Curiosity is the engine of intellectual achievement—it’s what drives us to keep learning, keep trying, keep pushing forward. But how does one generate curiosity, in oneself or others? George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, proposed an answer in a classic 1994 paper, “The Psychology of Curiosity.”

Curiosity arises, Loewenstein wrote, “when attention becomes focused on a gap in one’s knowledge. Such information gaps produce the feeling of deprivation labeled curiosity. The curious individual is motivated to obtain the missing information to reduce or eliminate the feeling of deprivation.” Loewenstein’s theory helps explain why curiosity is such a potent motivator: it’s not only a mental state but also an emotion, a powerful feeling that impels us forward until we find the information that will fill in the gap in our knowledge.

Here, three practical ways to use information gaps to stimulate curiosity:

    1.   Start with the question. Cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham notes that teachers—along with parents, managers, and leaders of all kinds—are often “so eager to get to the answer that we do not devote sufficient time to developing the question,” Willingham writes in his book Why Don’t Students Like School? Yet it’s the question that stimulates curiosity; being told an answer quells curiosity before it can even get going. Instead of starting with the answer, begin by posing for yourself and others a genuinely interesting question—one that opens an information gap.

    2.   Prime the pump. In his 1994 paper, George Loewenstein noted that curiosity requires some initial knowledge. We’re not curious about something we know absolutely nothing about. But as soon as we know even a little bit, our curiosity is piqued and we want to learn more. In fact, research shows that curiosity increases with knowledge: the more we know, the more we want to know. To get this process started, Loewenstein suggests, “prime the pump” with some intriguing but incomplete information.

    3.   Bring in communication. Language teachers have long put a similar idea to use in exercises that open an information gap and then require learners to communicate with each other in order to fill it. For example, one student might be given a series of pictures illustrating the beginning of the story, while the student’s partner is given a series of pictures showing how that same story ends. Only by speaking with each other (in the foreign language they are learning, of course) can the students fill in each others’ information gaps.

Read more about the specifics of those studies here.


  • Karla Valenti

    Stimulating curiosity is fundamental to the development of intelligent, creative and empowered children. This article offers great advice on how to do that. Interestingly, the suggestions echo the advice offered to help children become critical thinkers (see How to Teach your Kids to be Critical Thinkers –> http://bit.ly/V0IPhD): e.g. asking questions (rather than providing answers), helping children learn how to understand and unpack the questions, providing tools that enable children to engage others in conversation, and modeling your own expectations.

    I suppose it’s not entirely surprising that curiosity and critical thinking are linked. After all, critical thinking is simply the act of expanding upon that which has peaked our curiosity and making meaning out of our new discoveries.

    – Karla (www.totthoughts.com)

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  • Michaela

    This is a great read. Curiosity is such an important thing for every classroom however for many classrooms curiosity is something that lacks. Curiosity opens up the world for students and should be nurtured – the potential of opportunities are endless.

    ‘Bring in Communication’ raised some interesting ideas. I have done an activity with students where they each draw an illustration without the other seeing. When they have finished they take turns at describing their illustrations to each other in order to draw them. They compare their illustrations at the end to see how well they communicated with each other. Great activity!

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