The Neglected Virtue of Curiosity

Curiosity is the most superficial of all the affections; it changes its objects perpetually; it has an appetite which is sharp, but very easily satisfied; and it has always an appearance of giddiness, restlessness and anxiety.

- Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful

Curiosity is the first virtue: "[a] burning itch to know is higher than a solemn vow to pursue truth." Yet I find surprisingly little material about curiosity on Less Wrong. Sure, AnnaSalamon shows us how to use curiosity, lukeprog ponders what curiosity looks like, Elizabeth discusses the limits of curiosity, and Eliezer_Yudkowsky offers the meditation on curiosity. But we have never been provided with an overview of the science of curiosity, as has been done for procrastination, motivation, and happiness, for instance. Perhaps most Less Wrongers score high on curiosity already, so there hasn't been much need to study it. But I often wish I were more curious. Some of you may, too. For the rest, what follows is a journey back to the basics of rationality.

What is curiosity, and how can we become more curious?

Curiosity: what?

We have all felt that burning itch to know on at least some occasions. It leads us to ask questions,1 manipulate interesting objects,2 and continue doing challenging tasks.3 Kashdan and Fincham (2004) define curiosity as "the volitional recognition, pursuit, and self-regulation of novel and challenging opportunities (reflecting intrinsic values and interests)". Loewenstein (2000) also emphasizes the fact that curiosity occurs in the absence of an extrinsic reward. All theories of curiosity agree that its short term function is to learn and explore. In the longer term, curiosity aids us in building knowledge and competence.4 When curious, we enter a state of flow, and become immersed in whatever it is we are doing.5

Researchers distinguish between state curiosity and trait curiosity. State curiosity is evoked by external situations. Why is the sky blue? How does quantum levitation work? Trait curiosity on the other hand is a characteristic that people possess to varying degrees. Someone with high trait curiosity seeks out complexity, novelty, conflict, and uncertainty.6 7

Curiosity can be measured across several dimensions (Kashdan, 2009):

  • Intensity. How strong is that burning itch to know?
  • Frequency. How often do you feel it?
  • Durability. How long does it last?
  • Breadth. How many topics evoke it?
  • Depth. Does the itch remain as you learn more about a topic?

It has been suggested that trait curiosity simply measures the frequency and intensity of state curiosity.8

I suspect many of you are particularly interested in epistemic curiosity. Epistemic curiosity measures our desire for knowledge and understanding, rather than, say, our desire to explore new cultures or meet new people. This notion is closely related to other psychological constructs such as need for cognition, typical intellectual engagement and openness for ideas, and some have argued that there isn't enough evidence for treating them as separate things.9 With that in mind, it might be worth examining the literature on these notions closer as well.

Early in our lives, curiosity will typically increase, only to start decreasing later. One study found that, on average, curiosity increases from age 12 until people attend college.10 By the age of 30, curiosity typically starts to decline. But some people manage to retain their curiosity even as they grow older. One study followed a group of men and women from college age until later adulthood. Those that were identified as very curious later in life had many characteristics in common: rich emotional lives with both positive and negative feelings, actively searching for meaning in life, don't experience themselves as being restricted by social norms, and chose careers that gave them opportunities to be independent and creative.11 More broadly, curiosity is correlated with the Big Five trait of Openness.12

The Benefits of Curiosity

Much research makes it plausible that curiosity is in fact the first virtue. It has a wide array of benefits, not only related to rationality or intelligence.13 One study found that it accounts for roughly 10% of the variance in achievement and performance outcomes.14 In particular, studies indicate that curiosity is useful for the following:

  • Health. Curious people are more likely to live longer, and less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease, for example.15
  • Intelligence. Being curious at an early age is a good predictor of intelligence later in life, even when initial intelligence is taken into account.16
  • Meaning and purpose in life. Curious people are more likely to develop interests, hobbies, and passions, which typically increase feelings of purpose.17
  • Social relationships. Curious people report more satisfying relationships, and are also more prone to develop new relationships with strangers.18
  • Happiness. Increased curiosity is associated with a moderate increase in happiness and well-being.19 A lack of curiosity has also been linked to negative emotions, such as depression.20

Beginning in the mid-70s, researchers have spent much effort attempting to measure curiosity. Unfortunately, attempts to cross-validate such measures have usually produced low intercorrelations (Loewenstein 1994).

Luckily for those who wish they were more curious, curiosity is a malleable psychological state. It is very much influenced by social contexts, and other individual differences.21 Relish the good news of situationist psychology!

Curiosity: how?

Curiosity, it seems, is a big deal. So what can we do to become more curious? Kashdan and Fincham (2004) focus on three factors correlated with curiosity: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

Autonomy. People are more task curious when given more choice,22 and when given more information and encouragement.23 On the other hand, threats, punishment, negative feedback and surveillance all have negative effects on task curiosity. A meta-analysis found that the same goes for external rewards, though the effect was more robust for interesting, compared to boring tasks.24

Competence. Events that make individuals believe they can interact effectively with the environment (perceived competence) or that give them the desire to do so (competence valuation), will lead to enhanced curiosity.25 Sincere praise increases both perceived competence and competence valuation, and could therefore be a useful way of increasing curiosity.26

Relatedness. Feelings of relatedness—feeling connected to others, and believing your emotional experiences are acknowledged—also appear to increase curiosity.27 In particular, relatedness has been shown to improve both curiosity and performance in athletic,28 academic29 and work contexts.30 Feeling comfortable and safe also encourages curiosity.31

Based on these three factors, Kashdan and Fincham (2004, p. 490) propose a table of empirically-informed "curiosity interventions". These include

  • Create tasks that capitalize on novelty, complexity, ambiguity, variety, and surprise.
  • Purposely place individuals in contexts that are discrepant with their experience, skills, and personality.
  • Create tasks that can be conducted independently.
  • Allow opportunities for play.
  • Create tasks that are personally meaningful.
  • Create challenges that match or slightly exceed current skills.
  • Create enjoyable group based activities.

Unfortunately, most studies on curiosity have focused on narrow areas, and so the breadth of curiosity has not been well-examined. Factors that correlate with curiosity in one domain may not do so in others.32 The study of curiosity is still in its infancy, and most of these interventions remain to be experimentally tested. But as of today, these might be the best tools available.

That was a summary of what we know about curiosity. Now go out and explore!


1Evans (1971) found that asking lots of questions is correlated with one of three scales of the 'Ontario Test of Intrinsic Motivation'. Peters (1978) reports that students with high trait curiosity asked more questions when their instructor was perceived as non-threatening. If, on the other hand, the instructor was perceived as threatening, no difference was found between students with high trait curiosity and those with low trait curiosity. 

2Reeve and Nix (1997) found, among other things, that hand speed while performing a puzzle task correlated with self-reported intrinsic motivation.

3See Sansone and Smith (2000) for a review

4Kashdan and Silvia (2009)

5Curiosity is closely related to interest and intrinsic motivation (Kashdan and Fincham 2004), and consequently there is a considerable overlap between the study of these phenomena. Many researchers treat these terms interchangeably.

6Kashdan and Fincham (2004). Loewenstein (1994) raises some doubts about the usefulness of distinguishing between state curiosity and trait curiosity.

7See Litman and Silvia (2006) for an overview of ways to measure trait curiosity. Like many other psychological traits, curiosity is mostly measured through questionnaires. Beginning in the mid-70s, researchers developed many different ways of measuring curiosity. Unfortunately, attempts to cross-validate such measures have typically produced low intercorrelations (Loewenstein 1994)

8Silvia (2008)

9Mussel (2010)

10McCrae et al (2002)

11Kashdan (2009)

12McCrae (1996)

13Curiosity also appears to be correlated with some negative things. Green (1990) linked it with an increased probability of alcohol use. Kolko and Kazin (1989) found the same for arson.

14Schiefele, Krapp and Winteler (1992)

15Swan and Carmelli (1996)

16Raine et al (2002)

17Kashdan and Steger (2007)

18Kashdan et al (2011), Kashdan and Roberts (2004)

19Brdar and Kashdan (2010), Gallagher and Lopez (2007)

20Rodrigue, Olson, and Markley (1987)

21Kashdan and Fincham (2004)

22Cordova and Lepper (1996)

23Black and Deci (2000)

24Deci, Koestner and Ryan (1999)

25Cury et al (2002), Elliot et al (2000)

26Deci, Koestner and Ryan (1999)

27Mikulincer and Shaver (2003)

28Grolnick and Ryan (1989)

29Hazan and Shaver (1990)

30Smoll et al (1993)

31Kashdan, Rose and Fincham (2004)

32Kashdan and Fincham (2004)


Black and Deci (2000). The effects of instructors' autonomy support and students' autonomous motivation on learning organic chemistry: A self-determination theory perspective. Science Education 84:740-756.

Brdar and Kashdan (2010). Character strengths and well-being in Croatia: An empirical investigation of structure and correlate. Journal of Research in Personality 44:151-154

Cordova and Lepper (1996). Intrinsic motivation and the process of learning: Beneficial effects of contextualization, personalization, and choice. Journal of Educational Psychology 88:715-730.

Cury et al (2002). The trichotomous achievement goal model and intrinsic motivation: A sequential mediational analysis. Journal of Experimental Psychology 38(5):473-481

Deci, Koestner and Ryan (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin 125(6):627-668

Elliot et al (2000). Competence valuation as a strategic intrinsic motivation process. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 26:780-794.

Evans (1971). The Ontario Test of Intrinsic Motivation, Question Asking, and Autistic Thinking. Psychological Reports 29:154-154.

Gallagher and Lopez (2007). Curiosity and well-being. Journal of Positive Psychology 2(4): 236-248

Green (1990). Instrument for the measurement of individual and societal attitudes toward drugs. Substance Use & Misuse 25(2):141-157

Grolnick and Ryan (1989). Parent styles associated with children's self-regulation and competence in school. Journal of Educational Psychology 81:143-154.

Hazan and Shaver (1990). Love and work: An attachment-theoretical perspective. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 59:270-280.

Kashdan and Fincham (2004). Facilitating Curiosity: A Social and Self-Regulatory Perspective. In Linley and Joseph (eds.) Positive Psychology in Practice, Wiley

Kashdan (2009). Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life, HarperCollins

Kashdan and Roberts (2004). Trait and State Curiosity in the Genesis of Intimacy: Differentiation From Related Constructs. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 23(6):792-816

Kashdan, Rose and Fincham (2004). Curiosity and Exploration: Facilitating Positive Subjective Experiences and Personal Growth Opportunities. Journal of Personality Assessment 82(3):291-305

Kashdan and Silvia (2009). Curiosity and Interest: The Benefits of Thriving on Novelty and Challenge. In S.J. Lopez (Ed.) Handbook of Positive Psychology (2nd Ed.) Oxford University Press.

Kashdan and Steger (2007). Curiosity and pathways to well-being and meaning in life: Traits, states, and everyday behaviors. Motivation and Emotion 31(3):159-173

Kashdan et al (2011). When Curiosity Breeds Intimacy: Taking Advantage of Intimacy Opportunities and Transforming Boring Conversations. Journal of Personality 79(6):1369-1402

Kolko and Kazin (1989). Assessment of Dimensions of Childhood Firesetting Among Patients and Nonpatients: The Firesetting Risk Interview. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 17 (2):157-176

Litman and Silvia (2006). The latent structure of trait curiosity: evidence for interest and deprivation curiosity dimensions. Journal of Personality Assessment 86(3):318-328

Loewenstein (1994). The Psychology of Curiosity: A Review and Reinterpretation. Psychological Bulletin 116(1):75-98

McCrae (1996). Social consequences of experiential openness. Psychological Bulletin 120(3):323-337

McCrae et al (2002). Personality trait development from age 12 to age 18: Longitudinal, cross-sectional and cross-cultural analyses. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 83(6):1456-1468

Mikulincer and Shaver (2003). The attachment behavioral system in adulthood: Activation, psychodynamics, and interpersonal processes. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 35, pp. 53-152). Academic Press.

Mussel (2010). Epistemic curiosity and related constructs: Lacking evidence of discriminant validity. Personality and Individual Differences 49(5):506-510

Peters (1978). Effects of Anxiety, Curiosity, and Perceived Instructor Threat on Student Verbal Behavior in the College Classroom. Journal of educational psychology 70(3):388-395

Raine et al (2002). Stimulation seeking and intelligence: A prospective longitudinal study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 82(4):663-674

Reeve and Nix (1997). Expressing Intrinsic Motivation Through Acts of Exploration and Facial Displays of Interest. Motivation and Emotion 21(3):237-250

Rodrigue, Olson, and Markley (1987). Induced mood and curiosity. Cognitive Therapy and Research 11(1):101-106

Sansone and Smith (2000). Interest and self-regulation: The relation between having to and wanting to. In C. Sansone & J.M. Harackiewicz (Eds.). Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation: The Search for Optimal Motivation and Performance, Academic Press.

Schiefele, Krapp and Winteler (1992). Interest as a predictor of academic achievement: A meta-analysis of research. In K. A. Renninger, S. Hidi, & A. Krapp (Eds.), The role of interest in learning and development, Erlbaum.

Silvia (2008). Appraisal components and emotion traits: Examining the appraisal basis of trait curiosity. Cognition and Emotion 22(1):94-113

Smoll et al (1993). Enhancement of children's self-esteem through social support training for youth sports coaches. Journal of Applied Psychology 78:602-610.

Swan and Carmelli (1996). Curiosity and mortality in aging adults: A 5-year follow-up of the Western Collaborative Group Study. Psychology and Aging 11(3):449-453

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Look, I don't mind wacky fonts or formatting. But this list of references is a pain in the neck, a usability nightmare, and worse than that.

Here's how it looks from a reader's perspective:

  • I start reading how curiosity "leads us to ask questions"...
  • I notice the superscript 1
  • I notice that the 1 isn't a hyperlink, I infer that it leads to a footnote
  • I scroll down to the footnotes, losing my place in the main text
  • I locate footnote one, which reads "Peters (1978)"
  • I recognize the terse-citation style
  • I infer that there is a list of references
  • I scroll down to the references, losing my place again
  • I use Cmd-F to find "Peters", since the list is very long
  • I finally get to the actual information I want: "Effects of anxiety, curiosity", etc.
  • This still isn't a hyperlink, so I must look for it manually
  • If I'm really dedicated, I'll open a new tab, copy the title, and Google it

Even once I get the hang of what you're doing here, only the few steps that are inferences will go away; most of the rest of this unnecessary work is still left for me to do.

You know what the worst part is?

You show how to do it right in the first goddamn paragraph, the one after the quotation: hyperlinks.

Don't use a footnote to lead indirectly to a near-useless chunk of static text which the most dedicated reader can then use to maybe find the article. Link to the fucker directly. That's how it's done in this bright new millenium.

If at all possible, link to a free PDF. I know that in many cases the PDF is still held hostage behind a paywall. Hopefully that will change by and by. The best homage the LW community could pay to the virtue of curiosity would be to "liberate" some of these PDFs and make them available in some sort of public pool, the way you can get many paywalled PDFs for free if you know how to use CiteSeerX, or even just Google. We need some sort of AcademiaBay.

But anyway, the basic message is: Less Wrong is not a dead tree academic publication. There is nothing to be gained by pretending it is one.

In passing, I note that you're making the Peters article say something that doesn't quite square with what the abstract says. Not only are you needlessly dressing up a trivial observation ("curiosity leads us to ask questions") in the guise of stuffy academic work - but worse, you aren't reporting the research's conclusions faithfully (as far as I can tell by looking at the abstract).

Have you actually read the full text of Peters 1978?

ETA: don't take this as an attack on you personally; I think Luke(prog) is to blame for introducing this broken style of citation to LW in the first place - in any case I wrote to him with basically the above complaints. But this is kind of the straw that breaks this camel's back, prompting me to comment on it publicly.

It would be nice for the posts to not lose information when printed out, and link rot may be a problem with URLs. Might use a LaTeX style bibilography where you have [Pet78] in the text which links to the Peters 1978 entry in the bibliography which has the standard biblography details and a hyperlink to the article, where the URL is both written out in text and a hyperlink.

In the footnote style, all footnotes are unique, so you could have the footnote bodies have links back to the text where the initial footnote was, but why bother since browsers have back buttons.

Reading these complaints, I can't help but feel a little smug about my own articles on - not only do I have real footnotes, I have floating footnotes to make it even easier, and I usually have fulltext as well. To top it all off, I have an elaborate archiving system just to deal with linkrot.

Smugness is justified. The floating footnotes are a great solution.

The standard way to not lose your place while reading a Web page is to Cmd- or Alt-click a link, opening it in a new tab. But the other problem solved by the floating notes is that hyperlinks are generally opaque as to what's behind them; a reader appreciates the extra context provided by a "title" attribute, your tooltips are an extension of that. What's impressive is that they work equally well on a touchscreen device.

Since as far as I can tell this is done in Js+CSS, we could easily steal your mechanism for LW. Would you object?

ETA: never mind, I've found the source. I'm now feeling bad about using the clichéd phrase "usability nightmare", but this would definitely be a good addition to LW.

Since as far as I can tell this is done in Js+CSS, we could easily steal your mechanism for LW. Would you object?

Well, I didn't write it in the first place, and I'd be happy to see it on LW.

Using well-supported CSS techniques, it is possible to create a document where URLs appear when printed, though it does require placing them in the document twice.

On the reader's side, if you don't mind monospace and no images, the text web browser Lynx can format a page with all URLs as footnotes: lynx -dump <URL>

Does the CSS make the URLs appear in the middle of text paragraphs, where there was a hyperlink in the online version, or as footnotes or references outside the main text? Nobody really wants the main text to get interrupted by noisy URLs all the time, and on the other hand having URLs written out in the open even in the online version doesn't matter that much if it's in the references section at the end of the document.

The Lynx thing probably isn't good for pleasant reading, but might work for some kind of compromise scheme where you get a document that's very human-readable and can be used for an OCR data restoration that gets you the text and references back, though not most of the formatting.

CSS allows one to make arbitrary content appear or disappear when a document is printed (given that said content is already in the document). So you can have plain hyperlinks on screen, but numbered footnotes/references in print.

Sorry about that. I've now added all the PDFs I found. At the moment I'm unable to host the ones that are still missing, but it might be worth investing in.

Oops, looks like I accidentally cited Peters 1978 when I meant to cite a paper that article pointed me to. Fixed now.

I have read at least abstracts of all cited articles, which the authors of the paper you link to seem to think is fine:

we adopt a much more generous view of a “reader” of a cited paper, as someone who at the very least consulted a >trusted source (e.g., the original paper or heavily-used and authenticated databases) inputting together the citation list.

Most of my remarks about form still stand, and I'm stil very uncomfortable with your updated citation (Evans 1971).

Citation form functions here as a rhetorical device. I mean this as in "dark arts" rhetorical: its intent is to make a non-academic publication look more like an academic publication. The subtext is "look how well researched my claims are", or perhaps more generously "this is settled science".

What happens if we rewrite your claim, erasing the academic form, and reinstating the context?

What you write expands to the following: "Curiosity leads us to ask questions, as shown by Evans' 1971 research on 'The Ontario Test of Intrinsic Motivation, Question Asking, and Autistic Thinking'." The implication is that the researcher has established a causal link between increased curiosity and increased question-asking behaviour.

If we look at the abstract of the paper itself, we get a slightly different story. The author is reporting on a study of the OTIM (Ontario Test of Intrinsic Motivation) designed to distinguish between various sub-traits of the trait "curiosity", and the study gets null results on two of the scales examined (consultation and observation), turning up only one significant correlation, that between "directed thinking" and question-asking behaviour. Moreover this isn't an experimental protocol, but a passive study, so causal inference is not warranted here: "correlation doesn't imply causation".

So really it would be much more accurate to write: "The 'directed thinking' aspect of curiosity seems correlated with asking lots of questions, one study observed (Evans 1971)."

This isn't really settled science: it's one study, reporting on one sub-trait of curiosity. If you want to make the broad generalization that "curiosity is that which leads us to ask questions", then I expect you to cite a different kind of work, such as a broad survey listing many replications of the initial study.

In the cases where you cite a singular study, it's a good idea to have read the full text, not just the abstract, to see whether there are any major issues with the study: otherwise you may be jumping to conclusions and updating too strongly in the researchers' direction. This is especially true of old singular studies: if you're not aware of more recent replications of the research, is that because attempts are replication were failure, or because the study asked a question which has since then been dissolved or reframed, or simply because you don't know of more recent research? Those questions are worth asking.

The question isn't what I or someone else "thinks is fine". The question is whether I can trust you and your scholarship on factual matters investigated by academic research.

If, on examining the very first citation in your text, I come across sloppy or careless handling of factual matters, I am going to revise my evaluation of your trustworthiness - downward and significantly. You shouldn't see this as a bad thing: after all, it's what you would expect of an editorial board of an academic publication with decent standards.

In some instances, I use citations for pointing to relevant studies, without intending to imply that this is settled science. But I now realize that it does carry that implication, and that the wording of the sentence is particularly unfortunate. I have updated the first and other footnotes to take this into account.

By "thinks is fine", I didn't mean some arbitrary personal standard, but precisely the kind of epistemic abilities that you mention.

I understand your revision and thank you for pointing in out, so I can keep trying harder.

Thanks for this.

When I checked the literature on curiosity, it seemed that what psychologists call "epistemic curiosity" is still not quite what Eliezer means by curiosity. In the studies I saw, researchers measured things that were consistent with signaling curiosity or self-deception about one's curious-ness. These studies may not be relevant for the study of curiosity in the Yudkowskian sense.

Some work looking closer to the right direction might be Litman (2009).

Or even better, the literature on what causes someone to actually change their mind.

I also got a vague feeling they weren't identical. Perhaps I should mention that in the original post.

Thanks for the pointer!

The Benefits of Curiosity

Someone quoting correlation studies like those on Less Wrong, and against a poorly conceived measure like "curiosity" into which a lot of other things can leak?

What is wrong with everybody?

Upvoted, but you have formatting issues (in particular, the site has eaten the spaces around links and italics) and your article is not 100% finished: [Something on different methods here.]

Otherwise, glad to see other people emulating the lukeprog style of article!

But he didn't link a bunch of fulltexts, which is too bad. I always like fulltext. (If I weren't doing other things, I'd track down the papers and host them. Oh well.)

Thanks for this. I have now included links to all fulltexts I found online. If you or anyone else manage to find the ones I'm still lacking, please point me to them and I'll update the post again.

I believe that both gwern and lukeprog will host articles if you ask them nicely. If you can't get them online at all, I can get almost all the journal articles using my university connection. Can't help you with the book chapters though. (Relatedly: why do so many psych researchers not host their own papers/chapters? I don't usually have this much trouble in my own research)

Oops, looks like I didn't do my proof-reading carefully enough. Thanks for spotting that.

A lot of people don't like when post use different fonts from the rest of the site, especially in main. You should probably change this before anyone complains. I think it's just the font size that's different, not the font family.

Also, for some reason spaces around links, footnotes, and italics are missing. (This is not the first time I see this, but it usually only happens to me when I'm not logged in.)

I tried to fix this, but apart from the "strip formatting" button requiring me to manually superscript all the footnote numbers, it didn't even work (some things were still weird sizes) - I'm not sure what's up with that, but it's not a straightforward fix.

I fixed the formatting problems (along with a couple spelling and punctuation errors) by editing the HTML. The result is here. It's suitable for pasting into the HTML tab of the post editor.

Curiosity also has it's downsides; it's hard to get boring work done when there's always some question that you urgently need to google.

The formatting is all wacky, the spaces between words looks really big and it all runs off the edge.

How does quantum levitation work?

Probably everyone here knows this already, but: It doesn't. That video is a viral advertisement for a computer game.

[EDITED to add:] Ooops, excuse me. I jumped to conclusions about what video it was without actually checking. My claim above is bullshit. There is a famous Youtube video showing "quantum levitation" that's a totally fake viral advertisement, but that isn't it, and to the best of my knowledge everything in the video vallinder linked to is genuine.

Many apologies.

(If anyone's feeling public-spirited, I would suggest downvoting my comment to -2 or thereabouts, perhaps after waiting a few hours so that those who read my original comment have a chance to see the retraction. And no, the foregoing is not motivated by an expectation that without such an invitation I'll get downvoted more and sooner :-).)

The stuff shown in the video is totally possible. So there's this stuff called the Meissner effect, which is where magnets can float above superconductors. They do this because superconductivity is more than just zero electrical resistance - a flowing ring of current is actually the ground state of a superconductor in a magnetic field, and that ring of current provides the magnetic field to hold the magnet up.

The linked video is legit, afaik. There is another recent video of a quantum levitation-based Wipeout track that is fake.