The Essential Difference between 'Being Curious' and 'Taking an Interest'

Psychological researcher Suzanne Hidi discusses what separates individuals who have mere curiosity in life from those who, through taking a deeper interest, are propelled onto new discoveries.

Suzanne Hidi: Curiosity has been often referred to as closing a knowledge gap. And this goes back to [Daniel] Berlyne's work, goes back to a lot of work being done by [Jordan] Litman and his colleagues presently — would distinguish between two forms of curiosity: interest, epistemic curiosity and knowledge gap curiosity; deprivation they call it. The reason that they call it deprivation is because there has been an argument that if you are curious, there is a certain kind of negative feeling that you experience before your curiosity is satisfied. And once you have this answer, you feel a relief and a positive feeling comes over you. We argue that if you are interested and you are searching for more information, that is a rewarding experience and you do not necessarily or you are unlikely to have an aversive feeling, except you can have negative feelings develop because you have a problem in your search. But that's different than trying to close a knowledge gap. The way that I can best demonstrate [to] you how we consider curiosity and interest to be different is by telling you to think about when you read a detective story. When you read a detective story, the minute you find out who actually is the murderer, you might not even want to finish your book. And compare that to reading, let's say, Harry Potter or some really well-constructed book that you're not simply trying to find out a knowledge gap; you are interested in many of the characters; you are interested in the ideas; you are interested in the relationships; and you will keep on reading that book. Not only is the length of time different and the aversion different, but there are also — the purpose is different. Like when you are interested, you are searching for a lot of information, not just a specific information to close the knowledge gap. Now, there are some unanswered issues about this. For example, what happens if you have interest in a content, but there is a knowledge gap that you're closing; is that now different from just being curious? And we argue that it is. Because, for example, take a bridge expert who loves playing bridge; he is reading a book with many, many puzzles, solving bridge hands. He goes and solves a knowledge gap and then continues going on to other questions, other puzzles because he has that individual interest in the content that propels him to go on for further activity.

There's an important difference among the ways we approach our own lack of knowledge. When we want to know something, are we satisfied once we've found the answer? Do we stop reading the detective novel once we've discovered who committed the crime, or are we suddenly intrigued by new questions? Psychological researcher Suzanne Hidi says this difference — between curiosity and interest — can help us understand why some people appear far more motivated and engaged in their lives than others. Are you curious in life, or are you interested?

Where do atoms come from? Billions of years of cosmic fireworks.

The periodic table was a lot simpler at the beginning of the universe.

Active ingredient in Roundup found in 95% of studied beers and wines

The controversial herbicide is everywhere, apparently.

(MsMaria/Shutterstock)
Surprising Science
  • U.S. PIRG tested 20 beers and wines, including organics, and found Roundup's active ingredient in almost all of them.
  • A jury on August 2018 awarded a non-Hodgkin's lymphoma victim $289 million in Roundup damages.
  • Bayer/Monsanto says Roundup is totally safe. Others disagree.
Keep reading Show less

An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

University of Colorado Boulder
Surprising Science
  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
  • Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.