The Limits of Curiosity

by Elizabeth3 min read10th Mar 201149 comments


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In principle, I agree with the notion that it is unforgivable to not want to know, and not want to improve your map to match the territory.  However, even the most curious person in the world cannot maintain equal curiosity about all things, and even if they could there are limits on time and energy.  In general, the things that inspire curiosity are determined by your personal likes, dislikes, and biases, and it is therefore worth considering carefully where these demarcations fall so as not to deprive ourselves of useful information.  This is particularly important when it comes to things that inspire not just lack of interest, but aversion, or "anti-curiosity."

However, not all information is useful, and it can be useful to encourage a bias that cuts you off from information that is not particularly useful to you, so as to better allocate your time and energy.  It is possible that it could also be useful to fabricate an "I don't want to know" stance about a certain type of information so as to better allocate your time, (for example, ceasing to watch television, and denying curiosity about what is happening on your favorite shows), but I will not discuss or advocate that here, largely because it's all I can do to hold the line against new time wasters.

The difficulty and danger of this method is that it is best accomplished by not thinking about the things you don't want to be curious about, and that can lead to not even realizing you aren't curious about them, so important things may slip through the cracks.  For example, I have never smoked a cigarette, and it requires no effort on my part to not be curious about what it is like.  That is such a deeply buried aversion that I might never have consciously noticed that lack of curiosity if I had not been writing this article.  In this case, lack of curiosity about smoking is beneficial, but it could just as easily have been something that would be useful for me to be curious about, and I might never have noticed.

Analyzing your own areas of anti-curiosity is extremely difficult, both because your brain rebels at thinking about things it habitually doesn't think about, and because you will likely find a lack of rhyme or reason in which things you are anticurious about.  Questioning things deeply held enough that you don't think about them is always deeply uncomfortable.

Many such anti-curiosity regions are more a matter of personal preference than anything else.  One of mine falls in the area of video games: I've never played them much, and I deliberately cultivate a lack of curiosity about them because I don't believe the enjoyment or value they might give me would outweigh the amount of my precious time they would likely take up if I started.  However, I spend more time than perhaps I should reading fanfiction.  There are probably people reading this who are just the opposite, and there probably isn't any real difference between the two positions.

There are also many such regions that result from not having much knowledge or skill in an area, and, rather than rectifying the knowledge gap, developing a sense of superiority or disdain in relation to the area.  One fairly common topic for this to occur around (at least for women) is the application of makeup.  It is one I had to overcome myself.  I didn't know how to put on makeup well as a teenager, and hadn't really tried, and looked down on the sorts of girls who came to class after an obvious half-hour beauty regimen.  There were all sorts of plausible excuses for my disdain (women shouldn't make themselves into Barbies, intellect is more important, etc. ), but the real root reason was that I couldn't do it myself.  It took time to overcome that enough to realize the real benefits to having that knowledge (even if I still don't bother on a daily basis), but there *are* real benefits to having that knowledge.  At the very least, makeup is an expected part of formal or business attire for women in the US, and there are tangible benefits to following such social conventions regardless of how logical they are.

It is more difficult to overcome such an issue if it is rooted in lack of ability rather than lack of knowledge.  I have long recognized intellectually the value of recognizing and responding appropriately to social cues, but it doesn't come easily to me, and my frustration often manifests itself in a feeling that I don't want to know.  Recognizing that and overcoming it is an ongoing process.

Maintaining a balance on such things is difficult.  I know that in areas in which I am comfortable, I excel at optimization, but if I am uncomfortable I subscribe strongly to the "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" philosophy.  Both approaches have their merits and their place, the challenge is maintaining awareness of which I am using and why I am using it so that I don't fall into a trap of willful ignorance.

Even when you have identified an area in which you should reverse course and cultivate curiosity, the battle is not over.  You still have to overcome the hurdle of learning about the subject.  However, I am not qualified to write an article on overcoming procrastination because I am not nearly successful enough at avoiding it.

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