above, when people display higher levels of curiosity in people they relate with, their communication improves, and they’re generally happier.
  • Curiosity improves healthcare: doctors who become more curious about patients end up treating them better, and patients feel more seen and valued. It’s safe to assume this applies to mental health approaches, too, such as therapy and coaching.

In addition, the mindset of curiosity is a highly-optimized approach to life. It’s the type of approach that many philosophers and spiritual teachers encourage. Curiosity motivates us to digest knowledge, know more about others, or map our environment, but above all else, leaves us in a receptive state to learn about ourselves. In Buddhism, this is captured by non-judgemental awareness. In other words, rather than assuming your perspective on reality is true, you witness it with a beginner's mind, willing to have your perspective changed.

The Psychological Framework of Curiosity

human brain

Psychology is the detection of patterns of human behavior in a methodological and structured way. Rather than dogmatic truths, it’s an ever-evolving body of knowledge that honors the scientific method of exploration. Psychology categorizes the nuances of the mind. In this way, it has much more in common with philosophies such as Buddhism and Hinduism than appears on the surface. 

Through research, psychologists started to discover that there were different forms of curiosity. What we’ve discussed so far is termed interest curiosity, the type of curiosity that does come with many positive benefits. It’s the motivational desire to learn new things.

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On the other hand is deprivation curiosity. This type of curiosity comes from a place of lack and intolerance, it's motivated by discomfort towards uncertainty.

There’s a noticeable difference in the qualities of the two forms of curiosity. People high in interest curiosity don’t need closure, instead, they remain open to novel information. They’re okay with ambiguity. These people show high levels of mastery over goals and skills, and display desirable personality traits and positive emotions. People with high levels of deprivation curiosity show the opposite. They seek information to reduce uncertainty or reach conclusions. Deprivation curiosity is associated with higher levels of anger, anxiety, and depression, and earns its "dark" label due to its link to the dark triad of personality.

Intellectual Arrogance

man looks in mirror

The recent study into the dark side of curiosity looked at intellectual humility. This is the term given to the willingness people have to accept their current beliefs, or opinions, aren’t necessarily true. When learning or taking on new information, people with high levels of intellectual humility are flexible; they’ll look at the evidence, and update or revise their approach. People with low intellectual humility become close-minded and unwilling to update their views.

Because deprivation curiosity links to the need to reduce uncertainty, people high in this trait tend to draw a line under their conclusions, rather than seek additional information.

They arrive at a satisfactory conclusion, and, as if by magic, their curiosity stops, its purpose fulfilled. “Having your beliefs challenged can evoke uncertainty,” the study says. “Thus, the reason why highly deprivation curious individuals are less willing have their beliefs challenged may be that they like to avoid uncertainty.”

The authors go as far as to refer to people high in deprivation curiosity as “intellectually arrogant,” which leads us to the main takeaway — if curiosity is motivated by a desire to remove uncertainty, your quest for knowledge could lead you, ironically, towards ignorance, rather than truth.

Integrating the Learning

opened mind

When I read this study, I started to reflect on my own approach to learning. I was disengaged at school and rebelled a lot in my teenage years. I lacked the curiosity to learn, it felt like a chore. At the same time, I found that my curiosity exploded when it came to psychology, philosophy, and the self. My thirst for knowledge was never-ending and remains that way. However, there have been times when I’ve searched from a place of deprivation curiosity, anxious to find out the practice, the piece of wisdom, that would improve my wellbeing.

I realized that meditation has played a big role in making sure my thirst for knowledge remains balanced. Looking at this research, jumping to conclusions, and discomfort with ambiguity are key precursors to the regressive form of curiosity. Meditation is the practice of being comfortable with ambiguity and change, which allows for a more expansive approach to learning. It allows you to witness moments of confirmation bias, or cognitive dissonance, when exploring new information.

To conclude with practical takeaways, here are pointers on how to make sure you’re staying within the self-enhancing boundaries of interest curiosity, and avoid the dark side:

  • Always consider your motivation for learning: Are you doing so for the joy of exploration? Or are you looking to confirm a pre-existing belief or opinion? Beware of confirmation bias. 
  • Notice when new information conflicts with pre-existing views: this is when you become most vulnerable to deprivation curiosity, and the risk of dismissing new evidence and becoming “intellectually arrogant,” is high. Pay attention to whether you’re becoming defensive or narrow-minded with new information.
  • Remember curiosity is open-ended: there’s a phrase, science is but mere passing fables. A truly inquisitive mind is always updating and integrating new insights, information, or alterative views. If you ever reach a solid conclusion, question it. Many “objectively true” scientific discoveries have later been proven untrue, such as Galileo’s discovery the Earth isn’t the center of the universe.
  • Watch your ego: lastly, try not to conflate your identity with your worldview, your beliefs, or your perspective on things. If you do, you’ll likey become defensive or protective. Learn not for your ego, but for an accurate view of reality. Be willing to be humbled, not only by new evidence, but by differing views. Stay true to what feels right for you, but always take things on board.


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