Why ain’t we curious anymore?
Couple years ago my older daughter (age 4 at the time) got a nice Winnie the Pooh toy as a birthday present. It is one of those educational toys where Pooh asks a question and you need to press some picture to give an answer. As a good citizen that follows rules, every time I played with my daughter using this toy, I would turn it on, listen to Pooh suggesting to choose a type of game, press a button of choice and play. It never occurred to me what would happen if I don’t choose a game type — until last night when I played with my baby daughter (16 months) and the same Winnie the Pooh toy. Actually, it was not me who did that, it was my baby daughter. It took a baby who doesn’t care about rules to curiously poke around the toy and discover you don’t have to choose a game type to start playing with the toy — and I’m pretty sure I would have still obligingly follow the instructions for as long as my daughters wanted me to play with them and that toy.
This little “toy incident” set me thinking and raised few interesting questions in my mind. Why are kids born extremely curious, but loose that curiosity as they grow older? Who influences them to become less curious? Was there any evolutionary benefit to adult humans to learn and (almost) blindly follow rules?
If you have ever watched a baby — especially between 12 months where they’re getting more mobile and until the age of 2 or 3 when they have amassed enough vocabulary to have meaningful conversations with their parents — you must have been amazed (or frightened 😉 ) at how many things they can stuff in their mouth, how many places they can poke their fingers in, how quickly they can turn the house up-side down, …
We have all heard phrases like kids are natural explorers, there’s no end to the kids curiosity, etc. However, I never heard anyone mentioning anything even feeble involving curiosity in adults! Surely, I’m aware of the existence of books like First, break all the rules — to pick an example — whose title indicates managers should ignore any organizational level rules and implement their own (or is it the book authors’?) rules how to manage their teams. Unfortunately, if you look deeper in most such examples you’ll find either advice to replace one set of rules with another (which is asking your faith in the new rules instead of promoting curious behavior) or, at best, may lead some people to run a quick revolution and invent new rules and then settle again into a non-curious following-the-rules behaviour. Even crime behavior, as a major representative of the behaviors leading people to consistently break rules peaks around 25 and declines as we age.
One would say that curiosity is much more than breaking or bending rules and I agree. After all, rules make societies more efficient as one doesn’t need to police every single individual to make sure they behave in a consistent way with the rest, so one can still be curious in certain areas while following the majority of the rules in others. However, I can’t but beg the question “How come most of us willingly follow thousands of rules without questioning them?”
Given our numbers, there surely must be bigger variation than what we observe. And I’m sure you can point to certain societies where breaking the rules seem to be more acceptable by the culture. But again, those examples are not as widespread as one would think and even the “breaking the rules is ok” behaviour is limited in scope. For example, in those societies it might be acceptable to bribe, but you may find strong religious behaviour, which is one of the flagship non-curious behaviour examples where one is asked to blindly believe in a supernatural god without questioning its existence.
If you’ve read any of my nature vs. nurture articles, you’ll know by know that I’m always looking about the interplay between the genes and the environment (family, society/culture, social groups, etc.) Therefore, you can rightfully conclude that I’m suspecting that evolution have a significant role in dampening the curious behavior with age — though it is likely not the whole answer.
Most parents struggle with getting their kids to eat certain foods. The interesting part is that babies, up until the age of 3 or so, would basically eat almost any food their mom would serve. However, sometime after the age of 2 or 3, they stop eating lots of the things they ate as babies. Not only that, but getting them to taste new flavors is almost impossible and this is leaving their parents in exasperation!
The standard explanation from the evolutionary biologists is that during the hunter-gatherer era, babies were weened off of their mother’s milk around age 3 and were left to the tribe to look after as the next baby was getting ready to come out. In such a setting, only the babies that didn’t curiously put everything in their mouth survived, thus today’s kids are innately “programmed” to raise their guard and stick only to the food they know and like (which unfortunately, almost universally, includes chocolate and candies ;-)).
What I am wondering is if something else was at play too? The biological evolution works over long periods, but the cultural one can introduce staggering changes over a short period (thousands as opposed to millions years) and I believe the dampening of the curious behavior could have been just such a cultural evolution. I am not an expert in animal behavior among our closest relatives like chimps or gorillas, but I would bet that you’ll find significantly higher level of curious behavior in adult chimps than in humans. If I would speculate, I suspect there even may be significant differences if you compare the modern humans from civilized societies to the few existing indigenous tribes that retained their hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
As I’m discussing in my nature vs. nurture series, the social groups have a huge impact to the personality development from kids to adults. What if it wasn’t the kids that were less curious to use their mouth as a mobile chemical lab for testing new stuff from their surroundings that survived? What if it was those tribes that managed to dampen such curious behavior in the kids in their group that were more successful at surviving in bigger numbers than the others? What if this didn’t impact only to the foods kids ate, but almost all types of curious behavior? What if what made our ancestors successful in surviving is not helping us today in our complex societies?
These are important questions to consider when addressing questions like “How can we boost creativity in our kids?” “How can we improve education to produce people can innovate and produce new technologies and products?” and similar. I believe fostering certain level of curiosity is important if we’re to succeed in those goals and understanding why curiosity is lost when moving from childhood to adulthood is very important to apply the proper tactics at various levels of the society.
It won’t do us good if the next generation of adults started putting every new object they get into contact in their mouth to get sensory information about its taste 😉 but some healthy level of exploratory behavior and eagerness to investigate and understand the world around at any age would go a long way to boost our world into the future!