The human desire for knowledge and discovery has spurred us on to some pretty amazing achievements, although it’s also motivated us to do a whole load of dumb stuff too. From inventing bungee jumping to rolling down Niagara Falls in a barrel, our apparently irresistible urge to do dangerous things in order to find out what would happen has significantly shaped our history.
This seemingly inherent curiosity also makes us great scientists, forever probing the fabric of reality in order to uncover the hidden laws that govern the universe. Appropriately, therefore, a suitably inquisitive team of researchers recently conducted an experiment to discover whether our curiosity overrides our regards for our own wellbeing, making us naturally prone to self-destruction in our quest for knowledge.
Participants were placed in a waiting room and told that they would shortly be called upon to take part in a scientific study. In the meantime, a number of electric pens, which give users an electric shock when pressed, were available for them to play with while they waited.
Despite knowing full well that electricity and human flesh don’t tend to mix well, the researchers expected their subjects to succumb to their curiosity and willingly cause themselves pain in order to satisfy their need for knowledge. Moreover, they hypothesized that this hunger for volts would be stronger when the level of uncertainty was increased.
To test this, they gave half of the participants a set of ten pens, five of which had batteries and five of which didn’t. Those with batteries were marked with a red sticker, indicating that pressing the button on the pen would result in a shock, while the others had green stickers, and were not capable of delivering a shock. As such, participants could be certain of the outcome when playing with each pen.
The other half of the participants were given pens that all had a yellow sticker, and told that some of the pens had batteries while others did not, although there was no way to discriminate between these without physically testing them. The researchers were interested to see if this increased level of uncertainty would make people more likely to play with the pens, despite knowing that they could only be harmed and had nothing to gain by doing so.
Publishing their findings in the journal Psychological Science, the study authors report that those in the second group pressed significantly more pens than those in the first group, suggesting that the need to resolve uncertainty may have overridden their need to avoid harm.
The researchers claim that their work “reveals the potential perverse side of curiosity,” warning that this penchant for prying “may tempt humans to seek information with ominous consequences.” In particular, they express concern that the risks of this inherent desire to seek information may be “particularly relevant to the current epoch, the epoch of information.”
In other words, in a world with an ever-increasing number of buttons to press and boxes to open, we’re probably all doomed.