Why Researching Curiosity is Good for Business

Dr. Jay Hardy Explores the Relationship between Curiosity and Creative Problem Solving

We’ve all seen the job postings looking for candidates with “a passion for learning,” “insatiable curiosity,” “creative thought processes” or “intellectual curiosity.” In fact, a simple web search will bring up thousands of listings mentioning “curiosity.” Yet, the scientific research addressing the relationship between curiosity and creative problem solving has been, so far, lacking. 

Several scientists noticed this too and decided to try to tackle it by studying the relationship between curiosity and effective creative problem solving. “Outside the box: Epistemic curiosity as a predictor of creative problem solving and creative performance,” was published in 2016 in Personality and Individual Differences by Dr. Jay Hardy, an assistant professor at Oregon State University and his coauthors, Alisha Ness of the University of Oklahoma and Jensen Mecca of Shaker Consulting Group.

Hardy explains the idea for the article originated while he was in graduate school at the University of Oklahoma. “The more I got into the research, the more I realized how curiosity actually translates into people performing better on creative tasks.”

First, Hardy drew on the scant research on curiosity, predominantly that of Daniel Berlin from the late 1960s. “Oftentimes curiosity is used as a blanket term but there are actually several sub-components of it that operate very differently,“ he explains. The two kinds of curiosity that Berlin defined and Hardy uses are known as “specific” and “diversive.”

Specific curiosity is the targeted desire to reduce uncertainty about something in particular, like when you’re up at night wondering about how to fix one particular thing. Diversive curiosity refers to the stereotypical, unfocused kind of curiosity about everything, an openness to exploring unfamiliar topics. As Hardy puts it, “People see it as flippant and distractible, as an immature form of curiosity... like a teenager flipping through channels.” 

  A maze made of crayons   A maze made of crayons

The participants in Hardy’s study were told they were being assessed on complex problem solving skills. The researchers empirically measured participants’ curiosity traits, and then told these participants to pretend they had been hired as the head of advertising for a retail chain and asked them to come up with a development plan for a specific marketing campaign. The ideas were then evaluated on quality and originality by a panel of judges familiar with the research project and surrounding literature. 

Hardy found that high curiosity positively predicted high creative problem solving performance, but mostly thanks to the broader, less-focused diversive curiosity, not the targeted specific curiosity. 

As Hardy explains, “As I started thinking about it, I realized that creativity is one area where being a little more distractible may be more useful than it would be in a structured environment, when a problem is very complex, ill-defined. That’s when being able to use your mind and skip around and see different sides of the problem may show benefits down the line that you wouldn’t have otherwise seen.”

“A lot of companies inherently recognize that curiosity is valuable,” he says. However, “when companies are actually hiring employees, they aren't doing anything to try to understand whether an employee has that certain kind of trait. I think that's a missed opportunity. Curiosity represents a side of the human that aren't typically picked up on traditional personality tests.”

This is partially due to the lack of research like Hardy’s that clearly establishes the value of both kinds of curiosity in the workplace. “I have not seen very many people really pick up on this idea because it’s so new. Even though it seems so obvious, there just isn’t a whole ton of research out there,” he says. “I think we will see some movement in the next five to ten years toward that particular goal though.”

Hardy says that he has some major takeaways from his research, which have affected his own work ethic too. 

“My advice for people who are reading this study is to spend more time than you're originally comfortable with early in the creative problem-solving process, generating ideas. Sometimes it's too easy to just find one, latch on and start moving forward. Yet you could potentially be doing yourself a disservice because you’re not really understanding all the nuances and all the characteristics of whatever problem you’re trying to solve that may be relevant or may be relevant should things change.”

“I have been trying to work on it myself as well. I’ll tell myself to spend another day I wouldn’t have otherwise gathering information. I think it has really helped. In that extra day I’ve found literatures or talked to a coworker and come up with a better way of solving a particular problem within the research process. It’s been really helpful for me.”

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