A Look at the Five Dimensions of Curiosity

Recently, I’ve been challenged to consider curiosity and its role in envisioning future technologies through exploring the #alwayscurious initiative at Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany on their 350th anniversary. They’ve partnered with many scientists, artists, and thinkers to more fully explore and share ideas about curiosity.

I was delighted to come across a recent series of articles in The Harvard Business Review about the role of curiosity in business and why it is important. I found myself most drawn to the article, The Five Dimensions of Curiosity, by psychologist Todd B. Kashdan and his co-authors.

Harvard Business Review cover
HBR cover September-October 2018 issue

The group that formulated the Five Dimensions of Curiosity did so by combining the work of science teams who look at various aspects of curiosity. The dimensions they formulated are described as follows:

  • Joyous Exploration -being consumed with wonder about the fascinating features of the world.
  • Deprivation Sensitivity -recognizing a gap in knowledge, the filling of which offers relief.
  • Stress Tolerance-a willingness to accept and even harness the anxiety associated with novelty.
  • Social Curiosity -talking, listening, and observing others to learn what they are thinking and doing.
  • Thrill Seeking -being willing to take physical, social, and financial risks to acquire varied, complex, and intense experiences.

The old version of the Joanne Love Science website sported a subtitle that read: “Always passionate, always curious, always enthusiastic about everything science”.

I suppose I’ve given very little thought into what being curious REALLY means, and learning about the five dimensions of curiosity helps dissect the idea of curiosity apart.

Given that my self-proclamation of “always curious” was a hallmark of my older website, I thought I would peruse a few older interviews I’d given that could provide snapshot of the role curiosity had in guiding me to science, and my hopes that my children would remain curious well past their childhoods. Through a few excerpts, I see evidence of a few of the dimensions in my answers.

This first interview hails from a few years back at F Equals.

Bardega: Joanne, tell us a little bit about your background ~ what were you like growing up?
Manaster: I was quite shy but very curious. I did the usual things kids do, playing with friends outside, playing equally with dolls or cars with my siblings, and participating as a Girl Scout for many years. I loved to read all sorts of books and I particularly enjoyed when NOVA or National Geographic Specials would come on TV. My dad was in the Air Force and we moved around a bit. The most interesting place we lived was on Guam during my middle school and high school years. It was great to live in tropical weather all year long and have the privilege to enjoy the ocean habitat every day. 

Bardega: You have had quite a varied career – from model to scientist. What sparked your interest in science and ultimately led you to the career path you took?
Manaster: I’d always been interested in nature and the human body. My father was a hospital administrator and my mom had numerous health issues and I’m sure these things colored by desire to go to medical school to become a doctor. I also spent a lot of time exploring the “boonies” on Guam where my father was stationed with the Air Force, so I attribute that to my interest in nature and honing my observation skills that are necessary in science. 

Looking at these two answers to the interviewer’s questions, it is clear that I have a bent toward the dimension of Joyous Exploration. What ultimately drove me to science was a sense of wonder about the world and the joy that discovery brings to me.

 From the HBR article:

[This]… dimension… is joyous exploration—being consumed with wonder about the fascinating features of the world. This is a pleasurable state; people in it seem to possess a joie de vivre.

No wonder observational and exploratory science makes me happy!

Incredibly creative ideas can come forth thanks to curiosity. This of great help in science, but results can be seen in the art world as well. For instance, looking at the Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany  #alwayscurious initiative, I was most awed by the artistic collaboration with Mira Calix, an award winning composer based in the UK.  In Ode to the Future, Mira creates music in collaboration with six unborn humans via the sounds created during ultrasounds. It’s so unique and creative and definitely worth checking out.

Returning to the five dimensions, Deprivation Sensitivity has been, and remains, another major impetus to finding answers to concepts I don’t know.

The HBR article elaborates on this:

Deprivation Sensitivity -recognizing a gap in knowledge, the filling of which offers relief. This type of curiosity doesn’t necessarily feel good, but people who experience it work relentlessly to solve problems.

Continuing with the F Equals interview:

Bardega: You’re an extremely busy lady ~ how do you manage all the different hats you wear?
I began outreach after my four children were all a bit older, 8 years old and up at the time (They are now 24, 21, 19 and 16) (edit: they are now 27, 24, 22 and 19). It was still a busy time as a mom, but my kids were becoming more independent and that freed up quite a bit of my time. I don’t think I could have done what I do now at the time I had babies and toddlers! In fact, I’m pretty sure my time with so many young children truly increased my capacity to multitask, to block out distractions when necessary, and to keep a hold on the wonder of the natural world, especially because I wanted my children to remain curious!

I think when you enjoy what you do, it makes it easier to balance many different things. All the things I do: teaching, interacting on social media, reading books and interviewing science book authors, traveling, and spending time in my children’s company, I enjoy immensely, so I make time for it all.

I’d certainly consider my interest in my children and their well-being a form of social curiosity. Looking again at the HBR article:

Social Curiosity -talking, listening, and observing others to learn what they are thinking and doing. Human beings are inherently social animals, and the most effective and efficient way to determine whether someone is friend or foe is to gain information. Some may even snoop, eavesdrop, or gossip to do so.

It’s not such a stretch to consider that my interest in scientists doing their work, or of the people with whom I interact with on social media, could also be considered a form or social curiosity.

Let’s briefly look at an excerpt from another interview granted when I was acting as a Kavli Science Video Contest advisor for the USA Science and Engineering Festival in 2014.

What advice can you give to science and engineering students?

If you are interested in science and engineering, I hope you will persevere even if others around say it is hard, and definitely banish any thoughts you may have acquired from teachers, your parents or peers such as, “Science is only for “smart” people, and that’s not me.”  Granted, science and engineering require that you apply yourself, that you challenge yourself, but our brains and our very essence of being thrives on that challenge. A sense of accomplishment once you understand a new concept or learned a new skill is one of the most rewarding things you will ever encounter. It is quite motivating.

Begin to notice what interests you. Are you drawn to certain topics more than others? Take note of those and begin to explore those topics more in depth, and from many different angles. Read a book on the topic, watch a video or TV show, find articles, and even contact an expert in the field if you want to know more and would like hands-on experience.  When you are sated with that topic, feel free to move on to another, and even see where your areas of fascination overlap!

Finally, read. Read a lot. Read the books you enjoy, but start to read books that are a little more difficult and require more concentration. Try a new topic. I strongly believe it is one key to becoming successful in science and engineering as well as other fields. Don’t let your intellect wither through lack of challenge of only watching TV or playing video games to the exclusion of all else. Stay curious and actively pursue the things that fascinate you and take your explorations further and deeper!

The advice I offer here indicates that what you are interested or fascinated in is also something you are curious about and it is easier to learn new things when you capitalize on that curiosity. The willingness to explore a new field, area, concept or space is called Stress Tolerance. Being in the state of not knowing can motivate one in curiosity.

The HBR article explains further:

Stress Tolerance-a willingness to accept and even harness the anxiety associated with novelty. People lacking this ability see information gaps, experience wonder, and are interested in others but are unlikely to step forward and explore.

I’ve covered four of the five dimensions. The only dimension I don’t feel a complete resonance with is Thrill Seeking. It may manifest in a mild form because I enjoy travel, however, I’m more likely to imagine our adventurers, explorers, and entrepreneurs in this category than I am myself.

Psychologist Todd B. Kashdan, who compiled the Five Dimensions of Curiosity, has pursued theses ideas with Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany about the role of curiosity at work. From the HBR article:

With Merck KGaA we have explored attitudes toward and expressions of work-related curiosity. In a survey of 3,000 workers in China, Germany, and the United States, we found that 84% believe that curiosity catalyzes new ideas, 74% think it inspires unique, valuable talents, and 63% think it helps one get promoted. In other studies across diverse units and geographies, we have found evidence that four of the dimensions—joyous exploration, deprivation sensitivity, stress tolerance, and social curiosity—improve work outcomes. The latter two seem to be particularly important: Without the ability to tolerate stress, employees are less likely to seek challenges and resources and to voice dissent and are more likely to feel enervated and to disengage. And socially curious employees are better than others at resolving conflicts with colleagues, more likely to receive social support, and more effective at building connections, trust, and commitment on their teams. People or groups high in both dimensions are more innovative and creative.

Learn more about this at Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany’s  The Performance of Curious Employees is Higher

In my job as a university level biology educator, I find myself interested in how curiosity helps students, and how it eventually can be of benefit to the work of a scientist. Curiosity makes for faster learners, leading to better job-related performance, and eases the process of adapting to new environments. Curiosity is all about learning what we do not yet know.  I’m sure to most of the readers of this article, it is like preaching to the choir, but it’s clear that keeping your curiosity high seems to be a wise approach to leading an interesting life.