Thatcheria Mirabilis, Japanese Wonder Shell

The Value of Curiosity

How do smart people hold onto some stupid ideas? Motivated reasoning is one very important way. People start with a belief that’s very important to them. Then, they collect information to support it. Also, they arrange their information into a rationale that supports their belief. The result is a fortress of conviction. But one thing might be able to overcome it – curiosity.

Abundant Examples

Some brilliant figures offer us striking examples of motivated reasoning. Albert Einstein made glaring mistakes by relying on his intuition at times. Steven Jobs died with regrets about delaying medical treatment for his cancer. Instead, he initially pursued only alternative medicine approaches. The list is long.

Certainly in politics, motivated reasoning has become everything. The wall, the climate, the Mueller report – the value of facts depends entirely upon how they fit with your motivated reasoning.

But especially in obesity and nutrition, we find endless examples of motivated reasoning. The American Heart Association is so tightly wedded to its Life’s Simple 7 that it’s a trademark. So they overlook a basic flaw. In its target list of ideal health behaviors, AHA includes having a BMI less than 25 – as if BMI is a behavior, not a physical characteristic.

In nutrition, you don’t need to look very far to trip over the motivated reasoning. People have built careers upon claiming that sugar is toxic. On the flip side, the beverage industry brings equally flawed and motivated reasoning to insist that sugary beverages aren’t a problem – “balance” is all that matters.

Scientific Curiosity Can Help

Here’s the good news. Scientific curiosity can help. Writing in Political Psychology, Dan Kahan and colleagues explain that science curiosity is measurable. And when they measure it, they find it promotes open minded engagement with facts and ideas. People with more curiosity are more likely to consider facts that contradict their prior beliefs.

We need more of this. Can we promote the value of scientific curiosity? This would be important work on many levels.

Click here to read more in Vox and here for more on the value of curiosity from Erin Wildermuth.

Thatcheria Mirabilis, Japanese Wonder Shell, photograph by H. Zell, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

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March 31, 2019

7 Responses to “The Value of Curiosity”

  1. March 31, 2019 at 6:34 am, Joe Gitchell said:

    I’m going to run out of heart symbols today if this is how it starts, Ted.

    Let’s all try on our Scout Mindsets!


  2. March 31, 2019 at 7:24 am, Joe Gitchell said:

    I can’t resist offering one more resource.

    This online training program is really well done and has preliminary data showing that it boosts openness to different ideas. I like that kind of promise!

    Check it out.


  3. March 31, 2019 at 8:23 am, Stephen Phillips said:

    Love your post today

    We all become landmark preservationists with our beliefs and behaviors and become prejudiced to the familiar.

    Being curious and owning a healthy skepticism is the key to change .

    Science evolves by smashing pedestals..conjecture and refutation

    Stay Curious

  4. March 31, 2019 at 11:10 am, Allen Browne said:

    Stay Curious, my friends.

  5. March 31, 2019 at 7:10 pm, John DiTraglia said:

    Henry Adams said, “politics is the systematic organization of hate.”

  6. April 08, 2019 at 4:02 pm, Elizabeth said:

    While I agree with the key point of this post, I have to point out that AHA’s Simple 7 behaviors are: get active, eat better, lose weight, control cholesterol, manage blood pressure, reduce blood sugar, and stop smoking.

    • April 08, 2019 at 7:57 pm, Ted said:

      Yes and no Elizabeth. The American Heart Association says that their Simple 7 consists of “four modifiable behaviors (not smoking, healthy weight, eating healthy, and being physically active) and three biometric measures (blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar).”

      They are flat out wrong to think that body weight is a behavior. No two ways about it. It reflects a common bias, but that doesn’t make it right. So I’m sticking with my assertion that their “Simple 7” is flawed because it treats weight as if it’s a behavior and not a biometric measure. For more perspective, I suggest you read this commentary.