“If you can find within yourself the slightest shred of true uncertainty, then guard it like a forester nursing a campfire. If you can make it blaze up into a flame of curiosity, it will make you light and eager, and give purpose to your questioning and direction to your skills.”
– Eliezer Yudkowsky, A Meditation on Curiosity
If a topic seems entirely certain, or intractably mysterious, we may decide that the topic is not worth exploring. Why? Because we may feel that exploring something that is already certain will yield nothing more than what is already ‘known,’ and effort that is expended upon figuring out the inherently mysterious will be wasted.
Looking forward, we’re going to see how exploration is the middle ground between certainty and mystery. Then, we’ll take a look at how to illuminate mystery in our lives, and how we can invite doubt against our certainty. If you want to see how to broaden your capacity for curiosity, read onward!
Exploration: The Middle Ground
George Loewenstein, whose career in psychology focused largely on curiosity research, imagined an inverted U-shaped curve to represent how curiosity increases or decreases with our level of confidence.1 Participants in an experiment who were presented with trivia questions became more curious about answers as they became more uncertain, but only until a certain point. In other words, they were less curious when they thought they already knew the answer (certainty) and were also less curious when they thought that they had no idea of what the answer was (mystery). See the chart below for a visualization.
As we start to apply this concept to ourselves, we might imagine that, depending upon the topic, we have thresholds: points of low confidence where we think a topic is too mysterious to explore, and points of high confidence where we think we already know the answer, and exploring more will give us nothing. The area between these thresholds is the space that we are interested in exploring.
Here are a few examples of this chart in action:
Wondering: Cindy’s daughter has anemia, a medical condition that affects red blood cells. How can Cindy help?
Too Mysterious to Explore:
How the body works and how people get better or worse after being sick has always been strange to Cindy. After all, she’s not a doctor. It’s not worth looking into.
While Cindy recognizes she’s not an expert, there might be ways that she can help. She looks into her family history and finds others in her family who have had the same condition, and asks what treatments have helped them.
Too Certain to Explore:
Medical stuff is pretty simple, and doctors know how to treat things that ail people. Doing any research herself would just be redundant.
Wondering: Pablo’s noticed that he and his friend have drifted apart over the years. Why did this happen?
Too Mysterious to Explore:
Sometimes friends just drift apart, and no one knows why. There are just too many reasons why this may have happened, so it’s not worth worrying about.
While Pablo can think of some reasons why he and his friend have drifted apart, he’s not sure he knows all the reasons, or if his explanations are correct. It might be worth reaching out to his friend again and asking about how they drifted apart.
Too Certain to Explore:
The reason seems very clear to Pablo. After Pablo became successful, his friend must have been jealous, and hanging out anymore was awkward. The reason they drifted apart is already known, so why think about it?
But what if we could move these exploration thresholds? If we can find ways to consider the mysterious more penetrable, or the certain more tempting, we will end up expanding our possibilities for curious thinking.
Looking forward, let’s consider how we can approach mystery and certainty in our lives, and open up more of the exploration that may be in between. We’ll illuminate mystery and foster uncertainty to help widen your exploration zone.
Consider how this diagram may be different for you depending upon different topics. What does your curiosity curve look like, and where are your thresholds, for the following topics?
- Having conversations with strangers at a social gathering – do you approach people you don’t know, or do you only talk to people you already have a connection with?
- Walking around a hardware store – what aisles make sense to you? Which aisles do you want to know more about?
- Thinking about the outcomes of the last presidential election – was the result from many causes or a single cause?
- What sort of activities make a person more or less likely to get COVID-19? – How much does each mitigation measure help? Do some government suggestions seem to never make sense?
For example – Imagine that I am walking around a used bookshop. I wander around, and, as I always do, I find myself in the science fiction section.
My ‘certainties’: I might feel certain that I enjoy books having to do with aliens and space, preferably those that are written before 1980. I also feel that I like short story collections.
My ‘mysteries’: I haven’t read any science fiction books that are in the cyberpunk genre or books that have to do with virtual reality. I’ve seen them on the bookstore shelves many times though, but am skeptical.
Widening the thresholds: On the certainty end, I can see if I can start exploring some more modern science fiction books. Since I know I like short story collections, maybe I can find one that came out in the 1990s and see if I like it. I can become more uncertain that I know exactly what I like.
On the mystery end, I can start looking into the cyberpunk genre, but maybe I want to be more certain that the first book I read will be well-written, so I look for online reviews about the best book in this genre, and buy that book.
Have you ever found a school subject or a new problem at work to be so incredibly difficult and dense that you couldn’t grapple with it? How did that change over time? By seeing subjects as penetrable and understandable, we reject that anything is fundamentally mysterious, and can then move onward and toward inquiry and competency.
A fundamental shift may come from viewing mysteries as sources of intrigue rather than as opaque frustrations, and as something that is not yet known rather than something that is fundamentally unknowable
Consider how a mystery can change into something that is understandable. For millennia, the daily and hourly changes in weather were a background feature in the lives of humanity. Even those who have the most need for early notice of inclement weather – sailors, farmers, merchants, and travelers – could not get information in advance about the weather. Between 1855 and 1860 over 7000 lives were lost around the coastlines of Victorian Britain. With this in his mind, in 1860 Admiral FitzRoy of the English Navy started issuing daily weather forecasts after setting up a network of telegraph stations and gathering information from maritime reports. Although members of the public would mock him when his predictions failed, his early work in meteorology eventually spread. Today the possibility of knowing the weather several days in advance is considered commonplace, even if it was once considered an inherent mystery.
How can the challenges of mystery be illuminated in our own problems? To take an example, suppose you were tasked with putting together a team to create a machine that could read signs on a roadway. At first glance (unless you are a computer vision expert!) this could seem like an overly complex challenge.
So, let’s break the problem up into different parts! The task may still be challenging, and the act of breaking it into smaller components may present more possibilities for clarity and tractability.
Now, who knows what the right solution will be, and the ideas we come up with in the first two minutes may be entirely different from what eventually seems like a good plan! Perhaps we would need:
- A way for the machine to sense light
- Some sort of camera?
- Camera hooked up to a computer
- A way for the machine to interpret light
- Need a team with programming experience
- They will need appropriate equipment and computers, and office space to work
- How to hire people with relevant experience?
- Need a team with programming experience
- Some signs look different from each other. Maybe machine learning would help?
- What have other companies done in the past? What worked and what didn’t? Look into this.
And, so, viola, a minute later, while we haven’t done a single thing to tackle the problem, it seems just a little bit more illuminated.
Try this out for yourself! Pick one of the following challenges, and break it up into parts:
- Planning a backpacking trip for at-risk teens
- Preventing wildfire risks to buildings in a small mountain town
- Creating better team morale at a small engineering company
Invitation to Dispel an Illusion
In the end, a mystery is an illusion, and an illusion is a perception. The word perceived is key here, because the mystery is merely a fact about a person’s perception rather than about the world itself.
And there are many possible responses to a perceived illusion. A choice in this context is to form your reaction to what seems mysterious. Instead of fear, avoidance, or frustration, we might instead choose wonder and intrigue.
Try breaking a problem into ‘knowns’ and ‘unknowns’ quadrants.
- Known Knowns – What are you aware of, that you already know?
- Known Unknowns – What are you aware of, that you don’t know yet?
- Unknown Knowns – What might you already know, that you can’t remember, see, or admit?
- Unknown Unknowns – What might be entirely new directions within this topic that you don’t know anything about?
Simply said, an uplifting mystery is not a sensible or coherent starting point for inquiry. While mystery (and certainty) may be an easier way of contending with a complex world, admitting wonder into your thinking will allow room for flexibility and possible change.
Think about a strong belief that you held that later changed. Maybe it was an idea that you learned in childhood but then later found was different. Maybe you had a negative impression of a person who later became a close friend. In these cases, your certainty needed to be shaken to open up the possibility of new beliefs and understandings.
If our goal is to increase the range of subjects and phenomena that we may feel a sense of curiosity about, reflecting upon the possibility of uncertainty is central. If you already think you know the answer, then why look for anything different?
Furthermore, there may be utilitarian reasons to be less certain, at least initially. When groups are asked to discuss the problem before committing to solutions, it has been found that group problem-solving ability increases.2
Take the example of the blues musician Daryl Davis. For the past 30 years, Daryl, a black man, has spent his time with members of the Ku Klux Klan, an organization whose purpose revolves around the hatred of black people. Daryl’s goal in these interactions was to understand why another person could hate him while knowing almost nothing about him. Over time, Daryl was able to invite uncertainty into how these Klan members thought about him and their views on race. Daryl has convinced over 40 members of the KKK to change their minds and no longer be a part of the organization, an impressive feat.
A way to decrease certainty is by inviting doubt, which can sometimes be a scary direction to take, especially when it feels like the stakes are high.
There are many ideas that we hold very close to ourselves, and hold with certainty that they are true. What would it take to invite doubt into those ideas? You don’t need to believe your doubts of course, but sometimes it is helpful to imagine what it would take to disbelieve what we think is true.
For example, let’s say you think that creating lawns of green grass in front of your yard is bad for the environment. Here are a few ways that doubt would be invited in if these ideas were true:
- Lawns create a different sort of ecosystem for animals. Are they helping any animals that would otherwise be going extinct?
- Do people who create lawns in their yards also plant trees? Would this cancel out the damage that lawns cause?
- People often remove existing plants in favor of a grass lawn. If a lawn captured more carbon than natural plants and stayed around for a long time, then creating a lawn could decrease the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.
Perhaps some of these ideas are true, and some of them are false. Creating possibilities to chip away at the armor of certainty will invite doubt, and then further, exploration.
Try this with a few ideas of your own, perhaps starting with the ideas below:
- Are you politically liberal or conservative? Is there a cause that, were it taken up by the other side, you might consider voting for them instead?
- Cigarettes seem bad for you. What would need to be true health-wise to make this less certain? Are there potential benefits to smoking that could make it more worthwhile?
When considering the idea of certainty, this isn’t to say that our understanding of a subject ought not be more or less certain, or that carving out incremental certainty in our pursuits is not a worthy or noble goal! Rather, there is something to be gained in healthy uncertainty, acknowledging what is and is not known. Doing so will create the possibility for change within and without, and hopefully also an enjoyable sense of curiosity.
What we designate as certain or mysterious will limit our capacity for curiosity, and therefore our capacity for questioning and inquiry. However, if we are able to find ways to shine a light on what seems mysterious and if we can foster doubt in the face of certainty, we might be able to gain purchase on being curious once again.
- Loewenstein, G. (1994). The Psychology of Curiosity: A review and reinterpretation. Psychological Bulletin, 116(1), 75–98. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.116.1.75
- Maier, N. R. (n.d.). The quality of group decisions as influenced by the discussion leader. Principles of Human Relations: Applications to Management., 301–325. https://doi.org/10.1037/11194-010